Changing London

‘We are shadows’ – the changing face of Spitalfields (part two)

Walking past the Beigel Shop in Brick Lane is a real treat. Whatever time of day (or night) it is you can’t fail to notice the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread oozing out. Inside, you get a real mix of people, from City workers to tourists, enjoying a snack at the side bar.

Founded in 1855, the Beigel Shop is said to be London’s (and Britain’s) oldest all night bagel shops, it is a reminder of Spitalfields’ Jewish heritage. While once Jews dominated in the East End, today they are becoming more of a minority – it’s telling for example that only four of the area’s hundred plus synagogues remain.


Jews, banished from England by Edward I in 1290, had lived in the East End from when they’d be invited back to England by Oliver Cromwell in 1650. But the numbers then were relatively small in comparison to the much larger influx later on. London’s Jewish community exploded between 1880 and 1914 with the 150,000 arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia as they’d fled persecution and economic hardship.

And around 70 per cent of Jews arriving in the city settled in the area between Whitechapel and Spitalfields, transforming the way of life and make up of businesses, such as the opening of businesses like the Beigel Shop. Away from Brick Lane, in Wentworth Street, there was a lively weekday market which was dominated by Kiddish speaking traders. There were at peak three daily Yiddish newspapers.

And there was also change at the building I’m following in a series this week. What is now Jamme Mastid mosque in Brick Lane had been founded in 1743 by Huguenots as a Christian chapel and school (read part one here). It was later taken over by a number of other Christian groups, including the London Society (which, ironically as we shall see, was dedicated to converting Jews to Christianity) and Methodists.

But in 1897, during the period of mass Jewish immigration to the East End, it was leased to the Machzike Hadath community who opened it as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue.

The Spitalfields Great Synagogue has special importance today for telling the area’s history in that it has been used by all three of the ‘great religions’. But at the end of 19th century, it would have been seen alongside all the synagogues in the East End. The Sandy Row Synagogue, which was founded in 1854 by Dutch immigrants and was also originally a Huguenot chapel, is one of the few that survives.


In the late 19th century Jewish life in the East End was difficult. Jews often worked long hours in ‘sweating workshops’ (571 of these were counted in less than one square mile in and around Whitechapel) and lived in nothing short of slums. They also faced anti-Semitism (they were blamed for the infamous Jack the Ripper murders, for example). In the 1930s the Jewish East End became the focus of attacks by British Union of Fascists.

But many Jews did well for themselves, founding profitable businesses and were able to move to other, more airy and clean, parts of London, particularly to the north of the city.

Sadly much of the Jewish history that relates to the East End is mere traces in much more modern developments. In Fournier Street, for example, you can see an old Jewish shop sign (‘S. Schwartz’) preserved above garage doors. And in Brune Street you can still see the fascade of the ‘Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor’, which opened in 1902 and which at its poor provided meals for 5,000 people a week.

Or ‘CH. N. Katz’ etched on the outside number 92 Brick Lane – a Jewish owned shop that until a few years ago sold string and paper bags. And at 88 Whitechapel High Street you can see a small Jewish coat of arms, harking back to the time when the building was occupied by the Jewish Post & Express.


For other East End Jewish traditions you need to look to the pages of history books. Like the Russian steam baths, which from the 19th century until the 1940s were on Brick Lane, were where Jews would come for their weekly ritual cleansing before the start of the Sabbath. Or Petticoat Lane market which was dominated in the 19th century by Jewish tradesmen.

Or the Jews Free School, which when it stood in Bell Lane it would grow by the early 20th century to become the largest school in the world with over 4,250 pupils. After suffering considerable bomb damage to the Blitz, it was subsequently re-located to Camden.

The East End was hit badly by the Blitz, with many homes destroyed. Rather than re-building properties many Jews settled elsewhere, both in Britain and abroad. And as they left Spitalfields and the surrounding the areas, in time they would be replaced by a new wave of immigrants.

Take a walk off Whitechapel High Street and you’ll see that Fieldgate Street Synagogue, founded in 1899 but closed recently because of a decline in the local Jewish population, is boarded up. The distinctive building, with its blue door, is dwarfed by a towering East London Mosque development, which cater for the next great wave of immigrants that came to the East End.


And for the Spitalfields Great Synagogue on Brick Lane, the departure of many Jews from the area would bring yet another change in use for the building. After seeing its congregation dwindle, in 1975 it was converted to a mosque. Just as the Huguenots had seen their presence in Spitalfields to be temporary, soon most traces of Jewish heritage would disappear from the East End.

‘Umbra sumus’ (‘We are shadows,’) reads the poignant inscription on the facade of what is now the Jamme Masjid mosque.

This weekend: read about the arrival of Bangladeshis in part three of my series of blogs on Spitalfields. And if you missed part one (the Huguenots in Spitalfields) you can read the blog here.

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