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Category: Jewish East End

Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO


Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Bernard Bresslaw: much more than a Carry On actor

THE RESHOWING of a host of the Carry On films over Christmas was a glorious reminder of one of the East End of London’s most underestimated thespian talents, writes John Rennie. Underestimated? Surely this was a guy who was never out of work in a career that stretched over 40 years, from his early days in repertory theatre until his untimely death in 1993, at the age of just 61.

Bernard Bresslaw

Bernard Bresslaw

But ask anyone of my generation or older (I was a child of the sixties and the Carry Ons were my introduction to comedy, alongside Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd and the rest) and the Stepney actor (son of Jewish immigrants) was a one- or at best two-trick pony. He was the stereotyped giant lunk: Ken Biddle in Carry On Doctor or Bernie Hulke in Carry On At Your Convenience. He was also regularly called upon by Talbot Rothwell, screenwriter to the later of the Carry Ons to play over-the-top ethnic stereotypes: there wasn’t a lot of political correctness in in Carry on Up the Khyber’s Bungdit In or Carry On Cowboy’s Little Heap, but there were plenty of laughs. You didn’t get marks for underplaying your role in the Carry Ons of course, but Bresslaw’s repertoire of leering and eye-rolling could have reached the back row of the stalls at the Glasgow Empire, let alone lighting up the more intimate rectangle of the cinema and increasingly the TV screen. And yet Bresslaw, just like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, was able to ham and mug it up without losing the scripts’ already tenuous grip on reality. The truth was that Bernard, like many of the cohort, had a solid grounding in the theatre – the ‘legitimate’ theatre even.

But none of us knew that. Yes we’d seen Bresslaw outside of the Carry Ons, but in roles not far off them: he was the startlingly dim Popeye Popplewell in I Only Arsked! or Snowdrop in Too Many Crooks. They were always cockneys, they were usually crooks, and they were generally soft both of heart and head. Alongside though, Bernard had a major reputation in serious theatre, Shakespeare being a passion. He performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and at the National Theatre. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night (now that would be a play worth revisiting in the cold days of early January) and Grumio in Taming of the Shrew. He studied his art and he had an ear for poetry, even penning his own verse.

Bresslaw took his trade seriously, but he was never as disparaging about ‘mere comedy’ as were some of his fellow performers. Williams famously reviled the Carry Ons, believing they had stymied his chances of being taken seriously as a legit actor. Bresslaw enjoyed them and gratefully banked the cheques – in an insecure profession, a franchise that calls you back decade after decade isn’t to be knocked. And alongside he quietly got on with the ‘serious’ acting. On 11 June 1993 Bernard collapsed in his dressing room as he prepared to take the stage at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regents Park, where he was to play Grumio in a New Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a patronising cliche to say it was how he would have wanted to go. At just 59, Bresslaw would certainly like to have lived out many more years with wife Betty and sons James, Mark and Jonathan. But it’s a good way to remember an actor who, while loved for his portrayal of Sir Roger Daley (think about it) was a master of his craft.

Lovely clip of Bresslaw, Sid James and Terry Scott on the set of Carry On Up The Jungle.

Oscar Eckenstein, mountaineering pioneer and pal of Aleister Crowley

eckenstein front row second left

NO OBITUARY notice seems to have appeared when Oscar Eckenstein died in 1921. No mentions in the press, no plaudits from his fellows in the British mountaineering fraternity, and no reminiscences of daring climbs or brilliant innovations. Yet this East Ender is one of the most curious figures in London history. The son of a Jewish socialist, revolutionised the sport of mountaineering, taking it from the hands of the enthusiastic gentlemen amateur climbers who were scaling (and dying upon) the peaks of Europe and Asia, and setting the foundations for the professional sport it is today. The clues for his omission from history lie in that London East End provenance, a rich vein of anti-semitism among the toffs who dominated climbing, and a fruitful climbing partnership with Aleister Crowley: an extraordinary character dubbed in turn ‘The Great Beast’, ‘the wickedest man in England’ and (when the popular press was getting particularly excited) ‘the wickedest man in the world’.

