As part of the Heritage Open Day 2019 theme, People Power, we’re highlighting communities, groups and individuals who have affected positive change and made an impact on Brighton Dome’s history.
Known as ‘Mr. Brighton’, Lewis Cohen was a Socialist Mayor of Brighton and was elevated to the peerage in 1966. Cohen was a staunch Socialist who fought tirelessly against class injustice.
Cohen was an ardent supporter of the arts and backed the Theatre Royal in Brighton during difficult times. In 1965 he proposed the idea of a Brighton Festival and was instrumental in bringing the plans to fruition. Unfortunately, he died suddenly of leukaemia and his dreams were never realised in his lifetime. Brighton Festival was launched the year following his death.
His biography by David Winner references a daring exploit he carried out alongside Socialist and Jewish supporters in July 1934. As leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley addressed members of the union at Brighton Dome, Cohen planned to break up the meeting by creating a distraction from his office, just around the corner on New Road.
‘Two days before the meeting, workmen disguised in painters’ overalls covertly connected electric cables from the window of the office to the trees across the street and from there into the skylight of the Dome. An electrician attached the cable to a big loudspeaker and concealed it inside the great chandelier hanging in the centre of the hall.’
When Mosley strode forward to address the two hundred strong Blackshirts, the auditorium lights went down and spotlights were directed to Mosley on the stage. As he began his speech, attacking Jews, the government, unions and Communists, a signal was sent to Cohen’s office and the speaker in the chandelier played ‘La Marseillaise’ at full volume. The meeting dissolved into chaos while the Blackshirts tried to find the source of the interruption.
Following the meeting, fascists attempted to march around Brighton but were met by determined opposition from hundreds of counter demonstrators. According to author Tony Greenstein, this was not the first time there had been clashes between fascists and their opponents in Brighton.
According to Greenstein:
‘Brighton was rapidly becoming a no-go area for the fascists, except when they could bus in thugs from London.’ This meant that Mosley and his supporters had to hold meetings at short notice or with extensive police protection.
Lord Cohen can be used as an example of a local boy making good. Cohen teamed up with builders to erect many houses in the suburbs of Brighton and Hove and offered prospective buyers help to pay for them through mortgages. He went on to establish the Alliance which eventually became one of Britain’s biggest building societies.
Whatever good he did in Brighton, his attempts to enter Parliament were less successful. In the 1950s he lost to Howard Johnson, the Tory MP for Kemptown. Before that he entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the highest ever majority vote against him.
'I demand a recount' he joked.
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With thanks to Brighton Dome volunteers Deborah Parr, author of this post and Goyesca Daley, who discovered the story and David Winner, author of They Called Him Mr. Brighton: Biography of Labour Peer Lewis Cohen.