Next time you visit London why not take time to discover the sights and stories of London's colourful, prolific Jewish history.
The Jewish community officially returned to London in 1656 after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. You can still see the site of the first synagogue established after their return which opened in December 1656. The community quickly outgrew this synagogue and it was replaced in 1701 by the beautiful Bevis Marks synagogue, the UK’s oldest synagogue which is still in use today. The synagogue and courtyard remain virtually unchanged from the time they were built and are open to the public most days.
While in the courtyard look at the memorial to World War I hero Frank Alexander de Pass who was the first Jewish soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Great Britains highest award for bravery.
At its peak in the early 1900s when Jews were fleeing to the UK to escape the pogroms and poverty of Eastern Europe, there were over 100 active synagogues in the East End of London. But now there remains only four still in use which are Bevis Marks, Sandys Row, Nelson Street and The Congregation of Jacob all of which can be visited.
One of the last of the inactive synagogues survives at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields. The synagogue was built in 1862 and is now in a desperate state of decay but occasionally you can gain access and if you are one of those lucky enough to do so, you will see what a beautiful synagogue this must have been.
But what makes this synagogue so special is that the caretaker was David Rodinsky who was the subject of the book Rodinsky’s Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair. Rodinsky became a recluse who disappeared in 1969 and his room above the synagogue which was not unlocked until 1980 was exactly as he left it with newspapers, a cup of tea and unmade bed.
Walk round the corner from Bevis Marks and you are immediately in the centre of the noisy, hustle and bustle of the famous Petticoat Lane. In the first half of the 20th century this was the centre of Jewish life in the East End. There were stalls selling kosher chickens and just off the main street there were dingy converted shops where the Shochet would stand knee deep in chicken gizzards and feathers attending to his trade. Food was of course important to the Jewish Community and shops selling baigels, smoked salmon, pickled cucumbers and pickled herring were everywhere. Fruit stalls and clothing stalls were also prolific as they still are today. If you are lucky you may still see the Pearly King and Queen walking down the Lane.
On to Gardiners Corner and the scene of the Battle of Cable Street where the Jewish and Irish communities stood shoulder to shoulder in 1936 to fight the infamous fascist Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. It is here also that you can see where the famous Blooms kosher restaurant operated with its infamous rude waiters who attracted worldwide attention. But be careful because next to Blooms in a dark alleyway is where Jack the Ripper carried out his gruesome trade.
Also see the barbers shop where Vidal Sassoon served his apprenticeship before fighting for the Haganah in the Israeli War of Independence from which he went on to fame and fortune by cutting the hair of the rich and famous.
Of course you cannot discuss the East End without mentioning probably the most notorious criminals that ever terrorised a city – the Kray twins. There has been unproven speculation that their grandmother was Jewish but what cannot be denied is that they operated in the heart of the Jewish East End from where they spread their terror far and wide.
While you are in Whitechapel have a drink in the famous Victorian Blind Beggar pub where at around 8.30pm on 9 March 1966 Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell with one shot through the forehead.
Cornell’s crime was to have called Kray a fat poof.
Not far away in Fieldgate Mansions was where Jack Spot the son of poor Polish immigrants was born on 12th April 1912. He was the most notorious Jewish criminal of all time.
Fieldgate Mansions and the surrounding area is still much as it was in Jack Spot’s time. You can almost visualise him in the thick of his street battles with his non Jewish neighbours. In later years he made a fortune from illegal horse betting and running a violent protection racket with East End Jews as the victims.
One of the features of the City of London is the mutual respect and support the Jewish and Christian Communities have extended to each other over the last two centuries and there is no better example of this than the Church of St Botolphs in Aldgate.
St Botolphs has been referred to as the most Jewish church in the country and what is amazing about this church is the number of stained glass windows dedicated to various Jewish gentry. The most famous is Sir Marcus Samuel, London's Lord Mayor in 1902, who was born in Whitechapel and developed the family business of M Samuel sellers of painted sea shells. He went on to found the merchant bank Hill Samuel and also the mega Shell Oil company surprisingly named after his family sea shell business. In addition there are windows dedicated to former Lord Mayors of London Sir Bernard Wayley Cohen, Lord Peter Levene and Sir Samuel Joseph all of whom are Jewish. And to add icing to the cake outside the church there is a drinking fountain erected on the railings to honour the memory of Frederick Mocatta, the 19th century Jewish philanthropist who helped Jews and non-Jews alike.
Quite near to the Church you will find the Jewish Soup Kitchen with its magnificent terracotta frontage still beautifully intact. The Soup Kitchen was opened in 1902 and was financed by the more wealthy Jews of the West End to alleviate the poverty of the poor Jews in the East End.
This is just a small taste of the rich and diverse history of Jewish London and there is much more.
By: Martin Warren
Martin Warren is a born and bred Jewish Londoner who runs his own London Walks company and he is bursting with stories to tell.
Or look at his website www.martinslondonwalks.co.uk