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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

An East End Childhood, October 1948 – April 1960


I was born in Whitechapel’s Royal London Hospital (where my son and his girlfriend now work – returning to my roots).


My mum Hilda Marks (nee Swade) who died in 2005 aged 95, was aged 34 when she gave birth to me. She had had a very hard life and had started work aged 13 in a shoe factory.

Nine months pregnant, waters broken, Mum walked down Turner Street all alone from our home at 52 Jane Street (off Commercial Street) E.1.  Mum gave birth to me on Friday 8th October – Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in Mary Northcliffe Ward.

My mother told me about the food she was given, ‘chicken’ and mash and how she had commented on how delicious the chicken was. The nurse replied, ‘Mrs Marks, this is rabbit’ (non-kosher for us Jews) ‘Oy vei!’ said Mum (‘Oh dear!’ in Yiddish). However, rabbit on Yom Kippur of all days was acceptable to my beloved Mum, hungry after the birth of a 6lb. 4 daughter named Rachelle.

In those days mothers stayed 10 days in hospital after the birth so poor Dad (Max Marks) had to fend for himself. His speciality was stuffed neck of chicken, roast potatoes and he loved sweet and sour mackerel and eggs and onions! So he survived on this menu for 10 days or so: according to my mother, Dad did not starve during those 10 days but alas the kitchen was rather messy!

My dad was in tailoring, working in Princelet Street at the time (no mobiles to announce the birth) so I guess that, returning from work, he realised his beloved Hilda was not at home and rushed straight to the ‘London’ as it was known then (the famous ‘London’ got its royal title later on in the 20th century)

Dad worked in many factories in the East End and Hackney: Mare Street, Morning Lane and Minimax. I remember vividly the long hot summers, going on my tricycle after school up to the top of the road to Commercial Street where it meets Turner Street, to wait for Dad to get off the 653 bus after work around 6.30pm. He would be very tired, not a young man in 1947 when aged 44 he married Mum. So by 1954 he was 57, middle aged then!

My Dad always had many a wisecrack: ‘God made women beautiful; the only thing wrong, He gave them a tongue’ or, ‘I’ll have any cheese provided it’s Cheddar.’

He always had a smile for his beloved Rachelle and had endless toffees on his pocket – which reminds me of little old Mr Harris, my parents’ friend from Cable Street, another figure in my childhood; he had a sweetshop and used to give me Cadbury’s milk chocolate from his pockets, rather warm but okay. When we used to go and visit him, we sat in the back of the shop on Sunday nights and watched ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ with the young Des O’Connor. When Sophie Tucker appeared with her rendering of ‘My Yiddisha Momma’ I, aged only 10 or 11, did not appreciate her but I do now as I look back. I heard her on Good Friday 2007 when Ben Helfgott chose this wonderful song on ‘Desert Island Discs’. My son bought me her CD last year – my husband said I’m going daft!

Loos etc
We had no hot water at 52 Jane Street, only a tap with cold, icy water, a mangle in the shed to rinse the washing and an outdoor toilet. The word loo  (from ‘l’eau’ –  a disfiguration from the French I believe) was not known to us at that stage.

The toilet had a well scrubbed wooden seat and squares of newspaper were cut up for loo roll as soft ‘Andrex’ did not exist in the ‘50s of my East End childhood. I remember the hard tissue, like tracing paper, called ‘Izal’.

Obviously, I do not remember my first two or three years at 52 Jane Street E.1. My earliest memory is of 1952 when coal was delivered to Jane Street to fuel the fire. It was stored in the cellar where mice used to play and roam around. We had a cat that I called Silky because of her smooth fur but she was not very successful at catching mice!

Today there is a street sign but no houses – all demolished for slum clearance. We were all re-housed into council flats with indoor loos. 52 Jane Street did not have such a luxury: we had to use an outdoor loo with a wooden seat and used almost to freeze to death while relieving ourselves during winter months.

The mouse incident
One day much later on in life, aged 6 or 7, I was playing with my dolls and pram when all of a sudden a mouse appeared on the pram cover. I yelled out ‘Mum, there’s a mouse!’ and Mum came with a newspaper scrunched up and killed one mouse; she had strong hands. A few seconds later, Dad (Max) was standing on a chair, ‘Hilda, a mouse!’ Mum killed a second mouse. All in all, she bumped off eight mice. Dear Mum was never squeamish, was very practical and obviously had inherited her tough Lithuanian genes from her father David Swade. Her mother Miriam Soref had died aged 38 when Mum was only 13. Not long afterwards Mum went to work - at an early age as her father left home to live with his second wife Becky Bogin whose daughter Isobel is my aunt (Mum’s half sister) living in Warrington. We correspond and I visit from time to time.
My best friend
One Saturday morning in winter 1955 when I was 7 years old, a little girl appeared in my bedroom. It was eight o’clock – so early – still dark and freezing cold. She lay down next to me, this little creature called Judy with her teddy bear Sylvie clutched in her hand - and fell asleep. She had been woken at 6 am and taken out of her lovely warm bed into the cold to come to our house. We got up around ten o’clock and as we had breakfast, Mum explained that Judy’s parents were working in Shepherd’s Bush Market and that we were going to look after her on Saturdays.

