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At Sandys Row Synagogue

August 17, 2017
by Rachel Lichtenstein

Author and artist Rachel Lichtenstein writes about Sandys Row Synagogue, accompanying Morley Von Sternberg‘s photographs of one of Spitalfields’ magnificent hidden wonders

You can visit this historic synagogue on 29th & 31st August plus 5th, 7th, 12th, 14th, 26th & 28th September as part of A SPITALFIELDS JOURNEY, comprising a joint ticket for Dennis Severs House and Sandys Row. Click here for tickets

There were once nearly one hundred and fifty synagogues operating in East London, yet today Sandys Row is the last functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Spitalfields, situated at the heart of the former Jewish East End. Dutch Jewish migrants, who began arriving in London from Amsterdam in the 1840s, established the synagogue in 1854. They were economic migrants seeking a better life, rather than refugees fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlements.

The majority of the Dutch Jews settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. They continued to practise the trades they had bought with them from Holland, which were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established and businesses passed down through generations.

This small, distinctive, tight-knit Dutch Jewish community of a few hundred had their own traditions and customs which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups. To the frustration of the more established Anglo-Jewish population living in London at the time, the Chuts (as they were known locally) refused to join any of the larger existing synagogues. They wanted their own establishment.

In the early years of the community, they met in a house on White’s Row which served as a makeshift house of prayer, while for festivals and high holy days they rented Zetland Hall in Mansell St. In 1854, fifty families from this community formed the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society and later became a way of raising funds to purchase their own building. By 1867, the Society had amassed enough money to acquire the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in Sandys Row, a small side street in Spitalfields. The chapel was particularly suitable to adapt into a synagogue because it had a balcony (where women worship in many orthodox synagogues) and was on an East-West axis (Jewish people in this country pray facing east towards Jerusalem).

The community employed Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time, to remodel the chapel. He kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony and added a new three-storey extension onto the building, creating a vestry and accommodation for the rabbi and caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany ark, which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns. Since it was consecrated in 1870 with ‘an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God’ Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors.

Apart from some pine wood paneling, which was added in the fifties along with some pine pews, the synagogue today looks much the same as it did when it opened in the nineteenth century. It was described in the Jewish press in 1870 as ‘a sacred place…simple, yet charming,’ a building that ‘invites the worshipper to religious meditation.’ The same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today, it is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the City outside. The building still evokes the sense of awe and quiet meditation described by the journalist who witnessed the consecration ceremony nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Until recently, little has been known outside the congregation about this wonderful building and the Dutch Jewish community who established the synagogue. But in 2013, Sandys Row Synagogue was awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an oral history and community heritage project, Our Hidden Histories - collecting memories, photographs and artefacts relating to the building, as well as uncovering more about its role in the community. I was appointed as Project Manager and, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous benefactor, have continued to work in the building part-time since then.

During the last few years, I have fallen in love with the place and its unique history, which is connected to my own family heritage. My paternal grandparents were Polish Jewish migrants who met in Whitechapel in the thirties and married at the nearby Princelet St Synagogue. I wrote about their story and my long connection to the Jewish East End in Rodinsky’s Room and now I am working on a new book, exploring the history of Sandys Row Synagogue, an untold history of one of the earliest Ashkenazi Jewish communities in London in the nineteenth century.

My role at Sandys Row has involved depositing material from the synagogue at the Bishopsgate Institute, a Victorian philanthropic institution established to provide educational facilities and a library for the poor of East London. This transfer process took many months and was undertaken with the help of volunteers working in collaboration with Chief Archivist Stefan Dickers and his team.

Over time, most of the synagogue’s records had been scattered around the building. Some were found in the safe in the vestry, but the majority were retrieved from the eighteenth century basement which is practically unchanged from when the building was erected in 1766 as a Huguenot Chapel. The documents we found include nineteenth century marriage certificates and an almost complete collection of handwritten minute books from the time the synagogue opened until the mid-twentieth century. Everything has been safely deposited now and we are digitizing and transcribing the entire collection, which is available for visitors to view in the reading rooms at the Institute.

Alongside this work, I have also been involved in collecting oral histories of past and present members of Sandys Row. We have recorded interviews at member’s homes in Pinner, Golders Green, Redbridge and other places on the outskirts of London, where most of the former Sandys Row community now live, as well as locally with the few elderly members who remain in East London. These people spoke of a neighbourhood once bursting with life, filled with kosher butchers, bewigged women, friendly societies and Yiddish speaking traders. They told of a time when there was a synagogue or house of prayer on nearly every street in the area and the vicinity of Sandys Row was filled with Jewish shops, workshops and thousands of stalls from Petticoat Lane.

