|home | about this site | stories | the gallery | schools | migration histories | tracing your roots | search|
Culture and Festivals
Newly arrived Jewish immigrants had a tendency to create close-knit, distinctive communities. They wanted to live and work near to their fellow Jews, especially landsleit - people from the same original village - and within walking distance of a synagogue, ritual baths and kosher food shops. The language of the newcomers was Yiddish.
The immigrants settled in inner city areas like the East End of London, the Leylands in Leeds, Strangeways in Manchester and the Gorbals in Glasgow.
In 1880 there were around 46,000 Jews in London, but by 1900 this figure had almost trebled to 135,000, and most were living within the two square miles of the East End.
In 1889 Charles Booth observed:
The newcomers have gradually replaced the English population in whole districts, Hanbury Street, Fashion Street, Pelham Street, and many streets and lanes and alleys have fallen before them; they have introduced new trades as well as new habits and they live and crowd together.
By 1900 many of these streets were entirely Jewish. To non-Jews, the new arrivals presented a curious spectacle - they spoke a foreign language, wore different clothes, ate strange-smelling foods and practised an unfamiliar religion. Many non-Jews were horrified by what they saw as an 'alien invasion'. In his book Living London, GR Sims describes Whitechapel in 1904:
It is its utterly alien aspect which strikes you first and foremost. For the Ghetto is a fragment of Poland torn off from Central Europe and dropped haphazard into the heart of Britain.
By settling in tight-knit communities, the Jews were creating an environment for themselves in which they could retain their distinctive culture and tradition and slowly adapt to the difficulties of life in a new, often hostile, country. The East End historian William Fishman gives his own description of Jewish life in the teeming streets of Whitechapel:
The Jews formed their own self-contained street communities with workshops, stiebels and all-purpose stores where the men would gather on Sundays to discuss the 'rabbi's' sermon, politics and local scandal. On Fridays, the eve of Sabbath, the cloistered alleys and thoroughfares came to life as candles blazed from the front parlours of shabby one-storeyed cottages or tenements.
The immigrants were settling in areas already characterised by poverty and overcrowding. The flow of new arrivals only worsened the conditions of severe overcrowding, dirt and lack of sanitation.
In 1884, The Lancet reported the case of a Jewish potato dealer who lived with his wife, five children and a huge pile of potatoes in one room which measured only five yards by six! But the demand for accommodation, regardless of how bad it was, kept rents high.
The Jewish Board of Guardians, an organisation set up in 1859 to help the 'strange poor', tried to relieve the worst conditions. Other wealthy Jews pressed for improvements in the form of model tenement blocks.
In 1885 Lord Rothschild and others formed the Four-Percent Industrial Dwellings Company, which aimed to charge fair rents and build flats that were large enough to house families in more than one room. The largest of a series of tenement blocks built by the company were the Rothschild Buildings on Flower and Dean Street, clearing an area known as 'the foulest and most dangerous in the whole metropolis'. Read about Manchester Jewry.
Synagogues were of prime importance in the community life of the new immigrants. The existing synagogues, with their imposing interiors and anglicised services, were not popular with the new arrivals. It was not long before a network of small synagogues, also known as stiebels or chevras, sprang up all over the East End and other areas of new Jewish settlement.
The chevras were established in attics, back rooms and even former chapels. They were often named after the town or district in Russia or Poland from which their founders had emigrated, and they not only served as places of worship, but provided welfare help, study and mutual support.
There were an enormous number of small synagogues in areas of dense Jewish population. Families living in the Rothschild Buildings were within walking distance of at least 15 synagogues in the neighbouring streets.
The writer Israel Zangwill recognised the importance of the synagogue to the Jewish immigrant.
They dropped in, mostly in their workday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused prayers with a zeal that shook the window panes, and there was never a lack of a minyan - the congregational quorum of ten.
In 1887, Sir Samuel Montagu, the Whitechapel MP, founded the Federation of Synagogues, which incorporated most of the East End chevras. By 1900, the Federation's membership was larger than the United Synagogue, which represented the synagogues of the existing Anglo-Jewish establishment.
Before attending synagogue on a Friday night, many men visited a bath-house. A local East End landmark was Schewzik's Vapour Baths in Brick Lane, offering the 'Best Massage in London: Invaluable relief for Rheumatism, Gout, Sciatica, Neuritis, Lumbago and Allied Complaints. Keep fit and well by regular visits'! Reverend Schewzik, the manager of the baths, also conducted Holy Day services at the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End.