It certainly took a man with a strong nerve to climb mountains with Crowley. But then Oscar Johannes Ludwig Eckenstein was no shrinking violet. The Londoner had scaled his first peak at just 13 and swiftly made enemies with his unflinching criticism of Victorian climbing styles. When he encountered Crowley on a climb in the Lake District in the 1890s, the two outsiders immediately took to each other. Crowley was fascinated by the older Eckenstein and his curious history. In an era of effete Victorian climbers, who would be led to the peak by trained guides, Eckenstein demanded that climbers should rely on their own wits and skill, even climbing alone. The accepted ‘rule’ was that all climbers should be roped together; Eckenstein was an early advocate of unroped climbing. Oscar’s physical strength appealed to the macho Crowley. Years later in his autobiography, he praised the Londoner’s gymnastic strength, his ability to do one-armed pull-ups. Oscar Eckenstein it was, said Crowley, ‘who trained me to follow the trail’. Crowley, a pansexual, drug-taking, mystic and magician, liked nothing better than to irk the establishment (though he was himself an upper class Cambridge graduate) and he would have been delighted by the discomfort that the Jewish Londoner caused the members of the pukka Alpine Club. He quotes novelist and climber Morley Roberts calling Eckenstein ‘a dirty East End Jew’ after a climb in Zermatt.

Eckenstein, for his part, wasn’t scared by Crowley’s reputation, though he thought his dabbling with ‘magick’ a nonsense. He was also unfazed by criticism. He may have been ‘insufferably arrogant’ (according to yet another climber) but he was a considerable figure. He had his own remarkable history. As well as holding down a full-time job as a railway engineer (‘years ahead of the times in thought and scientific invention of devices for the betterment of railroading’, according to fellow engineer HW Hillhouse) this Jewish Londoner was a superb athlete, expert musician (with a talent for the bagpipes), amateur carpenter and a graduate in chemistry. Oscar was a long way from the London East End oik the gentlemen of the Alpine Club painted him to be.

And most of all, of course, the Londoner was a superb climber. He had taken the practice of bouldering (where climbers scale boulders without the aid of ropes) from a fun pastime to an essential way for climbers to build their skills. He was also developing the art of balance climbing, where climbers had to become keenly aware of their position and balance on the face, rather than brutally hauling themselves upward. He was tirelessly innovative. In the late 19th century the typical ice axe was some 130cm long; Eckenstein designed a shorter, lighter axe of 85cm, which could be used single handed. He invented the modern crampon, which allowed the climber’s boots to bite into the ice, giving mobility and allowing climbers to scale steeper faces. He even redesigned the boots themselves.

There were the climbs themselves. History tells us that the Londoner was on the teams that made of the first ascent of the Stecknadelhorn in Switzerland in 1887 and Monte Brouillard in Italy in 1906. An attempt on the Baltoro glacier in Pakistan in 1882 ended in disarray when Oscar fell out with team leader Sir Martin Conway (a loathed mainstay of the Alpine Club) but he was back as leader of the first serious attempt to scale K2 (second only to Everest) in 1902. Crowley was alongside. The younger man was in awe of the London East Ender’s honesty and character, and in one passage of his autobiography, Crowley explains how Eckenstein conspired to write himself out of climbing history. ‘He was probably the best all-round man in England, but his achievements were little known because of his almost fanatical objection to publicity. He hated self-advertising quacks like the principal members of the Alpine Club with an intensity which, legitimate as it was, was almost overdone. His detestation of every kind of humbug and false pretence was an overmastering passion. I have never met any man who upheld the highest moral ideals with such unflinching candour.’

Late in life, Oscar would settle down, marrying Margery Edwards in 1918. Eckenstein was 58, and the couple settled in the tiny village of Oving in Buckinghamshire, a world away from the Jewish East End of London where he had grown up. Soon afterwards he fell ill with consumption, and he died in 1921. He left no children, and his widow remarried. One of the few tributes left to history came from his friend JP Farrar, writing in the Alpine Journal a full two years later. “I went to see (E) as he lay dying, one summer day two years ago, at the little hill town of Oving. His lungs had gone, he could only gasp; but his eye was as clear as ever, as dauntless as it had ever been in disadvantages of race, often of poverty, dying a brave man – wrapped up to the very end in his beloved mountains.” Among the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire, the East End climber could still summon memories of the Alps and of K2.