I remember Judy’s birthday parties. Her mum always asked each child to entertain, prepare a poem to recite by heart, sing a song, dance or play an instrument. This was the old fashioned ‘party piece’! Imagine asking a child to perform today!

I prepared John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’….’I must go down to the sea…’ and was petrified that I would forget the lines.

I clearly remember Judy walking with me down Turner Street on Saturday afternoons, each eating an apple after lunch, on our way with my Mum to Whitechapel Market. Judy would take 20 minutes to eat an apple and dawdle as in a dream whilst I would demolish my apple in two minutes. We still joke about this today; she’s still rather ‘slow to operate’ and often arrives late for our meetings – but as the saying goes, I am ‘loving and giving’ having been born on a Friday!

Judy and I celebrated, in 2005, the 50 years’ anniversary of our friendship by going to Prague for the weekend. I still look after her, it was I who made her cups of tea to get her going in the mornings!

Apart from these trips we used to go to the West End on the number 25 bus or the 15 from Stepney to the luxury of St James’ Park and tea in a Lyons Corner House, a special treat served up by ‘nippies’ in their black outfits and white ‘pinnies’. Tea and toast followed by a chocolate éclair – no-one worried about cholesterol then – and on your birthday the band would play ‘Happy Birthday’. Judy’s parents took us to the Strand Palace on Sundays as a treat so we girls were lucky to go to the West End on both Saturdays and Sundays: true Londoners from an early age.

Sometimes we used to visit my Mum’s best friend Aunty Fanny (Mrs Preston) in Hackney. We used to play with her grandson Denis under the table in her back yard. After that we used to go down to the Narrow Way to Marks and Spencer and a lovely ABC cake shop to buy cream horns. Marks and Spencer was the first real taste of a supermarket for me…

Back to 1952 at 52 Jane Street E.1: I was supposed to go to nursery school at age 3 or 4 and Mum took me along to Harry Gosling JMI. However, when I saw the nursery and the children asleep in the afternoon, I got scared and did not wish to remain. I couldn’t understand why there were rows of children asleep at one thirty in the afternoon, on camp beds that did not look very comfortable. I thought that the children were naughty and the teachers had put them to sleep; all rather sinister as if they were drugged! How the mind boggles, even at 3 or 4….

So Mum took me home and there I stayed in comfort and security until November 1954, aged 6 years and one month, having had my sixth birthday on 8th October 1954.  Mum did not want me to leave home and part company with her so she filled in the school forms rather too late for the September entry! I joined the Infants of Harry Gosling JMI in November after half term. My Infant teacher Mrs Morstadt was a lovely, middle aged, grey-haired Dutch lady

School Dinners
We had to finish the first course before taking a pudding. I remember the awful shepherd’s pie. In those days we did not have paper tissues so as I could not finish the shepherd’s pie, I wrapped it discreetly in an old hankie and asked the ‘Miss’on duty if I could go to the toilet – and promptly flushed it down the pan. I don’t know if the next day’s ‘blockage’ was my responsibility!

This bliss of two years in the Infants was to end in the Juniors when, in classes 4A –1A (or 1A-4A I can’t recall the order in those days), a teacher, a Miss Angel from Golders Green, a spinster who ruled with a rod of iron, took over our class. In spelling I recall those of us who got 10/10 had to test those weaker pupils who had less than 6/10.

Since I was good in the ‘three Rs’ I was usually in Miss Angel’s good books: so much so that on one occasion she asked me to buy her some smoked salmon in Roggs, the well known delicatessen in Hessel Street/Cannon Street (so much cheaper than in Golders Green). My mum gave me the money and I duly arrived in school with 8oz of smoked salmon!

Fortunately I was also good at sewing, my mum being a felling hand and Dad in tailoring too. I used to go with Mum to tailors like Mr Russell, Mr Broder and Mr Rosenblatt to help carry home and baste the jackets sleeves, armholes and cuffs. Poor Mum got 5 shillings (10p) for sewing about a dozen jackets, staying up to midnight to finish them in between cooking, cleaning and helping me with school work.

