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2 September 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
The world in a city

East End Jews

In the late-19th Century, the church at the corner of Brick Lane became a synagogue, as thousands of Jews moved into Spitalfields in the Huguenots's wake.

Soup kitchen for the Jewish poor
The "soup kitchen for the Jewish poor" in Brune Street, Spitalfields, had a vital social role.
© The Jewish Museum, London
More than 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, prompted by economic hardship and increasingly ferocious persecution. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews in Russia became even fiercer, and a wave of pogroms swept across Russia and neighbouring countries.

Many Jews landing in England actually intended to go to America, but about 120,000 stayed in this country. Again attracted by the area's reputation as a place for cheap living, and by the fact that it had been home to a Jewish population in previous centuries, large numbers settled in Spitalfields, often finding work in the 'rag trade'. By 1900 Jews formed around 95% of the population in the Wentworth Street district of Spitalfields.

The elegant Huguenot houses were subdivided and became home to the Jews - the overcrowding and sanitation was awful. Such living conditions could not have been much of an improvement for some of the immigrants.

Tensions

The Jewish community was not as warmly welcomed as the Huguenots. The sheer numbers arriving prompted the first Aliens Act (1905), which restricted immigration into the country. Jews were accused of taking jobs from locals, of pushing up rents by accepting overcrowded conditions, and of aggravating the appalling working conditions in many of the local trades. There was more trouble in the 1930s, when Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists became strong in the area, and used violence to instil fear in the Jewish population.

Kosher restaurant, Brick Lane
"Lodzer Kosher Restaurant" on Brick Lane, c. 1910. It's owner came from Lodz, Poland.
© The Jewish Museum, London
The Jewish immigrants had a distinct presence in Spitalfields. At first they formed tight-knit communities, maintaining their own culture in this foreign environment. Yiddish predominated and was used in signs, newspapers and in theatres. Numerous small synagogues, or chevras, were built, providing welfare as well as worship. On Friday nights - the eve of the Sabbath - candles burnt in parlour windows. And food was also important - local shops sold bagels, salted herrings and pickled cucumbers, and by 1901 there were 15 kosher butchers in Wentworth Street alone.

With time, however, the Jews became more integrated a Board of Trade Report in 1894 said that children left the Jews' Free School on Bell Lane 'almost indistinguishable' from English children. Religious rituals also gradually became less distinctive, and fewer people spoke Yiddish.

As they grew wealthier, the Jews moved out to suburbs like Golders Green and Hendon. There is little visible legacy left now and most of the synagogues have been converted to other uses, and shops and restaurants have closed. But there is still interest in the Jewish East End, with guided walks and tours. And a synagogue has been discovered in an old Huguenot house in Princelet Street, which is now fittingly employed as a museum of immigration.


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Your comments

1 Maurice Zeegen from London - 8 October 2003
"After the Huguenots and before the East European Jews, the Spitalfields area was settled by significant numbers of poor Jews from, predominantly, Amsterdam. They were known as 'Chuts', a name thought to be an approximation of the sound of the immigrants' word for 'good' in the Dutch language. The profession pursued by many of these people was cigar-making and many small workshops and factories were established in the area. Among them was the cigar factory of Zeegen Brothers, situated in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. I am the great grandson of one of the founders of the factory, which survived into the 1920s before being absorbed into the well-known Godfrey Phillips concern, also, I believe, of Dutch origin. "




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