East End popstar Marc Bolan

Like so many pop lives it ended sadly young. Yet for East End star Marc Bolan it wasn’t his own excesses that brought his death, but a tragic accident.

Mark Feld was born in Hackney in 1947, the son of lorry driver Simeon and Phyllis. He was tiny, standing just 5ft2in, but had no illusions – he knew that he was a star just waiting for his moment. That moment would be a long time coming though.

Mark would come up to Soho to see his mum on her fruit stall in Berwick Street Market, and he was soon spending as much time in the record shops that fringed the stalls. He soaked up the American rock and roll that was filling their racks and soon the charts – although you couldn’t hear it on the radio of course: Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and dozens of others, though his first musical experiments were with that peculiar British hybrid of skiffle music, popular in the UK charts of the late 50s. Years later, Bolan would remember sneaking into the legendary 2i’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, where British stars such as Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Wee Willie Harris were honing their acts.

Mark had always been destined for stardom. Helen Shapiro, who would reach number one in 1961 at 14, remembered him well. At the age of just 10, East Ender Helen and her brother Ron formed a band which “included Marc Bolan, who was nine and lived down the road. He was called Mark Feld then and was very chubby and very into Cliff.”

Cliff Richard, along with Billy Fury and Rory Storm ruled the charts. But Shapiro, appearing on a bill with an unknown band called The Beatles in 1963, could see the writing on the wall. “I thought: ‘Uh oh, something is changing,’” she remembers.

Pop music moved incredibly swiftly in the 60s. The pair were just a year apart in age, yet Helen topped the charts in the years before the Beat Boom and Marc in 1970. By then, Beat music, flower power and the hippies had come and gone and the pop stars were now rock musicians. Steve Marriot was no longer fronting cheeky Stepney popsters the Small Faces but the much heavier Humble Pie, while Steve Winwood had gone from the Spencer Davis Group to Traffic. They were interested in ‘progressive’ and experimental music, focusing on albums and very sniffy about singles. Some canny musicians spotted a gap for singles artists and Marc – a veteran yet still only 23 – was perfectly placed to exploit it.

He had served a long apprenticeship. After leaving school at 15 ‘by mutual consent’ he had scratched a living as a model. Pick up a catalogue for long-defunct clothing store John Temple from the early 60s and you will see a moody Feld smouldering out from the pages. He also appeared as an extra in TV show Orlando, dressed as a mod.

He cut a series of demos for EMI and others. It’s fascinating to hear the evolution of his voice today (you’ll find many of the recordings on A 1964 cut of Mark singing Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind reveals an American accent halfway between cut-glass and cabaret (think Adam Faith, Eden Kane and John Leyton). By the time he was demo’ing Hound Dog with the early Tyrannosaurus Rex a few years later, the voice is sliding into the trademark Bolan whining drawl.

Luckily for Mark, the A&R men weren’t interested, giving him crucial years in which to develop his own voice. It wasn’t the only change. Mark Feld became Toby Tyler (the name nabbed from a Disney film of 1960), Mark Bowland and finally Marc Bolan. As mod faded, Marc’s hair grew longer and the music more experimental. After a brief stint with the group John’s Children Bolan formed a new band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Steve Peregrine-Took providing percussion and bass to Marc’s vocals and acoustic guitar.

The band’s debut album, released in 1968, was very much of its time, ethereal and with an eclectic grab bag of cultural references. My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows had as its closing track a Bolan-penned poem, Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love), read by DJ John Peel. Marc had probably never met an Inca, nor an ‘Afghan Woman’ (side 2, track 2), though he might have visited Virginia Water (side 1, track 5), but the important thing was that the band was on its way.

Peel was playing Tyrannosaurus Rex on his Radio 1 show, though they still weren’t bothering the charts. But beneath the corkscrew curls and hippy stylings, there was a laser focus on the success that had long eluded him. Bolan dispensed with Took, whose drug taking had reached career-derailing proportions, and drafted in Mickey Finn – a far less talented musician but he looked great on stage.

