London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London


Sir Basil Henriques - 'The Gaffer'The life and times of Sir Basil Henriques, 1890-1961, Jewish social reformer and founder of the Oxford and St George’s Clubs,


A large wave of immigrants fleeing poverty and often persecution. A host community divided in its response:

The resonance is there for Britain in the 21st century. But this was the East End toward the end of the 19th as huge numbers of impoverished east European Jews arrived and pressure on social resources grew.  Some in the established Jewish Community looked on these refugees with disfavour.

Typical was Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue. In 1888 he wrote to his east European counterparts: “It is difficult for them to support themselves and their households, and at times they contravene the will of their maker on account of poverty and over-work, and violate the Sabbath and Festivals.  Some have been ensnared in the net of the missionaries and renounced their religion, may the Merciful save.  There are many who believe that all the cobblestones of London are precious stones, and that it is the place of gold.  Woe and alas, it is not so…. I implore every rabbi of a community kindly to preach in the synagogue and house of study, to publicise the evil which is befalling our brethren who have come here, and to warn them not to come to Britain for such ascent is a descent.”

Others – families such as the Mocattas, Rothschilds, Montefiores, Montagues and Samuels – took a more generous view, using influence and wealth to welcome those fleeing persecution and to try to make a difference to an otherwise bleak existence.

It was into this world in 1890 that Basil Lucas Quixano Henriques was born. He was a devoutly religious member of the Reform Synagogues movement, and regarded the helping of others as a religious obligation. As a student at Oxford, he was greatly moved to hear the bishops of London and Oxford speak about social work in the East End. It was also at Oxford that he met Rose Loewe, who was to become his wife and soulmate.

In a defining moment, he also met Barclay Baron and Alec Paterson, wardens of the Oxford and Bermondsey mission, a Christian organisation in Bermondsey that provided practical help for the poor and was especially known for setting up boys clubs.

That was the spur to Basil’s decision to dedicate his time and energy to the East End’s Jewish poor. In 1913 he was granted residence in Toynbee hall in Commercial Street, and threw himself into its welfare work.

A diary extract shows a typical day: “29 September. Visited G.S. dreadfully ill with rheumatic fever and hopelessly weak heart.  Looked a charming boy, and most respectable and nice mother.  Although he can’t move an inch in bed he shares with a brother. Wants a water-bed which C.O.S. is trying to get him.”

Driven to make a difference to potentially blighted lives, he determined to establish a Progressive Jewish youth organisation along similar lines to existing Orthodox clubs such as the Brady and Victoria clubs. He approached the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and the West London Reform Synagogue for funding in 1914. With their help he established the Oxford and St George’s Jewish Lads Club at 125 Cannon Street Road.

Its motto, he decided, should be “Fratres” – brothers. The “Oxford” in the title referred to his time at the university; “St George’s” was from its location in the parish of St George’s in the East.

But a boys club was not enough.  “It’s no good producing good British Jews if you don’t create good British Jewesses for them to marry,” he said to Rose Loewe (who had joined him in his work in the East End): “Will you create a girls’ club?”  The result was the Oxford and St George’s Jewish Girls Club, opened in July 1915. 

That year, with the First World War raging, he joined the 3rd Battalion East Kent Regiment and Rose Loewe became his deputy. In June 1916 they became engaged and a month later married at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.

Soon after, he was commanding a tank at the Battle of the Somme. A direct hit against the front of the tank inflicted severe facial wounds from the splinters of metal flying around inside. Somehow he got the tank back to base through ground he later described as “hell in a rough sea made of shell holes…the way we got over the ground was marvellous; every moment we were going to stick, but we didn’t.  The sight of thousands of our men dying and wounded was ghastly…I hate to think of it all.”

Recovering from his injuries, he went on to serve with distinction at the Battle of Cambrai and on other fronts.  Demobbed in 1919 with the rank of captain, he returned to his and Rose’s one roomed home in the club’s Cannon Street Road premises. By now the O & St G’s had become much more than just a youth club and a larger building was urgently needed.

Funds were begged and borrowed for a disused hostel in nearby Betts Street. Its many rooms hosted a proliferation of boys and girls clubs and a range of other activities. Care committees of neighbouring schools set up offices there, while a luncheon club and a canteen provided facilities for local social workers to meet to discuss cases. There were a library, a music society, a play centre, an infant welfare centre and, nearby, a dental centre. Betts Street had become a fully fledged Jewish Centre or ‘Settlement’.

