Plymouth Power! A book review of Todd Gray’s ‘Blackshirts in Devon’

There may be many Devonians alive today who probably don’t even realise they have grandparents or great grandparents who are heroes/heroines, There are no statues or plaques in their honour or anniversary tributes but there should be. Perhaps the new Tory Council could arrange a ceremony on the Hoe!

We know a great deal about the effects of the Second World War on places like Exeter and Plymouth but little about the pre-war struggles against the home-grown variety of fascism. A book by Exeter-based historian Todd Gray tells the story at last – ‘The Blackshirts in Devon’.

Gray uses a wide variety of sources to put the story together – local police and Labour Party branch secretary reports, newspaper coverage and national Home Office material. He also provides a wealth of detail from Devonian fascists themselves – letters, newspapers and journals. Unfortunately, there is one major gap in the book – the stories told by anti-fascists, especially how they organised against the fascist threat. Despite that, Gray has given us a fascinating slice of Devon history.

Nationally, Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. Within a year BUF branches had been formed across Devon, the first in Plymouth in July 1933. There were small numbers of BUF members in places like Exmouth, Torbay and North Devon and these relied heavily on a few national BUF organisers to keep them going. It’s clear, though, that wherever the BUF attempted to spread their propaganda, there was often local opposition – in Sidmouth an angry crowd threw a fascist into the river.

The main centres of BUF activity were Plymouth and Exeter. According to local police and Labour Party reports, the Plymouth Branch had over a thousand members at its height in 1934. We don’t know what these members’ levels of commitment were. There were various options – regularly buying BUF newspapers and journals, taking part in branch meetings, attending major public meetings, donating regularly. Some may have just joined to gain access to all the facilities available at the large headquarters in Lockyer Street. In the beginning there were about 50-100 active members who organised and attended outdoor meetings, sold newspapers in the street and acted as stewards at street and larger public meetings. In all this seriousness, there were lighter moments in the book – Plymouth BUF members were forced to change their uniforms as they were being mistaken for tram conductors!

Plymouth BUF met with opposition from the start. As the months went by this grew in numbers and temper, heckling and harassing at virtually every public event organised by the fascists. This constant harrying wore the BUF down. This can be seen by charting the number of stewards they were able to muster at certain meetings. In February 1934 they had about 60. On April 6th (in the Octagon) there were 14 and at a September meeting at Prince Rock only 3 were available. For most of 1934 the police were having great difficulty in keeping order at all. At one point (on June 13th 1934), they were unable to cope with such a large and hostile crowd of anti-fascists without the intervention of a passing navy patrol!

A BUF branch had existed in Exeter since late 1933 and became the main centre of fascist activity in Devon after the Plymouth branch’s collapse. There was a brief flurry of activity in 1936 and 1937 but they made little headway – partly because of organised opposition by local anti-fascists but also because as the War loomed, the increasing association of the BUF with German Nazism damaged their credibility even further. The Exeter Branch became so weak and ineffective it was forced into joint activity with Dorchester fascists.

Gray acknowledges the effect of anti-fascists in reducing the possible influence of the BUF in Devon but concluded that changes in tactics as a result of decisions made in London by Mosley were the main reason for the decline – he mentions the adoption in Plymouth of the violent tactics employed by the BUF in the East End of London, resulting in the loss of the Plymouth branch in 1935.

But large-scale opposition had already severely dented the BUF influence in Plymouth by the end of the summer of 1934 – witness the substantially reduced numbers of stewards the BUF could muster by then. Plymouth BUF had become so beleaguered by the anti-fascists that a last desperate bid to bolster them was made by arranging a public meeting addressed by Mosley in early October 1934, along with importing violent BUF toughs from other parts of the country, particularly the East End of London. This led to more violent disorder, including a confrontation in the Market Square on October 11th. The Western Morning News reported that about 10,000 anti-fascists were present. As a result of these disturbances, three fascists were imprisoned at Exeter following assault charges. By November 1934 the Plymouth BUF had virtually disappeared, thanks to the efforts, all told, of thousands of Plymothians.

All these events took place about seventy years ago, so what is the relevance of the book now? Well, it finally acknowledges the role of thousands of un-named and unknown Devonians who decided to do something about the fascist poison in their midst. Most of all, though, it’s a testimony to the power the working class has when we are united and act together in enough numbers.

The fight against the fascists of today, the British National Party (BNP), has to be led by the working class ourselves, as it was against Mosley and the BUF in the 1930s. We can’t rely on fine words from MPs, councillors, trade union or religious leaders, sports or showbusiness types. Especially if these people support the anti-working class policies of one of the three main political parties, which have been mainly responsible for people voting for the BNP in the first place! Only the working class has the power to crush any fascist threat, just as only the working class can really change the world for the better.

Book review by DL, a supporter of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party
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