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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London - the story of my website

Phil, April 2007, at  Bankside Pier, LondonFollowing my talk on the Jewish East End of London to the Jewish Genealogical Society GB conference in October 2006 I was asked to write an article on thebackground to my Jewish East End website for the March 2007 issue of their magazine 'Shemoth'.  Below is the article, warts and all, all you ever wanted to know!

Phil, aged 7, Warren Road, Banstead, SurreyIts 1957 - I’m 7 years old and sitting in my mother’s Morris Minor driving through a mysterious place called Whitechapel on an expedition to romantically named Forest Gate.  We arrive in a street of tiny terraced houses, enter one of them, climb some stairs and go into my grandfather’s one roomed flat.  Grandad is nearly 80, has a wooden leg and is surrounded by cats.   My mother tells me her father is a wonderful man who suffered so much to bring up his family.  He invites me to tap each of his legs in turn to see if I can work out which one is made of wood.  We all laugh.  Mum gives her dad, my grandfather, some money and soon we are on our way back to the leafy suburbs of South London.  Where had I just been, and what lay beneath the surface of my experience?  I was too young to see more than just an old man in a dingy room and my mother’s emotion.  Memories stay with you and thoughts of them grow deeper with passing years.

Our posh new Wolseley 1500 with my mother Leah outside the Salisbury Hotel, 'Hove' .... not Brighton - far to common!It's 1961 and this time mother has graduated to a Wolseley 1500 – leather seats, wooden dashboard and this little boy is very impressed!  Same journey, slightly different street, this time to visit my mother’s sister.  On the way we pass Blooms…the East London Mission to the Jews….a knot of men hanging around in the ‘Waste’.  This time I’m looking, this time I’m sort of noticing.  Blooms looks nice…I’m hungry!  What’s a ‘Mission’?  Why are all these men hanging about on the street?  My mother answers…yes we’ll go to Blooms… rudest waiters on the planet.  The Mission?  Just some crazy people! Those men? They are tailors, Jews, waiting to get hired for work…if they’re luckyand by the way I used to live near here…used to walk to school from Mile End to save the bus fare….went to Central Foundation Girls School in Spital Square…best school in London….wonder if its still there….must show you.  I listen, but I’m such a peasant.  More memories on which to ponder. 

My first school is a vast Primary with 60 kids to a class.  The best pupils help the teachers teach the less able to read and write.  All the kids are sons and daughters of Londoners evacuated from the bombed ruins of the East End.  No Jews though, except for me and my brother.  Odd how word gets around…  I’d never said anything to anyone about my background.  This didn’t stop a gang of kids regularly following me home from school calling me a dirty Jew while attempting to shove me into the nearest hedge.  Do you think they had picked up the habit from their parents?  Years later I’m at a dinner party with Jewish friends and acquaintances.  We are talking about anti-Semitism.  One guest relates his experiences…”I was turned down for such and such public school because of my Jewish background”.  Interesting, I say, but I bet you weren’t followed home from your prep school by 10 year old Jew baiters.  That kind of put a damper on the conversation and afterwards I felt bad about saying it.  Jews have suffered enough humiliation without us doing it to each other. 

left to right, my uncle, great aunt & grandfather Elias in Westbury Rd, Forest Gate, dressed up to go to a BraMitzvahMy grandmother Rachel's headstone, Plashet cemetery, East End of LondonMore years go by and mum’s getting old…we visit Spital Square…she shows me a collapsing building that is all that remains of her school…that used to be where we had assembly…there’s the dinner hall…and so on.  Blooms?  We go there lots of times.  My grandfather with the wooden leg?  My mother tells me he lost his leg through gangrene…no antibiotics in those days…he was a year in the London Hospital…what a hard life, what a wonderful man.  Rachel, his wife, my grandmother, died in the 1918 flu epidemic when my mother was 5…Dad did what he could, three children, no money, but we were rich in so many ways.  My mother shows me a matchbox filled with tiny garnets.  She’s kept it all these years.  Grandad used to buy and sell ‘stones’ at Houndsditch market…nothing much, nothing valuable, just enough to get by.  He gave my mother these ‘stones’.  One day she has them made up into a ring – a ring beyond price.

My Grandfather Hyman Grossman's headstone, Marlow Rd cemetery, East End of LondonMother shows me a letter written to her on her 21st birthday by Hyman, her Russian grandfather.  It’s written in pencil, written by a nurse who’d cared for him at the end of his life in the Nightingale Home for Aged Jews.  Mother told me he couldn’t read or write English.  I was shocked.  Mother tells me that when he and his wife Sarah, my great grandmother, lived in their little flat in Mile End everything was Yiddish. Yiddish newspapers, Yiddish books, Yiddish food, Kreplach, Kneidle.  He’d worked for a shoe maker.  Many years later I visit his tomb in Marlow Road.  On his headstone it is written that he is loved and missed by his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  I’m one of his great grandchildren and I need to know more.  Mother tells me he’d left Russia to escape military service in the Czar’s army.  He’d crossed the Russian border into Germany disguised as a woman, made his way to Paris and then to London, later he sent money across to Russia to bring out the rest of his family.  Wow!

Who am I?  What am I?  What do I owe my long dead relations? What would they think of me?  How I’d love to introduce them to my children, my synagogue, my life.  How I’d love to listen to what they’d have to say.

My mother Leah z'l, 1913-2000In the year 2000 my mother died. I could ask her no more questions.  My need to discover my own roots remained undiminished, and I started exploring the area around Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Mile End where she’d grown up.  I went on Jewish walks, visited Jewish cemeteries, poured over old maps & spoke to the characters I met along the way.  And then, being very brave, I plucked up the courage to attend a Shabbat morning service at the East London Central Synagogue in Nelson Street.  Hidden in this humble and glorious synagogue was a visual treasure trove of Jewish history. Visits to other East End synagogues followed.  My camera and a lucky knack of being able to remember detail always accompanied me.  When I got home I’d jot down what I’d seen, and the more I saw, the more I wanted to see. 

As it is with having a favourite football team, so it is with having a favourite synagogue.  My favourite became Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue.  Here I met wonderful, welcoming people.  My guess is that they thought I was from Mars or North London – wrong on both counts incidentally – but it made no difference to the friendship offered.  The interior of Fieldgate Street comes from the era before reality game shows, ‘celebrity’ washing up competitions and worse.  If you have the eyes to see you will read the story of your East End immigrant forefathers on the plaques on the walls, in the 19th century prayer books under the pews and more. 

The custodians of the few remaining East End Synagogues are mostly elderly and diminishing, and the wider Jewish community has largely forgotten them.  I urge you to rediscover them while there is still time.  In that way you will not only deepen your understanding of your own roots, but you will have the privilege of being a living link in the long chain of tradition that unites all Jewish people. What could be more wonderful than that?

My Aunt Lucy, a helper, my Aunt Doris working their clothing stall in Leather Lane Market, early 1960sThis article was written as an attempt to explain the spirit, content and purpose of my Jewish East End of London website.  If you have had the patience to read this far you will probably have worked out that my website is my attempt to record a vanishing World and to pay my personal tribute to all those who had the courage and fortitude to start a new life in this country - amongst whom I am proud to count members of my own family.  Without these tough pioneers to show us the way there would not have been a Jewish East End of London or, I suggest, the dynamic and successful Jewish community that flourishes in the UK today.

 Philip Walker  - December 2006

website copyright of Philip Walker