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

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Walking the streets of the Jewish East End of London, from an article I wrote for Shemoth - the magazine of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain

Pavillion Theatre near the corner with Vallance Rd, now a vacant siteThe December 2010 issue of Shemoth was kind enough to feature an article about my Jewish East End website and subsequently I have been asked to write this article about the East End.  The first thing you should know about me is I have never lived in the East End.  However, my mother was born and raised in Mile End and I have many memories of visiting the area with her in the early 1960s when I was a boy.  A location that made a particularly vivid impression on me at the time was the tall narrow building adjacent to the former Pavilion theatre site in the Whitechapel Road (close to the corner of Vallance Road) which was once emblazoned with the legend ‘The East London Christian Mission to the Hebrews.’   Being a missionary in the Jewish East End must have been a daunting task.  I wonder if their efforts ever paid off? 


And so to 2011.  There is so much to be said about our East End forebears that it is difficult to know where to start, but as my favourite East End activity is walking and observing the area, this article is presented in the form of a gentle stroll that picks up on information along the way.  I begin in Great Prescot Street where in the early part of the 20th century the Association for the Protection of Women and Girls operated a women’s refuge.  Vulnerable single Jewish girls arriving in London were at real risk of falling pray to pimps and white slavers, but the association was on hand to keep a watchful eye on new female arrivals.  Their efforts saved many women from a wretched fate.

Jews Temporary Shelter, Leman StreetIt is just a short step from Great Prescot Street to Leman Street where another place of refuge existed – The Jews Temporary Shelter.  It was originally founded in1886 by a Hermann Landau and received additional funding from the wealthy banker Samuel Montagu.  The Refuge provided a night or twos shelter for penniless immigrants arriving in London with no place to stay.  I’ve read that the address of the shelter was bought and sold in Eastern Europe among hopeful potential immigrants.  The hardship of those days can scarcely be imagined.  Later the shelter relocated to 63 Mansell Street and this building is still there. To my amazement the organisation also still exists, according to the reporting of its December 2010 a.g.m. by the Jewish Chronicle.

At the top of Mansell Street is a small alleyway called Tenter Passage leading to the Tenter Street square complex.  Imagine how this quiet backwater once thronged with Jewish voices.  An article in the 1920 Purim edition of The Jewish chronicle records the activities of street urchins accosting passers by to sell them Haman Toffee at remarkably inflated prices.  The Jewish Chronicle reporter records that he is very impressed by their enterprise! 

                                                             Jews Temporary Shelter, Leman Street



Rabbi Isaac SuwalskyAlso in this complex of streets lived Rabbi Isaac Suwalsky, a Polish immigrant who died in poverty in 1913 at the age of 53.  Rabbi Suwalsky was a Zionist who attended the sixth Zionist conference at Basle in 1903 as part of the Anglo Jewish delegation.  He was also a pioneer in the use of Hebrew as a living language and at his own expense published a Hebrew language magazine entitled HaYehoodi  (The Jew).  Today Rabbi Suwalsky rests virtually forgotten at the Federation cemetery in Edmonton.  He was my cousin’s wife’s grandfather.

Rabbi Isaac Suwalsky

Nearby Alie Street contains some interesting sites, including The Swan Public House which was once the Half Moon theatre, and before that Alie Street Synagogue.  Adjacent to the pub is Half Moon Passage, at the end of which was Camperdown House, home of the Hutchinson House Club for Working Lads and also the headquarters of the Jewish Lads Brigade.  The Hutch, as it was known, was founded by the Rothschild family in conjunction with a Mr Max Bonn and Mr Frank Goldsmith MP.  Former members of the Hutch have described it as an oasis in a dangerous and turbulent World.  Also in Alie Street is Symons House, formerly the premises of the Workers’ Circle Friendly Society.  Jewish Friendly Societies once thronged the East End and the Workers’ Circle was one of many.  It owned a rest home in Littlehampton, and for a small subscription provided many services, as well as vigorously promoting Socialism.  Today only one Jewish Friendly Society remains, The Grand Order of David and Shield of Israel Friendly Society, which now exists solely as a social club.  We should admire greatly those whose energy and philanthropy created a miniature welfare state in the East End of London.

Kirstein's Mansions erected 1911From Alie Street it is a short distance to the Commercial Road junction with White Church Lane, on the corner of which is a white building with the legend Kirstein’s Mansions erected 1911 inscribed on it.  This is the site of Kerstein the printers who specialised in the printing of wedding invitations and the like.  Their adverts featured prominently in the Jewish Chronicle at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Perhaps Mr Kirstein took the view that there was more money in property than printing.  Not all Jewish property developers of this era made their fortune.  Witness Abraham Davis’s handsome but disastrous Moorish Market development in Fashion Street.  Built as an indoor market to tempt in the street traders of Petticoat Lane, it failed miserably and nearly caused Abraham Davis’s bankruptcy.  The site just about survived and has recently been redeveloped into smart offices.

