Jewish Presence (4): Hessel Street & district

See also these pages from the 1921 street directory, listing all the traders - the majority of which were Jewish - and giving details of some:   Commercial Road (south side) | Cable Street | Leman Street | St George's Street [The Highway]

The street name
Hessel Street [previously Morgan Street], and Amazon Street which runs off it, are named for the 'Amazon of Stepney'. Phoebe Smith was born locally in 1713. Masquerading as a man - or so she claimed - she enlisted as a private in the 5th Regiment of Foot, probably to be near her lover Samuel Golding (though other accounts say it was her father's scheme so that she could stay with him after her mother's death). She fought in the West Indies and Gibraltar, and was wounded in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. At this point she revealed her secret to the regimental colonel's wife - having previously told no-one, for you know sir, a drunken man and a child always tell the truth. But I told my story to the ground. I dug a hole that would hold a gallon and whispered it there. She then married Golding; they settled in Plymouth and had nine children. When he died, she moved to Brighton and married Thomas Hessel, a fisherman. After his death, she bought a donkey and sold fish and vegetables in local villages, and in old age toys, oranges and gingerbread near Brighton Pavilion. She wore a brown serge dress with a clean white apron, a black hooded cloak, bonnet and mob cap, and sported a large red handkerchief with white spots, and was widely-known for her stories. She was rescued from the workhouse when she was 95 by a pension of half a guinea a week from the Prince Regent, and lived to a great age. The inscription on her headstone in St Nicholas' churchyard, paid for by a local (Jewish) pawnbroker Hyam Lewis and later restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers who considered her a member of their regiment, reads

In Memeory of PHOEBE HESSEL who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713
She served for many Years as a private soldier in the 5th Reg. of foot in different parts of Europe
and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the DUKE of CUMBERLAND at the Battle of Fontenoy
where she received a Bayonet wound in her Arm
Her long life which commenced in the time of QUEEN ANNE extended to the reign of GEORGE IV
by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter Years
She died at Brighton where she had long resided December 12th 1821 Aged 108 Years

The street market
From the turn of the 20th century Hessel Street [left in 1936] became the site of 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, which was killed according to kosher ritual and dressed while they shopped elsewhere [the archway, left, next to Carver's shoe shop at 9 Hessel Street led to 25-40 Morgan Houses and also to the abbatoir area]. There were also many wet fish stalls, and general shops, with pans and kettles hanging on strings, and bookmakers. Some described it as an 'oriental' scene, the last of the ghetto markets. Right are two idealised portraits: an artist's impression, looking towards Commercial Road, and a drawing by Noel Gibson of around 1980 (long after the street's heyday).

A street or a bazaar? - legal wrangles
The market did not emerge spontaneously: an entrepreneur was involved, and this was Abraham Davis, of 19/20 Aldgate. Ownership and tenancy of the small houses in Morgan Street, and in Cannon Street Road which backed onto it, was complex - some had passed into Welsh, and American hands - but by 1902 he had acquired 25-49 Morgan Street (on the east side, between Commercial Road to the north and James Street to the south) and proposed their demolition, to erect six new blocks of dwellings to a height of 52' (agreeing in 1902 to pay Frederick John Roberts of The Grange, Shepperton £10 for loss of light to his property on the west side of Morgan Street at 26-36 - this and other documents are here). His original intention was to demolish the remains of London Terrace - tumbledown houses between the back yards in Morgan Street and Cannon Street Road - and with it the footway, carried on brick arches, which gave access to these houses (the space beneath providing cellars) and to the rear of some of the properties in Cannon Street Road. In November 1902 he gave notice to the district surveyor of his intentions, and proceeded to build the blocks of dwellings, including 24 basement shops. This involved excavation, to provide the necessary air space at basement level (8' 6" below Morgan Street); at first he intended to clear the space completely and do away with the footway, but discovered that the Cannon Street Road houses depended on the brick arches. He was also served notice by Silverman, one of their occupiers, claiming a right of way from the rear of his premises along the footway. So in 1903 he replaced the old arches and cellars with a new concrete and iron structure to provide the necessary support, with a 'granolitic cement' paving to the footway above, beneath which were fifty-five small lock-up shops (6' wide, 4' 6" deep and 9' high, with a 9" brick wall separating each; most of them had small gables projecting above the footway). The 24 shops and 55 lock-ups - and the dwellings, accommodating 800 people - were let almost entirely to Jews, as weekly tenants. Steps and passages at various points gave access to the space between the rear of the shops and the front of the lock-ups, and to the yard where the poultry was slaughtered, all of which Davis lit and cleansed; the site had iron gates at various points, closed on the Sabbath or festivals when no trading was permitted, though there were other points of access.

