JFS Hebrew Lesson

Scripture lesson, Jews’ Free School • London Metropolitan Archives

This gorgeous treasure, from the London Metropolitan Archives, shows a group of schoolgirls from the Jews’ Free School in London’s East End learning Hebrew in 1908.

Jews’ Free School (JFS) was first started in 1732 as the ‘Talmud Torah of the Great Synagogue of London’. It was set up to educate the orphans of the community.  In 1822, the school became ‘The Jews’ Free School’ and relocated to the centre of the East End, Bell Lane in Whitechapel. It became the largest Jewish school in Europe, with more than four thousand students. Girls and boys were taught separately, with different curriculums.

In the 1930s, children often came straight from the Kindertransport to JFS. During World War II, students were evacuated to East Anglia and Cornwall and the School was destroyed by enemy action. It re-opened in 1958 in Camden Town where its location was central for the London Jewish community of the late 1950s. In 2002 JFS relocated to Harrow.

Here is an extract (courtesy of Jewish East End) from Israel Zangwill’s 1892 novel Children of The Ghetto, describing the JFS in the late nineteenth century. Israel Zangwill was a JFS student and teacher.  He has been described as the Jewish Dickens:

“Moses …went past Mordechai’s shop without going in, and was only awakened from his daydream by the brazen clanging of the bell.  It was the bell of the great Ghetto school, summoning its pupils from the reeking courts and alleys, from the garrets and the cellars, calling them to come and be Anglicized.  And they came in a great straggling procession recruited from every lane and by-way, big children and little children, boys in blackening corduroy, and girls in washed-out cotton; tidy children and ragged children; children in great shapeless boots gaping at the toes; sickly children, and sturdy children, and diseased children; bright eyed children and hollow eyed children; quaint sallow foreign looking children, and fresh coloured English looking children; with great pumpkin heads, with oval heads’ with pear shaped heads; with old men’s faces, with cherubs’ faces, with monkeys’ faces; cold and famished children, and warm and well fed children; children conning their lessons and children romping carelessly; the demure and the anaemic; the boisterous and the blackguardly, the insolent, the idiotic, the vicious, the intelligent, the exemplary, the dull – spawn of all countries – all hastening at the inexorable clang of the big school bell to be ground in the same great, blind, inexorable Governmental machine.  Here, too, was a miniature fair, the path being lined by itinerant temptations.  There was a brisk traffic in toffy, and gray peas and monkey-nuts, and the crowd was swollen by anxious parents seeing tiny or truant offspring safe within the school gates.  The women were bare headed or be-shawled, with infants at their breasts and little ones toddling at their sides, the men were greasy and musty, and squalid.  Here a bright earnest little girl held her vagrant big brother by the hand, not to let go till she had seen him in the bosom of his class mates.  There a sullen wild eyed mite in petticoats was being dragged along, screaming towards distasteful durance.  It was a drab picture-the bleak, leaden sky above, the sloppy, miry stones below, the frowsy mothers and fathers, the motley children. “Monkey Nuts! Monkey Nuts!” croaked a wizened old woman.”

We love this treasure for the wonderful details of the schoolgirls. You can see their faces more closely by visiting the LMA’s own gallery, where the photograph is available in higher resolution.


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