Fascists in 1930's Forest Gate

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Forest Gate played a small, but significant, part in the Fascist movement in Britain in the 1930s, hosting an area headquarters and a couple of regionally important fascist personalities. Read on ...

One of them was Millicent 'Scat' Bullivant, who lived at 94 Chestnut Avenue and was the daughter of middle class Conservatives from Norfolk. She was employed as the secretary to the sales manager of Yardley, the perfume and cosmetics manufacturer - the core of whose building remains on the approach to the Bow flyover, in Stratford.

Millicent 'Scat' Bullivant (centre) of Chestnut Ave,  
mainstay of West Ham fascists in 1920s and 1930s
  with Ulster Protestant Francis 'Paddy' Johnson to her left
Bullivant was a long standing, doctrinal fascist, having joined the British Fascisti, a forerunner to Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), in the 1920's. That organisation had been a predominantly middle class, pro monarchist anti-socialist group, having been founded in 1923 (soon after Mussolini seized  power in Italy). The group contested the West Ham council elections in 1930, when its candidate, Reginald Dobson, fought the High Street ward on an anti-socialist platform, securing 198 votes against the winning candidate's 919.

Although the British Union of Fascists was established in 1932, there was little sign of its presence in the Newham area until the following year. There was a physical confrontation between communists and fascists in Thorpe Road, East Ham on 29 July 1933. Two months later, what the BUF press called "The oldest East London district east of Aldgate" was established, as the East Ham branch, at 1 Lloyd Road, until 1940, when the movement was banned.

Fascists, under police protection, Stratford 1936
June 1934  was a decisive month for the BUF, nationally and locally. In that month it held its infamous Olympia rally, when it adopted a harder fascist policy, amidst pseudo military pomp and violence and Mosley held a meeting in East Ham Town Hall attended by an estimated 500 people, including 100 describing themselves as paid-up fascist supporters. The following month the party began holding open air meetings in West Ham and established a branch in the borough, with Plaistow man, A Richardson, as its organiser and Bullivant as his assistant.

Two months later, Mosley and his party officially adopted a fiercely anti-Semitic stance and activity.

Following allegations of corruption within its tiny organisation, the West Ham branch underwent a major re-organisation, in early 1935. Millicent Bullivant survived and her brother, Richard Alvestone Bullivant, a former member of the Conservative Party and the Junior Imperial League and manager of Stone's radio shop on Ilford High Road, acted as District Organiser for the duration of the enquiry. 

Arthur Beavan

Millicent emerged from the re-organisation as West Ham's District Women's Leader, and a 34 year old Cardiff-born, ex-Communist and painter by trade, Arthur Beavan, was appointed organiser.  He was to dominate the party in the area for its remaining five years of existence.

Arthur Beavan, strutting his stuff.
West Ham fascist organiser in 1930's
Beavan later recalled his motivation for joining the BUF - and it was an attraction to violence. He said he had attended a BUF meeting in 1933 in Lewisham - prior to his joining the organisation and that he found Mosley's willingness to join in fist fights was inspirational to him:

We went to Lewisham ... that ended in a free fight. But the first thing that got into my mind was when Mosley came down off the platform and waded in with his men. He led.
Beavan joined the BUF and described what he found when he was appointed West Ham District Organiser:
... the funds were disappearing and I was sent down to West Ham. I took the blackshirt off, got digs and joined the branch as a new member. Having caught them out, got all the evidence, I informed HQ. We had an enquiry and the District Organiser and Treasurer were both kicked out ... After the two officials and their boozing pals had gone, I had about a dozen (members) left.

Arthur Beavan, fifth from left, with fellow
members of I squad, Storm Division, 1934
Beavan's father had been a Fabian socialist and chief statistician for the Co-operative Wholesale Society. The young Beavan had a restless early career. He served in the merchant navy from the age of 14 and the US navy during the First World War. He then settled in Texas and for a while served in the US cavalry.  On his return to Britain, he went to London looking for work and joined the Communist Party, with which he became disillusioned, he said, because of its lack of both patriotism and strong leadership. He was also concerned about what he later described as the "increasing number of aliens in its ranks".