No record label would be so patient, but EMI imprint Regal Zonophone allowed the band to make four albums with producer Tony Visconti, each barely touching the charts. The fifth, T Rex, was the turning point.

After Ride a White Swan made number two in the chart in 1970, Marc boiled the sound down to a tighter version of the rock and roll he had loved as a child. Hot Love and Get It On, Telegram Sam and Metal Guru – the hits kept coming, eight singles in the top over the next two years.

John Peel was appalled by the blatant tilt at success, though he later admitted that his famous falling out with Bolan saw fault on both sides. But if a long time coming, success was fleeting. New stars were topping the charts – Slade, David Essex, the Bay City Rollers. A distraught Marc took solace in food and alcohol and his elfin good looks disappeared as the pounds piled on.

Salvation was to come from an unlikely direction. In 1976, a whole generation of musicians would be swept away by the rise of punk. Marc, with nothing to lose, embraced it, going on tour with The Damned and wowing audiences who had grown up on his singles. Ironic it may have been, but Bolan’s long years in music gifted him a musical virtuosity the punk acts could only dream of.

Better was to come. TV producer Muriel Young put him in his own TV show, Marc, which went out just as kids were arriving home from school, and brought the new bands such as The Jam to a young audience, as well as Marc’s famous duet with old pal David Bowie).

Marc was a success once again. But by the time that appearance with Bowie went out (20 September 1977) he was dead. Driving home from a West End drinking club, Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones lost control of her car, and the Mini struck a tree. Marc was killed instantly.

Rebecca, Abraham and Simeon Solomon – a Victorian tragedy

View The Solomons in a larger map

It’s a tragedy worthy of Victorian melodrama – a gifted trio of siblings rise from the East End, but their careers as painters are cut short in tragedy and shame. Abraham Solomon’s life would be curtailed by illness and an untimely death. Rebecca Solomon would be written out of history after her tragic demise under the wheels of a London cab. And Simeon Solomon, perhaps the greatest of them all, would be destroyed both by alcoholism and a moral stain almost unspeakable in Victorian times.

During the mid-1800s, the Solomons became stars of the London art world, alongside Millais, Rosetti, Holman Hunt and the others of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was remarkable that a single Whitechapel family would produce not one, but three such figures … but then the Solomons were a remarkable family.

Father Meyer Solomon (who would Anglicise his name to Michael) was the scion of a Jewish clan which had arrived in Whitechapel, probably from Holland, at the end of the 1700s. Meyer made his fortune manufacturing hats, principally the fashionable ‘Leghorn’ straw boater. Wealth overcomes a multitude of prejudices and Meyer was among the first Jews to be made a freeman of the City of London. In those days, when the City livery companies wielded real power by keeping people out of the Square Mile, the honour allowed Meyer to become richer still. In turn, money allowed the ever-growing Solomon brood certain freedoms.

Meyer had married Kate Levy, herself a gifted painter of miniatures, and the couple had eight children. And at the family home, 3 Sandys Street in Bishopsgate, artistic expression and experimentation were encouraged. Abraham was the couple’s second son, born in 1823, and he was prodigiously gifted. At 13, Abraham became a pupil at Sass’s school of art in Bloomsbury, and in 1838 won the Isis silver medal at the Society of Arts for his drawing. In 1839 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy. That same year he won a silver medal for ‘drawing from the antique’, and in 1843 another for drawing from the life.

Abraham carved out a solid career producing those mainstays of Victorian art – biblical studies, such as his first exhibited work, ‘Rabbi expounding the Scriptures’, depictions of scenes from popular literature (including tableaux of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Vicar of Wakefield’) and of course those sentimental and moralising subjects so beloved of the Victorians – ‘Waiting for the Verdict’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Doubtful Fortune’ and many more. The titles would appear horribly prescient in the light of what was to come for the Solomons.

By now he was teaching art to little sister Rebecca, born in 1832. She also attended classes at the (now long gone) Spitalfields School of Design, and would then share Abraham’s studios at 50 Upper Charlotte Street, from at least 1851 to 1856 and at 18 Gower Street from 1857 to 1862. So talented was she that she worked with the great John Everett Millais, exhibited around Britain for nearly two decades and was called ‘one of the great women of the age’.

