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In Tenterground

August 18, 2017
by the gentle author

Norman Jacobs sent me this unpublished memoir written by his father Isaac (known as ‘Ikey’) Jacobs, entitled Fleish or no Fleish? Below I publish extracts from his extraordinarily detailed manuscript, comprising a tender personal testimony of a Spitalfields childhood in the years following World War I.

Ikey Jacobs in 1959

My Tenterground consisted of six streets in the form of a ladder, the two uprights being Shepherd St and Tenter St, and going across like four rungs. Starting at the Commercial St end were Butler St, Freeman St, Palmer St and Tilley St – and this complex was encapsulated by White’s Row, Bell Lane, Wentworth St and finally Commercial St.

Our family lived in Palmer St which had about ten houses each side. They were terraced with three floors, ground, first and top. Each floor had two rooms, the front room overlooking the street and the back room overlooking the yard. By today’s standard the rooms were small. The WC and water tap were in the yard, and there was no inside toilet or running water.

The house we lived in contained three families. On the ground floor was a tailor who used his two rooms as a workshop. He was a foreigner, or – to us – a Pullock.  All foreign Jews were called Pullocks by English Jews, no matter which part of Europe they came from. It was a corruption of Pollack. Should my mother be having a few words with a Pullock, she would tell them to go back to Russia – Geography not being her strong point. Incidentally, if we had words with an English family they would tell us to go back to Palestine. So it evened itself out. Our family, with roots of settled residence in England traceable back to the seventeen-nineties, spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish worth mentioning, and I’m ashamed to say paid but only lip service to Jewish holidays.

Jack Lipschitz was the tailor’s name. He threatened me with dire consequences for mispronouncing his name – his surname of course. He had a sewing machine in his front room where his wife and daughter, Hetty, worked and a sewing machine and long bench for ironing in the back. He did all the ironing whilst his brother, Lippy – also part of the menage – worked the back room machine. In the summer, Jack did all the pressing in the yard where there was a brick fire for the irons. How these four people lived and slept there too, I don’t know.

Up one flight of stairs to a small landing saw the door to Solly Norton’s rooms, which he shared with his wife, Polly, and son, Ascher, who was about my age. They had the first gramophone I ever saw, the type with the big horn. I would often go down and play with Ascher to hear it. The Nortons kept a fruit stall in the Lane.

Up another flight, along another very small landing, the door to our front room faced you. We moved to Palmer St from Litchfield Rd in Bow where we had lived in my Aunt Betsy’s house. She was one of my mother’s elder sisters, so I assume my parents must have rented a room or two off her.

I came into the world as the second child on December 21st 1915, my sister Julia having joined the human race on on April 30th 1914. The move to Palmer St must have taken place in late 1916 or early 1917. Once there, the family increased at a steady pace – Davy 1917, Woolfy 1919, Abie 1921, Joe 1923 and Manny 1924. We were named  alternatively, one on Dad’s side of the family and one on Mum’s, Julia being the name of Dad’s mum and Isaac the name of Mum’s dad.

Rebecca & John Jacobs

My father was by trade a French polisher. When there wasn’t much in that line – which was often enough – he would turn his hand to other things. He was a very good lino-layer and, as he knew quite a few furniture shops along the Whitechapel and Mile End roads, he would get the occasional job doing that. From time to time, he would act as a waiter at the Netherlands Club in Bell Lane (note the connection with the Dutch Tenterground). He did this with a tall elderly man called Phillip, and I would often boast to my friends that my father was Head Waiter at the Bell Lane Club, which is what we called it.

My mother worked as a Cigar Maker, when she was single, in a firm she referred to as Toff Levy. Like many other cigar and cigarette firms of that time, it was situated in Aldgate. It was all handwork and girls were cheap labour. Working in the same firm was a certain Sarah Jacobs, and a friendship sprang up between her and Mum. This friendship sealed my destiny for – although as yet I was unborn – Fate had decreed that I was to be a Jacobs.

My mother was christened Rebecca (but known ever after as Becky), and she was the eighth child of Isaac and Clara Levy, born in the heart of the Lane at 214 Wentworth Dwellings on November 22nd 1888, just a few months after Jack the Ripper was supposed to have written the cryptic message “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for nothing” on one of its walls. My Nan, who had produced this heavenly babe, was herself a midwife. But alas for poor Isaac Levy, whose forename I proudly bear, he died at the turn of the century in company with Queen Victoria. My mother had told me that she left Castle St School at thirteen years of age, which seems to coincide with the death of her Dad, who had been a lifelong cripple and had to wear, as my mother put it, a high boot.

