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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Three women who made a big difference - Alice Model, Hannah Hyam and Lily Montagu were East End heroines.

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This is the story of three women: women who played a major part in alleviating the poverty and distress that permeated the East End in the early 20th century.

To many the East End has been a sanctuary.  There were the French Huguenots fleeing persecution, the east European Jews escaping pogroms, Irish immigrants in search of a better life, and, most recently, Bangladeshis also looking for a brighter future. The statue “Sanctuary” in the courtyard of St Botolph’s church next to Aldgate Station by Czech born Holocaust survivor Naomi Blake is appropriately named.

But, for all that, it has also been a place of deprivation and desperate poverty. When Jews arrived in their thousands at the end of the 19th century families were crowded into squalid conditions with no welfare state to fall back on. In 1902 the celebrated American author Jack London wrote an account of life among the East End poor.  He researched his book, People of the Abyss, by living as a down and out for several months on the streets of Whitechapel and elsewhere.  

In one memorable passage he describes an excursion into Frying Pan Alley – a narrow path off Bell Lane adjacent to Jews Free School: “….and dived into Frying-pan Alley. A spawn of children cluttered the slimy pavement, for all the world like tadpoles just turned frogs on the bottom of a dry pond.  In a narrow doorway, so narrow that perforce we stepped over her, sat a woman with a young babe nursing at breasts grossly naked and libelling all the sacredness of motherhood.  In the black and narrow hall behind her we waded through a mess of young life, and essayed an even narrower and fouler stairway.  Up we went three flights, each landing two feet by three in area and heaped with filth and refuse.” 

This is the world that Alice Model MBE, Hannah Hyam and Lily Montagu sought to change. 

Jewish Maternity Hospital, Underwood StreetAlice ModelAlice Model (photo right) died in 1943 aged 86 after a life devoted to the welfare of the East End’s poor. In 1895, as part of her campaign to improve mother and infant welfare, she had founded the Sick Room Help Society, which evolved into the Jewish Maternity Hospital (known as Mother Levy’s) in Underwood Road (photo left). With financial assistance from the Samuel family (Marcus Samuel, Viscount Bearsted, had founded “Shell” Transport and Trading, precursor to the Shell oil group) the hospital became the Bearsted Memorial Hospital and relocated to north London.

Alice Model also founded a day nursery in Stepney, which I wrote about in an issue of The Cable.  She shared with Hannah Hyman the distinction of becoming the first woman member of the Board of Guardians (now called Jewish Care), after a long campaign.

In 1912 the London County Council appointed her to the committee dealing with the practicalities of the new National Health Insurance Act.  She was also involved in the Union of Jewish Women, the Highbury Home for Friendless Children and Babies Hostel, various day nurseries she had established in the East End, and more.  On her 70th birthday she was presented with an illuminated album inscribed with the names of 22 societies and 367 people who had been associated with her.

An accompanying citation said: “You have devoted your life to the cause of the friendless, whether it be child, girl or woman, and you are loved and honoured in countless homes where your sage counsel and practical help are always available.   Through your work you have raised the status of Jewish womanhood in the eyes of men and women of diverse creeds and many nationalities.”

She was appointed MBE in the 1935 New Year’s Honours list.

Hannah Hyam was a contemporary of Alice Model.  Her 1945 Jewish Chronicle obituary describes her as one of the Jewish community’s most beloved charitable workers, who had dedicated nearly 60 years to educational and philanthropic work among East End families.

Her list of achievements is impressive: she managed the Berner Street and Whitechapel group of Board schools; she was a member of the Board of Guardians and honorary secretary of  its Ladies Visiting Committee; she was the United Synagogue committee member on the Children’s Country Holiday Fund; a member of the committee of the Jewish Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association; President of the Jewish Ladies Clothing Association; a prison visitor to Jewish women prisoners in Holloway prison, and much more.

On her death Sir Basil Henriques of the Oxford and St Georges Settlement wrote to the Jewish Chronicle: “There has passed on in her 86th year one of the most saintly women that this country possessed.  Hannah Hyam has been known to almost every family in St George’s in the East for the past 60 years, and thousands of Jews and Christians alike owe more to her than will ever be known.

“She started as a visitor for the Jewish Board of Guardians in the days of the Schools Board and when social work was an occupation in which few indulged.  In spite of the opposition of her friends she persevered in her daily visits to the sick and the poor, and gradually made her main interest the welfare of the children in the eight elementary schools of the district.  She was one of the pioneers in care committee work and day after day, year in and year out she visited the schools and the homes of those who were neglected, sick or poor.

“Her persistent loving service was always constructive.  She never dispensed her charity indiscriminately, but on every problem she focused a very wise and understanding mind.  Nothing was ever too much trouble for her.  No work she undertook was ever left unfinished.  She arranged for emigration of whole families at a time when that was possible; she organised holidays for thousands of children through the Children’s Country Holiday Fund; she brought food and clothing to the parents and children of the poor; investigated the needs of those who asked for free dinners; attended every medical inspection of school children and presided over the after care committees for those who were leaving school.

“It was particularly as Chairman of School Managers that she became an expert in choosing staff and maintaining a high tone in their schools.  The whole of her beautiful life was inspired by religion, and Judaism was lived by her in every thought and deed.  Intensely proud of her People, she defended them with unstinted vigour whenever they were attacked.  Brought up as a strictly Orthodox Jewess, she was tolerant of all religions.  There are few people of this generation who have done more to make the name of Jew respected.  She was indeed a true servant of her religion and witness to her God.”

Lily MontaguWhile Hannah Hyam was an Orthodox Jew, Lily Montagu – or Miss Lily (photo left) as she was affectionately known – was non-Orthodox and one of the founders of the Liberal Jewish Movement.  Miss Lily was one of the 10 children of Sir Samuel Montagu, the Liberal MP for Whitechapel, millionaire banker, founder of the Orthodox Federation of Synagogues and a major philanthropist.

The comfortable life of the Montagus in Kensington Palace Gardens is described by Gerry Black in his book Living up West.  He also describes how, after finishing schooling, Lily and her sister Marion would spend a day a week helping at Jews Free School in Bell Lane.  He goes on to say that it was common for women of her class to descend on the East End once or twice a month distributing a smile, a guinea and a pat on the head before going “back to Kensington as quickly as their carriages could take them”.

Miss Lily, though, was different; she sacrificed a comfortable social life to devote her time and efforts to bettering the lives of underprivileged working class girls. She went on to found the West Central Girls Club in the West End of London and died in 1963 aged 90.

There are other great women in the annals of the Jewish East End to whom I hope to return.  Meanwhile, let us remember them all and honour their memory.

Sources:  Jewish Chronicle archive, Living Up West by Gerry Black, conversations with those who knew Lily Montagu.

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