Now youngest sibling Simeon joined the family firm. Born in 1840, he started taking lessons in drawing and painting from Abraham in childhood and showed astonishing skills of draughtsmanship. He started attending Carey’s Art Academy in 1852, the same year big sister ‘Beckie’ first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Now Simeon went on to the Royal Academy Schools, a route barred to Rebecca because of her gender (she joined other female artists in protesting furiously and fruitlessly against the ban).

Tragedy was to strike the Solomons for the first time in 1862, when Abraham died suddenly of a heart attack in Biarritz. He was just 39. The two younger siblings now drew closer together, sharing a studio at 106 Gower Street from 1865 to 1867. As well as making her own paintings, Rebecca acted as Simeon’s agent, and organised lucrative commissions, including one for Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Denied equal status with male painters, Beckie was showing a flair for marketing her own work, with her illustrations appearing in popular prints such as The Churchman’s Family Magazine and London Society, Art Journal and the Illustrated London News.

Simeon was now mixing with the great artists of the age, the pre-Raphaelites who were outraging the art establishment by dismissing the great painters of the day. They reserved their particular loathing for the painterly style of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who they dubbed ‘Sir Sloshua’, but in fact were dismissive of most of the art of the preceding 400 years, believing the rot had set in with Raphael (hence their name).

Burne-Jones, Rossetti and rest were dazzled by Simeon’s superb draughtsmanship, and he was now moving in the highest artistic and aesthetic circles, becoming a friend of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. As well as the literary subjects favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon was (at Rebecca’s instigation) painting scenes from the Hebrew Bible, and genre paintings showing Jewish life and rituals. But in 1873 his glittering career stopped dead when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street and charged with attempting to commit sodomy. Simeon was fined £100 and fled in humiliation to Paris where he was again arrested the next year, spending three months in prison.

The young star was now cast out. Lucrative commissions disappeared overnight and Simeon began to drink heavily. By 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse. He would produce work sporadically for the next 20 years, but would never again be admitted to the London art establishment.

Rebecca disappeared almost simultaneously. Though she was still painting into the 1880s (the 1881 census shows her listed as an ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street) her association with Simeon seems to have destroyed her saleability as an artist. Some stories have her drifting into alcoholism alongside Simeon, but facts on her later life are hazy – not a single photograph remains of Rebecca. On 20 November 1886, tragedy struck the Solomons once more, when Beckie was run over by a hansom cab in central London. She later died of her wounds in hospital.

She swiftly vanished from history, resurfacing only in recent years. Few of her paintings are now exhibited (her copy of Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents, sold at auction in 2008 for more than £600,000 and disappeared straight into a private collection). Simeon, meanwhile, would linger on for two more decades, finally dying in 1905 from illnesses brought on by his alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.

Map of the story:


‘Wounded Dove’ by Rebecca Solomon
‘The Acolyte’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Two Girls With Their Governess’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Reverie’ by Simeon Solomon
A Leghorn hat
Two pictures of Simeon

Tony Lambrianou and the Krays

View Tony Lambrianou in a larger map

The funeral of the Kray Twins  sidekick Tony Lambrianou in February 2004 brought back memories of the Krays bloody reign in the East End underworld, a brutal chapter in the history of London, and of the horrific crime that was to bring their time to an end.  Lambrianou was still only 61 when he died suddenly at the beginning of March. He and his brother Chris had been in their early twenties when they were sent down for 15 years in 1969, for their part in the murder of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie two years before.

By the time of the killing, the Krays’ ‘Firm’ was looking distinctly shaky at the top. One problem was Ronnie Kray’s increasingly erratic and violent behaviour. He had escaped the year before, when witnesses on an identity parade were ‘unable’ to recognise Ron as the man who had killed George Cornell in Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar pub. Ronnie now became curiously obsessed with the fact that he had killed but that brother Reggie always stopped short of administering the ultimate sanction to the Firm’s enemies.