London County Council v. Davis (1904) 91 LT 555, 68 JP 520, 2 LGR 1065
In September 1903 information was laid before a magistrate by Thomas Chivers that Abraham Davis had created a new street for foot traffic without the necessary permissions, in contravention of s.7 of the London Building Act 1894, with the penalty provided by s.200 (1)(a) as amended by the London Building Act, 1894 (Amendment) Act 1898. The magistrate dismissed the information, ruling that he had created a market but not a street. The case went to the High Court (King's Bench Division) and was heard by Lord Alverstone (the Lord Chief Justice) sitting with Kennedy J and Phillimore J.  The judgement reviewed the agreed facts; commented on markets elsewhere in London; and stated that the list of actions which would indicate the 'commencement of a street' in s.8 of the 1894 Act was not an exhaustive one. Relying on the precedent of another significant case on this issue, Armstrong v. London County Council [1900] 1 QB 416, and the fact that (even when the gates were locked) the space could be freely used by any who wished - which indeed was in Davis' own interests - the court overturned the magistrate's ruling and remitted the matter to him. In the event, the street was sanctioned for foot traffic in 1905; it was around this point that Morgan Street was re-named Hessel Street.

In commenting on these and other cases, textbooks of the time said it was all a matter of degree, even though small developments involving two or three houses required permission under the Act. Hessel Street was, of course, a more extensive development - but not as grandiose as Davis' next scheme, which was to create (with his brother Wolff) what today would be a 'shopping mall', with shops, reading rooms and steam baths, in Spitalfields. He took a lease on what became Fashion Street Arcade, envisaging 250 shops; in the event, when it opened in 1909 there were only 69, fronted by a Moorish design in pale red brick, dressed with moulded red brick and terractotta and lavishly ornamented with cement [right]. It failed - compare, rather more recently, Tobacco Dock - and he was bankrupted. It became workshops with living accommodation above, but (having survived the Blitz and other depradations) much of it has now been restored. See further Anne J. Kershen Strangers, Aliens & Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1660-2000 (Psychology Press 2005) p56.

However, Abraham - born in 1866, one of six sons
of Wolff Davis, a Whitechapel furrier, all of whom became active in building projects, individually or together - did not give up! He continued to work with his brother Israel on cinema construction, and in his own right on philanthropic housing projects (often acting as his own architect) in St Pancras, Maida Vale and St John's Wood, with bodies such as the London Housing Society and the Lady Workers' Homes, exploiting post-war government schemes for housing finance; thus, he made his mark on the streetscape. He served as a borough councillor for St Pancras. Isobel Watson, in 'Rebuilding London: Abraham Davis and his brothers, 1881-1924' (The London Journal, 29:1 of May 2004, pp62-84) comments whereas his brothers were speculative builders and no more, Abraham Davis' career is unusual among builders in adding a dimension of public benefit.

The Vanishing Street
In 1961, the day before the bulldozers moved in to replace the old buildings with high-rise blocks, Robert Vas made a 20-minute film showing a typical day in the life of the street, and its declining but still vibrant Jewish community. Initially called District for Sale, it was funded by the British Film Institute Experimental Film Fund and the Jewish Chronicle, and was approved by the Council for Christians and Jews before its release; it was first shown at the National Film Theatre in November 1962.

