Discovering the Jewish East End at Bishopsgate Institute
Although founded by a churchman, Bishopsgate Institute was established as a secular space. It opened to the public in 1895. Described as a polytechnic of the people, the Institute aimed to educate Londoners from all classes and backgrounds through a programme of lectures and concerts. Its library was accessible to everybody, and free to use.
From the first, the library stocked literature that explicitly targeted the Jewish community living and working to the east of the Institute in Whitechapel and Stepney. Today, the Institute continues to document Jewish lives and experiences in London’s East End. This blog post highlights some of the hidden treasures available to researchers.
“The Famous Russian Rye”
Bishopsgate Institute’s London Collections include materials describing the East End’s vibrant street markets, and their many Jewish traders and shoppers. Postcards, photographs, and illustrations bear witness to the huge crowds that gathered about the stalls on Petticoat Lane at the turn of the twentieth century, while press cuttings provide lively descriptions of the atmosphere on ‘the Lane’.
By the 1930s, more than 100,000 people were visiting the 1,000+ thousand stalls operating on and around the main drag on Middlesex Street every Sunday. Small ads for local businesses made plain the ties connecting the East End with Eastern Europe. Kossoff’s the baker on Wentworth Street, for example, is described as the place to buy ‘the Famous “Russian Rye”’.
Two of the Institute’s special collections deal explicitly with the Jewish East End experience. The Brady Club Archive is a treasure trove of photographs, flyers, and magazines documenting day to day life at this mainly Jewish youth club established on Durward Street in Whitechapel in the late nineteenth century.
The Sandys Row Synagogue Archive details the work of London’s oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue. Here you will find marriage registers and membership records (mainly from the interwar years) alongside flyers and minutes describing the activities of affiliated charitable groups, such as the Society for Kindness and Truth, the Jewish Blind Society, and the Home for Aged Jews.
Elsewhere in the Institute’s archive, the Jewish East End emerges through intriguing momentary glimpses. See for example the clutch of atmospheric photographs of the interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, which form part of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society glass slide collection.
You might choose to flick through the incomplete set of rent books for a dwellings block in Whitechapel, which lists the mainly Jewish tenants as well as information on their occupations and how much rent they paid during the interwar years. Otherwise, why not discover criminal activity among the Jewish community through the Edwardian apprehension notebooks of a one-time Whitechapel beat copper? These unique items briefly introduce you to characters like Lewis Goldstein (tried for receiving stolen goods in 1907), Solly Gershonovitch (accused of fraud in 1905), Sam Kolinsky (up in court for running a gaming house in 1909), or Max Moses (arrested for highway robbery and manslaughter in 1902).
Bishopsgate Institute’s special collections focus on radical histories so stories of activism are well-represented. You might order up the documents that describe the mid-twentieth century campaigns of the London Jewish Bakers’ Union, or spend a thought-provoking afternoon leafing through the Jewish Socialist newspaper from the 1980s. You might like to view the slim pamphlets produced by the United Ladies Tailors Trade Union, which highlight the close links between the Jewish community and the rag trade in London’s East End.
If you wish to discover more about the role of Jewish Eastenders in British communism in the 1930s and beyond, the papers of historian Raphael Samuel and journalist Sam Russell should be your first research port of call. Finally, make time to rummage around in the Labour History Pamphlet collection for sobering insight into the rise of fascism in London from the 1930s – and the valiant efforts of the local community (both Jewish and otherwise) to counter its spread.
These materials, and many more besides, are freely available to view in the researchers’ area at Bishopsgate Institute. So whether you’re exploring your Jewish roots, researching immigrant experiences, examining fascist and anti-fascist movements, or simply curious to discover the social and political history of London’s East End, why not visit the Institute to find out more? You can also examine the subject through our London History courses for informal adult learners. This term we’re offering the Jewish East End online and a range of in-person and online courses on East End history. We hope to see you there!
 Guide and souvenir programme to Petticoat Lane: a wonderful market in Stepney, London, and known the world over, London Collection Pamphlets
 Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company: Stepney Green Court/Mocatta House rent books LCM/299; Apprehension Notebooks, Wensley Archive/4/4/3-4
 Ask for GFTU/201 and GFTU/254.
 Request the Costume and Mantle Worker (1927-8), Journals Collection C
Dr Michelle Johansen