It’s a pub now. On the corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street. On its walls, photographs and posters to remind us that once this was the Prince of Wales Theatre, that some of the country’s greatest actors strutted its stage.
But nothing to tell us that 75 years ago, the man who saw himself as Britain’s saviour stood upon that stage to bring his message to Cardiff. Dictators were on the rise in Europe – and Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley hoped to join them.
His followers shared his dream, and took to the streets. Nothing new then when members of the self-styled Welsh Defence League marched through Swansea last month giving Nazi salutes as they protested about “Muslim extremism”. This and growing BNP recruitment put that word “fascism” back into the headlines, though now Muslims and asylum seekers are used to stoke the fires of hatred.
Today’s “saviour” Nick Griffin is no Oswald Mosley. Here was an electrifying orator who had been a member of both Conservative and Labour parties, his admirers claiming he could have become leader of either, maybe Prime Minister, such was his magnetism.
But he was flawed. And impatient. In 1931, he formed the New Party and Nye Bevan was among his admirers. But Nye warned Mosley that it could end up as a fascist party and he was right. In 1932, it became the British Union of Fascists, the Blackshirts, branches opening up in Cardiff and Newport, Swansea and the Valleys. Then on a night in 1934, Mosley himself came to Cardiff, to tell 1,000 citizens in what was then The Playhouse who the enemy was.
He looked down at his audience. There should be more of them, he said, “but Jewish interests in Cardiff are allied against the fascists and prevented us obtaining a big hall”. Blackshirts patrolled the theatre as Mosley claimed that his was a movement “of great spiritual appeal, so the Welsh character can express itself through fascism”.
He was not anti-semitic “but we will not allow a minority to organise against the state. I advise the Jews not to organise as they are doing today”. Then a warning so eerily reminiscent of Griffin’s approach to the minorities of today: “They should choose between Britain and Jewry.”
More than 3,000 heard those same words in Swansea where Mosley assured them that “Government by fascism would mean a dictatorship in the modern sense of the word – control by a government which has been given the power to overcome problems, but not a dictatorship meaning tyranny”. The Daily Mail agreed, trumpeting “Hurrah For The Blackshirts”.
Hitler had not yet unleashed the horrors that would bring the Holocaust. But then came another reminder of Mosley’s real target: “No Jew need fear anything from Fascism – if he puts the interests of Great Britain first.” Remind you of Nick Griffin? Only the targets have changed.
Hundreds protested in the streets around Swansea’s Grand Theatre and there were some scuffles, but the huge police presence swiftly controlled them, bringing the Echo headline “Tactful Police Restore Order in Street”.
In 1934, there was 60% unemployment in the Rhondda, two million jobless in Britain, fertile ground thought Mosley for recruits. Merthyr supplied him with some, ex-communists who turned to fascism as the only solution.
“We looked at Italy,” said one, “and felt that Mussolini was doing a good job. He made fascism very attractive.”
Even Winston Churchill spoke admiringly of Il Duce. Some Blackshirts went to a “school for speakers” in London then returned to spread the message. Among the instructors, William Joyce, later known as Lord Haw Haw, who came to Cardiff to rally the troops.
Mosley used to stay at the Queen’s Hotel – now just a pub on Westgate Street – where he would sit, recalled one old Blackshirt, “smoking a penny pipe”. He seemed, he added, “a nice bloke, not a Man of Destiny”.
Years later, Annie Powell, who would become Britain’s first communist mayor, spoke of the fascists coming to her beloved Rhondda in 1936. “We swore that not even one Welsh sheep would hear Mosley’s message,” she said. They didn’t. When Mosley’s men set up stage on a patch of grass just off Pandy Square, they were driven away by hundreds of miners, Tonypandy and the Rhondda from then on a no-go area for Mosley’s men.
The Spanish Civil war began that year. Some of those miners went off to fight fascism in Spain, and never came back.
With news of Hitler’s persecution of Germany’s Jews, support for the man who targeted our own Jews dwindled. In 1939, he was interned but was back after the war with his Union Movement. Though rejected again by the British people, he waited, an exile in France until his death in 1980, for the Call. It never came.