Over two million Jews emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Most of them went to America, but a significant number ended up in London, where, like the Huguenots before them and the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant communities later, they gravitated towards the East End. The question of what to do about this large, poor and foreign population was one which occupied Parliament as well as the established Jewish bourgeoisie, and a classically Victorian solution was found: philanthropy, but philanthropy with a guaranteed return for the philanthropists. The Four Percent Industrial Dwelling Company, set up by Baron Rothschild, set out to replace the lodging houses of the Whitechapel ‘rookeries’ with ‘model dwellings’ – tenements designed to house large numbers of the urban poor in relative health and comfort, and which would generate a four percent return on the shareholders’ investment.
Jerry White first noticed the Rothschild buildings of Whitechapel’s Flower and Dean Street in the early 1970s, shortly before they were demolished in another slum clearance project. In Rothschild Buildings: life in an East End tenement block 1887-1920 he sets out to discover what life was actually like in these buildings and through a combination of interviews with people who lived there and documentary evidence, he produces a wonderfully lively and detailed account of the community that lived there and the kind of life they lived.
The great majority were Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, but some from Germany and Holland. Interestingly, the people who moved into the Rothschild Buildings were of a slightly different class to the people who had lived in the lodging houses which had stood on the site earlier: where the poorest had previously eked out a precarious living as street sellers and prostitutes (public outcry over the crimes of Jack the Ripper had provided a great impetus for demolition of the ‘rookeries’), those paying rent to the Four Percent Company tended to be the more respectable and skilled working classes. Often Jewish immigrants brought artisanal skills (tailoring, joinery) from their home countries and found work in the furniture and clothes workshops of the East End; White’s description of the way that craftsmen found themselves working in an industrial sweatshop environment, where they moved from being artisans who made whole garments to being specialist cutters or seamers is an interesting reflection of the continuing drive for efficiency in manufacturing and the effect this had on individual workers.
The most fascinating aspect of the book is the way that it enters into the Rothschild Buildings and paints a vivid picture of the life that went on there. White provides a plan of the average flat – two rooms, a small scullery and a toilet; not so different in size and design from the cheaply built urban flats of today, except that the Rothschild buildings flats were usually inhabited by much larger families, with children sharing the parents’ bedroom and young children sleeping three or four to a bed. He talks about the role of the building superintendent and gives a copy of the rules for tenants; he details the shops that were to be found in the neighbourhood – predominantly small Jewish businesses catering to the needs of the working poor; he even discusses the way that the public baths were used by observant Jewish families for the ritual baths which precede marriage and other religious ceremonies. What he doesn’t do is sentimentalise or romanticise the experience of the urban poor – while he’s fair-minded about the advantages the model dwellings offered over the older slums, he’s also graphic about the difficulty and unpleasantness that tenement life often entailed.
The interviews with former tenants bring the era to life, as they recall preparations for the Sabbath, school nature expeditions to Victoria Park and Epping Forest, the jobs they did on leaving school, the families who kept chickens in the flat and even individual schoolteachers and shopkeepers. If the book has a flaw, it is that the thematic organisation of the chapters (‘Home’; ‘Community’; ‘Growing up’; ‘Work’) sometimes obscures the changes which happened over the period discussed – for example, there must have been a certain amount of Anglicisation between 1887 and 1920 as parents born in Latvia, Poland and the Ukraine were followed by children born within the sound of Bow Bells. Also, as the former residents were interviewed in the 1970s, they are from the younger, London-born generations, which means that the experience of the very early immigrants is not as vividly described.
It’s impossible while reading this not to draw comparisons with the East End as it is today – the kosher grocers and street sellers with their herring barrels have now been replaced by Pakistani shops and Indian restaurants, and the Jewish girls slaving over their sewing machines have been replaced by a new generation of sweatshops. Even the characterisation by the government and the bourgeois press of the Jewish population as foreigners resistant to integration, among whom the seeds of political extremism might easily take root, is reminiscent of today’s racist rhetoric on the newer generations of immigrants.The history of the area is embodied in Brick lane mosque – previously a synagogue and before then a Huguenot church, and now serving the large Muslim population. Plus ça change… but Rothschild Buildings is as fascinating for the uniqueness of the community it describes as it is for the parallels it evokes with today.