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The Soup Kitchens Of Spitalfields

May 15, 2019
by Philip Carstairs

Today Philip Carstairs traces the history of Spitalfields through its soup kitchens and, if this leaves you hungry for more, he will be speaking about soup kitchens at London Metropolitan Archives at 2:30pm on Tuesday May 21st (Click here for tickets)

This feature is complemented by Stuart Freedman‘s photographs taken at the Jewish Soup Kitchen in Brune St, Spitalfields, in 1990

Jewish Soup Kitchen 1902, 17-19 Brune St

Huguenot Soup Kitchen 1797, 115 Brick Lane

You cannot write a history of Spitalfields without describing its soup kitchens, nor can you write a history of soup kitchens without discussing Spitalfields.  The relationship between the two is deeply entwined and both their stories are complex and interesting.  The history of these kitchens encapsulates the changes in this place since the seventeenth century.

Spitalfields still has two buildings that once housed soup kitchens. The Spitalfields Soup Society functioned on Brick Lane from the late-eighteenth century and the London Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor operated on Brune Street from 1902.  Both these institutions were deeply embedded in the community and have long histories.

However these were not the first soup kitchens in Spitalfields. Soon after Huguenot refugees settled in the second half of the seventeenth century, they set up La Soupe. Although soup had been used charitably almost since it was invented, this was the first institution in England set up to serve soup. One reason for providing soup rather than money was that benefactors repeatedly claimed beneficiaries “wickedly disposed of the money in tobacco and brandy.” Thus the “advantage” of soup was that it was hard to trade or sell. Additionally, La Soupe carried out careful casework before issuing soup, investigating the circumstances of each applicant to ensure they really deserved the help.

Between 1689 and 1826 when it closed, La Soupe moved several times, yet always in the vicinity of the Spitalfields market. After 1741, it seems to have stopped providing soup and distributed bread and meat instead. At the same time, local residents weew also providing soup to the less well-off.  Newspapers in 1767 reported that “a gentleman” was giving soup to more than fifty Spitalfields poor from his house and John Gray, a Quaker journeyman pewterer, is recorded as regularly taking soup to his neighbours in the late-eighteenth century. Extreme poverty grew commonplace when the silk industry entered its long decline and the Society of Friends was at the forefront of the local philanthropy.

The late 1790s were times of great hardship for the poor across Britainas the Napoleonic wars, recession and high food prices brought famine. In Spitalfields, the silk industry was hit by falling demand and competition from smuggled silk. This great distress prompted two friends, William Phillips and William Allen, to organise a soup charity which became the best known soup kitchen in the country. Others sought its advice or bought the manuals it published. Its relationship to La Soupe is unclear. William Allen grew up in Spitalfields on Steward St where his father, Job Allen, was a silk weaver. So William must have known of La Soupe’s existence and history, although it is never mentioned in the surviving documents.

The “Society for supplying the Poor with a good and nutritious Meat Soup established in Spitalfields in 1797,” as its minute book proudly proclaims, was set up in late 1797, yet did not start supplying soup until the following January. When advertising in the press, they wisely shortened its name to the “Spitalfields Soup Society.” It seems to have operated until the early twentieth century as a soup kitchen and was still in existence as a charity in the sixties.

Although almost none of the founding committee were Spitalfields residents or associated with the silk trade (Allen was a chemist of distinction and Phillips a printer) the soup kitchen responded to the ups and downs of the silk industry throughout the ensuing century, opening when downturns threw thousands out of work and closing when times improved again. The list of committee members and donors was a catalogue of the City’s burgeoning banking and insurance sector, with Barclays, Hoares, Gurneys and others digging deep in their pockets. The partners in the Truman & Hanbury Brewery became the principal organisers until handing over control to the Rector of Christ Church in 1883.

The soup house ( the term “soup kitchen” was not widely used until the mid-nineteenth century) always remained at the same address, although the building was reorganised at some point before the 1860s when the famous print below from the Illustrated London News of the soup kitchen was engraved. As the picture shows, the soup kitchen, located behind the shops on the street frontage, was always busy when open. For six days a week, it served beef soup between 2,000 and 4,000 people from Spitalfields and neighbouring parishes.

