The Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club Final Reunion Dinner
When I attended the 86th Anniversary Dinner of the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club in 2010 as guest of Ron Goldstein, I promised to return each year until the last. The numbers of those who were members from the nineteen-thirties were diminishing and, somehow, I foolishly imagined that eventually I should be there eating dinner with the remaining members fitting round one table.
Yet, possessing greater insight than I, the reunion committee took the executive decision to make the 90th Anniversary Dinner this year the final one, and thus Contributing Photographer Simon Mooney & I discovered ourselves amidst the excited throng at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Sq, on Monday night.
“It takes me back to when I was twelve, and the first night I met Maxie in the blackout in 1939 in Hare St, that you know as Cheshire St, on my way to join the Club” Manny Silverman ex-chief of Moss Bros and Norman Hartnell Couture reminded me, referring to Maxie Lea, the irrepressible Club Secretary who has been organising these dinners each year for the last sixty years. “It’s end of an era for everyone who went through the Club’s doors, but we are resigning because time is catching up with us and there have been no new members since 1989,” Manny confessed, raising his eyebrows for dramatic emphasis.
At the next table sat Dennis Frank, the oldest surviving Club Manager at a sprightly ninety-seven years old, with his junior, Alf Mendoza at a mere ninety-five. “I’m going to catch up with him eventually,” Alf assured me with a significant grin.
“We’ve had this same menu for the past ten years,” Maxie informed me proudly, as the waiters began serving Chicken Chasseur with carrots and broccoli again, “it means we don’t offend anybody.”
Monty Meth tapped my wrist in a kindly way. “No-one comes for the dinner,” he whispered diplomatically, winning my envy as he tucked in to a specially-made omelette. “There isn’t a month goes by that I don’t remember the Club,” he continued, speaking fondly, “Without it, I would have gone off the rails, but it kindled my interest in photography and writing that led to my career in Fleet St.”
Once the Chicken Chasseur was cleared away and the familiar Black Forest Gateau had been consumed, it was time for Monty’s speech as the climax of the evening and here I publish a few highlights.
“When I ask you later to be upstanding to drink that last toast, I would like us all to recall those few men of vision – who, on June 15th 1924, opened the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Jewish Boys’ Club. They were in the main graduates of Cambridge University who gave us what spare time and cash they had to buy numbers 3 & 4 Chance St, once the Blue Anchor pub, that had been converted into a cabinet-making workshop of the type so prevalent in Bethnal Green at the time.
Boys were admitted to the Club at the age of thirteen. Fifty-four boys were originally chosen by headmasters of local schools to join the Club and, by October 1925, one hundred and twenty had joined.
Twelve years later, the big decision was taken to open the doors to anyone irrespective of their religion – a decision which became known as the ‘Cambridge & Bethnal Green Experiment.’ It was regarded as “an alarming suggestion” by some people but I was interested to see that the parents of all the club members were consulted and not a single objection was received. By December 1938, the Jewish Chronicle admitted the “experiment was working very well.” Membership was then three hundred and twenty Jewish boys and eighty of other religions.
In a financial appeal launched at the time, the Club announced it was open to everyone irrespective of religion or denomination, no one was turned away. Segregation had ended. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the Club gave us the opportunity to emerge as individuals.
I retain to this day vivid pictures in my mind’s eye of George, Rowland, Derek Merton, and others , marching off from the Bishopstone Camp in 1939 to join the the King’s Royal and Tower Hamlets Rifles along with Club seniors. Some twenty young Club members never returned. I remember Ruby Ginsberg and Henry Landau. Others here tonght will recall Harry Freshwater. My own tent captain Donny Carlton was one of those who left the Bishopstone Camp but came home having won the Military Medal for gallantry.
So I’m now going to ask you to stand for a minute or so while we raise our glasses and recall the men who founded and led the Club for sixty-five years from 1924 until 1989. Let us remember too the boys we met, the friendships we made, and let us pledge to retain those Cambridge principles of fellowship, irrespective of race or creed, of tolerance and community cohesion, for as long as we live.”
Monty’s speech had attracted good-natured heckling by those who still did not want the Club to end, but after a last spirited performance of the Club song, the old boys dispersed into the night and an era in the East End that began with the opening of the Club in 1924 passed away. “Tonight is the end of my youth,” was Manny’s elegaic summation of the event, before he had another thought and announced, “now I can begin my second childhood.”
Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney
Follow Ron Goldstein’s blog for future reports on the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club
You may also like to read these reports of previous dinners
and my interviews with members of the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club