The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

The Rise and Fall of Fascism in Plymouth

In the 1930s Plymouth would see a new political force take to its streets in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Fascists. The reason that they chose Plymouth is probably due to its military and defence background. It had many veterans from the Great War living in the city, thousands of dockyard workers and the harsh realities of the Great Depression were beginning to hit home. They also believed that Plymouth would make an ideal base to reach out to the wider Devon and Cornwall farming communities who were suffering more than most from the plummeting commodity prices. Likewise the Communists were also very active campaigners in Plymouth in the 1930s and as we shall see, the two groups often violently clashed in the streets and meeting halls of Plymouth

On 30th January 1933 Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and shortly afterwards what was described as a Nazi yacht by the name of Deutschland sailed in to Plymouth Sound. It was said that it was crewed by storm troopers who brought with them propaganda films in order to advertise the new Aryan State to any who would hear. Inspired by Mussolini and Hitler, Oswald Mosley had only recently set up his British Union of Fascists in 1932 with influential supporters such as Lord Rothermere who owned the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, The Western Morning News and the Western Evening Herald. With this support and with high hopes the British Union of Fascists established a Regional Headquarters in Plymouth at 6 Lockyer Street under the command of Richard Plathen. This headquarters had accommodation for up to 50 men with a canteen, a gym, a common room, a bar and a lounge. They also cleared the grounds to create a drill area to practice their marching. A blackshirt guard was posted outside the main entrance around the clock to keep an eye on Communist agitators and to make the black shirts visible to the local community. He would give the fascist salute to all who entered or left the premises. In theory no women were allowed in although one was hired as a typist/secretary. The women had a separate and smaller establishment designated as a meeting and training place at 10a Carlisle Terrace. There were probably only about a dozen female fascists who wore a stylish black beret as part of their uniform. Sadly Carlisle Terrace was destroyed somewhat ironically by the Nazis during the blitz in WW2. It was located where the current Plymouth Marine Laboratory is located.

Oswald Mosley came to Plymouth on December 15th 1933 to address a large audience in the Guildhall which included the Lord Mayor and local political leaders of all parties. He was no stranger to Plymouth as he had campaigned with Nancy Astor in 1919 when he was still a Conservative (He later joined Labour in 1924 before starting the British Union of Fascists in 1932). He very much used Hitler’s intimidatory grandstanding. He emerged from the back of the hall in to a darkened room. He marched down the centre of the hall accompanied by eight Blackshirts. He stepped up to the dais and his Blackshirts turned and faced the audience as the spotlight focussed on him. The local members from Lockyer Street flanked the walls and the Fascist ladies sat in a special section set aside for them. There were some hecklers and these were escorted outside to the waiting police if they persisted. In this speech Mosley’s main target was the threat of Communism and the audience was largely receptive and respectful of the speaker. He went to visit the Lockyer Street headquarters and see for himself the progress of the party in Plymouth and was apparently impressed by what he saw.

On Sunday February 11th 1934 all 50 members of the Lockyer Street Headquarters assembled outside their building and proceeded to march to the Church of St John the Evangelist on Exeter Street for a church service. On arriving the vicar of the church asked them what they stood for. The reported answer was “For God, for King, for Country.” They were invited in by Father Simpson Matthews who gave a sermon based on service. At the end of the service they sang the National Anthem and gave the Fascist Salute en masse. By this time word had got around about this latest stunt and crowds came to watch them emerge from the church as they got back in to formation and marched back to Lockyer street.

They were a campaigning organisation and sought to gain new recruits and support by sending out speakers and handing out leaflets across the city. These meetings were rarely orderly. On April 16th 1934 there was a particularly rowdy speech given by the Fascists at the Corn Exchange which was above Plymouth Market located in the car park behind McDonalds and Debenhams. It was another victim of the Blitz and the redesign of the City Centre afterwards. Several thousand people attended this meeting but a determined group of about a hundred Communists turned up and started heckling before a fully fledged fight broke out. The audience stampeded for the doors and chairs went flying. The speakers were hurt but the meeting continued to a much diminished audience after the police got involved. At the conclusion they marched back to Lockyer Street with a police escort as Communists jeered and goaded them all the way. Further scuffles broke out outside the headquarters.

On June 13th as many as 2000 people turned up at Prince Rock Tram terminus to hear the Fascists speak. So many turned up the police were worried about them blocking the streets and making it impossible for the trams to run and so reinforcement police were called to disperse the crowd before trouble could break out. This was probably just as well as the Communists were conducting their own speeches elsewhere and then marched to Lockyer Street to protest against the Fascists. Some 50 police created a cordon around the HQ and drew their batons to stop the two forces coming in to contact with another. The tram line finished here but there was a tram depot down Elliot Road that may also have been a contender for the location. Either way with 2000 people in the neighbourhood I’m sure the crowd covered both locations.