                                                                          Kirstein's Mansions, erected 1911    


Adler StreetFurther along the Commercial Road is the turning into Adler Street, named after the Adler dynasty of United Synagogue rabbis.  The United Synagogue had its headquarters in this street, and the Great Synagogue, once of Duke’s Place, relocated here after it was bombed in 1941.  It was not to remain here long as declining membership forced its closure.  At the top of Adler Street on the corner with Whitechapel Road stands an ugly modern building that was once the site of the Yiddish National Theatre.  The Yiddish National Theatre replaced the Pavilion theatre that closed in 1936.  The Yiddish National Theatre put on classics such as The Merchant of Venice…in Yiddish.  Their 1946 production starred Meier Tzelniker as Shylock and his daughter Anna as Portia.  The Jewish Chronicle’s review described the production as a ‘thrilling experience’. 


A few hundred yards west along the Whitechapel Road is the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  The Gallery now incorporates the Whitechapel Library which was once known as the University of the Ghetto.  Bernard Kops’ famous poem Whitechapel Library Aldgate East tells the story.  On the wall of the former library is a plaque commemorating the World War One poet Isaac Rosenberg who studied here. 

Moving East along the Whitechapel Road is the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry.  This ancient institution built Big Ben – the Bell that rings out the time on…Big Ben.  A rather fine mosaic stands on the corner of nearby Fieldgate Street.  Symbols on the mosaic, including a Star of David, a bell and more, represent the changing heritage of the area.  In Fieldgate Street is Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, one of only four remaining from the hundreds that were once in the East End.  It is open once a month for Shabbat morning services and I highly recommend a visit.  Grodzinski’s kosher bakery used to be next door, as the plaque on the synagogue wall reminds you. 

Opposite Fieldgate Street Synagogue is Greenfield Street which leads you back to the Commercial Road and almost opposite the junction with Henriques Street.  On the corner of Henriques Street stands number 90 Commercial Road, the site of the Beltz synagogue, now amalgamated with nearby Nelson Street Synagogue.  Do any of you remember the Barry Sisters singing ‘Mein Shtetele Beltz’?  In the late 1930s The Beltz synagogue employed Romanian immigrant Bernat Hecht as a cantor.  Bernat Hecht was the father of former Conservative party leader Michael Howard

Henriques Street, formerly Berner StreetHenriques Street was originally called Berner Street, but the name was changed to honour the late social reformer Basil Henriques who’s Oxford and St George’s Settlement was located in the big red building down the road on the left.  It was called Oxford after the class of people that Basil hoped to attract into the East End to staff his Settlement, and St George’s because it was in the Parish of St George’s in the East.  Either side of the entrance to the building are plaques.  The one on the left records the generosity of business man and philanthropist Bernhard Baron whose 1929 gift of £65,000 enabled Basil Henriques to purchase this former Berner Street school, replacing premises outgrown in nearby Betts Street.  The Settlement incorporated its famous boys’ and girls’ clubs together with a synagogue, a Yiddish society and much more.  The Oxford and Saint Georges Settlement was one of a number that existed and thrived in the East End. 


Rudolf Rocker, from the portrait painted by his son Fermin RockerFurther down Henriques Street at number 40 was the print works of the anarchist Yiddish newspaper Arbeter Fraint (Workers’ Friend).  Number 40 was also the premises of the International Working Men’s Club.  The newspaper was edited for a time by anarchist leader Rudolf Rocker who had moved to London from Germany in the 1890s.  Arbeter Fraint went through many financial tribulations and in 1900 had to relocate to a ramshackle old shed in Stepney Green next to foul smelling stables.  Nevertheless, at its peak Arbeter Fraint sold 5000 copies a week.  To find out more about Rudolf Rocker I recommend reading Bill Fishman’s book East End Jewish Radicals 1875 -1914.

                                         Rudolf Rocker, from the portrait painted by his son Fermin Rocker

Close by to Henriques Street is Hessel Street, once a thriving Jewish street market specialising in Kosher chickens.  A wonderful film called The Story of a Street is a 1962 Jewish Chronicle production containing precious archive footage.  Get hold of a copy if you can. 

Max Bacon is the caharcter on the rightClose to the junction of Hessel Street and Commercial Road on the left is a shop named Flicks Fashions.  This was once the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre.  In the early 1960s the decline of a Yiddish speaking audience forced its closure and for a time it became a bingo hall, but in its day it featured famous actors such as Meier and Anna Tzelniker, Max Bacon and others. 

Interesting footage of the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre can be seen in the 1967 James Mason film The London Nobody Knows. 

Max Bacon is on the right in this photo



From Hessel Street it is a short distance to Nelson Street Synagogue in Nelson Street.  Clearly visible from the street in the Synagogue’s entrance is the New Road Synagogue consecration plaque - rescued and placed here by the Jewish East End Celebration Society.  The words on the plaque are simple, but say a great deal:

“On the occasion of the consecration of the above synagogue (New Road) on May 24th 1892. Her Majesty’s birthday: a letter was addressed to the Queen on behalf of the members expressing their respectful felicitations and acknowledging their loyalty to Her Majesty under whose benign sovereignty they enjoyed the priceless blessings of civil and religious liberties…..”

New Road Synagogue plaque

The Hebrew inscription on the New Road plaque above suggests that the synagogue's founders came from Krakov in Poland

If you’ve stayed with me this far I hope you have enjoyed the experience, and if you are energetic enough to link the locations together in sequential order you will find they make an evocative East End walk.  Meanwhile, I believe it is vital we remember our roots.  They are an integral part of who and what we are.

Philip Walker, April 2011


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