‘Everybody was so friendly, you could leave your doors open. Mum left a jug of milk on the table so the neighbours could come in and help themselves,’ recalled Minnie Jacobson. She also spoke of visiting the baths in Goulston St, ‘Three times a week, Mummy would take me over. You had this green soap. You had room numbers and if the temperature wasn’t right, you’d call out: “Hot water number 9,” or “Cold Water for number 7.”

All of our interviewees had fond memories of Sandys Row Synagogue, some like Pamela Freedman and board member Rose Edmands are directly related to the Dutch founding members. ‘It was a family shul, they used to call it the Dutch shul. All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president,’ said Pamela.

Rose, whose original Dutch surname was Engelsman, remembered high holy days as a child: ‘There used to be the wardens who sat in the box in front of the bimah (reading desk) with top hats on. We used to have a great time on Simchat Torah (A Jewish holiday celebrating the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings) where we’d have apples and flags and march around the bimah.’ Her entire family were members, ‘my great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind, and we kids sat in the back. And, now I sit in the front row – there’s nobody. So the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.’ I loved hearing their stories of this lost world.

The current president of Sandys Row, Harvey Rifkind, told me ‘during the fifties and sixties, the synagogue flourished. On Shabbat there were one hundred to two hundred people there and on the high holy days you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.’

Today it is almost impossible to get any sense of a Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. Spitalfields has changed beyond recognition but Sandys Row Synagogue remains as both a reminder of a bygone era and a living example of Jewish culture and religion, where every weekday the building is open for afternoon prayers.

Photographs copyright © Morley Von Sternberg

Rachel Lichtenstein‘s  books include Estuary, Diamond St, Rodinsky’s Room (with Iain Sinclair) and On Brick Lane.

You may like to read these other pieces by Rachel Lichtenstein

A Walk With Rachel Lichtenstein

Out From London To The Sea

You may like to take a look at these other pictures by Morley Von Sternberg

At Princelet St Synagogue

So Long, Mr Pussy

August 16, 2017
by the gentle author

Mr Pussy 2001-2017

The other night, I woke in the small hours to the sound of a clock ticking and I walked through the dark rooms, mystified at the origin of this strange rhythmic beat in my house which has no mechanical timepieces. Then I returned to my bedroom and I discovered the source of the sound. In the manner of Captain Hook’s crocodile, the ticking was coming from inside my old cat Mr Pussy. I squatted down to touch him where he lay, stretched out in the wing chair, and I discovered to my alarm that his breathing had become a harsh muscular spasm convulsing his body.

Next morning, his breathing softened and he lay stretched out in weary endurance upon the wooden floor. Occasionally, he would stand and change position. He would not eat but, if I held a dish out to him, he could lap up water and swallow it. I stroked his head and he purred at my touch. Overcoming his lethargy, Mr Pussy walked to the window and took up his usual position, peering over the sill with pleasure at the wonder of sunlight upon leaves and the infinite minutiae of the living world.

It is more than six months since I have had an unbroken night’s sleep. Consistently Mr Pussy has woken me with his cries, and overcome my resistance to wake and pay attention to him. As I arose, he would run from the bedroom, expecting me to follow, and either make his way to the kitchen or the front door. If it was the front door, I opened it even though he had his own cat door. Secure in the knowledge of my oversight, Mr Pussy would take a wary look outside and, if all was clear, he would wander off into the night. If he led me to the kitchen, he would sit by his dish and look up at me in overstated expectancy, even if there was food already upon his plate. Often, after I fed him, he would follow me back to the bedroom and cry again. This charade might be repeated several times through the night until I could find some novelty to appease him – by running water in the bath for him to lap up or discovering some forgotten chicken liver in the fridge.

Sometimes, Mr Pussy would just sit and cry at me. I could not understand his night terrors. How I wished for words in those moments. As a last resort, I took him to bed and cuddled him against my chest – as I had done when he was a small kitten – until he quietened.

Only once, I lost patience and shut the door to him, foolishly hoping that he could be silenced and I might get some sleep. His cries were vigorous enough to wake the entire street and, unwilling to risk complaints from my neighbours, I had no choice but to let him in again and resume our pitiful nocturnal ritual. In the morning, Mr Pussy would be peaceful and climb onto the bed to slumber. When I could, I slept late or took afternoon naps to recover. I was disappointed at myself that I could find no comfortable resolution, though I feared that a resolution would come of its own accord before too long. Mr Pussy had been afflicted with anaemia for a while, although the precise cause of this was never diagnosed and medications proved to be of limited effect against the inevitable.