The other principal soup kitchen in the neighbourhood was the London Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor. This started life in 1800 in the corner of Duke’s Place, Aldgate near the Great Synagogue, but closed around 1802.  The Jewish soup kitchen was refounded in 1854 in Whitechapel when immigration from Eastern Europe increased significantly and moved north to Fashion Street in 1866 as the Jewish community expanded northward.

By the 1890s, the increasing number of Jewish refugees meant that these premises, squeezed into a stable yard, were no longer viable and – as is ever the case in Spitalfields – they were to be redeveloped. So the charity raised £10,000 to build the Brune Street premises which opened in 1902. Here several thousand received soup and bread every day. This fine building was a strong statement that the Jewish community would look after its poor and it only ceased operations after the Second World War.

There have been several other soup kitchens in the area.  In around 1795, five ordinaries (an ordinary was the equivalent of a café) in Spitalfields were paid by a charitable subscription raised in the City to provide half-price soup to the poor (there were a further sixteen ordinaries selling subsidised soup in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Whitechapel).  Two of the Spitalfields ordinaries were on Brick Lane, one at either end, and the others were on Fashion Street, Lamb Street and Smock Alley (now Artillery Passage). The Smock Alley building is now occupied by Ottolenghi’s Restaurant. The proprietor of this ordinary, George Franklin, continued providing soup to the local poor for twenty years. Another large soup kitchen operated between 1847 and about 1855 at St Matthias’ Chapel on St John Street (now under the railway).

This significant element of the Spitalfields history has been largely forgotten and the documents lost or scattered.  Yet, even piecing together the story from remaining fragments, it is clear that these charities and individuals provided an invaluable service in supplying sustenance to a significant proportion of the population when no other form of welfare was available.

The Jewish Soup Kitchen in Fashion St, 1867 (Illustrated London News)

The Jewish Soup Kitchen in Spitalfields, 1879 (Illustrated London News)

The Jewish Soup Kitchen in Spitalfields, 1990, photographed by Stuart Freedman

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

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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The Dosshouses of Spitalfields

7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 15, 2019

    I remember the Spitalfields Soup Society in Brick Lane and the London Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor operated on Brune Street very well indeed. And had a vested interested in both – my thesis was about the Huguenots who were expelled from France and made a new life in London etc; and my paternal grandmother migrated from Russia and lived in poverty in the East End.

    The architecture in both your photos is splendid.

  2. May 15, 2019

    Once again we have to thank the GA and this time Philip Carstairs for revealing the depth of compassion that gave birth to these charitable institutions . The East End led the way in the foundation of care towards those who must have suffered terrible deprivations. . If you look at the records in the Pale of Jewish settlement such as Russia and Poland for the 18th and 19 century you will find so many entries for children that simply died of malnutrition.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 15, 2019

    I wonder how tasty / otherwise the soup was that they were given? I hope it was better than the watery gruel which Oliver had…

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 15, 2019

    or didn’t have!

  5. Ruth permalink
    May 15, 2019

    Thank you for your posts, they are wonderful. Sadly this one makes you reflect that there must be a need for soup kitchens in Spitalfields once again, although more often referred to as food banks these days…

  6. Rob Sharrock permalink
    May 15, 2019

    Thank you for this very interesting glimpse into history. It led me to find out about John Grey http://www.pewterbank.com/Theodore_Compton_John_Gray_-_concerning_John_Townsend…38.pdf
    You also mentioned the Barclays and Gurneys, two distinguished Quaker families. Now I’ve got the bit between my teeth I’ll be researching more about the Quaker connections with Spitalfields.

  7. Jeannette permalink
    May 22, 2019

    The long history of charity is interesting. As is the soup. I wonder if those old recipes could be recovered?
    Again, thanks for this. As our times seem to grow darker and crueller, these centuries of simple kindness to one another get much more important.

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