Compiled and edited by Z Yaakov Wise, MA, PGCE

See also Mosley's later experiences in Manchester in 1939 and Michael Wolf's account. If you or someone you know has relevant personal memories of the 1930s and would like to contact the author, please email: yaakovwise@aol.com

Sir Oswald ‘Tom’ Mosley, Bart. (1896-1980) and the BUF

Mosley who was founder and leader of the British Fascist Party in the 1930s, was born on November 16th 1896 and was educated at Winchester College. His family was an old established Manchester family, and Mosley himself was the sixth baronet. Mosley Street in Manchester bears his family name. The young Oswald (known to family and friends as ‘Tom’) entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and in 1914 joined the 16th (the Queens) Lancers before going on to the Royal Flying Corps as an Observer. He was later discharged due to leg injuries sustained in a plane crash and by the end of the War was working in the Foreign Office. He became a Conservative MP for the Harrow constituency in 1918, the youngest MP in the House of Commons. In 1924 disenchanted with government policies, he joined the Labour Party and was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1928.

His political career seemed guaranteed, and had it not been for his extreme right wing political ideology, he would no doubt have risen to higher and more distinguished office. In this time of depression and widespread unemployment, he became interested in the economic policies of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and in 1932 published his first book, ‘The Greater Britain’, in which he set out his grand plan for the economic, social and political reconstruction of Britain. He actually paid visits to both Mussolini and the German dictator, Adolph Hitler. Hitler in fact was Mosley's best man at his second marriage, to Lady Diana Mitford, that took place in Josef Goebbel's house in Berlin.

 On Saturday October 1st 1932 Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists to implement his policies. His early meetings were held at Hyndman Hall in Liverpool Street, Salford. During the 1930s his policies were increasingly controversial - his outspoken oratory and his militaristic street parades and rallies of black-shirted neo-Nazis, reminiscent of those taking place in Nuremberg in Germany, were frequently accompanied by unrest and violence. Several rallies were held at Queen's Park in Harpurhey. In 1933 one of his meetings at the Free Trade Hall was the scene of rioting, and police had to be called to separate various factions. Apart from a faithful minority following he failed to grab the imagination or sympathies of the people. In 1938 he published ‘Tomorrow We Live’ as well as a large number of leaflets, booklets and two regular weekly newspapers ‘The Blackshirt’ and ‘Action’. His views were vehemently pro-British, intensely xenophobic and overt in their racism.

The Second World War and the ensuing collapse of fascism in Europe effectively brought an end to Mosley's career as a politician, and an effective end to the party's popularity in the western world. He died at home in bed in 1980 aged 84.

The British Union of Fascists was a union of numerous smaller extreme nationalist parties, Mosley instituted a black uniform, gaining the party the nickname the Blackshirts. The BUF was anti-Communist and protectionist, claimed membership was as high as 50,000, and the millionaire publisher Lord Rothermere and his Daily Mail group were early supporters. Among his followers were the novelist Henry Williamson, and military theorist J.F.C. Fuller. The party became the target of strong Communist and Jewish opposition especially in London and Manchester. The government was sufficiently concerned to pass the Public Order Act of 1936, which was intended to destroy the movement but failed. In the London County Council elections in 1937 the BUF won many votes in its east London strongholds. The BUF was completely banned in May 1940 and Mosley and 740 other senior Fascists were interned for much of WW II. Mosley was released in 1943. After the war he made a number of attempts to return to politics (1947, 1959, 1966), but never successfully. He became noted for his advocacy of Britain's entry into the European Economic Community.