Denying he might not recover, I still had hope when I took him to the veterinary surgery that there might be a way to restore his breathing. Meanwhile, peering from the taxi window, Mr Pussy was overwhelmed with surprise at the vast spectacle of the city and its streets, a new vision of another universe revealed beyond his domestic existence.

Nothing could be done that would extend Mr Pussy’s life, improve his breathing or restore his being, and I gave my consent to end his days. The vet fitted a tube to Mr Pussy’s leg and I sat on a chair next to the table where he stood to face his death while still gasping for life. His body was strong but his internal organs had failed him. Mr Pussy looked at me and I stroked his head as the vet administered a lethal dose of anaesthetic. I expected Mr Pussy to grow weary and fade out, but he crumpled immediately like a punctured balloon and the life was gone from him in an instant. His furry carcass was dead at once upon the table.

Mr Pussy possessed a strength of spirit and presence of mind that never ceased to fascinate and inspire me. Equally, he spent every day of his life among humans and he studied them with his quick intelligence as a source of never-ending interest. It was a relationship of mutual curiosity.

How grateful I am that his deep golden eyes were undimmed until the end and the extraordinary softness of his black fur was never corrupted. Whenever I picked him up, I was always astonished by the miracle of his small lithe body, quivering alive. How I loved the honey-sweet fragrance of the short fur between his ears.

For sixteen years, through the travails of my life, my cat Mr Pussy was with me. When my mother died, he consoled me. When I sold my childhood home and left, he travelled with me. When I walked all night through the streets of London on Christmas Eve, he waited for my return. When I broke my arm and lay alone in bed shivering, he was beside me. Writing is a solitary activity but, as I sat working each day, through the long hours and the years, he was always at my side as a calm and patient presence. I could never be lonely while he was here.

I realise now that he was always in the periphery of my vision and, even now that he is gone, he remains in the margin of my sight. It will be a while before he fades from my familiar expectation. I hear sounds in the house and attribute them to him without thinking. Thanks to the reflex of my unconscious recognition, any deep shadow or dark shape I spy transforms itself into him. Even now, I expect him to enter the room or to come upon him in any of his familiar spots. Yet he is not here any more and his favourite places are vacant. Returning last night, I could not rest at home and left to wander the streets for an hour instead to calm my troubled spirits. The house had never felt so empty.

I cast my mind back through time. Exactly half a century has passed since I acquired my first cat, a grey female tabby whom I named simply ‘Pussy.’ For my birthday, I was given the right to choose a kitten for myself from a litter that were born in the next street, in recognition of my progress in life, shortly before I commenced preparatory school.

How curious, fifty years later, to be confronted with my former self, a lonely child delighted by a tiny kitten, and to appreciate – for the first time – my mother’s motives in giving me a cat. Although she never expressed it overtly to me, I realise now that she saw a pet as the solution to ameliorate the loneliness of her only child. She encouraged me to read books and to write stories of my own too.

All these summers later, I sit here now alone after the death of my old cat and I am grateful for this recognition of her insight and kindness, newly granted. Writing has filled my life and I understand how this moment today is the outcome of that earlier moment a lifetime ago, when the world was a different place and I was a different person too. It was the first moment when a cat came along to guide me, leading me on the long journey, through all that time to the point of writing these words.

Mr Pussy was fine creature and he lived a fine life.

Mr Pussy was my cat.

How I miss him now I mourn him.


Mr Pussy in Summer

Mr Pussy in Winter

Mr Pussy is Ten

Mr Pussy’s Chair

At Odds With Mr Pussy

Mr Pussy Gives his First Interview

The Ploys of Mr Pussy

Mr Pussy’s New Game

Mr Pussy in the Dog Days

The Caprice of Mr Pussy

Mr Pussy in Spitalfields

Mr Pussy takes the Sun

Mr Pussy, Natural Born Killer

Mr Pussy takes a Nap

Mr Pussy’s Viewing Habits

The Life of Mr Pussy

Mr Pussy thinks he is a Dog

Mr Pussy in Spring

In the Company of Mr Pussy

James McNeill Whistler In The East End

August 15, 2017
by the gentle author

Writing my new book  EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, has brought me to a new appreciation of the work of James McNeill Whistler.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Whistler was the first artist to appreciate the utilitarian environment of the East End on its own terms, seeing the beauty in it and recognising the intimate relationship of the working people to the urban landscape they had constructed. Many other artists became fascinated by Whistler’s vision and were inspired to follow in his footsteps, some embracing his medium of etching, like Joseph Pennell, while others like Frank Brangwyn and C R W Nevinson – and more recently, John Minton, Roland Collins and Jock McFadyen – were attracted by the spectacle of the docks and the life of the river.