Another problem was Reggie himself. His troubled marriage to Frances Kray was less than a year old, but already his bride, exhausted by the strain of Reggie’s lifestyle, had attempted suicide on two occasions. On 6 June 1967, the pair had booked a holiday in Spain in an attempt to make a fresh start. But the following day, her brother found Frances dead. She had swallowed a massive overdose of barbiturates. Reggie now took solace in drink and his behaviour deteriorated, to the alarm of the Firm. He shot a man he thought had insulted Frances (fortunately he was so drunk he merely wounded him), and shot another man in a Highbury club in a drunken argument.

Worried members began to drift away from the Firm and the increasingly paranoid Ronnie began to see challenges to his authority, many of them undoubtedly real. Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie was an East End hardman, an enforcer who would sort out troublemakers for the Krays. But by 1967, McVitie, who earned his nickname for never removing the trilby that concealed a bald patch, was also heading out of control. Usually drunk, and often speeding on the amphetamines that he dealt and increasingly consumed, he had taken £100 from Ronnie to kill a man (the remaining £400 when the job was done), and refused to do the job or repay the money.

McVitie had pulled out a shotgun at the Regency Club, owned by friends of the Krays. On another occasion he had stabbed a man in the club. Yet another East End villain was spiraling out of control. On 28 October 1967 the twins and cohorts including Chris and Tony Lambrianou were drinking at the Carpenters Arms in Bethnal Green. Suggestions were made that the group decamp to a party up the road in Stoke Newington.

Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie arrived at the same basement flat a little later. The suspicion was that the rendezvous wasn’t as coincidental as all that, and that Tony Lambrianou had been detailed by Ronnie to get McVitie to where the twins were waiting for him. McVitie walked into an atmosphere waiting to explode. Ronnie started abusing him, and Reggie put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. Reggie then picked up a waiting knife and repeatedly plunged it into Jack’s body, eventually impaling him to the floor with the blade. The body was bundled into a quilt and driven south of the river by Tony Lambrianou, with brother Chris following. They dumped the corpse outside St Mary’s Church by the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The Krays were furious, as this was on the very doorstep of their friend, south London gang boss Freddie Foreman.

What had happened in that Stoke Newington room was never entirely clear. Even the Lambrianou brothers had different versions of events. The pair served 15 years each for their part in the crime. Unlike many former members of the Firm, the Lambrianous refused to give evidence against the Krays when the case came to court in 1969. Tony Lambrianou’s funeral, at St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green, was just a stone’s throw from where he, his brother and the twins grew up. And 350 showed up to mourn one man, and a romanticised way of life and of crime that’s now slipping into folklore and the violent history of London.

Lee Cooper in Petticoat Lane

It’s an iconic brand that started out in the early 1900s cladding the working man in denim, and then took jeans off the farm and out of the factory and onto the high street. Through canny marketing, this great survivor of the fashion business made jeans the uniform of choice for teenagers in the 1950s and ever since.

But the name of this company isn’t Levi Strauss and the base of operations is a long way from San Francisco. Lee Cooper jeans were born in the very heart of the old East End rag trade in Petticoat Lane. Here, in 1908, Morris Cooper and Louis Maister took on the lease of a rundown factory at 94-96 Middlesex Street, with a very distinct business plan in mind.

Morris and Louis had already been around, having left their hometown in Lithuania to set up business in South Africa. Morris was a gifted tailor, both the men worked hard, but the elaborate waistcoats they were producing would only ever sell so many. The pair realised that there was more business and a greater availability of skilled and affordable labour in London. With the huge influx of Jews and their tailoring skills from Eastern Europe, Whitechapel was clothing half the world in the early 1900s. Their plan was to make workwear in the East End and export it back to South Africa, where they knew there was big demand going begging.

By the outbreak of World War I, Morris and Louis had 600 employees, but exports and long sea journeys were looking less appealing with the threat of U-boats, so the resourceful pair pursued contracts to make uniforms for the army. A combination of Morris’s tailoring skills and Louis’ business nous saw the company thriving. Wars end of course and so do lucrative contracts, and as the 1920s dawned times were tough for M Cooper (Overalls) Ltd. Louis decided to leave and Morris focused his product lines on rugged workwear (products that even the General Strike couldn’t kill off) and a bold experiment in high-quality denim jackets and trousers. Over in California, Levi Strauss had recently moved from their denim overalls to producing the first modern ‘jeans’. Morris Cooper always kept an eye on what the Americans were doing and he wouldn’t be far behind.
War would again change the direction of the company, with Morris dividing the business into two in 1939. Workwear and denimwear would continue, but alongside the company went back into battle dress and flying overalls for the RAF. The owner’s brilliant pattern making won military contracts and made the company rich, as it became one of the military’s biggest suppliers.

