EAST END OF LONDON PHOTO GALLERY & COMMENTARY
London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......
My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London
House of a
Thousand Destinies - The Jews Temporary Shelter,
adapted from a talk by a former J.T.S. employee Prue Baker....but
first, a letter from the USA about a 1971 honeymoon night spent in
the Jews Temporary Shelter, Mansell Street:
July 30 2012, Hello Phil,
I wonder if you can help me locate an old Jewish
establishment in London's East End. In 1971 we spent our honeymoon
travelling around Europe and Israel. We arrived in London right
before Shabbat and called all the tel #s we had been given. None of
the known Jewish hotels/hostels had room for us. Someone suggested
a place called The Jewish Refugee Home. The administrator said we
could stay for Shabbat and have meals there but we must see it first
in case it did not meet our expectations. This place had an entrance
level and then two further levels with the men's dormitory on one
floor and the ladies dormitory room on the next floor. As I recall,
there was one bathroom per floor. There were only a handful of
people staying at the time. This is the way we spent the first
Shabbat of our honeymoon. Sometimes the most unexpected experiences
make the best memories. The only other thing I remember from 40
years ago is that this Jewish Refugee Home was quite near to
Petticoat Lane and we were sent there on Sunday morning to see the
giant "Jewish" street Fair and Flea market. Since your family comes
from this area I wonder if the place I am describing is familiar to
and if it still exists. Thanks you for taking the time to read this
email. We would love to hear from you if you have any idea about
our "Honeymoon Hotel".
Sincerely, Pamela & Harold Falik, New Jersey, USA
House of a
Thousand Destinies - The Jews Temporary Shelter,
adapted from a talk by a former J.T.S. employee Prue Baker
It was in the spring of 1885
that a poor immigrant called Simon Cohen the Baker, known as Simon
Becker, opened part of his premises in Church Lane, Whitechapel, to
provide a refuge for homeless, jobless immigrants from the docks. It
was the time of what was known as the great migration from
eastern Europe which was to change forever the make-up of
The Jewish Board of Guardians
deemed the Becker shelter unsanitary and closed it. It is described
in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle in 1885.
“Its abject misery is worse than
any workhouse and it provides less food. There is absolutely no
sleeping accommodation except a wooden floor. The only kind of
daily food is rice and tea and bread and this is very irregular.
Let us get a ‘responsible committee’ or let a few gentlemen see if
they cannot get a few cheap mattresses for the older men to lie upon
at night and some blankets or rugs.”
Such protests from people who recognised the need for
such a shelter led to a public meeting at the Jewish Working Men’s
Club, and soon after another shelter was opened in Leman Street,
promoted by three wealthy and influential Jews led by Hermann
contemporary sketch, Hermann Landau welcoming poor Jews to the
Shelter), who had arrived from Poland
in 1864 and became a banker and influential member of the Jewish
community, said it was to be “an institution in which newcomers,
having a little money, might obtain accommodation and the
necessaries they required at cost price, and where they would
receive useful advice”. Initially, funds came from the Rothschild
family and individual subscriptions, but in the coming years the
shelter was often on the margin of financial viability.
first shelter opened in Leman Street on April 11 1886, moving later
to Mansell Street, both in the Aldgate area. The shelter used a
selection of lodging houses for those with some financial means,
and soon furniture contractors and landlords were approaching it
plying for hire. The Shelter also worked with the Soup Kitchen for
the Jewish Poor and other charitable bodies in the East End.
Poor Jews Temporary Shelter was a very functional title. And
indeed its function was to provide protection and temporary
accommodation for Jewish migrants, transmigrants and occasionally
the homeless and the non-Jew.
right: Jews Temporary Shelter when located in Leman Street
the Jewish community, you might imagine that it would be seen as
entirely laudable and uncontroversial. But not so.
President and Council of the Jewish Board of Guardians and many
leading members of the Anglo-Jewish community such as Arnold White
strongly opposed this initiative, fearing that it would encourage an
influx of immigrants who would adversely affect their own lives.
was a move to contact rabbis in eastern Europe to ask them to
discourage economic migrants in particular, painting a dark picture
of unemployment and poverty that awaited in the UK. Jews who were
enjoying hard-won prosperity feared for their position and any
backlash against the immigrants that might sweep them up.
Nonetheless, there were a number of initiatives in the UK as well as
in continental Europe facilitating immigration and transmigration.
