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90 years: Ten thousand people attend a British Union of Fascists rally in Birmingham

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Authored by Niamh Franklin
Published on 21st January, 2024 3 min read

90 years: Ten thousand people attend a British Union of Fascists rally in Birmingham

Today (21/01/24) marks 90 years since Oswald Mosley organised a British Union of Fascists (BUF) rally in Birmingham’s Bingley Hall that was attended by 10,000 people. Mosley established the BUF in 1932 after campaigning for both the Labour and Conservative parties in various Birmingham constituencies. Interest in the party was growing in 1933, but the BUF gained a spike in membership after Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, came out in support of the party. Just six days prior to the BUF rally in Birmingham, the Daily Mail printed an article titled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and argued that hundreds “of thousands of young British men and women would like to see their own country develop that spirit of patriotic pride and service which has transformed Germany and Italy”. Oswald Mosley would go on to hold his largest rally yet at Bingley Hall on the 21 January 1934. His address lasted over two hours and the rally was deemed a great success by the BUF, Mosley boasting to party members after the event that they had “proved that the ‘Red Terror’ is finally broken”. Yet the seemingly subdued atmosphere with which Mosely’s 1934 address was received was largely due to the 2,000 Blackshirts present who worked to minimise anti-fascist voices and protests at the event. The next day another Daily Mail article was published praising the Blackshirts. It was titled “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand”. Once more, Lord Rothermere argued in favour of the BUF:

 British Blackshirt Movement is the Party of Youth. Its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, is only thirty-seven and a man of proved courage and outstanding ability, well fitted by his gifts of personality and eloquence to marshal the vast but neglected energies of his own generation for an effort of national reconstruction similar to that which has imparted such vigour to Italy and Germany.

From 1932 to 1934 the BUF experienced increasing levels of success within Birmingham and Mosley became a more and more influential figure within British politics. His party’s popularity began to decline, however, when it adopted a more severe, antisemitic outlook. This resulted in membership dropping below 8,000 by 1935. Measures taken by the government during the Second World War, including Defence Regulation 18B, worked to outlaw BUF action and led to the internment of Mosley and 740 other members on 23 May 1940. The same year the BUF ceased its activities. 

Due to its diverse community, Birmingham has often been a focal point for fascist and racist ideas, Enoch Powell’s delivery of his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in the city in 1968 being another case in point. Yet these ideas have been met with vigorous opposition. Indeed, the BUF was no stranger to anti-fascist sentiment in Birmingham. For example, when the BUF attempted to set up a new headquarters and bookshop in Handsworth (an area of Birmingham that, historically, has been targeted by police due to its ethnically diverse population) a group of local women forced them out. This illustrates the practical failures faced by the BUF despite its success at Bingley Hall on this day 90 years ago. What is more, the fate of the BUF serves to highlight the alienating nature of fascist ideas, particularly in Birmingham.

British Online Archives hosts a collection that surveys the British Union of Fascists throughout the period 1933–1953. It contains nearly 8,000 images detailing the BUF’s activities in Britain, including MI5 files that document the surveillance of Oswald Mosley and his wife. This collection offers readers the chance to learn about and to evaluate the influence of fascism in Britain during the early to mid-twentieth century. The collection can be accessed here: The British Union of Fascists: 1933–1953.

Authored by Niamh Franklin

Niamh Franklin

Niamh Franklin is a History graduate from the University of Bristol.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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