But just as the company soared, tragedy struck. Morris was killed in a car crash and with his son Harold away on active service with the RAF, it was left up to other members of the family to keep the business afloat. In fact, mismanagement would almost sink it, and when Harold returned to Whitechapel he was horrified to find the family firm on the brink of collapse.

The new boss swiftly cleared out the people who had driven the family firm to the edge and determined to save the company. He remembered years later that it was “pride and wanting to save my father’s name” that drove him, as much as any desire to enter the rag trade. But he swiftly showed his father’s canniness in propelling the company in a new direction. Rationing was killing traditional tailoring, with a man’s suit costing 26 ration coupons. You needed just one to buy a pair of jeans, and the downmarket workwear quickly became not just a pragmatic choice but a fashionable one.

By now, Harold had opened a factory in the huge new housing development at Harold Hill – his workers would be the thousands moving out from East End slums to a greener life in Essex. By now, Cooper’s was Britain’s biggest denim brand but it needed a label. Harold, looking across the Atlantic to Levi’s and its association with rock ‘n’ roll, cowboys and stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, decided to modernise his brand. From now on, the jeans would be labelled ‘Lee Cooper’ with his wife Daphne’s maiden name of ‘Leigh’ suitably Americanised.

In the fifties and sixties, 80 per cent of British workwear was made by Lee Cooper, but the counter-culture was far more interesting. Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler still hadn’t arrived in Britain, so the teddy boys ripped their cinema seats clad in Lee Cooper, and when the mods and rockers battled on Brighton seafront, both were clad in the same brand of jeans. It was a trend that would continue through the hippies and punk to the present day – when youth cults no longer exist, but just about everyone, of every age, owns at least one pair of jeans.

Jeans weren’t Harold Cooper’s only innovation. He was the first to introduce front-zipped slacks for British women. Many were outraged at this ‘tasteless’ style. He personally oversaw bold publicity campaigns, with big, full-colour ads in the press. He even dreamt up the fictional designer Alfredo Angelous, appealing to the Mods’ snobbish love of all things Italian.

By the 1980s the company was making around 40,000 garments a week and its annual turnover exceeded £100 million. Harold sold his majority share in the company in 1989. By that time he had been caring for Daphne for nearly 25 years; she had been wheelchair bound since the mid-sixties. The tireless Cooper built his wife a single-storey home in North London and the two enjoyed regular trips to the opera, the theatre and out to dinner. Six months after the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary in 2005, Harold suffered a stroke and Daphne died the year after. Despite everything Harold was still working at Lee Cooper until his death in 2008, at the age of 90. Lee Cooper is still going strong, and a stroll down any high street in the world confirms that denim isn’t going away. It’s a story that owes as much to austerity and ration books as rock ‘n’ roll and the American West.

Cable Street – 74 years on

In 1936 a battle took place on the streets of the East End that was to focus the eyes of Britain on the growing threat of fascism in its midst.

A plaque on a wall in Dock Street tells the story. ‘The Battle of Cable Street: The people of East London rallied to Cable Street on 4 Ocotber 1936 and forced back the march of the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts through the streets of the East End … They shall not pass.’

And this Sunday, 8 October, there is a programme of events* to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that remarkable day. A procession, street theatre, exhibition, films, music, history and stalls (not to mention the Cable Street mural) combine to remind East Enders of why their stand mattered then … and matters just as much now.

Oswald Mosley had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, being invalided out of the forces following a plane crash in 1916. In 1918, at just 21, he became an MP, the youngest in the House of Commons, representing the Conservatives in Harrow. But Mosley was in a hurry, and with a disdain for what he saw as tired parties staffed with mediocre men. In 1926 he crossed the floor of the House, and was elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour administration of 1929 he swiftly resigned again – furious that his plan for dealing with mass unemployment were ignored by the party leadership.