Click here to preorder your copy of EAST END VERNACULAR

William Jones, Limeburner, Wapping High St

American-born artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was only twenty-five when he arrived in London from Paris in the summer of 1859 and, rejecting the opportunity of staying with his half-sister in Sloane St, he took up lodgings in Wapping instead. Influenced by Charles Baudelaire to pursue subjects from modern life and seek beauty among the working people of the teeming city, Whistler lived among the longshoremen, dockers, watermen and lightermen who inhabited the riverside, frequenting the pubs where they ate and drank.

The revelatory etchings that he created at this time, capturing an entire lost world of ramshackle wooden wharfs, jetties, warehouses, docks and yards. Rowing back and forth, the young artist spent weeks in August and September of 1859 upon the Thames capturing the minutiae of the riverside scene within expansive compositions, often featuring distinctive portraits of the men who worked there in the foreground.

The print of the Limeburner’s yard above frames a deep perspective looking from Wapping High St to the Thames, through a sequence of sheds and lean-tos with a light-filled yard between. A man in a cap and waistcoat with lapels stands in the pool of sunshine beside a large sieve while another figure sits in shadow beyond, outlined by the light upon the river. Such an intriguing combination of characters within an authentically-rendered dramatic environment evokes the writing of Charles Dickens, Whistler’s contemporary who shared an equal fascination with this riverside world east of the Tower.

Whistler was to make London his home, living for many years beside the Thames in Chelsea, and the river proved to be an enduring source of inspiration throughout a long career of aesthetic experimentation in painting and print-making. Yet these copper-plate etchings executed during his first months in the city remain my favourites among all his works. Each time I have returned to them over the years, they startle me with their clarity of vision, breathtaking quality of line and keen attention to modest detail.

Limehouse and The Grapes – the curved river frontage can be recognised today

The Pool of London

Eagle Wharf, Wapping

Billingsgate Market

Longshore Men

Thames Police, Wapping

Black Lion Wharf, Wapping

Looking towards Wapping from the Angel Inn, Bermondsey

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Dickens in Shadwell & Limehouse

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Madge Darby, Historian of  Wapping

Views from a Dinghy by John Claridge

Among the Lightermen

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

At Empress Coaches

August 14, 2017
by the gentle author

Peter Stanton

One of the corners of the East End that intrigues me most is at the boundary of Bethnal Green and Hackney, where a narrow path bordered by crumbling old brick walls leads up from the Hackney Rd to the junction of Mare St and the Regent’s canal. Cutting through at an angle to the grid of streets, it has the air of a field track that was there before the roads and the railway. Looming overhead against the skyline is a tall ruinous structure with the square proportions of a medieval castle, London’s last unreconstructed bomb site, left to decay since an incendiary hit in World War II. Beyond this, you pass under the glistening railway arches to arrive at the canal where, to your left, a vista opens up with majestic gasometers reaching up the sky and a quaint old building with bay-fronted windows entirely overgrown with ivy, cowering beneath. This is the headquarters of Empress Coaches.

Here I received a generous welcome from Peter Stanton, third generation of the Stanton family at the coach yard and still operating from the extravagantly derelict premises purchased by his grandfather.

Edward Thomas Stanton was an enterprising bus driver who bought his bus in 1923 and created a fleet operating from a yard in Shrubland Rd, London Fields, whence he initiated several familiar bus routes – including the No 8 pictured above on the office wall – journeys that became part of the perception of the city for generations of Londoners. In 1927, he bought the property here in Corbridge Crescent but when the buses were nationalised  in 1933, he made £35,000 from the sale of the fleet, permitting him to retire and hand over to his son Edward George Stanton, changing the business from buses to coaches at the same time. “It was a bloody fortune then!” declared Peter, his grandson still presiding with jocularity over the vestiges of this empire today. Outside the fleet of coaches in their immaculate cream paintwork, adorned with understated traditional signwriting sat dignified and perfect as swans amidst the oily filth of the garage, ready to glide out over the cobbles and onto the East End streets.“A coach yard within two miles of the City of London, it will never happen again,” declared Peter in wonder at the arcane beauty of his inheritance.

