Hessel Street, London – an Appreciation

On Sunday 16th December I attended a late Chanukah party at the Triangle Jewish Genealogical Society, just up the road from Raleigh, North Carolina.
One of the features of the afternoon was a Kvel & Tell and I delivered the following introduction to the film “The Vanishing Street” which focusses on Hessel Street in London’s East End.

“Ladies & gentlemen and Debbie, very many thanks for inviting me here today to Kvell and Tell about the film, “The Vanishing Street” (which is showing behind me – but with the sound switched off) which tells of Hessel Street in London’s East End.
We are going to deal with Hessel Street’s place in East End social history and its place in my family history and in my wife’s family wanderings.
What qualifications do I have for being here today?
First my great grandparents lived in Hessel Street in 1883 when it was called Morgan Street. In 1901 Alice’s grandfather stayed in the adjacent Christian Street when he was a jobbing tailor en route to the United States from Roumania.
Hessel Street is famous as a Jewish Street Market.
Eric Levene, author of Feinstein’s Theory of Relatives writes of Hessel Street, much in the manner of Damon Runyon with his ability to place people and events in time and geographical location

“In the beginning, there were no Jews.
But by the 1920’s, Hessel Street market, in the heart of London’s East End was full of them. There were butchers, bakers and chicken soup makers, costermongers and a host of wheeler-dealers and luckless shpielers.
A 200 yard long and maybe 10 yard wide sardine tin, crammed full of vibrant Jewish life and, as nature would have it on occasion, death. They came from all over. There were Poles & Russians, Latvians and Lithuanians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Rumanians and Georgians, plus a multitude of others who had escaped the pogroms that had been raging across Eastern Europe.
And remarkably, they all got along with each other without the need to argue; unless they needed to”.

Anyone of a certain age with an East London connection will be aware of Hessel Street and its place in social and mercantile Jewish East End and many more will have heard tales of it from parents and grandparents. There is a Facebook Group of Hessellters and they meet and hold informal lunches in Westcliff, Essex near the mouth of the Thames.
The Vanishing Street is a wonderful 20-minute documentary film and is readily findable on Youtube. It was made in 1961 as the bulldozers moved in to demolish the street’s decrepit old buildings.
By then the market was almost a relic.
This film purports to show a typical day in the life of the street, and its declining but still vibrant Jewish community
The film begins with a smartly dressed surveyor with his theodolite, measuring up the street for demolition as the market stalls are being set up and the locals, meet, chat and go about their business
We see old men with black hats and long beards, sizeable ladies with loud voices, Wurst and viennas, fish (including I think a conger eel), pots and pans, dresses and toys, a barber’s shop and a dress factory with dozens of women at their Singer sewing machines.
By 1961 the market was almost a relic. The London Docks were moving to Tilbury and people were being decanted out of the area into nice new more sanitary housing in the new towns of Harlow and Basildon.
There were still many Jews in the East End but nothing compared with a few decades earlier.
Economic progress and the Blitz had moved them on.
The joke was always that Stepney Borough Council always saw its purpose as demolishing the buildings which the Luftwaffe had missed.
In the early 20th century Hessel Street was the East End’s main Jewish market, open every day except Saturdays
The narrow street was filled with small shops and stalls
Chickens and other poultry were kept in cages; buyers selected one, had it killed according to kosher ritual and dressed while they shopped elsewhere
There were also many wet fish stalls, and general shops
Possibly it was the last of London’s ghetto markets
I have a cousin in London who recalls that her mother always bought her chickens from the “Jews Market” because of the freshness and the quality – even though the Watney Street market had cheaper chickens and was closer to her home.
In Hessel Street, and in much of the East End, Jewish life has been replaced by Bangladeshi life – and there are hints of this in the film.
The kosher poulterer has been replaced by the Halal butcher.
Jewish market stalls have been replaced by Bangladeshi stalls, selling very similar things
Jewish poverty has been replaced by Sub-Continental poverty and Jewish striving by their striving
What is said today about the people fighting their way into Europe absolutely echoes what was said about Jews between 1880 and 1905 when millions fled from Russia and Poland
Then as now there were people traffickers.
Then as now people were fleeing desperate circumstances
Then as now there were the unchanging complaints about immigrants and their strange ways of life
In 1871, before Jewish immigration, the average occupancy of a Whitechapel house was just over nine people, in 1901 it was close to 14
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 120,000 Jews in the East End
Now there are very few. As the years passed, people moved away to more comfortable places.
Where there were over 100 synagogues – today there are only three
Seen today, The Vanishing Street is a nostalgic film but not a sad one
The East End was somewhere to flee to and somewhere to escape from.
Thus we see in the film, the continuing dynamic of street life and everyday life because as we all know “For things to remain the same, everything must change”
And that concludes my Kvell and Tell on The Vanishing Street.
Thank you for your patience and attention”.

It went down well and there was a lively Q&A afterwards. The East End diaspora is everywhere!

The Legacy of Josephus Daniels

JJosephus Danielsosephus Daniels was a North Carolinian appointed by President Wilson to be Secretary of the Navy during the First World War. Daniels is famous for many things but particularly he objected to alcohol on ships and ordered that coffee be served instead. The author Garrett Peck in his book “The Great War in America” reports that recruits groused about their “cup of Josephus” which today is referred to as a “Cup of Joe”. (This thought is challenged on the internet – but has an aura of authenticity about it and in any case deserves to be true).