But the principal agency in the UK was unquestionably the Poor Jews
Landau responded to the opponents of immigration by
emphasising the health and work skills of the majority of immigrants
as well as their general preference for moving on to other
countries. He argued that assistance in establishing the shelter
had come mostly from poor Jews of the East End who were willing to
support the shelter with weekly subscriptions. The shelter would
be spartan in style and offer only temporary accommodation. He was
anxious to emphasise the basic character of the shelter.
Landau persisted in working for good relations
between the various Jewish charities and in the end they did rebuild
cordial relations, largely due to the calibre of those working for
His most convincing argument was that by protecting
transmigrants the shelter enabled them to journey forward to America
and elsewhere instead of being trapped in the UK. He estimated
that 40 per cent of those who wished to proceed to America or South
Africa were being prevented from doing so by dockside robberies,
and gave details of how the ‘crimps’ defrauded the ‘greener’ of
whatever cash they might have on entry. He also gave evidence to the
House of Commons Select Committee.
The shelter’s first annual report in 1886 reflects
the need to be on the defensive. In 1890, the annual report noted a
50 per cent increase in the numbers coming to the shelter. But it
also focused on statistics for how many people returned home and how
many emigrated successfully, concluding that successful
transmigration was increasing. “These figures,” said the chairman,
“are a complete answer to those who denounce the so-called Jewish
By 1900 the mood was confident. The shelter had
found its role. The 1900/01 annual report stated that “ships
entering the Thames from Hamburg telegraphed to give their time of
arrival”. For many years the shelter’s superintendent was required
to meet every incoming ship in the Port of London that might be
carrying immigrants and to approach people to prevent them being
robbed or taken in sweat shops as slave labour.
Landau was asked why these victims did not
immediately seek police aid. He replied: “These poor folks feared
to call for the assistance of the police because they thought the
English police were much the same as the dreaded objescik
whom they had left behind.”
Soon after this the police did raid the shelter.
They claimed that, because it charged those staying there, it should
have been registered under the Common Lodging House Act and was
therefore breaking the law. The shelter had to stop requiring
payment, finding respectable lodgings for those who were able to pay
and giving the free accommodation to those without money.
The experience prompted Landau to suspect that the
police were in cahoots with those trying to prevent immigrants from
reaching the shelter. There is no evidence one way or the other
but it indicates the atmosphere in which the shelter operated in the
So this is the background to the foundation and early
days of the shelter. How did it operate, and what did it achieve?
In the 1890s a complex period of negotiation resulted
in the shelter’s acting as shipping agent for many major shipping
lines. This produced valuable income, in particular from the
shelter’s work for Union Castle Line shipping to South Africa. Many
of the Jewish settlements in South Africa originating from eastern
Europe passed through the administration of the shelter (as detailed
in the February 2008 issue of The Cable).
One aspect of its achievement is the sheer number of
people passing through London who had some contact with it. In 1900
the shelter had two hours notice of 253 Jews expelled from South
Africa by the Boer government. Five months later 650 arrived from
Romania. Between 1902 and 1905 the shelter processed 16,000
people. It chartered a special ship to sail to America. Every
individual needed careful questioning and identification,
involving many, many hours of painstaking work.
The Shelter soon gained a reputation for doing
sterling work in a responsible manner, developing skills in working
with the authorities to ensure the smooth passage of migrants.
Thus, in 1892 the superintendent went to Hamburg
following complaints that transmigrants’ luggage had been stolen by
shipping agents. As a result a Hamburg bureau was established and
there were no further complaints. In 1893 during a cholera outbreak
the Port of London Authority medical officer engaged the shelter in
helping to keep check on arrivals. In 1896 reports reached the
shelter of ill-treatment of emigrants at the Dutch frontier. They
had been robbed and their luggage taken, with extortionate sums
demanded for its return. Falsely high fares were being demanded
for tickets. The shelter complained to the Dutch consul and sent a
delegation to confer with the Dutch shelter organisation. The
delegation visited the ticket officials and made suggestions to
protect immigrants, after which there were no more complaints. In
1905 the Shelter established a system whereby letters shown by
transmigrants at German borders were sent to London to the shelter
for verification, so German shipping agents could no longer claim
they were false. The shelter also supervised the handling of
immigrants’ money at the German border.
On a less dramatic day-to-day level, one early
committee meeting records:
A letter of thanks to be sent to
police for assistance at a railway station
Payment of unpaid rent for an
immigrant who had defaulted
Accepting £5.00 from a local shul
for providing a minyan (nice little earner)
Concern about people being handed
over to missionaries because it was Shabbat. Need to involve
non-Jews on Shabbat and festivals.