Beavan was recruited to the BUF 1933, and claimed that "I found what I was looking for ... revolution and patriotism. That's what won me over."
He was soon recruited to join the movement's elite 'I' Squad division, a 'physical force unit, that became Mosley's praetorian guard'. He remained a militarist in appearance and outlook throughout his time in the BUF. Some of his contemporaries described him as "a bit of a fanatic, who liked uniforms".

He adopted an unquestioning devotion to Mosley and the party line, frequently working seven days a week in his endeavours to convert West Ham to fascism. 

He was a militant proletarian fascist who believed the backbone of 'the movement' came from the working class. He was, consequently intolerant of diffident middle-class Conservative suburban fascism, which didn't match his ideal of the 'blackshirt warrior.'

Beavan was a disciplinarian who demanded high standards of loyalty and commitment from the members. Contemporaries remember him as a "disciplinarian who used to sling people out right, left and centre". For him the branch was a political workshop, where members could enjoy conversation and recreation once the day's propaganda duties had been completed.

As soon as he was appointed West Ham District organiser, in 1935, he undertook a political canvas of the district and in July opened the party's district headquarters at 18 Woodford Road (see photo of premises, today). In the same month, he organised a controversial meeting in Stratford Town Hall meeting, where Oswald Mosley, against bitter opposition from anti-fascist groups, addressed his largest-to-date indoor meeting  east of London, which according to the Stratford Express required "several hundred foot police and 20 mounted men" to keep order, outside, as demonstrators taunted the fascists.

18 Woodford Road, local fascist HQ
in 1930's - serviced offices today
In October 1935 Beavan and his unit started to penetrate Canning Town, and began to organise outdoor meetings in Capel Road (on Wanstead Flats), among other locations.

There were attempts to frustrate the BUF's ability to organise locally.  West Ham Council, in common with a number of adjacent local authorities, refused applications from the organisation to hold meetings in their premises, and the Mosleyites responded aggressively. In October 1937, for example, they forced the abandonment of a Labour Party meeting at East Ham Town Hall, when, according to Labour Party documents, continual barracking amid scenes "unparallel in the annals of the Labour Party in East Ham" eventually forced future prime minister, Clement Attlee, the principal speaker, to prematurely terminate the meeting".

Denied access to public halls, the Mosleyites held outdoor meetings, which were frequently the subjects of clashes with anti-fascist demonstrators. In September 1937, 20 residents of Capel Road organised a petition to prohibit the BUF's regular Sunday meetings on Wanstead Flats, "as they were a nuisance and caused annoyance to householders living within hearing distance" from 8pm - 10pm, having reserved their speaking pitch on the corner of the Flats at 4 or 5pm in the afternoon. The residents were unhappy that the police seemed to turn a blind eye to the nuisance caused by the open air meetings.

Oswald Mosley addressing a large
crowd on Wanstead Flats in July 1938
At this time, West Ham Borough was divided into four parliamentary constituencies, but the BUF was too small to be able to organise effectively in each of them.  Beavan tried to control the BUF's activities of all four from the single base -18 Woodford Road - but had almost no success in the southern constituencies of Silvertown and Plaistow.  Most of he and the BUF's activities were concentrated in the Upton constituency and the Stratford one (in which the Forest Gate HQ was located).

Beavan found recruiting and organising in the southern two constituencies to be particular difficult, largely because of their overwhelmingly pro-Labour demographic base.  He conceded that the "ultra-Red" Plaistow constituency was most resistant to fascist penetration, and that the majority of his members there were policemen.

Consequently, according to Thomas P Lineham, author of East London for Mosley, source of much of the material for this article:

The primarily lower middle-class residents who lived in street locations in Forest Gate and in the Upton Division, traditionally hostile to socialism and West Ham's brand of municipal socialism in particular, were to prove particularly receptive to the propaganda of Mosleyite fascism.  BUF organiser, Arthur Beavan was quoted as saying:

"Well, Upton and  er .. Stratford were best Upton was the best of all ... It wasn't a working class area. There were so many people owned their own houses, and they were nice houses. And, of course they all ... everybody was against Labour. And the Tories had never ... never done good. So they were giving us a chance ... 'Course we played on that ... You'd get their financial support. You'd get their votes. Those are the things that matter in building up an organisation."
In May 1938 the BUF announced its decision to contest the Upton seat at the next general election, selecting ... Beavan, as its prospective parliamentary candidate for the division. Upton remained the only  parliamentary constituency in West Ham to be targeted by the BUF until February 1940, when it decided to contest the Silvertown by-election. Its disastrous election result in Silvertown, where it polled 151 votes as against the victorious Labour candidate's 14,343, reflected the unfavourable anti-fascist political climate generated by the war.

