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Category: America and the East End of London

From Bromley by Bow to Milwaukee

The lady of the house proudly showed the reporters around her ancestral pile, perfect in every 17th century detail, from the stone-lined fireplace with overmantel bearning the arms of James I, to the ornamented plaster ceiling (a marvel of intersecting squares and quatrefoils). Everything, in fact, was as James I himself had commissioned it.

But this was no drawing room in England (Olde or otherwise). Rather, the elaborate confection dubbed ‘the Bromley Room’ stood within a house in a residential street in Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan. How this copy of a reconstruction of a real room is a bizarre tale, perhaps even odder than the shipping of London Bridge to Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

With no disrespect to the citizens of Bromley, it’s not a part of London to which tourists in search of ‘ye olde Englande’ immediately head. Yet this often overlooked part of the East End, with most of its built environment dating from the last century or so, crops up again and again in London history.

It boasts what is generally reckoned to be the oldest brick house in London in the early Tudor manor house of Bromley Hall. Constructed by Holy Trinity Priory in 1485, the hall stood on the earlier foundations of the twelfth century Lower Bramerley Manor (so old that Bromley wasn’t even called Bromley yet). It now stands in Gillender Street, which certainly wasn’t around when it was built. The award-winning restoration of the hall in 2006 safeguarded the building for a few centuries more.

Centuries before that, the area was called Bromley-St Leonards, after St Leonard’s Priory, built in the reign of William the Conqueror. The Benedictine Priory even crops up in the Canterbury Tales. That son of Aldgate Geoffrey Chaucer mocks the prioress’s cockney-accented French, saying: “And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, after the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe”. The priory, like so many others, was destroyed by Henry VIII, and its site is now somewhere beneath the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. The only reminder of the old abbey today is in the name of St Leonard’s Street.

But one of the grandest lost buildings of Old Bromley was a palace built for James I in 1606. Its construction says much about the area as it was in the 17th century. Just as the Isle of Dogs was (perhaps) so named because Kings of England kept their hunting dogs there, so Bromley Old Palace was primarily a hunting lodge for the Scottish king. Partly built from stone salvaged from the demolished priory, it was still a royal palace into the reign of James II, with stables being added.

Its history holds up an interesting mirror to the development of this part of Middlesex as it slowly became subsumed into London and headed steadily downhill. During the 18th century it was subdivided into two merchants’ houses, in 1750 it became ‘The Old Palace School’ and then a factory. In 1894, universal education and the need for new schools sounded its death knell. What had once been a royal palace would now be demolished, with the a new London Board school raised in its place.

A few years before nobody would have cared: the fine wood panelling would have been tossed on a fire, the stonework smashed and recycled into a new building. But the Victorians had fallen in love with the past – albeit an often romanticised and sylvan version of Old England before the Fall of industrialisation. They had even invented a new type of building in which to put the past – the museum. There was an outcry over the loss of such a precious piece of London, and the artist and designer CR Ashbee led a campaign to save the building. Before the demolition men moved in, the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the house – lock, stock and state room – for £250, and rebuilt what became known as ‘the Bromley Room’, but this time in Kensington..

Miraculously, the interior of the palace had survived largely unscathed through 300 years, and the V&A curators of today give a loving description of what was found. This was the original parlour of the house, with “exuberant classical ornament typical of the period…a doorway opposite the chimney-piece, which led into a passage…the panelling divided by six Doric pilasters, or rectangular columns. These and the frieze that encircles the room at ceiling height decorated with strapwork ornament…the elaborate overmantel contains a variety of carved decoration. At the room’s heart the stone chimney-piece features a frieze of carved birds and monsters, which were probably originally picked out in gold and colours”.

Fifty years later, Wisconsin housewife, Mrs Dake, visited the V&A on a tourist jaunt to London and was entranced by what she saw. So was born the third version of the Bromley Room, an exact replica with all the carving done by the local woodworking firm Matthews Brothers abetted by a team of skilled masons. Unicorns and lions danced across the stonework, just as James I had decreed, 360 years before.

It wasn’t quite Old England. In an admirably eclectic approach, the Dakes also plundered medieval tapestries from an impoverished French count, and created a ‘tavern’ (think Hollywood does Robin Hood) using oak beams ‘rescued’ from old barns in the Wisconsin countryside. Alongside was ‘The Tent’, a room featuring a full-size Italianate fountain.

2344 East Back Bay Street in Milwaukee may be an improbable place to find a complete slice of early modern England, but the house survives to this day and is currently up for sale (a shade under $1m should you be interested). One can only wonder: does the Bromley room survive? And what an earth will prospective buyers make of it when they walk through the door?

* You can see the State Room at the V&A, http://www.vam.ac.uk/

Jacob Adler, from Odessa to Whitechapel to New York

He was a boxer, peddler and wedding crasher; married three times and with at least ten offspring; a failed singer from Odessa who became one of the great actors of the American stage. By the time he died in 1926 in New York, Jacob Adler had lived lives enough for a dozen men.