“My father came here at sixteen with his sister Ivy who did all the accounts,” he explained, sitting proudly among framed black and white photographs that trace the evolving design of coaches through the last century. At first, the bodies of the vehicles were removed in the winter to convert to flat trucks out of season and these early examples resemble extended horsedrawn coaches but, as the century wore on, heroically streamlined vehicles took over. And the story of Empress Coaches itself became interwoven with the history of the twentieth century when they were requisitioned during World War II to drive personnel around airfields in Norfolk, while the staff that remained in London took refuge in the repair pit in the coach yard as a bomb shelter during the blitz.

“My father didn’t encourage me to come into the business,” admitted Peter, who joined in 1960, “But after being brought up around coaches and coming up here every Saturday morning with your dad, it gets into your blood and I could think of nothing else but going into it. I started off at the bottom, I was crawling under the coaches greasing them up. I was a mechanic for twenty-two years but then me and my brother Trevor bought out the company from the rest of the family, and the two of us took it over.”

“In those days, people didn’t go on holidays, they had a day out to the sea on a coach. And they had what they called “beanos,” pub and work excursions going to Margate or Southend and stopping at a pub on the way back and arriving back around midnight. Those pubs used to lose their local trade because people didn’t want to go into a bar filled with a lot of drunken East Enders. They were very rowdy and the girls were as bad as the boys.” revealed Peter, able to take amusement now at this safe distance and pulling a face to indicate that there is little he has not seen on the buses. Put it like this, I used to say that when you took a coachload of girls out on a beano and their boyfriends and husbands came to pick them up at one o’clock – if they knew what I knew these girls had been up to they wouldn’t be so welcoming. In other words, they were not so innocent in those days as people thought they were. But the police were the worst, they went bloody barmy and they did things they would nick anybody else for doing!”

“When I first started there were six beanos every Saturday in the Summer but in the whole of the last year we only did two.” he admitted with a private twinge of disappointment. As the beanos decreased in the sixties, Empress Coaches were called upon by the military for troop movements. “We used to do the Trooping of the Colour, we drove the troops from Caterham Barracks with a police escort. It was the time of the IRA and they had to check all the bins along the way and have a guy with a jammer sitting in the front of the bus, so if there was a remote-controlled bomb it wouldn’t go off. They told us, ‘Whatever you do, drive on. Even if you hit someone.’ There’d be twenty of our coaches full of soldiers plus an escort.”

These are now the twilight years at Empress Coaches, after the family sold the business and are simply employed to keep it ticking over, which explains why little maintenance is undertaken. Yet the textures of more than eighty years of use recall the presence of all those who passed through and imbue the place with a rare charmed atmosphere. I was not the first to recognise the appeal of its patina, as I discovered when Peter reeled off the list of film crews that had been there, most notably “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” who wallpapered his office with the gold wallpaper you see in the top picture. “We’ve had Michael Caine here,” he boasted, “Gary Oldman, Ray Winstone and Dennis Waterman too.”

“After I spent fifty-two years of my life here, I’ve got be here.” Peter assured to me, biting into a sandwich and chewing thoughfully,“It’s more than likely this place will be redeveloped before too long and that will be the end of it, but in the meantime – I’m just trying to keep this show on the road!”

Edward Thomas Stanton, the enterprising bus driver who invented the number eight bus route.

Edward George Stanton in his leather bus driver’s coat.

Brothers Peter and Trevor Stanton.

Mark Stanton, Trevor’s son.

Jason Stanton, Peter’s son.

Between the coaches.

A forgotten corner of the yard.

Empress Coaches, the office entrance.

Corbridge Crescent, with the canal to the right.

London’s last unreconstructed bomb site.

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Summer At Arnold Circus

August 13, 2017
by the gentle author

At this time of year, the canopy of trees over-arching Arnold Circus is an awe inspiring sight to behold, as if a forest clearing had been magically transported and placed at the centre of a maze of city streets. From within the tiny park you see the towering red brick mansion blocks framed by trees, imparting an atmosphere of lyrical romance entirely in tune with the Arts & Crafts ethos of Britain’s first Council Estate.

Yet, if you wander further within the Estate, you come upon satellite gardens contrived by the residents using old baths, canes and twigs as a means to create temporary vegetable plots among the yards between the buildings. The idiosyncratic forms of these curious contraptions hung with glinting things offer a sympathetic complement to the regularity of the architecture and it makes your heart leap to see cherished home grown vegetables nurtured so tenderly in unexpected circumstances.

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Winter Light at Arnold Circus