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Return of the Hamburgs & the Mekelburgs

May 30, 2012
by the gentle author

Solomon & Joseph Mekelburg at Solomon’s stall in Goulston St, around 1940.

For centuries the histories of the Hamburg and Mekelburg families were intertwined, living in parallel streets in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam – even before coming as economic migrants to Spitalfields in the second half of the nineteenth century, where they intermarried, lived, and worked for three generations.

While the story of these two families and their complex interrelationships is without limit, the Spitalfields chapter begins with the arrival of Benjamin Hamburg in the nineteenth century and ends with the closure of M.Mack over a hundred years later. But it is a tale that would not be told at all, if it were not for John Marx, the grandson of Philip Mekelburg and Sarah Hamburg who were married at Sandys Row Synagogue in 1914. Five years ago, upon his retirement, John set out to trace descendants of all nineteen children of the first generation Mekelburg and Hamburg families in this country, and – astonishingly – he brought more than fifty of them together for a family reunion at Sandys Row earlier this month.

Cigarmakers Benjamin Hamburg and Isaac Mekelburg first came to London in the eighteen sixties and eighteen seventies respectively, and both married women who had come been born in Amsterdam. Benjamin and his wife Flora had ten children that survived, while Isaac and his wife Mary had nine. The Hamburgs lived at 24 Shepherd St (now Toynbee St) and the Mekelburg family lived round the corner at 2 Butler St (now Brune St), dwelling  in close proximity just as they had done in Amsterdam. Twenty-three people lived in just five rooms and nine of the siblings were married nearby at Sandys Row Synagogue, including two marriages between the families.

All of the Mekelburg brothers worked in the fruit and vegetable trade. Solomon and Joseph Mekelburg had barrows in Petticoat Lane, and their endeavours evolved by 1922 into a wholesale business in the Spitalfields Market known as M. Mack, managed by Morris and Philip Mekelburg, that ran until the eighties when it closed prior to the move of the market to Leyton. The Hamburgs were known to have worked as upholsterers, shoe clippers, costermongers or tailors and, as the children of both families married, many moved from Spitalfields up to the newly built Boundary Estate occupying up to a dozen flats there, enacting the same culture of families living close-by that they had brought from Amsterdam.

John Marx’s research would barely have been possible without the internet. “It would have taken me a lifetime!” he acknowledged, “My son was looking on the web and discovered things about my mother’s family I didn’t know. I realised there was more to it than I ever imagined and curiousity drove me forward” As John discovered his living relatives that were previously unknown to him, he wrote to them all and then set out around the country to meet them face to face, pursuing a quest that culminated in the gathering in Spitalfields.

Anyone that walks through Spitalfields – more than anywhere else in London – cannot fail to wonder what became of all the people who have passed through these streets over the centuries, and the fascination of the Mekelburg/Hamburg reunion was that it provided a tangible answer to this intriguing question.

Most of those who came along did not know each other previously and many had not even been to Spitalfields before. People who had formerly been strangers discovered they were relatives as they visited the locations familiar to their forbears – which imbued the day with a certain sombre reverence as they recognised the poverty and deprivation of these recent ancestors. Yet it was John Marx who found the words which best expressed the emotional meaning of the occasion.“We remember the hardship they endured so that their children and their children’s children would benefit, and we have benefitted – which means they were successful.” he concluded, casting his eyes around the throng in the atmospheric old synagogue at Sandys Row where nine of the family had once married, in an earlier chapter of the same story which had brought everyone there that day.

Amelia & Isaiah Hamburg with their baby Mary, born in 1901.

First cousins Mary Mekelburg and Mary Hamburg

Amelia & Bella Mekelburg

Aaron Hamburg, c.1920.

Solomon Mekelburg and his stall in Goulston St in the twenties.

Joseph Mekelburg (right) and his son Teddy (left) behind their stall in the thirties.

Solomon and his daughter Mary in the forties.

Solomon Mekelburg in the fifties.

Premises of M.Mack (trading name of Mekelburg family wholesale business) in the eighties.

The reunion of the descendants of the Hamburgs and the Mekelburgs at Sandys Row Synagogue.

The bimah cover at Sandys Row Synagogue created for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 has been brought out for the current jubilee.

M.Mack photograph copyright © Philip Marriage

Reunion photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012

    What a fabulous story!

    My great grandfather’s family lived in Shepherd Street and Butler Street at around the same time so this was a very interesting read. Perhaps they even knew each other.

    A door into the recent past. More stories like these please, Gentle Author!

  2. jeannette permalink
    May 30, 2012

    i keep hoping someone will make a tenement museum in spitalfields, like the one on the lower east side of new york. it traces the lives of several families who lived in it over the years.
    so moving.

  3. May 31, 2012

    Fascinating! I love the detailed history!!

  4. geraldine permalink
    August 6, 2012

    This is a story of generations lost and found and what an interesting story this one is. John’s committment and research is a feat to be admired and his passionate research shines through.
    I wait with anticipation for a follow up to the family get together and to this families adventures in the future.

  5. Frank permalink
    September 26, 2012

    A fantastic story and wonderful pictures. I echo the call for a tenement museum in the East End like the one in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I visited the latter and it was absolutely fascinating (my great-grandparents lived in Lower Manhattan at the turn of the century). It’d be great to have something similar in London.

  6. Andrea Blackwell permalink
    June 4, 2014

    My mother was Mary Mekelburg and her father was Solly. He is in the top picture on the left at his fruit stall. I have just seen this – how amazing.

  7. Andrea Blackwell permalink
    June 5, 2014

    Further to my post yesterday, does anyone now still read this who can put me in touch with any of my relatives? I am Andrea Blackwell and was formerly Andrea Selwyn. My mother was Mary Mekelberg and my grandfather was Solomon Mekelberg. The only members of my family who I am still in touch with are my brother, Raymond Selwyn and one other cousin, Rosalind Mack (son of Edward Mack). Solomon had three children, Edward was the eldest, then my mother Mary and the youngest sister, Elizabeth. Ray, Rosalind and myself do not have any children, but I would love to hear from anyone who is still one of the family and with whom I have lost touch.

    I can remember as children, we used to visit Mary Hamburg. She used to live in the Neasden area then.

    I would love to hear from any of the Mekelburg/Hamburg families please.

  8. Andrea Blackwell permalink
    June 5, 2014

    I would also like to say that the photograph of Mary Hamburg and Mary Mekelberg must be later than 1919 because my mother, Mary Mekelberg was born on 10th January 1919!

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