The BUF Headquarters at 17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton

The BUF office in northern England was housed in Thornleigh, 17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton, Salford, a house that has endured a chequered history. Originally built as a merchant’s substantial villa in the late 1870s (the 1939 conveyance describes a plot of 3,649 square yards), it was occupied from 1881 by an Isaac S McDougall, chemist, and from 1908 by a paper merchant’s family called Leete. From 1914 to 1934 the house was owned by a ‘Managing Director’ called Cyril Dodd.[1] In 1934 it became the Northern regional headquarters of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley himself performed the official opening ceremony flanked by two columns of his Blackshirts in full uniform.[2] The BUF had expanded rapidly in the city between October 1933 and June 1934. In November 1934 there was fighting between the fascists and the Jews when the BUF had marched “through the Jewish areas of the city.”[3] A local Jewish member of the Young Communist League who lived on Waterloo Road, Hightown and was later to fight in Spain, Maurice Levine, remembered the local BUF in his autobiography:         

“The BUF had its headquarters in Northumberland Street in Higher Broughton. A favourite café of theirs was Walter’s on Great Ducie Street near Victoria Station, and they would walk through Strangeways along Bury New Road to Northumberland Street to provoke the Jewish population – they would often be scuffles with the inhabitants of Strangeways, who were very sensitive to the menace of fascism in their midst.” [4]

A total of eight BUF branches were opened in Greater Manchester and a further ten in the surrounding Lancashire towns between 1932 and 1934.[5] Between October 1933 and June 1934 branches were opened in Platting, Stretford and Altrincham as well as in surrounding Lancashire towns including Bolton, Bury, Blackpool, Rochdale, Accrington and Preston. Branches existed in Ashton-under-Lyne, Hulme, Rusholme, Withington, Blackley, Salford, Oldham, Southport and Fylde by July 1934. These were all controlled from 17 Northumberland Street where a full-time Northern regional organiser and nine other staff were based. The BUF North West Office was re-organised on 1st January 1936. The staff then expanded to five senior BUF officers each with their own personal secretary; two to three accounts clerks; one press officer; two to three mail and register clerks; one van driver and four orderlies and messengers. [6]

Two of the senior staff were William Risdon and A Findlay. Another was Dick Bellamy. As a youth Bellamy had led an adventurous life as a 'jackaroo' in the Australian outback and a coffee planter working among cannibals in New Caledonia. He told of these exciting time in two books: ‘The Real South Seas’ andMixed Bliss in Melanesia’. He was a superb storyteller and the latter book was described by The Observer as “The best travel book of the year.” He returned to Britain in the early 1930s and was shocked by the poverty and conditions he found. Within a few months of its foundation Bellamy joined the BUF and eventually became Senior Staff Officer in charge of Northern Headquarters in Northumberland Street. He was selected as parliamentary candidate for the partly Jewish district of Manchester Blackley in readiness for the General Election of 1940 that never came. Bellamy described his period as National Inspector for the region as “probably the happiest time of my life.”

With rapid decline of the BUF in Southern England after 1934 when Lord Rothermere and his Daily Mail group withdrew their support, the focus of recruitment shifted to the North West and, for a time, Mosley seriously contemplated moving his headquarters [from the ‘Black House’ in Chelsea] to Northumberland Street. [7] By early 1936 he considered moving R A ‘Jock’ Houston, a working class demagogue who had been working in London’s East End and had recently been charged with using insulting words and behaviour, and the police court proceedings had resulted in publicity being given to his criminal record. He was to have moved to Manchester, but there were considerable Jewish objections to him, given his London reputation. The BUF regional organiser, A Findlay, assured the local Chief Constable who had been lobbied by the Manchester Jewish community lay leader Nathan Laski, JP, that Houston would not be permitted to come to Northumberland Street. He was sent instead to South Wales. [8]

The unemployment crisis in the cotton textile industry and political turmoil over Indian independence had persuaded Mosley that the North West would be fertile ground.

“It is worth noting that in late 1934 and early 1935, Mosley had, as was his wont, attached himself to the issues of the moment. He had taken up the issue of India ‘in hope of attracting the well known Conservative leaders opposed to the [home rule] Bill to join the BUF,’ and had strategically moved part of his headquarters staff to Manchester in order to ‘take advantage of developments.”[9]

By 1937 the BUF had been made illegal and Mosley disposed of his provincial centres and his organisation retreated to London. However, an ex-Northumberland Street official F Haslam stood as the BUF candidate in the infamous Middleton and Prestwich parliamentary by-election of 1940. He garnered 418 votes against the Conservative’s 32,036. By convention in wartime a deceased member’s successor is returned unopposed. Hence there were no Labour or Liberal candidates. The BUF broke this convention by opposing the new Conservative candidate. A day after the election Mosley and the other BUF leaders were arrested in London and the party collapsed.