1944 And All That

My brother and I tend to meet up two or three times a year to have a decent lunch and catch up on the events in our lives and those of our nearest and dearest.
Recently we lunched at the Royal Oak in Stambridge, Essex. We were discussing family history and wondered whether our parents would have been proud of us had they not died over seventy years ago. Our conclusion was that they would have been proud of us – particularly as we were enjoying hors d’oeuvres of pigeon’s breast with black pudding accompanied by a French Cabernet Sauvignon.
This conversation came back to me when I came across the attached photograph of West Ham Bus Garage in the aftermath of its bombing on 30th July 1944.Which was the same evening that a stray (!) bomb hit our house causing my brother and me (who were in a Morrison Shelter) to become orphans.
You do not have to be a fan of Dad’s Army to reflect on what would have happened had Great Britain lost the war. We would have become a colony of the Third Reich and our assets and resources would have been transferred to the centre on an ongoing basis – since the purpose of colonies is to produce wealth for the centre and not absorb the resources of the empire.
Flash forward seventy odd years and what do we have? We have assets and resources being transferred from Great Britain to the centre (now in Brussels) on an ongoing basis with very little influence on how they are managed and spent.
All of a sudden I see Brexit in a different light.

All Politics is Local – the Sequel

A commentator observed this morning that the mid-term results were good enough for everyone to find something to be joyous about.
The Republicans in N.C. kept enough seats to hold their majority in the N.C. General Assembly. The Democrats won enough seats to overturn the Republicans’ veto proof super majority.
The three candidates mentioned in my blog of 24 October were all successful.
Anita Earls is on the N.C. Supreme Court and promises to apply the law equally to everyone, no matter their race or how much money they have in their pocket – an impartial judiciary that operates without fear or favor is the cornerstone of a healthy and thriving democracy. The court currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority, and Earls will shift it to a 5-2 Democratic majority. Although, much of the court’s work is non-political, it often rules on lawsuits involving the state legislature or governor.
Susan Evans collected 61% of the votes cast and so is now firmly a member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
Democratic challenger for sheriff, Gerald M. Baker upset longtime Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, out-polling the Republican incumbent by a wide margin (approximately 10% with nearly all precincts reporting at midnight)
Outgoing sheriff Donnie Harrison congratulated Gerald Baker wishing him the best and promising that if there was anything he could do he was there to help.
Justifiably, Wake County Democrats are immensely proud that 45 of their 49 endorsed candidates won their election bids.
To the victors go the spoils, to the vanquished an opportunity to lick their wounds, review the past and decided whether to run again next time. Every candidate goes into an election with the belief that they can make life better for the residents. Some can convey that message better than others.

All Politics is Local

The former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is said to have observed that all politics is local. And so, I take a great interest in what is happening in the current election in the city, the county and the state. I have been to a number of political lunches and suppers and have seen or met many candidates, some of whom stick in the mind (for good reasons and bad) and some stand out as candidates worth supporting. Every candidate goes into an election with the belief that they can make life better for the residents. Some have a better chance than others and some are worthier than others.
I have seen three candidates who impress.

First is Anita Earls who is running for N.C. Supreme Court. She is a Yale Law School graduate and speaks with feeling as to how her own family experienced tragedy and were denied lawful redress. Her personal experiences fuel her passion for justice and a hunger for fairness for all.

Susan Evans wishes to be a member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
Her promise is to ensure that our county’s continued growth will keep Wake a great place to live, work and learn! Challenges exist in meeting the needs of the growing community. Susan will bring a cool head and a warm heart to the County’s deliberations.

Gerald Baker, is running for Wake County Sheriff. He has nearly 28 years of Wake Sheriff’s Office experience including assignments in each divisional area of the Office. What I liked about Mr. Baker’s presentation was the way he highlighted the need to refocus the department. For example, currently it does not follow up on incomplete 911 calls. Thus, leaving the callers still with their problems which logically can only get worse – yet nipping crime in the bud is an essential police duty. Gerald promises to be Sheriff for all people.

Why am I involving myself? Because on Monday morning I was at the Optimists’ Park Polling Station from seven until ten meeting, greeting and handing out party “slate sheets”. The early morning temperature was just above freezing. So, I have earned the right to voice my opinion.

It Takes a Queen

The Wall Street JournalHalf Farthing 1843 on October 6th carried a review by Judith Flanders of the book “Behind the Throne” by Adrian Tinniswood.
The review contained a fairly detailed report on the royal employees/servants. Queen Elizabeth for example has 1,200 people looking after her and her households.
Medals are given for long service in lieu of what are known to be extremely poor salaries. The royal households of previous centuries did little better. Under Queen Victoria, reforms to a chaotic private Buckingham Palace lowered the wages of the maids by almost two-thirds, to as low as £12 a year, while leaving unchanged the salary of the queen’s hereditary grand falconer (a position held by an aristocrat) at £1,200 per annum. Never mind that the she had no falcons, nor any intention of ever acquiring them.
At this point I have to express a personal interest in this story. My great grandmother worked in Queen Victoria’s Windsor Castle laundry. I suspect that the wages were less than a £1 a month and I can understand why it was not a long term career path nor a stepping stone on to greater things.
With such arbitrary penny pinching it is no wonder the Royals feared the revolutions which swept Europe and the United States in the late eighteenth century.
And perhaps the wonder is how the Royal Family managed to survive and prosper to the present day with such attitudes.

How the West was Won

I have occasionally blogged on the joys of Aberystwyth and its place as a University town in the far west of Wales. The story is that its railway line escaped axing in the Beeching era, not because the line was profitable but because it ran through five Labour held parliamentary constituencies.
It is a nice place to visit, not just because we have family there but because of its indomitable spirit of activism despite the efforts of the City fathers.
This spirit is exemplified by the sign I saw in a car window.

Does it mean that Aber is overrun by ravening hordes who will smash a car window in search of stale (or otherwise) food. No, it means that if due to idiosyncrasies in the licensing laws, the pie shops close before throwing out time at the local bars, then there is no profit to be found scavenging in the parked vehicles looking for left over sea gull food.