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William Fishman, Historian

September 29, 2017
by Anne Kershen

Anne Kershen remembers William Fishman (1921-2014), distinguished historian of the East End

William Fishman in Whitechapel

The grandson of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Bill walked the streets of the East End with his father as a young boy in the twenties and witnessed poverty little different to that of a hundred years before. As Bill described the experience in East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, he ‘ate, laughed, wept and dreamed dreams with the immigrant poor.’ Seeing his tailor father giving coins to the needy in the street and his rabbi grandfather bringing home hungry strangers, whether Jew or Gentile, to the Friday night dinner table imbued Bill with two life-long guiding principles: compassion and charity – or in the Hebrew, rachamones and tzedakah.

As a teenager in the thirties, Bill was drawn to Labour and then to Communism, which at the time was seen as the only way to oppose men such as Oswald Mosley and Fascism in general. Bill was at Gardner’s Corner in Whitechapel on October 4th 1936, when Mosley attempted to march through the East End and ‘make it his own.’ Later, Bill admitted that, as a teenager, he was not quite sure why he was there, he ‘only knew I had to be.’ Those events of the thirties were to feature powerfully in his teaching, when he became a Professor at Queen Mary College, now Queen Mary University of London.

But the outbreak of the Second World War put Bill’s plans of becoming a teacher on hold. He served with the Essex Regiment in India and it was there he picked up the languages and dialects that he would use to greet South East Asian immigrants in Brick Lane forty years later. For a short while, Bill was seconded to Scotland and a Scottish regiment – the sight of William J. Fishman in a kilt was something to behold.

After demobilisation in 1946, Bill trained as a teacher and at the age of thirty-four became Principal of Bethnal Green Junior Commercial College. The College’s main activity was the provision of evening classes, enabling Bill – the ever hungry historian – to make up the study he had sacrificed at the outbreak of war. He enrolled as a student at the London School of Economics and combined a full-time job with being a full-time student.

A fluent French speaker, Bill was drawn to exploring theories of French anarchism. These studies resulted in his first book, which in subject matter was both geographically and temporally distant from the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel that were familiar to him. In The Insurrectionists (1970), he explored the lives and ideologies of French revolutionaries, including Marat and Robespierre, in order to identify their influence on Karl Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution. The writing demonstrated the originality, intellectual depth and lyricism that were to mark him out as a prize-winning historian.

Bill’s love of history and equal dislike of bureaucracy led to a Schoolmaster Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, where he met a number of distinguished historians who stimulated his desire to research the area in which he had grown up, and bring its political and social history to a wider audience.

In 1972, awarded the Barnet Shine Fellowship, Bill was able to leave his college job with its demanding administrative work load and join the newly-formed Politics Department at Queen Mary College. There Bill completed East End Jewish Radicals, with whose gentle anarchist hero, Rudolf Rocker, he felt such empathy. After this, he embarked on other books which would take the study of the East End beyond the realms of academia and into the reach of a general readership, especially The Streets of East London (1979) and East End & Docklands (1980) which combined photography of the past and the present. At this time, Bill become celebrated for his walking tours of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and The Streets of East London included maps so readers could follow in his footsteps.

In his tour de force, East End 1888 (1988) Bill explored in minute detail the events of the decisive year in Victorian England. Poverty, criminality, immigration and overcrowded housing were all part of the East End landscape, but they resonated far beyond and the resolution of the consequent social problems became part of the national political agenda. East End 1888 was intended as a warning that these same issues were not to be ignored a hundred years later. In the words of George Santayana, which Bill quoted in the front of the book, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ If we look around us today, it appears neither 1888 nor 1988 have been remembered, which makes East End 1888 a book for our time.

Colin Holmes and I have edited a book which celebrates Bill’s work, entitled An East End Legacy, Essays in Memory of William J. Fishman. It comprises a selection of writings which reflect not only the respect and love with which Bill Fishman was held, but also the extent to which his work has spoken to others.

William J. Fishman (Bill to all of us who knew and loved him) was a true child of the East End. Born and raised here, he spent his entire teaching and academic career in the area he captured so brilliantly in his writing. Whilst the sight of him striding down the streets of the East End is no more, his memory and impact live on.

William Fishman (1921- 2014)

Photographs courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute

Click here to buy a copy of An East End Legacy, Essays in Memory of William J. Fishman edited by Colin Holmes & Anne Kershen published by Routledge

9 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2017

    A reference to Bill’s meeting with a number of Oxford “distinguished historians” would include Raphael Samuel both an initial Oxford student and subsequent historian at Ruskin College, Oxford. Like Bill, he also lived in the east end in Spitalfields Elder Street.

  2. September 29, 2017

    Nice to see the photos of Bill, he was a fantastic man. Valerie

  3. Stephanie Maltman permalink
    September 29, 2017

    He was generous, kind and inspirational. Much loved and much missed.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    September 29, 2017

    Bill Fishman one of my heroes.

  5. Anthony Pollock permalink
    September 29, 2017

    Bill was my teacher at Morpeth
    Street between 1949/1953.
    He was an inspiration to me and
    Many others Inc.Brian Hall.He
    helped us out long after we left
    School,he was truly a great man
    Long may he be rembered

  6. Yvonne Buffman Cheyney permalink
    October 8, 2017

    Bill was my head teacher at the Bethnal Green Institute when I went for evening classes after I left school in 1958. I went with him and a group to Europe 2 years in a row mainly paying respects to the battlefields at Pachendale. Bill had his wife and 2 young boys with him. I still have quite a few pictures in black and white. W

  7. Yvonne Buffman Cheyney permalink
    October 8, 2017

    We were all so young back in 1958. I have never forgotten these travels and how informative Bill was. One of the stories was that when he looked at the visitors book at the town hall in one of the cities in Belgium – in 1940 it stated “We welcome our German allies.” In 1944 or 1945 the same visitors book stated “We welcome our British allies.” I have never forgotten those statements. Pretty powerful. In Pachendale the guns are stuck in the ground next to the markers and some of the helmets on top of them have bullet holes. Dr. Fishman passed along history that many of us can pass along to generations. I celebrate his life and times.

  8. Lisa Benecke permalink
    June 6, 2019

    I was a visiting student at Queen Mary in the 90’s. Professor Fishman co-taught one of my lectures, and it was my privilege to go on his Ripper walk, or as he called it, “Fishmania.” He was such a lovely man and a wonderful lecturer. I’m so glad I got to meet him. May his memory be a blessing.

  9. April 4, 2020

    bill was the principal at tower hamlets college of fe ,as it became,when i was there in 1968.

    a truly inspiring local academic.

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