The principal financial backer of the strictly orthodox Jewish community, the Machzikei Hadass [those who firmly grasp the law], the furniture importer and wholesaler Abraham Jacob Pfeffer quickly stepped in to buy 17 Northumberland Street in 1937 until the community, which had been founded in 1925 at the Polish Synagogue, 115a Bury New Road, could raise sufficient funds. It was rented to the Machzikei Hadass until a nominal purchase (Pfeffer donated most of the value to the community) was made two years later.

Mosley was tracked by MI5 initially in Manchester

MI5 documents released by the Public Record Office show in detail how closely Sir Oswald Mosley was monitored by the government until his arrest and detention in 1940. The files on Mosley are amongst 311 on a range of suspects and spies made public under the more liberal policy of the last few years. MI5 had (unnamed) informants inside the British Union of Fascists but ordinary citizens also wrote in with information. One anonymous letter, written by typewriter in February 1940, says the writer overheard a meeting on the other side of a curtained off area ‘while having a late meal’ in the Victoria Grill restaurant. The letter says: ‘A speaker was impressing on his hearers that as people became more and more dissatisfied with the war... so would the chances of seizing power become greater.’

The letter went on: ‘I asked the chef what it was all about, he said that it was a meeting of the fascist party and that (one of the speakers) was Sir Oswald Mosley.’  The writer urges the authorities to act: ‘It surely is time that drastic action is taken to end this sort of thing.’ In due course, it was. The same meeting in the Victoria Grill was also written up by a police special branch informant. It mentioned that ‘Mosley explained a somewhat ghoulish scheme by which district leaders should approach relatives of men killed in action and endeavour to convert them to BUF ideals’.

The Mosley MI5 file begins in 1933 with a report from Detective Constable Edward Pierpoint who had been at a fascist public meeting in Manchester. It was the first of many such reports as Mosley's extreme views were closely monitored. Constable Pierpoint adopts the formal style still beloved of the police. “A strong element of the communist party were present attired in red jerseys”, he writes, adding “Sir Oswald Mosley entered attired in a lounge suit.”

A later police report got to the heart of the Mosley message: “The most noticeable feature of the speech was that Mosley repeatedly made venomous attacks on the Jews.” Another said: “The significant feature was to express determination to defeat the enemy (the Jew) if not by the ballot box then by other and more drastic means, a sentiment cheered to the echo.”

One informant listed only as M/R reported that, “I feel he (Mosley) is relying on calling up British Union members to provide eventually an armed force which will effect revolution. He would at the right moment engender a communist uprising in order to enable the fascists to intervene by force on the pretext of 'saving the country'.” The informant claimed that “the Air Force would unanimously back the BUF,” a somewhat unlikely prediction given that the RAF was at that time (March 1940) preparing for what would be the Battle of Britain. Informants, though, tend to exaggerate.

In the file there is a letter from the American poet and fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound who was living in Italy. It had been intercepted and photographed. Pound recommends that the British fascists reissue a particular book he approved of called ‘The Law on Civilisation and Decay’ with the comment: “We must educate the few blokes who can stand education at any level.” Pound has his own MI5 file as well that gives details of his pro-Axis views and broadcasts.

When Oswald Mosley was eventually arrested for detention in May 1940, he was found to own a number of firearms - three handguns, two rifles, two shotguns and two duelling pistols. But he did have a firearms certificate. He was held in Brixton prison. In one letter to his wife Diana (opened by the authorities) he asks that she “tear up any writing or speech which could possibly be construed as extolling any foreign system”.

