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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Princelet Street, Jewish history depicted in a multicultural street

(place your mouse over the photos to read the captions, and double click them to enlarge)

Princelet Street looking into Wilkes Street - note the Huguenot weaving lofts set into the roofs1922 Map of Princelet Street areaOne of the quaintest areas of the Jewish East End of London centres on Princelet Street, Fashion Street, Fournier Street, Wilkes Street and Puma Court (photo right, 1922 map of Princelet Street area).  When walking the area it takes little imagination to picture yourself back in the 19th century and earlier, for the houses in this unique enclave date largely from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Most of them were occupied by Huguenots (French Calvinists) who escaped to the UK from the persecution of Catholic France in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Many were weavers, and if you look to the roof lines of these historic properties you will often see attic rooms with wide windows designed to flood the interiors with light, (photo left: view along Princelet Street looking into Wilkes Street, note the weavers' lofts in the roofs) and it was here the Huguenots set up their weaving looms.   Gradually they assimilated with the local population and by the end of the 19th century the Huguenots had virtually disappeared. 

A view down Fournier StreetAt the end of the 19th century another torrent of refugees fleeing persecution arrived to take their place and many of us in Jewish East End Celebration Society are their direct descendants.  Their history is our history.  To some extent it is possible to trace Jewish history through the sweeping tides of World events (for example, the assassination of Tsar Alexander 2nd in 1881 led to progroms, which led to mass Jewish emigration from Russia to the West and so on), but the full flavour of our story is best recalled through the patina of the objects, places and personalities that dreamed of a better life in the streets of the East End of London.  For me, one street in particular stands out in this respect – Princelet Street, or Princes Street as it was called in the C19th.   (Photo left - Looking down Fournier Street)

Coal hole cover engraved with viola outside no 8 Princelet street Come for a walk with me along Princelet Street (formerly Princes Street), a street where the once fine houses became occupied by large Jewish families living in one or two rooms apiece.  As you turn into Princelet Street from Wilkes Street and head up towards Brick Lane, the first thing you may notice is the coal hole cover engraved with a viola embedded in the right hand side pavement outside number 8. (photo left, coal hole with viola embedded in pavement).  A leaflet published by Tower Hamlets council says this commemorates London’s first Yiddish theatre.  The theatre had been located at number 3 Princes Street and I suspect the Council's description is wrong and that it actually commemorates the life of the World famous viola player Lionel Tertis who lived at number 8.  Anyway, back to the theatre: a certain Mr Smith, a butcher by trade, built the theatre to showcase the talents of Jacob Adler – a Jewish actor originally from Odessa, briefly sojourning in London who was to find lasting fame in New York’s Yiddish Theatre.  To raise funds for Mr Smith’s project an appeal was set up with Sir Samuel Montagu (Liberal MP for Whitechapel, philanthropist and founder of the bank that carried his name) as honorary president of the appeal.  The funds were raised and the theatre built.  When completed it was named The Prince’s Street Club.  The premises included a members’ library, for the use of which members paid one shilling per year.  Sadly the theatre did not last long.  On the night of 18th January 1887, when a popular operetta called ‘The Gypsy Girl’ was being shown, a member of the audience called out ‘Fire!’ causing a full house to rush for the exits.  Seventeen people were crushed and suffocated to death in the ensuing melee.  The Jewish East End went into mourning and the theatre never recovered its reputation.   It closed shortly after.   Yiddish was of course the vernacular of 19th century Jewish immigrants.  This is what Israel Zangwill, in his wonderful book The Children of the Ghetto has to say about Yiddish and the Yiddish theatre.  In a scene where one character asks another where to go to see the best theatre in England the answer is:

‘……at the Jargon Theatre, the great theatre in Princes Street, the only real theatre in London.  The English stage – Drury Lane – pooh!  It is not in harmony with the people: it does not express them’. ('Jargon' is Zangwill's word for ‘Yiddish’.  If you spoke the ‘Jargon’ it meant you were speaking ‘Yiddish’)

8 Princelet Street is the modern building with the 'For Sale' board on it.  The 18th century building painted red is similar to the property that was there before the modern building at no 8 was builtReligion played a huge part in the lives of the early Jewish immigrants, just as it did in the lives of their Huguenot antecedents and at number 8 Princes Street (photo left, 6 & 8 Princelet Street) lived the Reverend Alexander Tertis (father of Lionel Tertis mentioned earlier).  Reverend Tertis was the reader at Princes Street synagogue just down the road at no 19.  Apart from his talents at leading a Shabbat morning service he was also, according to an advert placed in the Jewish Chronicle of 1886, a skilled mohel.  His advert states:

The Reverend A Tertis (Reader of the Princes Street Synagogue), Practical and skilful mohel. 
Eleven years experience.  Personal attendance until cured.  Numerous references from medical men.
8 Princes Street, Spitalfields E.

By 1890 Reverend Tertis appears to have moved up in the World (though still living at the same address, because his advert now stated:

Circumcisions, Reverend A Tertis, surgeon-mohel and chief practitioner in the above profession
8 Princes Street, Spitalfields, London E.  Patrons are requested to give 5 or 6 days notice, he having a very extensive practice.

Reverend Tertis later moved to Stamford Hill where he was still circumcising into old age.  One of his last adverts read:

Circumcisions, Reverend A Tertis, youths and adults irrespective of creed, abnormal cases a speciality
33 Listiria Park N.  Phone 115 Dalston

When Reverend Tertis moved out of Princelet Street another mohel moved in next door at number 6.  Reverend Tertis’s son Lionel went on to become one of the greatest viola players of the 20th century.  Lionel Tertis died at the age of 98 in 1975.  Reverend Alexander Tertis died in 1918 and is buried in the Federation cemetery in Edmonton.  His son’s fame is typical of the upwardly mobile progress experienced by many Jewish families as the immigrant generation was succeeded by the English born generation.