The main area of contention between the Communists and Fascists though was undoubtedly at the Octagon along the very busy Union Street which linked the three old towns together. Both groups regularly leafletted this area and called public speaking events to attract large audiences. Two to three thousand people regularly stopped the trams and traffic to listen to the Fascists or the Communists or to watch the two groups tear chunks out of one another. The police often had to intervene and sometimes called on the Military Police to help them keep order.

On October 5th 1934 Oswald Mosley returned for yet another mass gathering this time at the Drill Hall in Millbay on Walker Terrace. Again he emulated Hitler by choosing to fly to Plymouth landing at Roborough airport. The idea of using planes was to appear modern and avant-garde in tactics and organisation. However, there was to be no triumphal return to Plymouth. Indeed the events of this evening would be the undoing of the British Union of Fascists in Plymouth. The mood had already turned against the Fascists as Hitler had recently carried out his horrific ‘Night of the Long Knives’ laying bare the naked violence of Fascism. His backer Lord Rothermere was getting cold feet after a large rally at the Olympia stadium in London had turned violent. Undaunted Mosley turned up to a packed hall and proceeded with his theatre of dominance. Once again Communists had infiltrated the event and in order to be heard above their interjections and heckles he turned up his speaker to maximum volume. This was to prove to be a costly mistake as it fused the electricity in the building and the already tense room was thrown in to darkness. Pandemonium broke out as each protagonist assumed the other was responsible for the lights going out. Added to the chaos, the Western Morning News photographer fired his flash on his camera. Several Blackshirts headed for the source of the bright flash, smashed the camera and beat the journalist up. If the Western Morning News had been sympathetic to the Fascist cause before this event they most certainly became hostile to it afterwards. This event became a public relations disaster for the BUF and worse still several of the Blackshirts were arrested and fined and in three cases sent to Exeter Prison for a short term of hard labour. Finances dried up, recruitment stalled and members began leaving. By the end of the year, they had surrendered the lease on Lockyer Street and moved to smaller premises at 10 Union Street but even these were to prove temporary. In reality Fascism in the city never recovered.

Now there is a coda to the story of Fascism in Plymouth at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. In 1937 the hotel was taken over by the Welsh family. Joseph Welsh was a Hungarian married to a British lady of German parentage. They both had strong pro-German sympathies and Joseph had even been known to have been a friend of the German diplomat Ribbentrop from when he had ran a hotel in London known to be frequented by staff from the German Embassy where Ribbentrop had been the Ambassador. The owners did not hide their pro-German sympathies and their son and his wife were similarly minded. The authorities were interested to learn of the son’s interest in photographing the AA defences of Plymouth in the Summer before war had been declared in 1939. It appears however that it was his attractive wife Bebe Welsh who was the real intelligence gatherer. She would befriend American Naval and Army officers after the US had entered the war and invite them back to the hotel for entertainment in her room no less. She boasted openly of being invited on to American warships and submarines and of having been invited to American bases. MI5 appear to have known of these activities and may well have been feeding them false information. However by the Spring of 1944 and with the build up of American forces gathering pace it was thought prudent to remove the entire Welsh family from the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and out of the South West altogether. I am not entirely convinced that the German Luftwaffe had the skill to avoid bombing the Duke of Cornwall during the Blitz but it does indeed seem like a remarkable coincidence that one of the few buildings in the area to have survived the Blitz was the one owned by pro-German intelligence gatherers.

By an amazing coincidence I have very strong connections with nearly all the places mentioned in this walk. I used to live on Walker Terrace and was tickled pink to think that Fascism had been defeated in Plymouth over the road from my flat. My great great grandfather must have passed through Prince Rock all his life as he owned the Laira Inn further down the Embankment. More interestingly though is that he had also been a foreman who had worked on the electrification of the tramlines at the time they were being laid at Prince Rock. Furthermore, I am an old Suttonian and the Church of St John the Evangelist was effectively our school church where we held carol concerts and a Thanksgiving service when our school closed its doors for the last time. And most remarkably of all is that my own grandfather and his brother worked in the Duke of Cornwall in the 1930s up until 1938 no less and overlapped with the Welsh family taking over the running of the hotel. Sadly they are no longer with us, but I do remember my grandfather saying to me once why he had joined the RAF in 1938 before the war had broken out and whilst most of the population were still hopeful that Appeasement would work out. He said that he and his brother were working for Fascists and if they were where he worked they could be everywhere! He and his brother got so fed up with the anti-British diatribes from their bosses that they both walked out of the Hotel one day together and marched straight to the recruitment office. He turned left and joined the RAF whilst his brother turned right and joined the Royal Navy. They never looked back. But it is also a reminder that the 1930s was a period of dynamic and vigorous political discourse. Plymouth was a world of spies, intrigue, conviction, misplaced loyalties and misguided beliefs. It was a place of violence and uncertainty that ultimately culminated in World War and paradoxically the destruction of many of the places that these actors frequented.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article

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by Stephen Luscombe