Bernhard Baron Settlement, Berner Street (now Henriques Street)By 1929 even those premises were outgrown. Basil approached the philanthropist Bernhard Baron for funds to buy the site of the disused Berner Street School, in Berner Street (now Henriques Street, named after him). Baron donated £65,000 for the purchase, and in 1930 the Duke of Gloucester opened the Bernhard Baron St George’s Jewish Settlement. Its 125 rooms contained a synagogue, a friendship club for the over 60s, a lunch club for old people, a Yiddish society, a club for the blind, a British Legion branch, a free legal advice centre, a diabetes clinic (Basil was diabetic), a dentist, a minor injuries centre, a gymnasium, a boxing club and all sorts of facilities for the various boys and girls clubs using the building.  Basil and his wife Rose were especially proud of the club’s boxing team coached by British lightweight champion Harry Mizler, who led it to many trophies.

A popular feature of the boys and girls clubs was the one week summer camp on the estate of Colonel Sir Frederic Stern at Highdown Hill, Goring-by-sea in Sussex, for many children their only experience away from London’s polluted air. Basil’s wife Rose (“the Missus”, as club members called her; Basil was “the Gaffer” or “Long ‘un” – a reference to his 6ft 6in height) wrote a camp song book, with songs set to tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. 

With the outbreak of the Second World War Basil applied to the War Office to join the Army Officers’ Emergency Reserve, but diabetes caused his application to be rejected.  Instead he joined the Civil Defence Corps and the basement of the Berner Street building became Civil Defence offices.  The youth clubs continued. Though many members had gone on to join the forces they still had some 900 members on the books. Additionally, Basil and Rose transformed much of the premises into a centre for the distribution of food and clothing to those who had been bombed out of their homes. 

In 1947, the couple retired as wardens of the Oxford and St George’s Settlement, and in the following Birthday Honours list Basil was appointed a CBE.  No longer directly involved in the Settlement, he toured the English-speaking world lecturing on his experiences and in 1955 was knighted for services to youth welfare. 

During his career, he was also variously chairman of the East London juvenile court 1936-55, a prison visitor, a member of the board of the London Hospital, Whitechapel, a supporter of the Jewish Orphanage at Norwood, president of the North London Progressive Synagogue, minister of the St George’s Settlement Synagogue, vice-chairman of the National Association of Boys Clubs, president of the London Federation of Boys' Clubs, president of the British Diabetic Association and the author of several books on social welfare.

He died of heart failure in 1961, aged 71. The Jewish Chronicle’s obituary summed up his life: “Both the Jewish Community and the whole country were immeasurably enriched by the noble life work of Sir Basil Henriques, and they are grievously bereaved by his death.  He combined in his character a diversity of gifts which enabled him to exert a unique influence as a social reformer.  The direct inspiration of everything he did was his intense religious feeling.  As a lay preacher and religious leader in the synagogal life of Progressive Judaism he was the esteemed colleague of rabbis and ministers.  But he believed intensely that Judaism should not be confined to the synagogue but should be the mainspring of all human and social relationships.  In this faith he devoted his life to the welfare of young people in East London.”

One of Oxford and St George’s old boys, a Mr E Stone, also wrote in the Jewish Chronicle: “With many thousands I mourn Sir Basil.  He was more than a father to me.  Jewry and the World have lost a saint.  His was a good and useful life.”

My principle reference for this essay is from Basil Henriques, a portrait based on his diaries, letters and speeches as collated by his widow Rose Henriques, by L L Loewe, with additional information provided by my friend Simon B, who knew Basil personally and whose own reminiscences are on the next few pages.

For further reading you might be able to track down one or more of the following:

Club Leadership, by Basil Henriques. Oxford University Press, 1933 (2e 1934; 3e 1942). Deals with the organization and philosophy of a boys club.

Indiscretions of a Warden, by Basil Henriques. Methuen, 1937. Tells of his early days in the East End and his changing philosophy.
What is Judaism? by Basil Henriques. Bernhard Baron Settlement, 1945.

Indiscretions of a Magistrate, by Basil Henriques. Harrap, 1950. His most famous book and a classic on juvenile courts
Club Leadership Today, by Basil Henriques. Oxford University Press, 1951. A significant reworking of Club Leadership.

The Home Menders, by Basil Henriques. Harrap, 1955. A development of his thinking in Indiscretions of a Magistrate
The Approach to Club Music, by Rose Henriques, Oxford University Press, 1934. Her only book (other than compendia); explains her philosophy.

Across the Bridges by Alec Paterson, 1911, reprinted 1928. An exploration of poverty and social conditions in south London and the work of the Oxford and
Bermondsey Settlement.

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