In the areas where Jews were concentrated, the community became almost entirely self-sufficient. In the East End, for example, the streets were thronged with Jewish shoppers, housewives, and children running errands. Everything they needed was available from the thriving street market centred round Petticoat Lane or the many small grocery shops selling pickled herring, smoked salmon and onion bread, which were often open till midnight.
Nearly all the shopkeepers and stallholders were Jewish. There was even a herd of cows just off the Whitechapel Road that supplied kosher milk.
The established Jewish community frowned on the use of Yiddish and encouraged the use of English as much as possible.
But among the newly-arrived community Yiddish predominated:
From the late-1890s, the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel Road showed Yiddish language plays, and Yiddish theatre was its principal attraction from 1906 until its closure in 1935.
During the 19th century, many charities were set up for the welfare of the community. The Jewish Board of Guardians, founded in 1859, provided help for those who had been in the country for over six months, prompted by both humanitarian motives and a reluctance to see Jews becoming a burden on the state.
The immigrants also wanted to look after each other in times of trouble, and set up charities such as the Russian Jews Benevolent Society in Manchester. Hundreds of friendly societies, often associated with individual synagogues, were also established, as were homes for the aged, orphanages, and day nurseries.
A Jewish hospital movement led to the opening of the Manchester Victoria Memorial Jewish Hospital in 1904, and eventually the London Jewish Hospital in 1921.
The problem of overcrowding began to improve in the early 20th century as Jewish families started to move away from the East End. The first step up the ladder was to adjacent areas like Hackney, Dalston and Islington, and then to the more suburban areas, such as Golders Green, Hendon, Cricklewood and Ilford that opened up with the expansion of the underground railway. As Jews moved into these areas, synagogues were founded, and the structure of a Jewish community became established.
Outside London, the settlement of Jewish families followed a similar pattern, with movement away from the inner cities into more desirable areas like Cheetham Hill in Manchester or Chapeltown in Leeds.
The 50,000 or so Jewish refugees from central Europe who settled in England after fleeing from Hitler had a very different experience from their counterparts 50 years earlier. At first, many were scattered all over the country:
Kindertransport children were first housed together in Dovercourt Camp on the outskirts of Harwich in Essex, but were then separated and sent on to foster homes and hostels all over Britain:
The refugees soon began to cluster in particular areas, principally along the Finchley Road in North-West London, rather than the East End in which earlier generations of new arrivals had been concentrated. Many found homes in other cities like Manchester and Leeds. The new settlers had the support of immigrants from similar backgrounds, and organisations such as the Association of Jewish Refugees, founded in 1941, to help them settle in to their new life. They would be joined after the war by refugees scattered by evacuation, internment and war service, and in their turn helped them to settle in.
With its émigré clubs and coffee houses, the Finchley Road area took on a Jewish character of its own, and bus conductors would call out 'Passports please' or 'Finchleystrasse' as the buses stopped there!
As Jews became more integrated into English society, they left behind the distinctive Eastern European flavour of their first areas of settlement. Today, there are very few Jewish people left in those parts, which have taken on a new character as immigrants from other parts of the world have moved in. The external Spitalfields and Whitechapel area of London, for example, is now home to a thriving Bangladeshi community, and what were once synagogues have been turned into mosques.
Continental Britons, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe (Jewish Museum and The Association of Jewish Refugees, 2002), (Grenville, A)
Cesarani, D (ed), The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990)
Endelman, Todd M, The Jews of Britain 1656-2000 (University of California Press, 2002)
Gartner, L, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (2nd edition, 1973)
Lipman, V D, A History of the Jews in Britain since 1858 (Leicester, 1990)
Romain, Jonathon, The Jews of England (Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, 1985)
Black, G, Living Up West: Jewish Life in London's West End (Tymsder Publishing, 1994)
Brook, S, The Club: The Jews of Modern Britain (London, 1989)
Cesarani, D, The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry 1841-1991 (Cambridge, 1994)
Fishman, W J, East End 1888 (2nd edition, 2001)
Lichtenstein, R, Rodinsky's Room (1999)
Newman, A (ed), The Jewish East End 1840-1939 (London, 1981)
White, J, Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (2nd ed, 2002)
Williams, B, The Making of Manchester Jewry 1740-1875 (Manchester, 1976)
Beckman, M, The Hackney Crucible (1996)
Blacker, H, Just Like it Was (1974)
Jacobs, J, Out of the Ghetto1913-39 (1991)
Jagendorf, Z, Wolfy and the Strudelbakers (2001)
Rosen, H, Are You Still Circumcised? (1998)
Shindler, C, Manchester United Ruined my Life (1998)
Spector, C, Volla Volla Jew Boy (1988)
Creators: Carol Seigel
|contact us | help | site map||copyright | privacy|