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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

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Growing up in the East End before the War - My mother's memories of Mile End and more

My mother's talk about growing up in the East End of London as given to a Religion School class of teenage children at SOUTH LONDON LIBERAL SYNAGOGUE in 1985 My mother was born in 1913 in Mile End New Town in London's Jewish East End - Philip Walker

My Mother's talk:

My mother Leah, z'l, 1913-2000"Until I was asked to have this little talk with you I hadn’t given much thought - or at least not very much thought to the life we led all those years ago in the East End.  I could start by telling you about all the things we didn’t have - washing machines, central hearing etc. etc.  I won’t mention vacuum cleaners because nobody I knew had carpet on their floors - linoleum was the only thing we knew.  Anyway we had none of the things most people take for granted today.  But to start at the beginning - my grandfather came from Krakow.  My mother as a baby came from Vilna with the rest of her family.  My father was born in England.  I myself was born in a little backstreet off the Mile End Road.  I lost my mother at a very early age (In the 1918 flu epidemic) and lived with my father and my mother’s sister and husband.  They had 6 children and there were three of us.  In all 3 adults & 9 children.  Our home was shared between 2 families - 12 of us in one part of the house & the other family (consisting of 2 adults and 2 children) in the other part.  There was no sharp division in the house - we more or less split up the rooms as best we could.  We had 3 bedrooms (1 of which was a little room over a stable) for the 12 of us.  Sounds gruesome doesn’t it?  There was never any privacy - not to mention running hot water or a bathroom.  We had a yard which contained the lavatory which of course had to be shared between the 2 families.  My uncle also kept chickens in the yard (sounds quite rural doesn’t it?) - and they supplied us with Hessel Street, before the war it was full of kosher butchers and slaughterersthe occasional egg and also our dinner from time to time.  And now comes the horrible part - we took it in turns to take ageing chickens to the shochet (kosher slaughterer).  My uncle would tie the wretched birds’ legs together and then force the struggling bird into a very large shopping bag.  This was made of a kind of plaited straw.  When I had the job of taking the chicken to be killed all I could think of was the return journey.  I remember walking back holding the bag at arm’s length.  Even now I can relive the terror and disgust I felt knowing what was inside that bag (dead chicken).  I was 10 or 11 at the time.

Slipper bath and wash house in Castle Street, London E1The street consisted of both Jewish and non-Jewish families - all more or less living under the same conditions.  I recall my aunt doing the washing - we had a scullery leading off from the kitchen and there was a copper where the water was heated.  My aunt would stand for hours at the washboard and then the wet things would be wrung through the mangle.  There was a clothes line in the yard & I can remember there was always something hanging on it to dry.  I might add we all had baths once a week in a zinc bath with water taken from the copper.  Sometimes we would go off to the local slipper baths & I can still hear the shrill cries of customers calling out from the various cubicles, “More hot water for no 10 please!”

However all was not gloom.  There was too much hustle and bustle going on, as you can imagine, with so many people around.  Besides we knew no other life and took all this for granted.  We knew all our neighbours in the street (Skidmore Street) and in fine weather people would sit outside their front doors.  I used to love listening to the women gossiping, and the tittle tattle which went on was great.  Often somebody would walk in to borrow a cup of sugar or half a loaf of bread and would be thought none the worse for doing it.  Mind you there’d be the odd one or two coming along and we’d mutter - here’s Mrs so & so on the cadge again.

Money was very scarce.  Most of the Jewish people we knew were in the tailoring business working long hours for little money - but glad to have a job.  When the breadwinner was out of work the family went on what we called ‘relief’ (Poor Relief).  They were given stamps to a certain value and could then buy groceries etc. up to certain limits. Mention of the East End today invokes for many people a picture of colour and glamour, but what I have told you was how it really was. Strangely enough, although there was a shortage of money, we always had new clothes for the Jewish holidays.