Vas, who had been brought up in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Germany, was an advocate of the 'Free Cinema' technique. It was shot with a lightweight 16mm camera and tape recorder and presents impressions of the street, combinging long shots and close-ups over a background of natural sounds, snatches of conversations and old Yiddish songs; there is no voice-over commentary. It has a lyrical and nostalgic quality. Authorised viewers can see the film on BFI screenonline.

A few shops remained, in Jewish or increasingly Muslim hands - left is a greengrocer's in 1978, one offering eggs for both Passover and Easter, with signs in Arabic too, and a 1991 grocery shop. In 1988 Alan Dein photographed [right] derelict shopfronts to record the last moments of the Jewish community in the area – the bustling world of the inter-war years had been moved into the suburbs, and the community that stayed behind was less identifiable. In the nineteen eighties they were just hanging on, some premises had been empty for more than five years. Like a mouthful of broken teeth, a boxer’s mouth that had been thumped, with holes where teeth once were.

Left is Hessel Street in 2011.

Round the corner - Umberston Street

From 1940-47 the Aufrichtig family, who had escaped from Austria, ran Robert's Restaurant at 2-4 Umberston Street [now the site of the popular, much-reviewed Lahore Kebab House] before it moved to 17 Commercial Road. Here are more details, from the fascinating family site run by Ronny Roberts (born Ronald Aufrichtig - left as a five-year old) - who has been in contact with us. He also runs this site about his wife's family, who had local connections for many years. What by the 1970s had become the largest kosher bakery in Europe, J. Grodzinski & Daughters, established by Lithuianian immigrants from Voronova, near Lida (now Belarus), Harris and Judith Grodzinski, began nearby from a trading barrow in 1888 (or soon after), then with a shop at 31 Fieldgate Street, over which they lived, next to the Great Synagogue (its site marked by a plaque on the wall); in due course they had 18 outlets in London and elsewhere. Right is an early photograph. Nephew Chaim Elyah Grodzinski (who married Judith's sister Jessie) changed his name to Hyam Hyams; his sons Phil, Sid and Mick became major developers of super-cinemas across London. Here is a fascinating lecture about the project to transfer the Wurlitzer organ from their 1930 Trocadero, at Elephant and Castle, to the Troxy further along Commercial Road. 'Mr Phil' died, aged 102, in 1997.

Some other local features were the Mackworth Arms (aka 'The Latke House'), Frumkins and the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre (opposite Umberston Street). The following are some further snapshots of Jewish life down the years:

Conditions for 'alien immigrants'
As explained here, a 1903 Royal Commission on Alien Immigration took detailed evidence on the appalling conditions in which may immigrants, primarily Jewish, lived in London. One example (from 29 May 1902) comes from Umberston Street:
3427. You went on to another place and stayed there some time?After that place I went and found a place in Umberston Street, Commercial Road. I was working there about six months, and master lived there in two underground kitchens. One kitchen used to be the workshop, and in the back kitchen my master live with himself and his wife and his children, and my master's wife had a sister, a single girl, who slept in the workshop on a chair bed, and when I came in the morning to work ... I had to knock at the door. Sometimes, like a female, she had not got up quite so early, and he said, 'Wait a minute', and I waited till they waked the girl up and she left the place. I was working there six months.
3428. How many were there working there?—Two foreigners and the master. I worked there for six months, and afterwards I got ill working there late hours.
3429. What hours were you working?—Working till one o'clock in the morning, and sometimes till two, and every Thursday night all night.
. Was trade very brisk then?—Trade was. At that time what I recollect was eight or nine months busy during the year, and three or four
months slack, but in the slack time a person had the chance of getting a bit.
3431. What wages were you earning at that place?—I used to earn from about 24s. to 25s. a week.
3432. What hours? From 8 o'clock in the morning, and I never left there before one the next morning, and sometimes two, and every Thursday all night.
3433. What was the work you were doing - finishing?
was only doing the same work as I am doing now - slippers and dancing shoes....