Lady Mosley was described by one MI5 informant as “far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions”. She is said to have been the “principal channel of communication between Mosley and Hitler” before the war. Her sister, Unity Mitford, was even closer to Hitler and in a file on her, it is said that she is “more Nazi than the Nazis”. 

Key Dates in the History of Fascism in Britain

Oswald Mosley MP, disillusioned with the Conservative party, joins Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. The party rejects his proposals for economic reform, and Mosley quits the government the following year to found his own proto-fascist New party. He fails to win a seat at the subsequent general election.

After meeting Mussolini, Mosley disbands the New party and forms the British Union of Fascists (BUF). His anti-communist and anti-Semitic speeches attract widespread attention.

Riots break out in Cable Street, east London, when residents demonstrate against a BUF march. The violent protests are seen as a victory for the left. Two days after the Cable Street battle, Mosley marries Hitler’s confidante, Diana Mitford, in a secret ceremony held in Josef Goebbels's drawing room. Hitler attends the wedding.

Later in the year, in what the Home Office calls ‘a sinister development’, hundreds of British children attend military-style fascist training camps in Italy. The Public Order Act subsequently makes the black-shirted BUF uniform illegal, undermining the group's activities.

William Joyce, the former BUF member nicknamed Lord Haw Haw for his plummy faux-public school accent, begins his infamous Nazi propaganda broadcasts. MI5 papers released in 2002 suggest that Joyce, sentenced to death for treason after the war, considered Mosley a ‘conceited popinjay’ who did not recognise his talents.

Oswald Mosley tells a public meeting to defeat ‘the enemy’ (the Jews) by the ballot box or ‘other and more drastic means’. Mosley, along with other British fascists, is imprisoned in Brixton later in the year after MI5 reports raised fears that he would incite ‘armed revolution and pogroms’.

Mosley attempts to relaunch his political philosophy by founding the Union Movement, promoting a ‘European nation’ with centralised financial, foreign, defence and educational policies and a centralised defence force. Mosley's support for a federal Europe has been cited as evidence of the idea's ‘fascist pedigree’ by some modern Eurosceptics.

Mosley publishes the European, a monthly Union Movement journal featuring contributions from Ezra Pound, Vivian Bird and others. He stops publishing the journal in 1959 to focus on fighting ‘coloured immigration’.

Mosley proposes that the USA and Europe should aim for full agricultural production, donating their surplus to the feed the hungry in the developing world.

The National Front is founded by Arthur Chesterton and John Tyndall to fight immigration. It quickly develops a reputation for violence against non-whites, but builds a stable membership of around 12,000.

Tory shadow cabinet minister Enoch Powell gives his ‘rivers of blood’ speech on the dangers of immigration, and is promptly sacked by Conservative leader Edward Heath.

The Union Movement contests its final general election, fielding 32 candidates and winning around 10,000 votes.

Margaret Thatcher warns that the British people ‘might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’ if the government fails to bring about ‘an end to immigration’.

The National Front, which a year earlier had seemed poised to become the third party in British politics, collapses at the general election despite fielding 303 candidates, never to recover. The bad showing is blamed on loss of support to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party and protests by anti-fascists.

Sir Oswald Mosley dies.

John Tyndall leaves the National Front to form the British National party (BNP). The party says it wants to help ‘British people retain their homeland and identity’, presenting itself as a somewhat more moderate alternative to the National Front. Mr Tyndall, however, is photographed wearing jackboots and posing in front of a picture of Hitler.

Tyndall is convicted of incitement to racial hatred. He is subsequently jailed.

Combat 18 [the letters A=1 H=8 for Adolf Hitler] is founded as a stewarding group for the BNP. The unashamedly neo-Nazi group, which has ties to British football hooliganism, later breaks away from the BNP.

September 1993

The British National party wins its first council seat as Derek Beacon is elected for a ward in the Isle of Dogs, east London, by seven votes. He loses the seat five months later at the next election and the BNP collapses into infighting. 

April 1999

Ex-BNP member and Combat 18 supporter David Copeland conducts a nail-bombing campaign against black, Asian and gay communities in London, killing three and injuring 139.