I went to an elementary school - each class consisted of between 50 or 60 pupils.  At the age of 10 my class was divided into divisions so the teacher was teaching at 2 or 3 different levels.  Once a year we were taken on an outing to the country - Epsom Downs was a favourite.  This reminds me of a story my aunt told of how when she was at school (she came to England from Russia as a small child) she was asked to write about a day in the country.  She’d never been outside London and described a lovely day at Shepherd’s Bush (a built up area in the West of London).  This she thought must be the countryside with green fields etc. and was the only place she could think of with a name that sounded rural.  To get back to school days - I sat for the Junior County exam as it was called and by good luck managed to get a scholarship to a The assembly hall of the Central Foundation girls' school in Spital Square - all that remainsvery good school in Spital Square (Central Foundation Girls School).  I stayed at this school until I was 17.  This caused a bit of friction amongst the other children in my family because they had all left school at 14.  After a means test I was given a small yearly grant - I can’t remember how much.  This was to help with buying the school uniform and various other bits and pieces.  I remember the school hatband round the compulsory school hat (Felt in Winter and a Panama in Summer) was embroidered with a real coat of arms - truly regal!  I had about a 3 mile journey to school by bus or tram.  Often I would walk all the way home to save a 1d to spend on a bar of chocolate.  Some of the girls were fee paying and the rest were what we called scholarship girls (I was a scholarship girl).  The latter were mostly Jewish.  Every Monday morning the whole school had a general assembly with prayers in the hall. The rest of the week the Jewish girls had separate morning prayers in the large dining room.  Hot lunches were provided at a small cost, but many of us took sandwiches and sat in chairs around the hall.  I think going to that school was a turning point in my life.  I made new friends and was taught by excellent teachers.  My friends were mostly Jewish - this was not deliberate - we just drifted towards each other. 

Whitechapel Waste in 2009There was a stretch of land between Stepney Green and the London Hospital which was known as ‘The Waste’.  I don’t know why it was called this. Very often on a Saturday night we would stroll along here and enjoy looking at all the various stalls selling everything under the sun.  In Winter they would all be lit up with huge jets of gas flaring away.  Our money would be spent on bags of hot chestnuts and we’d walk along chatting and munching and casting sly glances at the groups of boys or girls as the case might be.  Occasionally we would take the bus to the West End. We might have 6d in our pockets and sit for hours in the Corner House (Lyons Corner House) with a small ice cream - much to the chagrin of the waitresses who were waiting for us to move on.  As for holidays (I never knew of any grown up who could afford to have one)  I went for 2 weeks in the Summer to various resorts under a scheme known as the Country Holiday Fund (a charity set up to provide holidays to deprived children).  My family paid a small amount for this (after having taken a means test to know what our family could afford).  There was a Jewish branch to this.  I seem to remember a Miss Moses (Miriam Moses Jewish mayor of Stepney) organising this.  We would be housed in various local villages, and fish or meat (kosher) would be sent down from Blooms - as you know the kosher restaurant.

I often visited my grandparents who lived in Hackney in 2 rooms.  They had come from Russia with their young children and my grandfather scraped a living working in a shoe factory.  He spoke broken English and could read and write very little.  I noticed they had Yiddish newspapers dotted around the place written in Hebrew script.  I recall so well the enormous meals my grandmother made me eat - chicken soup, lockshen pudding etc. etc.  There they would sit just watching me eat and I loved every minute of it.  It was good to be made a fuss of.

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street when Mosley's Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East EndPlaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, Dock Street junction with Cable StreetDuring all this time we never really thought we were deprived.  I was growing up with congenial friends - we discussed everything under the sun and thought we knew everything.  Then along came the Blackshirts, and that turned us into bright red Communists.  On one occasion I was standing with my father outside the house when a group of them marched past and actually spat at us.  I knew personally of elderly couples who’d been attacked by them. 

(Photos left and right commemorate the Battle of Cable Street.  Photo left is of the Cable Street mural, Library Place, Cable Street, while the photo right is the plaque 'They shall not pass' - located in Dock Street at the junction with Cable Street.  The battle was the successful efforts of dockers and East End residents to stop Mosley's Blackshirts marching through the East End in October 1936 - P.W.)

Eventually I managed to get away from the East End and was happy to do so.  Life there was pretty bleak - the compensation for me were the life long friends I made at my secondary school.  The physical discomforts were all forgotten.  Also I suppose we gained a resilience we would not otherwise have had."

My mother age 4 1n 1917

My mother aged 4 in 1917

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