I remember Miss Angel rebuking two friends of mine who could not thread a needle, frequently scolding ‘So and so can’t thread a needle,’ in a sarcastic manner which would not be acceptable in teaching today! I was to become a teacher later on, teaching from 1970 – 2006, now partially retired although still working on a supply basis aged 59.

However, tough Miss Angel got us through our 11+ exams and I was accepted, in September 1960, at the then new ‘JFS’ (Jewish Free School) in Camden Town. So, aged 11 or 12, for 9 months or so I travelled on the 653 bus from Whitechapel to Camden Road. Out at 7.15 am in winter, snow and fog, with Dad on his way to Morning Lane, Hackney. I had a torch to see my way down Turner Street, still dark at 7.15 am in winter.

The bus journey was very interesting – workers, JFS kids plus Barry Cohen, I think, and his Vienna rolls and a copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in a brown paper wrapper!

At school we had to line up in the freezing cold – now secondary school kids go straight into class! We were a tough lot in those days – no mollycoddling for us!

To obtain a place at the new JFS you had to be able to read Hebrew before entering the school; so my Dad taught me in three weeks or so in the August holidays. My linguistic talents continued as eventually I went on to become a Modern Languages teacher. I did ‘A’ level French in 1967 and Modern Hebrew, out of interest, in 1997 at the Spiro Institute with a wonderful teacher and educator, Nitza Spiro.

Years later, Miss Angel came back to haunt me! In 1973 I was taking part in a National Union of Teachers demonstration in Oxford Street when Miss Angel, out shopping, spotted me and accosted me  with ‘Rachelle, I’m surprised at you!’

Farewell East End 6th April 1961
From Jane Street to Rowley Gardens, Manor House, N4:
From Stepney to Hackney! Another world!
We finally moved on the 6th April 1961 to a brand new estate, Rowley Gardens, part of the Woodberry Down Estate. It was like home from home in many ways because most of our neighbours moved with us and we met other Jewish friends there too. We had all been re-housed, some neighbours went to Jamaica Street, Poplar, some to Swiss Cottage and some bought property in new towns like Basildon or Crawley and some went out to Dagenham.

Our neighbours little Sadie, big Sadie and her husband Ronnie Gold; Grace and Michael Wigatow, our Polish neighbours; Mr and Mrs Kraftman: all such lovely and interesting people. We used to spend Friday nights with Ronnie, Sadie and their children, Jeffrey and Frances Gold.

We would watch ‘Peyton Place’on television, together with little Sadie and another elderly lady, a Mrs Whipman, and would play cards. This lady Mrs Whipman spoke only broken English but always won the Kalookie game! Alas all the elderly neighbours, along with my Mum and Dad, are no longer with us but I often wonder what happened to the children of these neighbours, such as Jeff and Frances Gold – where are you now to reminisce with me?

The East End of London during the 1950s was full of interesting characters and places: the Bagel Lady, Tubby Isaacs, our lovely GP Dr Abrahams; Petticoat Lane, the Tower of London.

When we moved to Manor House the atmosphere changed but we all became accustomed to the new life. No more number 653 bus - but replaced by the number 29 bus to school in Camden Road. In the beginning, I took the wrong bus home! Finsbury Park, opposite our flat, provided the greenery and open space that we had not had in Jane Street E.1. I used to go putting there and play tennis and watch cricket with my Dad on Sunday afternoons.

Those of us who grew up in the East End of the 1950s did not have the technological and electronic games, computers and mobile phones of today’s children but I believe we had a richer, more stimulating home experience; listening to the Home Service (now Radio 4), ‘Friday Night is Music Night’, ‘Top of the Form’ ( a quiz), ‘Twenty Questions’ and other radio programmes which fuelled our minds and imaginations. Opera and ballet were a large part of my life; my Dad took me, from the age of seven, to see ballet at Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden. We saw ‘Coppelia’ with Margot Fonteyn and ‘La Fille Malgardee’ with Merle Park. We also saw most of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operatta and, a rare treat in 1962, ‘Tosca’ with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. How Dad got the tickets I do not know. My favourite was, and still is, ‘La Traviata’. In those days the prices were more affordable, even for a tailor’s presser with a wage of about £10 a week! My love of opera and ballet was acquired at an early age, today you have people seeing opera for the first time at the age of 30. So, although materially poor, I was mentally and intellectually enriched. Children of today often miss out and are deprived of the sort of childhood that I experienced in the East End with its wealth of luxuries of the mind.

I have written this account in the memory of a treasured Mum and Dad and I hope it gives a brief but interesting insight into the charms of my East End!

Copyright Rachelle Marks 2007

website copyright of Philip Walker