Jacob Adler

Jacob Adler

Yet it was his arrival in Whitechapel in 1883 that was to prove most significant. For Adler would transport Yiddish theatre from an Eastern European curiosity to Broadway success. As he would write in his memoirs years later: “If Yiddish theatre was destined to go through its infancy in Russia, and in America grew to manhood and success, then London was its school.”

Jacob was born in Odessa in 1855, the son of an unsuccessful grain merchant, and his early life was spent ducking, diving and picking his way through a chaotic home life and a sporadic education (“a little arithmetic, some Russian grammar, and a few French phrases”, according to Adler). Aged 12, he started making his own entertainment, going along to public brandings, floggings and executions of criminals. There were plenty of them: Odessa was a dangerous and violent place, and simply being Jewish was risky enough. One of the city’s many pogroms took place in 1859, another in 1871: thousands of Russian and Eastern European Jews were already heading for the safety of Whitechapel, either to settle or en route to New York.

The young Jacob still had a turbulent Russian adolescence to endure before he would make that trip. There was money in the extended Adler clan, yet at 14 he was working in a textile factory, soon rising to a good white collar job at 10 roubles a month (good pay even for an adult). But Jacob was drawn to the wilder side of life, hanging out in the rough Odessa district of Moldovanka, and becoming a boxer (his tagline was Yankele Kulachnik or ‘Jake the Fist’). He was a fine dancer too, becoming renowned as Odessa’s best can-can dancer, and crashing weddings with his gang. He left the factory, earning a living peddling goods doors to doors. It was a life of “back door assignations with servant girls and chambermaids” sailing very close to the law. He had now dropped the boxing but became obsessed with theatre – and here occur the meetings which would change his story, and that of theatre, forever.

Yiddish theatre was enormously popular, if derided by the more traditional members of the Jewish community, and Jacob was inspired by the improvisational performances of one of its founders, Israel Grodner, one of the stars of the Odessa theatre. Adler determined that he too would be an actor (an ability to sing had shattered his dreams of opera) but he had to fit acting within the increasing chaos of his life. After a late night at the theatre and in the taverns, he rose each morning to work in turn as a document-copyist for a lawyer, a medical orderly in the Russian army, a market inspector … and a paperboy (6am starts didn’t sit well with staying out till dawn). But by the early eighties he was making a solid reputation in Yiddish theatre, in plays such as The Witch of Botosani and Uriel Acosta.

His nascent stage career ended overnight with the assassination of Czar Alexandar II. A period of mourning meant a ban on theatre performances and Russia’s simmering anti-semitism overboiled. A total ban was declared on Yiddish theatre in Russia. Adler’s troupe, which now included his wife Sonya (as well as Israel and Annetta Grodner) were stranded in the port of Riga; they decided it was time to get out, and boarded a ship to London.

Ironically, though Whitechapel was one of the Jewish capitals of Europe by now, Jacob arrived with few useful contacts. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Adler, was a relative and Jacob’s father had written a letter of introduction, but the rabbi had no interest in helping Yiddish theatre. To Dr Adler, it was English the new arrivals needed to progress in their new home. A theatre specialising in “slang and jargon” might only harden anti-semitism.

But for Yiddish theatre in the East End, the arrival of Adler and Co heralded a major change, bringing the form to bigger stages and bringing more professional performers – though still no more than starvation wages. The Adlers and Grodners took over the Prescot Street Club, playing to audiences of 150 or so. By November 1885, Adler had his own club, the Princes Street Club (now Princelet Street), purpose built and seating 300. Shows included Fiedler’s adaptation of Schiller’s The Robbers and The Odessa Beggar. And stars of Yiddish theatre, including Sigmund Mogulesko, David Kessler, Abba and Clara Shoengold, would perform at the club when they passed through London.

But just as Jacob’s fortunes seemed made, tragedy struck. In 1886 his daughter Rivka died of croup, and wife Sonya died after giving birth to baby boy Abe. Adler’s private life was in turmoil, as he was pursuing affairs with Jennya Kaiser (who turned down his offer of marriage though she was carrying Jacob’s baby); and with DInah Stettin (whose father pressed the newly widowed Adler into matrimony). Then in winter 1887, an audience at the Princes Club panicked, believing a simulated on-stage fire was real. In the stampede, 17 died. Adler was absolved of blame, the club reopened, but the crowds failed to return.

A broken Adler cut his losses and, with a loan from the Chief Rabbi, headed for New York with new bride Dinah. There, as he later wrote, Yiddish theatre graduated from school to huge popular acclaim. By the early 90s, Jacob and Dinah were divorced and new wife Sara starred alongside Jacob on stage. He set up a new troupe, touring Philadelphia, Chicago and beyond with plays such as Samson the Great and Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear. It was the latter play that really changed things. Until then, it was a given that Jewish Broadway had to focus on sensational melodrama to pull in the crowds. Adler proved that ‘serious’ theatre could also get bums on seats.