However this period of intense activity came to an
end after 1905 with the passing of the Aliens Act. It was the first
time in peacetime that legislation had attempted to limit
immigration to the UK. When the Bill was debated in the Commons,
Herbert Asquith (Liberal Home Secretary) criticised it and made
mention of the large numbers of Russian refugees he had seen in the
shelter on a visit he had made shortly before the debate.
Nevertheless the Bill was passed and the shelter became involved in
attempting to ensure that it was administered fairly. It became
active with appeal boards, acting as advocates and translating
letters used in evidence. Shipping companies were now obliged to
take up bonds from would-be migrants and the shelter took on a new
and responsible role overseeing this and being paid for it. Any
commission taken from migrants (as distinct from agency fees) was
returned to them, although there was pressure to put the money
towards the shelter’s running costs.
In 1910 the shelter was asked by the Thompson Line to
handle several thousand non-Jewish migrants en route to the US or
Australia. In the same year an emigrant ship travelling to Canada
(where there was a labour shortage) caught fire off Dover. The
shelter was immediately called in to meet the returning train and to
look after stranded emigrants until another ship could sail. After
this incident the shelter reluctantly minuted that in future it
would be able to accommodate non-Jews only if it had spare beds.
In the years leading up to the First World War its
work continued, with immigrants coming mostly from eastern Europe.
There is a vivid account by Stefan Zweig of the sense of trepidation
felt by those leaving their country of origin. In 1903/4 for
instance, 5000 came through the shelter. There are a host of
stories filtering down through the reminiscence passed on to
descendants. During the war there were some immigrants coming
through via Belgium, but the main service resumed, as we know only
too painfully, between the wars and stories abound from this period
The word ‘Poor’ was removed from the shelter’s title
There were occasional unexpected crises in the
interwar years. In 1923 changes in US immigration law caused
thousands to be stranded in Britain and once again the shelter was
called in to help.
1937 the shelter had met 1,183,000 people at the docks and 126,000
had stayed at the shelter. An appeal in 1938 noted with pride that
sometimes as many as one third of those staying there were non-Jews.
In 1938/9 alone some 8,000 people were helped by the
shelter. By now the shelter was covering railway stations as well as
During the Second World War the shelter offered
temporary housing to people bombed out, until in 1943 the Mansell
Street building was requisitioned to house American troops, after
which the shelter was limited to an advisory service until the end
of the war.
In 1946 100 children from displaced persons camps
were received at the shelter as it continued to serve a useful
purpose, helping refugees from all over Europe. Refugees also came
from areas such as Aden and Iraq.
left: Jews Temporary Shelter moved from Leman Street
to 63 Mansell Street. The building is still there
In 1973 the shelter moved to better and smaller
accommodation in Mapesbury Road in Kilburn, north-west London.
Ironically this move came only shortly before a government
clamp-down on refugees, with the result that a beautifully
refurbished house was under-used and indeed mis-used. The Shelter
had lost its way as a charity.
In the 1990s the trustees re-evaluated the way the
shelter was running. The conclusion had to be that the trustees
had failed to note the low numbers of people requiring help, and the
high cost of staffing a largely empty building. The charity had a
considerable income from its investment and this was now being
Eventually a consultant was appointed to recommend a
way forward, which resulted in the shelter’s closure in its present
form. The building in Kilburn is currently leased to Hillel for
When these changes happened there was a strong
reluctance to lose the physical reassurance of an actual safe house,
a sort of secure house. Slowly trustees accepted that if there were
another crisis forcing Jews to seek refuge in the UK, a single house
in Kilburn with space for a maximum of 25 beds might not be so very
useful and that conserving investments would ultimately offer
greater opportunities for providing emergency assistance. And so
the decision was made.
The investment income of the shelter is now used to
make grants to help Jews with housing-related needs, and emergency
accommodation. Instead of five staff eating and sleeping and
receiving salaries from the shelter we now have an administrator
working 5 hours a week, working rent-free from Hillel’s offices.
My own involvement started in this period of
re-direction and the evaluation process that I have described during
the 1990s, and continues now in the allocation of grants. Every
Sunday morning at 8.45 three of us hold a telephone conference call
and discuss the grant applications from the previous week. Grants
are approved and emailed to the administrator who can therefore
respond to an application in less than one week, making it probably
the fastest functioning charity ever.
But to return to the past, for me the most
spontaneous and moving account of the shelter was written by Stefan
Zweig, mentioned above, a German writer living in London, who wrote
it to accompany a major appeal by the shelter in 1937. His essay
was titled, aptly, House of a Thousand Destinies.