How a small news story about East-Enders and the Chinese Embassy takes us on a big ride through family history, via the Battle of Cable Street and the mural …
Ron’s late mum Alice Weihs was an honourary East-Ender. She was dubbed “Ellis the Ken-eye-dian” (cockney accent).
She went off to London UK on her own in 1976, for a brief visit — that lasted over 20 years. She got involved with some political east-enders creating a co-op to fix up a derelict apartment block (council flats) just south of St. Katharines Docks. The photo of St. Katharines docks below is from 1963, and still shows rubble from the Blitz of 1940-41.
The flat she fixed up is still in the family. She and Ron and I bought a leasehold in 1989. Ron and I love the flat, the riverside, the East End. So when some unusual news crossed my path, I paid attention.
Breaking News Nov 15, 2020 : The People’s Republic of China has been taken to task by the feisty citizens of Tower Hamlets, in London’s east end.
The situation: China’s plan to convert the former Royal Mint property into their new embassy in London, UK. (See A on a current London map below)
Why does this matter to the East-Enders who live around the corner?
Let’s back up in history a bit.
The East End is known for its extremes in everything: poverty, pride, resilience and independence.
One defining moment of East-End pride happened on October 4, 1936.
The British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Moseley, planned to show off how strong they were by attacking an “easy” target: the heart of the poorest area of London. They didn’t count on the well-organized resistance from the people who lived and worked there: a mix of radical Orthodox Jews, and radical Irish Catholic dock workers.
On Sunday October 4, 1936, with mounted police protection, the Moseley gang marched in from the west (B on the map). They met thousands more people than they expected (at A, B, C, and D). Trams were strategically stopped by their drivers.
On Cable Street (D), barricades of pipe, bedsprings, lumber and rubbish blocked the street. First aid stations had been set up to tend the wounded.
The Fascists did not pass!
This is known as The Battle of Cable Street.
The people of Tower Hamlets are proud of this resistance, and proud that Catholics and Jews fought side-by-side. In the years since 1936, there have been many new arrivals to this area, from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The area now has the highest number of Muslims than anywhere else in the UK.
So today, the Chinese discrimination against the Uighur Muslims does not sit well with East-Enders of any nation or religion.
1976: The year Alice came to London was also the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Some activist east-enders wanted to do something special to commemorate it. Local artist and illustrator Dan Jones suggested that a huge mural of the Battle be created on the wall of St George’s Town Hall on Cable Street. Fundraising began. From Wikipedia: “Planning for the mural began in 1976, when Dan Jones, Secretary of the Tower Hamlets Trades Council, …[asked] artist, Dave Binnington, to paint a mural in Cable Street… [who] also recruited Paul Butler to design the lower section. Many of the faces in the mural were inspired by newspaper pictures of people who took part in the battle.” Work on the mural began in 1979, but due to some setbacks, wasn’t completed until 1983.
1983: When Ron first took me to London to meet his mum Alice (1983 or 4), the first thing she did was march us across the street to the “local” on that Sunday afternoon, announcing to all her chums “Here’s me kids!” and introducing us to the publican. Good manners, East-End style.
The next thing we did was walk up to see the Battle of Cable Street mural. It was the first of many walks to her favourite places. I can’t find any of Ron’s photos. Above is from The Guardian by Martin Goodwin, for the October 2016 commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.
Now back to the Chinese Embassy in the UK and the citizens of Tower Hamlets, and the breaking news, mid-November 2020:
“In a letter seen by The Mail on Sunday [Nov 15], Mr. Liu [China’s Ambassador to the UK] told Mayor John Biggs [mayor to Tower Hamlets]: ‘It is hoped that Tower Hamlets Council will respect the agreement reached between the Chinese and UK governments, resist disruptions and foster sound conditions for the building of the new embassies in our respective embassies.’ ”
A meeting of the Tower Hamlets Council in mid November 2020 resolved:
“to write to the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China based in the United Kingdom…. to cease its human rights’ abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and all other detainees….
… to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms…. We in Tower Hamlets welcome residents of Hong Kong who wish to take advantage of their now increased ability to move to the United Kingdom.”
My favourite bit is the parting shot of the Committee resolutions:
“The Borough [of Tower Hamlets] has a long and proud history of
being the first home in the UK for many people
fleeing persecution in their original countries.
And that those earlier arrivals are now British citizens.”
China acquired the historic Royal Mint site in London in 2018 for its new diplomatic mission —
Site has historic significance: it took delivery of tonnes of silver that China was forced to pay Britain in the 19th century.