Arthur Beavan, third from left at BUF's
HQ c 1934. Moseley in centre
The BUF contested the Forest Gate ward during the November 1938 election, one of the few remaining centres of Ratepayers Association representation in West Ham. The result was equally disappointing in the principal location centre of BUF support in the borough.  Unable to seriously penetrate the Ratepayers Association vote, Arthur Beavan, the BUF candidate, finished third in a three corner contest with 158 votes. The BUF never managed to convince potentially wavering Conservative voters that it represented a serious electoral alternative to the Ratepayers Association, the RA candidate retaining his hold on the ward with 1,332 votes.

Anti-Semitic activity

Lineham, in describing the membership levels and activities of a number of BUF branches in East London and South West Essex, says:

The majority of BUF branches in South-West Essex (the BUF area in which the Forest Gate one was placed) were comprised of small groups of primarily committed ideological Mosleyites who often struggled to keep fascism afloat in the region. Large memberships and spectacular growth rates were not features of these branches. ... One explanation ... was the sporadic, uneven and qualitatively different nature of anti-Semitism in these outer suburban areas. Although there is evidence of both latent and open anti-Semitism ... its scale and intensity was far more limited than in the East End districts.
Nonetheless, there was evidence of anti-Semitic activity in the area from the time that Mosley adopted anti-Semitism as a core BUF principle, in September 1934.

The racially anti-Semitic Imperial Fascist League operated in West Ham, from 1934, and sought to attract dissidents from the BUF into its membership. A number of groups in Forest Gate engaged in latent anti-Semitic activities. In September 1939  a Board of Deputies' investigator reported that many provisions stores in Forest Gate displayed shop signs proclaiming that they were "100% British". Two shops were more open in their declaration, proclaiming that there businesses were "Not Yiddish". Lineham, unfortunately does not date, or locate these.

The open anti-Semitism of James William Higgs, a small "well known", according to the Stratford Express, retail furrier from Forest Gate, who owned business premises at 471 Romford Road (now, ironically an Islamic charity shop on the junction of Balmoral Road - see photograph), was of a more aggressive nature. He was described by the British Board of Deputies as being a "rather eccentric character", and placed numerous anti-Semitic advertisements in the Stratford Express.

471 Romford Road, James William Higgs' 
racist fascist furrier shop, in 1930's, 
Islamic charity shop, today
He made frequent references to rival traders as "aliens" and "foreigners" and described himself as the "Only real British furrier between Aldgate Pump and Southend".  Anti-Semitic posters and notices were displayed openly in his shop window in Romford Road, against which no legal action was taken, despite the fact that the shop was only a hundred yards or so from Forest Gate police station. 

 Higgs' aggressive advertising continued into 1936. That November he placed an advertisement in the BUF press describing his business as "The Real English Manufacturing Furriers", a trade in which, of course, there is a large Jewish presence. Mosleyite newspapers frequently targeted Jewish fur manufacturers and merchants, whom they accused of monopolising the trade and perpetuating "sweated" conditions in the trade.

Higgs was a member of the BUF, and his son, Dennis, was District leader of the organisation's Southend branch. The father died in 1937, although the fur business continued trading under his name, in Romford Road, at least the 1970's, when it was frequently daubed by animal rights graffiti

Other local members

West Ham BUF branch membership lists were destroyed by Beavan and co, at the start of the second world war, as they feared that the security forces would seize them and move against the members; so, there are no reliable indications of just how numerically large the local branch was. When asked outright by the Stratford Express in 1938 how strong the party was in West Ham, Beavan refused to answer.

