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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

The United Brethren Benefit Society – the evidence on the ground - with a postscript on The Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David Friendly Society, and also The Tent of Righteousness Friendly Society.

Phil in the Velho cemetery, Mile End 14th Sept 2008-Jewish Heritage dayOn Sunday 14th September two historic cemeteries were open for the day – the Velho Sephardi Cemetery and the Nuovo Sephardi cemetery, both in Mile End and both closed for many years.  The Velho closed in 1735, while its successor, the Nuovo, had its last internments in the early years of the twentieth century.  Clues and hints to the lives of our ancestors were in abundance.  In the Velho cemetery faded 17th century inscriptions in Portuguese reminded of just how foreign the earliest Jewish immigrants must have seemed to their English hosts, while in the Nuovo cemetery famous names from Anglo Jewry’s most celebrated philanthropists adorned grand tombs with grand inscriptions.  Meanwhile, tucked away in more humble corners was evidence of poverty and the self help organised to relieve it in a society that predated the welfare state.  I am referring to the Friendly and Benevolent societies and Chevras that abounded in the Jewish East End of London in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. 

United Brethren Benefit Society-in memory of Jacob Cohen Belifante - Nuovo cemetery, Mile EndOn one diminutive tombstone in the Nuovo cemetery I read the following: United Brethren Benefit Society: In memory of Jacob Cohen Belifante (photo left - double click to enlarge)

The United Brethren Benefit Society was a typical example of a Friendly Society or ‘Chevra’ created by working class Jewish immigrants.  Members would club together to save a few pennies a week from their modest incomes to put into their societies, and benefit would be paid back in times of hardship such as bereavement, unemployment, illness etc. 

Reverend J F Stern of the East London Synagogue, Rectory SquareThe United Brethren Benefit Society is first mentioned in the Jewish Chronicle in an article dated 1847 when the Society’s president, Mr  Lewis Nathan is presented with an illuminated scroll in a ‘handsome frame’ as a thank you for having put the Society back onto an even financial keel.  Much later In December 1898 at a special Chanukah service for members of East London Friendly Societies in the East London Synagogue, Rectory Square, Stepney, the minister – Reverend J F Stern – summed up their role thus,  “…..the purpose of their service was to encourage those efforts of self help and brotherly cooperation which they were making through their several societies in order to maintain for themselves that personal independence and self respect which was the basis of individual liberty and the brightest jewel in the crown of their manhood.”

In 1912 the United Brethren Friendly Society became the United Brethren Lodge, and amongst those elected honorary members of the society was the Reverend J F Stern.  During the 1930s the United Brethren are recorded in the Jewish Chronicle as having made generous donations to organisations providing relief for German Jewry, and an article in 1947 records that they were still handing out financial benefits to help with members’ funeral expenses.  What eventually happened to the United Brethren Lodge is unknown to me, but many would have been the poorer without organisations like them and the countless people they helped. 

United Brethren Benefit Society Sephardi headstone- Nuovo cemetery, Mile End

A United Brethren Benefit Society headstone - a Cohen's grave (note the hands - or as Star Trek's Mr Spok would say, "Live long and prosper"), Nuovo cemetery, Mile End

In 2008 I photographed the flyer below, pinned to the notice board in Nelson Street Synagogue, advertising the Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David Friendly Society.  The society was formed in 1932 as a merger between the then separate Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David friendly societies. Their website - which appears to have been last updated in 2002 - describes them as the last remaining Jewish friendly society.  I wonder (2010) if they are still in business...but see my update on this below the photograph.

Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David Friendly Society logo

It's not one of my best photos, but the best I could take on the day!

Update on the Grand Order of Israel and Shield of David Friendly Society - February 2011.  One of their members has sent me the following letter in response to my question asking if the society still functioned:

Hi Philip

Yes, the GOISD is still in existence although not as a friendly society.  It is now just like a social club.   I belong to Lodge No.178 which meets every two weeks in Clore Tikvah school in Barkingside. We have 'outings' and occasional quizzes, entertainers, etc.   My grandfather and father belonged to the Society and at the time their Lodge was called the Sir Joseph Lyons Lodge.  Now the Lodges are known by numbers and there are just four of them - one in Stamford Hill, one in Birmingham, one in Badger's Croft and my Barkingside one.

Regards, Shirley

While discussing the last Jewish friendly society, above, let us not forget the first and oldest Jewish friendly society: The Tent of Righteousness Friendly Society.  A notice reporting their annual general meeting at the Elephant and Castle Hotel published in the Jewish Chronicle 3rd January 1902 stated their pride in being the oldest Jewish friendly society, having been founded in 1812.  The report goes on to state that the society is flourishing and was able to invest £500 in the 4% Industrial Dwellings Company which still left them with an ample amount in the Post Office Savings Bank.  In an address at their 1913 centenary celebration the Reverend Morris Joseph said the society stood for and represented those great principles always sacred to Jews, namely, thrift and progress, mutual help and self help.  The Reverend Mishcon, who is still remembered by some elderly South London Jews as the one time minister of Brixton United Synagogue, was indisposed due to illness and gave his apologies to the meeting.  Needless to say, this society had its roots in South London.


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