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 you, 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 Anglo-Jewry.

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.”

Hermann Landau receiving poor Jews at the Jews Temporary Shelter in Leman Street

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 Landau.

Landau (left: 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.

So the 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.

Jews Temporary Shelter, Leman StreetThe 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

Within the Jewish community, you might imagine that it would be seen as entirely laudable and uncontroversial.  But not so.

The 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.

There 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 Temporary Shelter.

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 the shelter.

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 Invasion.”

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 early days.

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 as well.

The word ‘Poor’ was removed from the shelter’s title in 1914.

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.

Jews Temporary Shelter in its location at 63 Mansell StreetBy 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 the ports.

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 wasted.

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 student accommodation.

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.

website copyright of Philip Walker