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William “Bill” Fishman, who has died aged 93, is a great loss to working people’s history.
He was both a compassionate and passionate working-class historian — his supreme achievement the bringing to life of the political and social history of London’s East End.
Even in the 1960s, many of his peers were still writing about its inhabitants as if they were little more than an “outcast” mob — brutish, uneducated and with no political understanding beyond self-interest.
Fishman knew better. A proud East Ender himself, born to Jewish emigre parents — his mother Russian, his father Ukranian — he grew up near the docks, and later in Hackney.
Bill had been at the battle of Cable Street in 1936, a landmark event in people’s history, when ordinary Londoners dealt a humiliating public defeat to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF).
The BUF had planned a “show of strength” march through London, and chosen the most provocative route possible, through Jewish communities.
Despite extensive advance protests, the Conservative government refused to ban the march, and the Metropolitan Police oversaw — some would say protected — the fascist marchers.
It’s useful to remember this in the face of the ongoing memorialising of Britain as the eternal plucky good guy against German and fascist aggression.
Fishman’s patient retelling of the story in person — he must have been asked about it a thousand times when I first met him in the ’90s — brought the day vividly alive for me.
He was deeply moved by the determined unity of local socialist, Irish, Jewish, anarchist and communist groups, and hundreds of thousands of East Enders. Together they thronged the streets, chanting: “They shall not pass,” the slogan brought back from the fight against fascism in Spain.
At Cable Street, a lorry was overturned and a makeshift barricade constructed. Shop workers, families, dockers and passers-by joined in.
Women in nearby houses aimed home-made missiles, including the contents of chamber pots, at police.
The barricade could not be broken and eventually Mosley and his Blackshirts had to turn tail and retreat.
Fishman never forgot the experience and what he learned from it about the supposed “underclass.”
He had begun his own working life at 14 and quickly joined the Labour League of Youth.
Serving in the Far East in WWII, he returned home to teach English and history in Bethnal Green, marrying Doris Levy in 1947.
Doris, also from a migrant Jewish family, has a keen knowledge of Jewish history, and was his closest companion until his death.
The couple raised two sons, Barry and Michael, together.
While working full-time Bill also attained a degree at the London School of Economics, and later founded the Tower Hamlets College of Further Education.
His first book, The Insurrectionists, was a fascinating appraisal of Jacobin-Communism from Robespierre to Lenin, published in 1969.
It was followed by The Streets of East London, East End Jewish Radicals, and the seminal East End 1888.
In 1972 Fishman became research fellow in labour studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, with Doris accompanying him on US trips.
I owe Fishman a personal debt for his generous encouragement — he gradually convinced me that an ex-pub worker and trade unionist had as much right to fight her way into labour history as any lofty academic.
I won’t forget him and hope his histories of solidarity and courage in adversity will always be read. We need them now as much as ever.
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