In his declining years he wrote his memoirs (in Yiddish of course) and they were published in the newspaper, Die Varheit (The Truth). By then, Yiddish was already in decline among Londoners and New Yorkers – a natural, if sad, consequence of assimilation. Yiddish theatre would disappear altogether by the later thirties, but Adler was in no doubt how important it had been, writing: “Only dipped in blood and lit with tears of a living witness can the world understand how, with our blood, with our nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, we built the theatre that stands today as a testament to our people.” Jacob died on 1 April 1926 in New York. He was 81.

References: Adler, Jacob P., A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0

Map of Jacob Adler’s life: http://goo.gl/maps/6rBul

Cockneys to Canada

We read an awful lot about immigration to the East End – the history of our area is all about the multitude of cultures, races and languages that have poured in to the East End over the centuries. A recent count made it 78 different tongues currently spoken within the borough.

But the traffic hasn’t all been one way. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, politicians, churches and charities were desperate to do something about Britain’s overcrowded and pestilent cities.

The East End of London had an unprecedented industrial and population boom in the mid-1800s. The new industries powered by steam made cheap manufacturing possible, and drew hundreds of thousands into Whitechapel, Stepney and Poplar, to man the machines in the new ‘manufactories’.

Factory owners had grown rich – though their employees saw little profit and lived in increasingly squalid and subdivided housing. Worse still, by the 1870s, Britain’s boom was over, the economy was stagnating and there weren’t enough jobs to support the exploding East End population.

In 1871, the National Emigration League, with its board of assorted knights, MPs and clergy, produced a report detailing the problems. It spoke of the ‘great and increasing [economic] depression in the condition of the industrial and other classes’; that ‘this depression is chiefly due to, and yearly intensified by, the numbers of the population for whom the field of employment is insufficient; and that ‘the number of persons employed in work throughout the United Kingdom is an excess of the numbers necessary to execute it’.

The conclusion of the League was that there were too many people. And with the vast new country of Canada short of bodies to exploit its enormous natural resources, the answer seemed obvious: emigration to the Colonies.

The report, presented by League chairman the Duke of Manchester to prime minister Gladstone, noted nervously that ‘the population of the United Kingdom is increasing at 240,000 per annum beyond the usual rate of emigration’. They were after money to fund the programme, pointing out precedents set by Government assistance ‘in the loans for drainage and improvement of waste lands in England and Ireland.’ The carrot for the Government was that the new settlers would grow Canada’s economy, providing a market for UK goods, and in turn provide trade and traffic through London’s docks.

The League was only one of the Emigration Societies formed around the United Kingdom. There were societies formed by various religions and there were others formed to assist child migrants, including children who set out from the East End’s own Ragged Schools. The East London Emigration Fund was one such body, set up by the Honourable Frederick and William Hobart, the Countesses of Ducie, de Grey and Denbigh, ‘and other ladies of distinction’.

The Fund’s reports proudly boasted that ‘the total number shipped by the Committee was 1035 souls’. And that ‘since their arrival in Canada excellent accounts have been received from all the emigrants, not one of whom has expressed a regret at having left England. Even when difficulties have arisen, such as must naturally be expected from persons settling in a new country, there is a tone of hopefulness in their letters, which show the writers had no doubt of their ultimate success.’

The robust and confident Victorian worthies seemingly had no worries about their motivations or about the success of their plan. To the modern reader it seems a drastic solution – getting rid of the East Enders rather than creating jobs or houses for them in London; and the word ‘shipped’ suggests that they saw the emigrants as cargo rather than human beings. But the assorted Reverends, Duchesses and Sirs saw the filthy and overcrowded east London as a corrupting influence in itself. To get people out of this ‘abyss’ and into the clean fresh air of Canada must have seemed the ideal solution.

But what a shock it must have been to the cockney emigrants. The prime task in Canada was to tame and farm the huge prairies. And though their forebears may have come from the Essex and East Anglian countryside, this must have been quite a shock to the recruits, who ‘came principally from the districts of Poplar, Bow, Isle of Dogs, Limehouse, Stepney, Mile End, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Clerkenwell, Shadwell, St. George’s East, and Spitalfields’.

But with extraordinary English sang froid, the Fund’s Mrs Hobart made this enormous expedition sound rather like a weekend charabanc trip to Margate. ‘Before leaving London they were invited to tea, for the purpose of explaining to them the final arrangements made for their departure to and reception in Canada. Each head of a family was called upon to sign a paper promising to pay the amount advanced for this passage and outfit, as soon as he should be able to do so.

By early 1870, the Fund had collected £388 and five shillings; ‘equal to $1,889.19c’ … for the use of the people sent out by them, which was paid to them on arrival’, they explained. And between April and September 1870, 974 East Enders took the Allan Steamships boats across the stormy Atlantic. It was as well they ‘had no doubt of their ultimate success’, because few of them would ever see London again.