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At The Jewish Soup Kitchen

February 16, 2014
by the gentle author

Originally established in 1854 in Leman St, the Jewish Soup Kitchen opened in Brune St in 1902 and, even though it closed in 1992, the building in Spitalfields still proclaims its purpose to the world in bold ceramic lettering across the fascia. These days few remember when it was supplying groceries to fifteen hundred people weekly, which makes Photographer Stuart Freedman’s pictures especially interesting as a glimpse of one of the last vestiges of the Jewish East End.

“After I finished studying Politics at university, I decided I wanted to be a photographer but I didn’t know how to do it,” Stuart recalled, contemplating these pictures taken in 1990 at the very beginning of his career. “Although I was brought up in Dalston, my father had grown up in Stepney in the thirties and, invariably, when we used to go walking together we always ended up in Petticoat Lane, which seemed to have a talismanic quality for him. So I think I was following in his footsteps.”

“I used to wander with my camera and, one day, I was just walking around taking pictures, when I moseyed in to the Soup Kitchen and said ‘Can I take photographs?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ “I didn’t realise what I was doing because now they seem to be the only pictures of this place in existence. You could smell that area then – the smell of damp in old men’s coats and the poverty.”

For the past twenty years Stuart Freedman has worked internationally as a photojournalist, yet he was surprised to come upon new soup kitchens recently while on assignment in the north of England. “The poverty is back,” he revealed to me in regret,“which makes these pictures relevant all over again.”

Groceries awaiting collection

A volunteer offers a second hand coat to an old lady

An old woman collects her grocery allowance

A volunteer distributes donated groceries

View from behind the hatch

A couple await their food parcel

An ex-boxer arrives to collect his weekly rations

An old boxer’s portrait, taken while waiting to collect his groceries

An elderly man leaves the soup kitchen with his supplies

Photographs copyright © Stuart Freedman

Follow Stuart Freedman’s blog Umbra Sumus

You can read more about the Soup Kitchen here

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Linda Carney, Machinist

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20 Responses leave one →
  1. Victoria permalink
    February 16, 2014

    I have long been fascinated by the Jewish Soup Kitchen and love the terracotta lettering that still remains. These pictures are wonderful, and not a bit like I imagined the interior to look like. Had envisaged long trestle tables and steaming bowls of cabbage soup being eaten on mass, rather than a provision store. So glad you were allowed in that day Stuart, and thank you fir sharing GA x

  2. Fiz O permalink
    February 16, 2014

    I should imagine this place is needed more than ever now! What a shame it is shut

  3. February 16, 2014

    I was born in the late Forties (I’m a baby boomer) and raised at home in the Midlands until I was 4 years of age when I was sent to boarding school in London. I grew up a rather privileged life and I was completely ignorant on how other people lived. Seeing this article opened my eyes and I”m grateful to read it and it gives me a sense of urgency to want to help other people so that I can give back what they lacked but in other ways I’m very humbled and happy to know that these poor lovely people had received help from other sources such as The Soup Kitchen. Thank God for them.

  4. February 16, 2014

    Striking photos. Poverty is really on the march again. Here in Germany there are places for people to get food for next to nothing in every town, and soup kitchens for kids who probably wouldn’t get a hot meal if they didn’t go there. The rich get rich(er) and the poor get poorer. Valerie

  5. February 16, 2014

    these are wonderful! and yes incredible to think think they are back with a force. food banks, soup kitchens, in one of the richest countries in the world. …

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 16, 2014

    The poverty was here all the time.
    It just hides better at some times than others, that’s all.

    Some Huguenots brought their money with them, in 1685, ( One became the first governor of The Bank) but some stayed in Spitalifields & Bethnal Green until the 1900′s.
    Like my great-grandparents ….

  7. February 16, 2014

    Wonderful glimpse into past lives.

  8. February 16, 2014

    An unexpected surprise. I always so loved the exterior of this building, tho’ had never been inside. Stuart Freedman is right: poverty is back, and a current proliferation of food banks city-wide testifies to this unpleasant fact.
    (Portrait of the ex-boxer made me smile -:))

  9. February 16, 2014

    Very touching this. And the order of the day, also in Germany. We have soup-kitchens everywhere — not only for “the poor”, but for people who have not enough to live from … (and those are a whole lot!)

    That comes from what I call the filth-capitalism!!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  10. February 16, 2014

    History is repeating itself and its true that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Great photos.

  11. Stephen Barker permalink
    February 16, 2014

    In terms of social division we do seem to be going back in time. The period from the end of WWII to around the year 2000 appears to have been a blip in history. One thing that struck me if the name of the soup kitchen was up in ceramic letters they obviously expected to be around for the long haul too.

    One hopes that the economy is coming out of the recession and that those who want jobs will find them and that ordinary people will be able to live without having to rely on handouts however well intentioned. It did surprise me that the same was true for Germany whose economy I thought was doing better than ours.

