Jewish Presence (3) - St George's Settlement Synagogue

was founded in 1919 by (Sir) Basil Lucas Quixano Henriques (1890-1961) and his wife at a disused hostel at  26a Betts Street. Captain Basil Henriques, 6' 4" tall, was educated at Harrow and Oxford, and had served with distinction in the 3rd Battalion of the East Kent Regiment (taking part in the battle of Cambrai, commanding one of the earliest tanks, used en masse for the first time). Iin 1918 he published Prayers for Trench and Base  for Jewish soldiers, elements of which later formed part of the Setttlement's prayer  book [see below], and also what became its youth club prayer - akin to Compline! - When we are asleep and when we are awake, into thy hand we commend our spirits and with our spirits our bodies also. Thou art with us; we shall not fear. (See here for his involvement in the creation of the war memorial at St George's.)

In 1914 he had established the tellingly-named Oxford & St George's Club for Jewish boys at 125 Cannon Street Road; the club badge [right] combined dark blue (Oxford), red (St George), Tudor roses (England) and the Star of David. Rose Louise Loewe (b.1889) had founded a similar girls' club in 1915. In 1917 they married, and became leading figures in the community - he was 'the Gaffer', she 'the Missus' (he called her 'Bunny'). They advocated an assimilationist or Anglicised style of Jewish life, which was promoted through their clubs and holiday camps (many of them at Highdown, near Goring-on-Sea). Camps for boys and girls were separate, and run on traditional English lines. There, and at the clubs, they taught sports, acting, ballet, physical education, first aid, and encouraged career aspirations within a modern outlook on Jewish heritage. (Some former members still meet for annual 'camps' - though in hotels!) Right are girls outside Betts Street, and a 1926 camp meal. The Prince of Wales visited the club in 1927 (joining in happily, it's said, with Bunny's 'Camp Songs') - he returned in 1934 to open the new flats, mentioned below.

Boys and girls came together at the Betts Street site. In 1929 the synagogue and settlement moved to 33 Berner Street, off Commercial Road [see here for some views of the street], on the site of a former Board School [left, showing the netted roof for ball games - they also created a rooftop garden - and a 2004 brochure marking the 90th anniversary of the club]. It was named Bernhard Baron House, who provided £65,000 for its purchase - he was the founder of the tobacco company Carreras (taken over by Gallahers), and died in 1929. Designed by Hobden and Porri, it had 125 rooms equipped for welfare work, a variety of skills and crafts, and recreation - catering from cradle to grave, with a maternity clinic, toddler group, youth clubs (here is their club cry, based on a Maori chant Bumalaka), young marrieds and parents groups, a Friendship Club and lunch club for the elderly and a burial scheme. There were also religious classes and other adult activities, a diabetes clinic and first aid centre, a boot club to provide footwear for poor children and a Poor Man's Lawyer scheme (a precursor of the Citizens Advice Bureau). It had a well-equipped gym, and the shower room was well-used by youngsters who had no baths at home. The club was renowned for its sporting successes, with cricket, football, netball and hockey teams, and coaching in swimming, PT, table tennis and particularly boxing: the lightweight champion Harry Mizler coached the boys' team. Next door in 1934-35 Burnett, Tait and Lorne designed Basil House, in Modernist style [right].

In the mid-1920s the synagogue [left], uniquely, had affiliated both to the Movement for Reform Judaism (RSGB, 'Reform Synagogues of GB') and the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (ULPS, which later became 'Liberal Judaism'). In 1929 it produced its own distinctive service book (preface right - some of its features survive in its successor congregation's worship). The style is somewhat anglicised - though perhaps not as much as that of other Liberal and Reform synagogues of the period - with texts set to English music by Rose, who formed a choir with girls from the club, accompanying them on the organ. (She also produced a club song book, of 176 songs with new words to traditional tunes (here is one, celebrating the start of the girls' club on 18 July, to the tune Catcher in the Rye.)

During the war, the premises survived the Blitz, and provided shelter, and First Aid and Air Raid Wardens posts. The Gaffer kept in touch with the 600 old boys and girls who were serving in the forces, and later published some of his correspondence with them. He and the Missus, and the choir, conducted Sabbath evening services in various air raid shelters, including the notorious Tilbury shelter, close to the Settlement, in the arches, vaults and cellars of the LMS Goods Station and adjacent 8-storey warehouse. This was one of the largest shelters, accommodating up to 16,000 - it had also been used as a shelter in the First World War - and was described as a 'hell hole'. Some improvements were made before the King and Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1942.

