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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Harold Pollins has sent me the following article about his family:

The Polonskys of Pelham Street

Harold Pollins paternal family - posed studio photo taken 1888/89

Harold's paternal family - a posed 1888/89 studio photograph

My pocket diary includes, on each day, a historical item. Among the examples are these, chosen at random. There is nothing unexpected in the one for March 15, the ides of March - Julius Caesar murdered 44 BC - but that for the next day is a piece of new, if trivial, information for me:  American physicist Robert H. Goddard launched the first liquid fuelled rocket 1926. Surprisingly, August 4th, the day Britain entered the Great War in 1914, only refers to the fact that Dom Perignon invents champagne 1693. And September 3rd, the day Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, records : Malcolm Campbell set land speed record 301.13mph 1935.

I was idly looking at such entries when one pulled me up. It was for 6th August and commemorated the fact that Jack the Rippers first victim stabbed to death 1888. I was fairly familiar with the Jack the Ripper story although I havent bothered to look into the question of the identity of the murderer. What interested me was that the date was just a few weeks after my father was born, in the same general district as the murders. He was born in June in Pelham Street, off Brick Lane, the first in my paternal family to be born in Britain. His parents were Hyman and Golda Polonsky and they had very recently arrived from Slonim, in the Gubernia of Grodno, in what is now Belarus. They came with two daughters, Annie, born about 1883 and Julia, born about 1886. When exactly they arrived is unknown, although there is a family rumour that Golda was pregnant with my father on the journey. Clearly they arrived sometime between the births of Julia in about 1886 and my father in 1888, probably in 1887.

They obviously knew very little if any English so my fathers birth was registered, not as Pizer [sc Pesach] Polonsky but as Palousky, and his mothers maiden name was written as Brokyer rather than Brooker. There is another story that when the two daughters enrolled at school, all were confused, and instead of Polonsky being put forward as their surname, somehow it was written down as Hyman, the forename of their father, thus as Annie and Julie Hyman. Nevertheless the two girls became anglicised very quickly. I remember aunt Annie as being somewhat posh, and distant, although she married, irregularly, her uncle. Aunt Julia had as I recall, a standard London working-class accent.

I can only imagine how the parents felt, having arrived in a land of freedom, to have settled in an area where some madman was going around killing prostitutes, in a most monstrous way. The area was certainly insalubrious. The family lived in Pelham Street for about ten years before moving round the corner to Vallance Road. My father used to tell me that they had lived in a house whose windows in the top storey were very wide, to allow light in for the silk-weavers, for this was Spitalfields which had housed large numbers of such workers. I was surprised when he told me this because I thought that by that time, in the late 19th century, hand-loom silk-weaving had died out. Yet the 1891 Census, listed two women silk-weavers, a mother and her daughter, living in what must have been the 3rd, top, storey of the family house.

As it happens there was a contemporary report on certain immigrant Jews living in Pelham Street. It was contained in the journal The Lancet, the doctors publication. It appeared on 3 May 1884, and was entitled, Report of the Special Sanitary Commission on the Polish Colony of Jew Tailors.  It reported that Tailoring of the poorest description will be seen more especially in Pelham-street, Spitalfields. This is a peculiar and miserable thoroughfare, nearly every one of the small low-class houses, on either side of the street, contains one or two workrooms. At all hours of the day and night the street resounds with the rattle and whirr of the innumerable sewing machines, the windows shine with the flare of gas, but the street is comparatively deserted. There are but one or two Christians in the whole of the street, and these are at least as poor and miserable as their Jew neighbours.                

The title of the report indicates its main focus; it was concerned primarily with living conditions - the state of houses, and sanitation in general - and especially of the tailors and their families. In general the description of overcrowding, and of general dirt was similar to many such accounts of the newly-arrived East European Jews in the late 19th century. Yet I have a photograph of the Polonsky family, showing my grandparents, two girls (my aunts Annie and Julia) and a baby who must have been my father. It was therefore taken in 1888 or early 1889. They are all well dressed and their appearance does not chime well with the descriptions in the report. But then, my grandfather was not a tailor, but a cabinet-maker. I wondered who else was living in the street, apart from tailors.

The Census of 1881 was the nearest such document to the Lancet report. Although the early 1880s saw an increased Jewish immigration from Russia, I doubt if things changed dramatically in Pelham Street between 1881 and 1884.  At the 1881 Census there 40 dwellings in the street and the total number of residents was 514. Of these as many as 123 were non-Jews, rather more than the 'one or two'. in the report. 391 were Jews and it was true that the main occupation was tailoring. There were 108 tailors and tailoresses but if one listed all those in the needle trades, including the making of headwear, in the fur trades, dressmakers and others, there was a total of 129. Now, as many as 173 Jews were in some form of employment, so that 44 were in other trades. The street contained 11 Jewish cabinet-makers and 12 in the boot and shoe industry. Others were in a variety of occupations - two tin workers, three glaziers (a well-known Jewish immigrant occupation), a cigar maker, a stick dresser, a rag dealer, a hairdresser, and  - surprisingly - a domestic servant. There was a 'shopkeeper', trade unspecified, a master cabinet maker, and a grocer. There were also 4 teachers - a pupil teacher (probably at the nearby Jews' Free School) - a schoolmaster, a teacher of Hebrew, and a teacher of English. One can associate with them in that category a Foreign Letter Writer.               

These statistics do not say anything their conditions of life or the reported filth in the neighbourhood.  But as well as the handful of people of a slightly higher social status one comes across the odd surprise. Next door to Joseph Gluckstein, a rag dealer, lived Lewis Levy, a 35-year old tailor, with his wife Leah, a tailoress, and five children - the oldest, also called Leah, was a button-hole maker - the other four children being aged between one year and 13. The household was completed by a lodger, a 'machiner'  (the male equivalent of a machinist) and also an Irishwoman, aged 49, with the unusual first name of Allen (presumably a mishearing of Ellen) - and this is the odd part - she was a live-in domestic servant. Even allowing for the fact that domestic servants were paid little, the existence of one in the midst of this slum gives reason to pause.         

As I said, my family arrived later in the decade of the 1880s, and the first Census in which they appeared was that of 1891. Had things changed by then, in view of continuing Jewish immigration? At 34 Pelham Street, where my family lived, there were three separate households, two of them composed of Jewish immigrants. The Simons family had a grocer's shop, the widowed mother having a son and daughter, and the household also contained a nephew who was a tailor's machinist, and two female boarders - one who made button holes in shirts, the other being a capmaker. Then there was my family of six: by this time another son had been born. Grandfather was an employed cabinet maker and there were two other employed cabinet makers as boarders. And, as mentioned earlier, there were two London-born, non-Jewish women silk weavers.        

There were now 508 inhabitants of Pelham Street of whom 440, a slightly higher proportion than in 1881, were Jews but there remained 68 non-Jews; they had not moved out because of the Jewish influx. 188 Jews were in employment of which the largest group was in the needle trades, amounting to 107 - a smaller proportion than in 1881, 27 were in boot-making, and 22 in cabinet-making. The remaining 32 were in a variety of occupations; as well as the 'traditional' ones of hawker, baker, cigarette maker, there were new ones: blacksmith, diamond polisher, gas fitter, marble mason, hairdresser, printer and shop assistants. There also a washerwoman and a domestic servant. Higher status jobs included 2 master tailors, 2 grocers, and 4 teachers.            

I suppose the general statistics might mean that during the 1880s Pelham Street marginally went up in the world but it would be wrong for the Polonsky family to claim the responsibility for that.

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