A hapless vinegar seller
In 1920 Mr H. Morris, a general dealer of Hoxton Street, bought a 4½-gallon barrel of vinegar for 6s. 3d. from S. Gamse of 30 Umberston Street. He sold some to a man who unfortunately happened to be an inspector of Shoreditch Borough Council and summonsed him, because it was 53% water. Morris lodged a complaint against his  supplier; he claimed that at the time he did not know there were different sorts of vinegar, and had been told that this kind should be sold for 4d. a pint. 'S. Gamse & Brother' had traded from this address, and 93 Cannon Street Road, from before the turn of the century, but by this date (when Gamse was a trustee of the Clapton Synagogue and Talmud Torah in Lea Bridge Road, founded in 1919) Julius Fox had taken over the business, as grocer and provision dealer. He was declared bankrupt in 1921, and three years later paid creditors at 5½d in the £.

A local dairy
The Davidson Brothers were running a dairy at 17-19 Umberston Street in the 1920s; in 1926 they advertised in The Dairyman Creameries and Dairymen having at any time Surplus or Sour Cream to offer would find it profitable to get in contact with Davidson Bros, who are purchasers for unlimited quantities for spot cash. By 1948, still advertising [right], they were David Davidson Ltd. Their phone number changed over the years, from Avenue 1890 to Royal (0)528 to Royal 1376.

An adventurer
Morris Abraham 'Two-Gun' Cohen (1887-1970), born in Poland, lived as a child in Umberston Street. He had an intriguing life - he moved to Canada, was a boxer, supervised Chinese workers and in 1922 became aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-Sen, and later a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. (He is said to have carried two guns, and to be able to shoot with either hand.) He returned to Canada, and retired to Salford, where his many contacts brought him lucractive consultancies. He wrote a 1954 biography with Charles Drage (1954), but more accurate is Daniel S. Levy Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography (1997). Gary Cooper's 1936 film The General Died at Dawn is based on his story, but he was turned into an Irish-American called O'Hara!

Hasidic teaching in a former pub
Many local synagogues were 'western' in style, adapting to local culture. A few maintained the distinctive style of Hasidism (Chasidism) - from the Hebrew for 'pious' - originating in 18th century Eastern Europe as a spiritual rather than an intellectual movement, the men marked out by sidelocks, black frock coats and fur hats. In 20th century England, they had split into insular and deeply conservative groups loyal to their dynastic rabbinic leaders. One such leader was the Premishlaner Rebbe, Israel (Zalman/Arye) Margulies (1885-1957), born in Galician Przemyślany, near Lvov, into a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He came to London with his family in 1927, first living chez Moses Zeev Linder at Chicksand Street, and then, with £100 provided by Hyman Spector of Willesden purchasing the former Captain Cook public House at 45 Umberston Street (its licensee in 1910 had been a Deborah Margulis - coincidence or not?) Here he established the Shtiebl Kehillat Yisrael ('Community of Israel', also known as the Premishlaner Shul). His melodious voice and warm personality attracted a number of followers. In Tea with Einstein & other memories (Peter Halban 2006) barrister William Frankel recalls playing in and around the former pub with the Rebbe's children (three more had been born), and also the Rebbe's gossipy visits to his mother, over many glasses of tea: the Frankels also originated in Galicia, so he was landsman. Frankel describes him as more 'earthy' than the saintly Sassover Rebbe whom the family also knew in Whitechapel (he died in 1929 and was succeeded hy his teenage son). Frankel's father, having failed as a Petticoat Lane stallholder, became the shammas (clerk/administrator) and collector of weekly membership subscriptions for the small Sander Street synagogue, moving later to the more imposing Artillery Lane synagogue.
Margulies left in 1932 for larger premises on Vallance Road, and moved to Cricklewood in 1938 where he founded a new synagogue, and again some years later in Golders Green. He was a member of the Council of Jewish Sages. More detail in  Tzvi Rabinowicz A World Apart: the story of the Chasidim in Britain (1997).

History  |  Jewish Presence (1) - Settlement  |  Jewish Presence (2) - Synagogues  |  Jewish Presence (3) - St George's Settlement Synagogue
Jewish Presence (5) - Convert clergy | St John Golding Street