Moving along to number 17 Princelet Street you will see a blue plaque on the wall saying:

Miriam Moses plaque on wall of 17 Princelet Street.  Miriam Moses was born hereMiriam Moses OBE JP, Social reformer and first woman mayor of Stepney 1931 – 1932, was born here in 1886 (photo left)

Miriam Moses, a Labour politician, was a heroine to local people.  Amongst her many achievements was the founding of the Brady Girls’ club – an organisation that aided the children of impoverished East End Jews.  The club gave food, clothing, recreation and education to those in need and was funded by wealthy ‘West End’ Jews who had made good.  Miriam Moses was also involved with the Jewish section of the Children’s Country Holiday Fund – a charity providing holidays to children who would otherwise never have seen an open field.  My late mother told me how she was interviewed by Miss Moses to determine whether or not she was a worthy recipients of a week‘s holiday in the country.  This was in the mid 1920s when my mother (then aged about 12), her brother, her sister, her aunt, her father and numerous first cousins lived in 3 rooms in Mile End.  The cousins were older than her and the boys among them were all studiously cycling round London doing ‘the knowledge’ in order to qualify to join that most favoured of Jewish professions: taxi driving. 

In her interview my mother thought she had to sound impressive, so she went into great detail about the imminent wealth of the soon to be taxi drivers in her family.  When she went home and told her step mother (her aunt) about her glowing financial prospects she received a sound telling off.   Fortunately Miss Moses could see through a young girl’s fantasies and awarded my mother a week’s holiday in the countryside…at Epsom!

17 Princelet Street with Miriam Moses blue plaque on it next door to 19 Princelet Street - (the cream building) - the 19th century synagogueBobbin on wall of 19 Princelet Street depicting that this was a Huguenot weaver's premisesHeading up the street towards Brick Lane we come to number 19, the location of Princes Street synagogue where the celebrated circumciser (5/6 days notice required!) Reverend A Tertis was the reader.  Number 19 was built in 1719 (photo left of 17 & 19 Princelet street) and the bobbin (photo right) on the wall depicts that it was once the premises of a Huguenot weaver.  Family and community are amongst the strongest forces which bind Jews together, and so it was that a group of Polish Jews, who had formed themselves into the Loyal United Friends' Friendly Society, pooled their resources to build over the back garden of the house to create their own tiny synagogue.  According to contemporary Jewish Chronicle reports, the synagogue was established in Princes Street by 1862. In 1865 demand for seats for the High Holydays was so great that the synagogue's managing committee hired Sussex Hall in Leadenhall Street to host the services.  New Court in Fashion Street - once Fashion Street synagogueTickets for seats cost from 8 shillings (40p) to 10 shillings and sixpence (42.5p) which sounds like a lot of money for those days.  Then, as now, maintaining the premises was an ongoing problem.  By 1891 the roof had became so dilapidated that Lewis Solomon - architect to the Federation of Synagogues - declared the building unsafe.  Redecoration and refurbishment followed and it was re-opened in 1893 by Sir Samuel Montagu.  In 1898 Fashion Street synagogue, located in New Court, Fashion Street, (photo right) amalgamated with Princes Street synagogue…but the story of Fashion Street is for another time.

In Princes Street in 1888 my great aunt Minnie married Harris London, an illiterate immigrant from Poland.  Neither of them could read or write English and so had to sign their marriage certificate with their marks.  Such was the poverty existing amongst the East End community at that time that many newly arrived Jews soon left London to seek their fortune abroad.  Minnie and Harris London were amongst those who left and shortly after their wedding immigrated to South Africa.   No doubt they hoped to discover diamonds like their fellow East Ender, the fabulously wealthy Barney Barnato.  I don’t think they found gold, but they did help found today’s large South African Jewish community. 

The entrance hall of 19 Princelet StreetBefore I leave Princelet Street synagogue (photo left, entrance hall to 19 Princelet Street) I cannot resist one further quotation from Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto.  The quotation sums up in a delightfully light hearted way the fervour and enthusiasm of the Jews who belonged to little East End synagogues like Princelet Street.  Here is Zangwill’s description of a typical prayer service:

‘They enjoyed themselves in this shool of theirs: they shouted and skipped and shook and sang, they wailed and moaned and they were not the least happy when they were crying.  But if they did not always understand what they were saying they always meant it.  If the service had been more intelligible it would have been less emotional and edifying.  There was not a sentiment, however incomprehensible, for which they were not ready to die or damn’.

Princelet Street synagogue Ark.  The 10 commendments are above the cabinet that once contained the Torah scrollsInside Princelet Street synagogue looking across the ladies gallery towards the Ark that would have contained the Torah scrollsPrincelet Street synagogue closed its doors in the mid 1960s and now needs urgent repair to preserve the fabric.  The synagogue still covers the back garden and is occasionally open for visitors.  (photo left depicts the view upstairs from the ladies gallery looking towards the Ark, and the photo on the right is the Ark which once contained the Torah scrolls.  Note the 10 commandments above the Ark)

Princelet Street viewMeanwhile, Princelet Street (photo left, looking towards Wilkes Street) and its environs have become increasingly gentrified and the Jewish population has largely moved on to the leafy suburbs of North London and beyond leaving only a few elderly Jews behind.  Most of the Huguenot houses have been restored and are lived in by artists, authors and those with pretensions, or otherwise, of grandeur. How different to just a few generations ago, but with a little imagination it is still possible to read our story from what remains.

Jewish Chronicle; Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill; The Yiddish theatre and Jacob Adler by Lulla Adler Rosenfeld; Spitalfield's centre information leaflet and of course personal observation!
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