  12. Gerry Wiseman permalink
    February 17, 2014

    A a child, I lived with my family in Brune house right across the street from the soup kitchen, though I never went inside. During the 1930′s when my father was out of work, we got help frm them. Until now, I always assumed it was soup. Now I realize it must have been groceries.
    Thanks for this story.
    Gerry (Westminster MD, USA)

  13. Robert Richmond permalink
    February 17, 2014

    I am so pleased that this story has been published and that the building still stands. Too many historical buildings have been demolished and although this is now apartments the building is being well maintained and the stories continue to be told….and some very fortunate people get to live in a part of history.

  14. annie permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Very interesting article and photos of the Jewish Soup Kitchen.

    I remember it was converted into expensive flats, probably late 90′s early 00′s
    Interestingly enough, there is one for sale for over £1million at the moment!
    For anyone who wants to view the interior http://www.primelocation.com/for-sale/details/16383537

  15. Vicki Lovell permalink
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you , I have just discovered your site and loving it. My mother’s family came from the East End of London, they were Jews, mostly Jacobs and Joseph (my mother’s maiden name was Joseph). So far I have traced the back to 1802, now trying to flesh out more info. Leman Street was where the Joseph family lived as shown on quite a few years Census records. So I love the pics of the Jewish Soup Kitchen. One of the Joseph boys migrated to Australia in about 1900, and settled in South Australia. I went to the UK for the first time in 2008 and went to the East End, unfortunately is was a cold wet day/night and with so many modern buildings I didn’t really find much, I will need to come back another time to do some more in depth research. Thank you for your wonderful site.
    Regards Vicki

  16. sbw permalink
    May 30, 2014

    I don’t think the poverty really ever went away; perhaps we chose not to see it for a while… And I can understand that desire to turn away and forget … Let’s all pretend we are rich… But what are riches? The GA shares great riches with us each day, changing our lives, changing our perceptions of what is valuable even. With thanks. sbw

  17. Linda Trup permalink
    September 29, 2014

    Hi. I have more photographs of the Soup Kitchen in Brune Street. My grandfather was the secretary for over 20 years and when he passed away my mother took over as the secretary and ran it until it closed.

    I used to go with both my grandfather and mother to help on a Tuesday morning and remember it fondly.

    We were very sad to see it closed down as there was still a need for the people to be given provisions as they could not afford much and what they were given were the essentials that helped them feed themselves.

    We always handed out eggs and bread (which was delivered every Tuesday, nice and fresh). I remember there were tins of butter beans, sugar, margarine (Tomor) and more. I will ask my mum what else they gave out.

    Just before Pesach there was always an appeal in the Jewish Chronicle and it was fantastic to help open the envelopes with cheques from caring individuals. I loved this time of year as I could really help by opening the letters and pinning the cheques and letters to the envelopes and everything would be written down in account books and then at Pesach we would give out matzos and other provisions (and I think they also gave out money – I will check this to make sure).

    There was a door on the other side of the room where we distributed the food from and there was a door that led into Snowcrest. We used to get treats of ice cream when we were kids from them and loved going in to see them making the ice cream and pies.

    On the other side of the hallway, outside the room where the food was distributed was a waiting room that was filled with chairs, and the people who needed help waited in there until the doors were opened for them to collect their food.

    Thank you for creating this page in memory of the Soup Kitchen, I was surprised and delighted to find it.

    Also in one photograph it shows clothes being given out to the people in need, this was something I instigated and it only came in the last few years of the Soup Kitchen before it closed, but there was a need for it as many of the people used to come in the same clothes every week.

    I will check the facts mentioned above and come back to you. If you want to contact me with any questions please do.

    Thanks again

    Linda

  18. Delia cramer permalink
    October 11, 2014

    I was thrilled today when my dearest grand daughter Charlotte came to lunch and told me she is now living in the Soup Kitchen Brune St. It is now converted into I believe nine flats,she is sharing one with a friend..how wonderful the lovely Fasia still exists.
    I had an uncle and aunt who had a grocery shop in Lemon St..Ray and Morrie levy..I can still smell the enormous barrel full of pickled herrings when we visited..did not unfortunately ever see the original site of The Soup Kitchen.

    I was born in the London Hospital..but we moved to Leytonstone shortly after my birth.
    I also had a Little boutique for nine years in Bell lane,close to Brune St…I was disappointed the wonderful Jewish atmosphere I had heard about was no more…thank you for lovely picturs.

  19. Diana Buck permalink
    August 14, 2016

    Achim, are there really soup kitchens in Germany? I am amazed.
    D

  20. Philip permalink
    October 16, 2016

    Hello I also know this amazing building and would like to find and know everything about its past history. Please can anyone send me any pictures of the Old Jewish Soup Kitchen. It would be really appreciated.

    Thank You
    Philip

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