Autumn 1999

Cambridge graduate and ex-NF activist Nick Griffin is elected head of BNP. He aims to modernise the party, ridding it of swastikas and skinheads, playing down links to the National Front, denying charges of racism and couching BNP politics in moderate language. His reformed party wins some attention in the rightwing media, although a number of reports note his 1998 conviction for inciting racial hatred and continue to label him - and the BNP - as racist. 

September 2000

The BNP instructs its members to join protests over fuel prices. Their attempt to move beyond race issues is hampered when it emerges that they distributed racist pamphlets at the protests and unionists allege ‘physical intimidation and racial harassment’. 

May 2001

Race riots in Oldham lead to the arrest of 49 white and Asian rioters. The BNP denies any role in orchestrating the violence, but warns of retaliatory action if the police do not ‘grasp the nettle and deal with Asian racists’. William Hague is criticised after warning that further race riots are inevitable if the ‘flooding’ of Britain by asylum seekers is not stemmed. 

June 2001

Griffin leads the BNP to their best-ever general election showing, although they win no seats and only 0.2% of the national vote. Standing in Oldham West and Royton, however, Griffin wins 16.4% of the vote and comes within 500 votes of beating the Conservative candidate for second place.

August 2001

Birmingham institutes a blanket ban on National Front marches in the city. Later in the month Nick Griffin's father, Ian, is expelled from the Conservative party for alleged BNP links. 

September 2001

The BNP throws its weight behind Iain Duncan Smith's campaign for election as Conservative party leader, hoping that he will lead the party to another crushing electoral defeat. “The simple fact is it is the Conservative party which is the biggest roadblock in our path to electoral victory,” it claims. A spokesman for Mr Duncan Smith calls the BNP ‘abhorrent’. 

April 2002

The home secretary, David Blunkett, comes under fire after saying that children of asylum seekers were ‘swamping’ British schools. He refused to retract his comments, saying: “Frankly, I am not worried who is or is not in favour of me using the word 'swamped'. What I am interested in is getting the issue right.”

May 2002

Following rightwing victories on the continent, 22% of the population tell a YouGov poll that they would support a UK National Front party running on an anti-Europe, anti-immigration platform. A month after the poll the reshaped BNP wins three council seats in Burnley. Griffin promises to take more seats next time around. 

November 2002

The BNP win a surprise council election victory in Blackburn, beating the Labour candidate by just 16 votes and taking their national tally of council seats to four. The successful BNP candidate promised not to be ‘handicapped by political correctness’ in fighting for the town's needs. 

January 2003

The BNP win a seat from Labour on Calderdale council, beating the Liberal Democrat candidate by 28 votes.

May 2003

The BNP takes their number of council seats nation-wide to 11, winning a 13.75% share of the vote. The BNP becomes the second-largest party in Burnley. A Guardian report shows that under rules brought in by Labour the BNP received state aid towards its running costs.




[1] Slater’s Directories of Manchester & Salford

[2] Cohen, Hilda, Bagels with Babushka, Manchester, 1989.  Mrs Cohen’s family lived at 35 Northumberland Street and she was an eyewitness to the opening ceremony. A photograph of the ceremony is held at Manchester Central Library.

[3] Manchester Guardian 5th and 26th November 1934 cited in Mandle, W, Anti-Semitism and the BUF, London, 1968

[4] Levine, M, From Cheetham to Cordova: A Manchester man of the thirties, Manchester, 1984

[5] Lewis, D, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society 1931-1981, p64

[6] Rawnsley, S, Fascism and Fascists in Britain in the 1930s: a Case Study of Fascism in the North of England in a Period of Economic and Political Change, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Bradford, 1983

[7] Thurlow, R, Fascism in Britain, London, 1987, p95

[8] Griffiths, R, Patriotism Perverted: Captain Ramsey, the Right Club and British Anti-Semitism 1939-1940, London, 1998

[9] Extract from BUF Files PRO HO 144/20144/237