My dad, John, first saw the light of day on March 7th 1892 at 23 Bell Lane as the first child to bless the union of David and Julia Jacobs. His arrival was followed in quick succession by that of a brother Woolf and sister Sarah, the eventual link between John and Becky when she too worked for Toff Levy.

Upon our arrival in Palmer St, a stone’s throw as the crow flies from both Wentworth Dwellings and Bell Lane, we were a family of four, but we steadily increased to nine. Living on the top floor with this ever-expanding family had its problems – getting the pushchair up and down stairs, the occasional tumble down the stairs by one of the little ones, carrying up all the water and then the disposal of the dirty water again. Sharing one WC between three families didn’t help either.

On entering our front room, on the far right wall was a small coal-fired range, grate and oven. To its right, in a sort of recess, was a bed which was occupied by Mum and Dad, and generally the latest arrival. To the left of the fireplace, was a dresser which held the plates, cups and saucers and jam jars. Cups had a high mortality rate amongst us kids, so stone jam jars were pressed into service. Most of the cups were handleless. Some of the plates were of the willow pattern design and Mum would often tell us the story they depicted – “Two little boys going to Dover” etc.

We slept in the back room. We never had pyjamas, I don’t think we’d ever heard of them. So going to bed was quite a simple procedure – jersey, trousers, boots and socks off and into bed in our shirts. I can’t remember Julie’s night attire, she slept with the younger ones. We older boys slept like sardines, heads top and bottom, with all our legs meeting in the middle.

Ikey Jacob’s Map of Dutch Tenterground

On reflection, I suppose we were a very poor family. Dad did not seem to have regular work and the burden of feeding our ever increasing family fell heavily on the shoulders of mother. In the main, we lived on fillers like bread, potatoes and rice, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. When Dad was working we did have good meals, but memory tells me there may have been more lean times than fat ones.

Bread and marge was the usual diet for breakfast and tea. Rice boiled with shredded cabbage or currants was served for dinner many a day. Potatoes, with a knob of marge, or as chips did service another day. Fried ox heart or sausages sometimes accompanied the potatoes. Fried herrings and sprats were issued when they were plentiful and cheap. There were times we would have a tomato herring and a couple of slices of bread, William Bruce was the name on the tin of these delicacies, still a favourite of mine today.

It was a common practice in our house to buy stale bread. One of us would be sent to Funnel’s with a pillow case and sixpence to make the purchase. Early morning was the best time to go as many other families did the same thing. We were not always lucky but when we were the lady would put four or five loaves in the pillow case, various shapes and sizes, for our tanner. When we got them home mum would sort out the fresher, or shall I say the least stale, for eating, and the remainder would then be soaked down for a bread pudding. Delicious.

We would also buy cakes that way too from Ostwind’s in the Lane. Six penn’orth of stale pastries was our order to the shop assistant and she would fill a paper bag up with them, probably glad to get rid of them. When in funds, large cakes were also bought on the stale system and I would often be sent to Silver’s, high class baker in Middlesex St, to purchase a sixpenny stale bola, a large posh-looking cake.

Itchy Park was the only park in the area. Not very large, it contained the usual gravestones, seats, trees and a few swings. As boys we were not always welcomed by our elders, who would probably be trying to have a kip. I used to like picking the caterpillars, little yellow ones, off the trees and putting them in matchboxes. Someone had told me they would eventually grow into butterflies but, after watching them carefully for a few days and finding nothing had happened, I would discard them – box and all.

The park was contained by a small wall from which sprouted high railings. Along this wall, sat the homeless and down and outs. It was said the park got its name from these people rubbing their backs against the railings because they were lousy. A drinking fountain, was set in between the railings with a big, heavy metal cup secured by a heavier chain. It was operated by pressing a large metal button, and the water emerging from a round hole below it.

In front of this stood a horse trough, much needed then as most of the traffic serving Spitalfields Market was horse drawn. The Fruit & Vegetable Market was very busy, especially in the morning when Commercial St would be choked with its moving and parked traffic. All the produce would be laid out on sacks, in baskets or in boxes, and one of the sights of the market was to see porters carrying numerous round baskets of produce on their heads. For me, this was the best time of day to go looking for specks – these were bad oranges or apples thrown into a box. Selecting those with half or more salvageable, I would take them home where the bad parts were cut away and the remainder eaten.