Rose, an avid self-taught artist  - she served on the board of the Whitechapel Gallery - painted many watercolours of the besieged borough, including 'The Foothills, Tilbury, bombed second time' in 1941 [above right, plus her charcoal sketch of the shelter] - it was also drawn by official war artists Ardizzone and Moore - as well as the clear-up and triage activities of the Civilian Defence Service, bombed-out synagogues and churches, and scenes of everyday life around the Settlement building, viewed from its roof.  The Bancroft Library hosted an exhibition of her paintings, Stepney in Peace and War, from November 2013 - 6 March 2014 - details here. Left are 'La Toilette' of 1930 - showing women washing in their back yards - and 'Berner Street Yard' of 1947; see also 'Coronation in Challis Court' (1937), 'The New Driver: Ambulance Station, Cannon Street Road' (1940) and  'Next Day, Watney Street' (1941).

In 1942 the congregation was one of the six Reform synagogues which founded RSGB, Reform Synagogues of Great Britain [now the Movement for Reform Judaism] - at this time it claimed to be the third largest non-Orthodox synagogue in the country. In that same year, Henriques founded the Jewish Fellowship, though because of pressure from elsewhere it did not campaign actively until 1944. It was essentially an anti-Zionist group, seeking to define the Jews as a religious group rather than citizens and affiliates of the coming nation state of Israel, which they believed would jeopardise Jewish identity in other parts of the world. It had less than 2,000 members, from the Liberal and Orthodox communities; its counterpart, the American Council for Judaism, was 14,000 strong. Zionists savagely retorted that they were insensitive, cowardly, shameless, self-hating and disloyal Jews. The movement disbanded in 1948, but shaped the attitudes of a generation of liberal Jews. See further Stephen E.C. Wendehurst British Jewry, Zionist and the Jewish State 1936-1956 (OUP 2011) and vol. 1 of Mark Avrum Ehrlich Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Diaspora (2009).

As wardens of the settlement, Basil [left, in his later years] and Rose lived on site up to and beyond their retirement in 1947, demonstrating their commitment to the area. It was at this point that he was knighted for services to youth welfare. He was also a magistrate (chairman of the East London Juvenile Court), President of the London Federation of Boys' Clubs and involved with the [Royal] London Hospital. See further his autobiography The Indiscretions of a Warden (Methuen 1937), followed by The Indiscretions of a Magistrate (1950), and L.L. Loewe Basil Henriques (RKP 1976). There were other Jewish clubs with similar ideals (though different approaches to Zionism), such as 'The Hutch', Brady (at a Hanukkah party in 2013 the webmaster of this site met a former member who described the all-girls' production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore and sang from memory one of its numbers) and Victoria Boys (of which Lionel Bart, né Begleiter, was a member). HaBonim is said to have been founded in Cannon Street Road in 1929 by Wellesley Aron and Norman Lourie, modelled on the German Wandervogel movement, and espousing collective strength and outdoor activities; Habonim Dror is now a major international secular socialist Zionist youth movement.

In 1961, after Basil's death, Berner Street [left in 1938, and today] was renamed Henriques Street in his honour. Rose worked on: one of her post-war projects was the creation of workshops for the elderly, providing light work (such as button carding) and companionship for pensioners; the British Medical Journal commended this scheme, and that of the similar Employment Fellowship - right is her oil painting of 1954.

Rose continued to paint - in 1961 the Whitechapel Gallery had mounted an exhibition of her work from 1935 onwards under the title 'Vanishing Stepney'. Her hope was that local people would cherish all that had been good about old Stepney while embracing the bright new world of what was to become Tower Hamlets! - for example, right is her watercolour of around 1951 'Berner Street Fait Accompli'. She died in 1972.

The success of their and other local Jewish projects meant that many progressive-minded Jews flourished and moved out of the area, to find better housing and opportunities elsewhere. In 1973 the Settlement premises were sold (they, and Basil House, are now private apartments). The youth clubs moved to Totteridge, in north London, and the synagogue to the Brady Club (Bradi Sentar) at 192-96 Hanbury Street. (The first Jewish Boys' Club was founded in 1896 in a former Whitechapel vicarage; the Girls' Club was founded in 1921 by Miriam Moses OBE JP, the first female Jewish Mayor, and its Warden for 28 years; the Hanbury Street premises were opened in 1936 by the Duchess of York [later the Queen Mother], and by the 1950s had become a settlement offering a wide range of provision.) When this in turn closed, moving to Edgware as the Brady Maccabi Youth & Community Centre in Edgware, the Hanbury Street site becoming Tower Hamlets' Brady Arts and Community Centre, and the synagogue moved to the Stepney Jewish Girls' Club [now a day centre run by Jewish Care].
In 1997 the Settlement Synagogue (as by then it was known) merged with South West Essex Reform Synagogue, Newbury Park, Ilford as South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; the offices moved to Newbury Park, but worship for East End Jews of various affiliations continues at the day centre, Phyllis Gerson House, Beaumont Grove.

Here is the 50th Anniversary Review (1914-64) of the Settlement which gives a detailed account of its history. Plans are afoot for the centenary in March 2014 - details here.

See other pages on local Jewish life:
Jewish Presence (1) - Settlement
Jewish Presence (2) - Synagogues in the parish
Jewish Presence (4) - Hessel Street
Jewish Presence (5) - convert clergy

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