There has, however, been some academic research undertaken on the socio-economic composition of other branches in the South West Essex area during the 1930s.  It is not unreasonable to assume that the West Ham membership profile would have been fairly similar.  That analysis suggests that 29% of members had broadly lower middle class occupations, that 18% were skilled workers, 15% unskilled workers, 6% self employed and 6% academics (!).

Lineman provides details of a few local members in his book; some of the names have been left disguised, presumably in exchange for obtaining information from those people who were still alive at the time he undertook his research - in the mid 1990s.

Among local members he identified  was John Rice of Evesham Road, Stratford, a onetime professional boxer. There was also an unnamed egg and potato roundsman who sold his 'best British produce' in the Wanstead, Forest Gate and South Chingford' area. He, according  to Lineham was selective with regard to his customers, declaring in the advertising section of the BUF press that he desired 'trade with British born customers only'. Charles Lewis, an electrician of Studley Road, was also a member, as was an unnamed dentist who practiced from his home in Odessa Road.

The BUF, according to their own publications, targeted busmen as recruits and Mosley held a meeting at the BUF headquarters in London attended by busmen from Dalston and Forest Gate on 7 July 1937.

Reginald Remington Swift, 'a very keen worker for the movement' and petty criminal was a street market trader in the West Ham area, who lived at 110 Vansittart Road. In September 1938, at the age of 36 he committed suicide by leaping to his death from the upstairs window of his home in Forest Gate and was described by family members at the inquest as being delusional and paranoid. Just prior to his death he had been imprisoned for not paying a fine for street betting, which was said to have affected him emotionally and psychologically.

During 1936 Frederick A Ralph, of 48 Knox Road, Forest Gate was appointed District Organiser of the Ilford Branch of the BUF. He was a local baker's roundsman, and according to witnesses "beneath his khaki roundsman's smock, he frequently ware a black shirt, tie, riding breeches and boots".

The war and after

Following the outbreak of World War 11, in September 1939, most South-West Essex branches of the BUF kept a low-profile, and their bookshops (including that in Woodford Road) were boarded-up, for protection. District headquarters were closed and open-air meetings suspended.

But in October, regular open-air meetings recommenced, including established BUF pitches in South-West Essex such as Beckton Road, West Ham and Kempton Road, East Ham, according to fascist publications.

The BUF began to operate more clandestinely, as the following example illustrates. Numerous anti-war slogans were painted on walls and buildings throughout Essex and London, whilst countless 'stickers' were placed on property owned or occupied by the BUF's opponents.

Charles Max Sakritz joined the BUF for a short period in 1939, at the age of 29 and was a jobbing tailor, who used a room in his house at 4 Margery Park Road as a workshop. He had Anglo-German parents and had lived in Germany between 1917 and 1932. He was known in Forest Gate as being "rather pro-Nazi" in his views.  He was sentenced to one month's imprisonment under Defence Regulations, in April 1940, for defacing a government war time poster in Upton Lane.

The BUF was banned by parliament in May 1940 under Defence Regulations, with 34 leading BUF officials and 750 activists detained without trial - including Arthur Beavan, who nonetheless continued to lead the BUF locally for the duration of the war. We are unaware of his eventual fate, or that of most of the other local members mentioned in this article.

We are extremely indebted to Thomas P Lineham's book The British Union of Fascists in East London and South-West Essex 1933 - 40, and the Stratford Express of the time, for much of the material in this article.


  1. I remember Higgs the Furriers extremely well and used to go past it on my way to school in the 1960's. I had no idea of its links to British Fascism. I know that the wife of the Jewish landlord we had kept her furs there, so perhaps she didn't know of the link either. Great website. Thanks for the memores.

  2. James William Higgs is my great grandfather and although I knew he was a racist and an eccentric, I had no idea up until now about his fascist history!! I'm completely shocked and unsettled by what I've just learnt.. Especially as I was brought up by his grandson in the complete opposite way - to stand up for human rights, equality and to respect others religious beliefs - which I am so incredibly grateful for. This has inspired me to learn more about my family history and to write it down for the future generations. If anyone out there has any information on (or photos) of my great grandfather (nicknamed Jimmy) and the shop Higgs Furriers or please contact me at kateyhiggs@gmail.com, I'd be so grateful! Thank you E7-NowAndThen for putting this information up!


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