Ikey Jacobs in 1938

There were times when Dad would have to pay the Relieving Officer a visit. I don’t know how the system worked, but if you could prove you were in need he would allocate certain items of foodstuffs, and, I suppose, a few bob. After all, the rent had to be paid. His establishment was popularly called the bun house. When Dad returned we all gathered round to inspect the contents of the pillow case as he placed them on the table. The favourite was always the jar of Hartley’s strawberry jam. Being a stone jar, when emptied, and that didn’t take long, it served as another cup. The least popular item was the cheese, suffice to say we called it ‘sweaty feet.’

Our main provider in the winter months was the soup kitchen in Butler St. It opened two or three nights a week and issued bread, marge, saveloys, sardines and of course soup. The size of the applicant’s family decided how many portions they were entitled to – the portions ran from one to four. When you first applied they issued you with a kettle, we called it a can. It had a number stamped on the side depicting how many portions you were to get. Ours had four.

When it opened for business we would all line up outside along Butler St. Once inside, six crash barriers had to be negotiated in a single line till the door leading to the serving area was reached. There would be two men doing the serving, both dressed in white and wearing tall chef’s hats. The first one would give me four loaves, always brick loaves, two packets of Van den Burgh’s Toma margarine and two tins of sardines. If I preferred saveloys to soup, he would give me eight of those. I was always told to get the soup, because we had saveloys once and they were 80% bread.

Having dealt with the grocery department, I moved along to the soup-giver. He was a great favourite of mine, known by our family as ‘the fat cook,’ a stout, domineering man with a fine beard. As I gave him the can, he would look me in the eyes and ask, “Fleish or no Fleish?” If you did not want any meat you’d say “No Fleish.” Although, as a rule, the meat was 50% fat, I was always instructed to get some. So I would look up into his eyes and reply in a loud voice “Fleish.” He would glare at me and go off to a large boiler to get it.

There was a long table with form seating down each side, set out between the boilers and the servers, where anybody, Jew or Gentile, could go in and sit down to a bowl of soup and a thick slice of bread. They did three different varieties of soup – rice, pea and barley alternatively, one variety per night. People who did not want the soup at all, but just the groceries, were given a metal disc with the portion number stamped on it. Funny, not wanting soup in a soup kitchen.

Every Passover, before they closed for the summer, we would be given four portions of groceries for the holiday. Four packets of tea and of coffee, (I loved the smell of that coffee, its aroma came right through the red packet with Hawkins printed on it) Toma marge and many other foodstuffs. But not matzos – these were obtainable from the synagogue. Dad would come back from Duke’s Place Shul with about six packets of these crunchy squares. The ones we disliked most were Latimer’s because they were hard, but generally he would bring Abrahams & Abrahams, a trifle better. But beggars can’t be choosers and I suppose we were beggars, now I come to think of it.

Eventually the time came when we were told we were to leave the Tenterground. It was going to be pulled down. All I felt was despair. I knew no other place or way of life. Those dirty streets and slum houses were part of me. Long after we left, I would dream I was back there only to wake up to the reality that the Tenterground had gone for ever. Well, not quite for ever, there is still a little boy who haunts those long vanished streets –  Ikey Jacobs.

A page of Ikey Jacobs’ manuscript

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    August 18, 2017

    A beautifully evocative account of hard times.

  2. Classof65 permalink
    August 18, 2017

    Life was so hard then, but Death was worse. Those who survived were the strongest people on earth. However, we remember those hard times as some of the best times of our lives.

    Mazel tov, Ikey!

  3. August 18, 2017

    Wonderful story filled with many memories for me. Valerie

  4. August 18, 2017

    GA has this Jewish family well documented here every e-page tells a story; nice. This family is full of enterprise all the way, lots of love to all you Jacobs in East L. Shalom Aleichem. Poet John

  5. Jenny Woolf permalink
    August 18, 2017

    I hope the full manuscript can be published, if there is more of it. I loved it.

  6. jim king permalink
    August 18, 2017

    Thank you very much for these wonderful daily articles, my mother worked in several cigarette factories around Commercial Street.

  7. Suzanne permalink
    August 18, 2017

    These are great memories – so evocative and descriptive. Thanks for sharing.

  8. aubrey permalink
    August 18, 2017

    This narrative has an amazing attention to detail. It certainly endgenders memories of trying to make room for everyone and a space for everyday things for living; and trying to keep clean – public baths once-a-week. I liked the sense of humour that runs throughout this excellent piece. Unusual for characterising such dire conditions.

  9. August 18, 2017

    So evocative of a vanished East End. Thanks for this.

  10. Helen Breen permalink
    August 18, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing this colorful memoir of Ikey Jacobs. He certainly wrote clearly and well. I wonder how much formal education he had in these circumstances? I enjoyed his sense of humor and attention to detail.

    My guess is that he was quite a reader.

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