The impatient Mosley now formed and headed his own party, the New Party. They were unsuccessful in the elections of 1931, and once again he moved on. In 1932, fired by visits to Europe and the examples of Hitler and Mussolini, he formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The platform was anti-corporatist (especially anti the banks), protectionist and anti-Communist. But Mosley was taking on much more than that from the continental fascists.

An increasingly anti-semitic tone coloured his speeches – Jews were cast as the villains of international big business and banking. And his speeches were protected by the ‘Blackshirts’ who would brutally break up any disturbance. Mosley’s links to the Nazis in Germany were close – he married Diana Mitford in Goebbels’ home in Germany in 1936, with Hitler a guest. The newly-weds were also negotiating with Hitler to broadcast radio transmissions from Germany to Britain.

Mosley’s public marches were becoming increasingly provocative too, and a planned parade through the Jewish heartland of the East End was to prove the final straw. Remarkably, the march was legal – Government had been strongly petitioned by local people and politicians to ban the parade through Cable Street but had refused. A mixture of locals, Communist, Socialist and Jewish groups (many from out of the area and to a total of an estimated 250,000) erected roadblocks to stop the BUF passing.

So began ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, with running battles between the anti-fascists and police, who were trying to force a path for the BUF. With the Blackshirts largely shielded behind police lines, relatively little fighting was to take place between the BUF and the protestors. Fenner Brockway, Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was injured by a police horse and, realising the carnage that would ensue if the fascists were helped by the police into the heart of the area, telephoned the Home Office. Mosley was ordered to cancel his march and the BUF were rerouted towards Hyde Park.

It wasn’t the end of the fascists in the East End. The following week, the windows of every Jewish-owned shop in the Mile End Road were smashed. And in the March 1937 local elections the BUF polled 23 per cent of the vote in Bethnal Green; l0.3 per cent in Limehouse and 14.8 per cent in Shoreditch. “The size of their vote was a surprise even to those in touch with the East End,” reported The Observer on 7 March that year. Mosley was to continue to address rallies around London over the following years.

But with the 1936 Public Order Act had come the banning of civilians parading in military uniform. That had removed the Blackshirts focus … and perhaps their appeal. Oswald Mosley would be interned in 1940, and the BUF itself later banned. By now war had started and the East End was involved in the bigger fight against fascism.

London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie is available now; £8.99; ISBN: 978-1-4116-6608-5 at A history of London and the people who made it. Pen pictures of Attlee, Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Stalin, Gandhi, Lew Grade, Steve Marriott, Fu Manchu, Sylvia Pankhurst, Lionel Bart, The Tichborne Claimant, John Wesley, Terry Spinks, Joseph Conard and dozens more…

Carry On’s Bernard Bresslaw

WHEN king-size actor Bernard Bresslaw collapsed and died in June 1993 generations of Carry On fans mourned the loss of a giant comic talent.
But his last role spoke volumes about the paradox of a well-read East End lad who could turn his hand to any role – yet was always cast as an amiable idiot.
Bresslaw was born in Stepney in 1934, the son of an impecunious tailor’s cutter, himself a descendant of Jewish Polish immigrants.
The young Bernie was a giant from birth, weighing in at 10lb 4oz and wearing size nine shoes before he hit his teens. The shoe size was a big disappointment to his mum – she wanted him to be a tap dancer. But Bresslaw had dreams of his own.
He could have followed his dad into the rag trade but instead was inspired by his English teacher, at Mile End’s Coopers School, to follow his dreams of acting.
He applied to the top actors’ school, RADA, was accepted, and swiftly showed his potential in the Academy’s performance of Christopher Fry’s Venus Observed, not only winning the Academy’s Emile Littler Award as Most Promising Actor but personal plaudits from the playwright himself.
Bernard graduated and went into a notoriously tough form of rep – playing RAF and Army camps, Borstals and mental hospitals.

It was a tough baptism into the business but one that stood him in good stead. He later said that the demands of keeping happy the demanding all-male houses – who would soon let you know if you weren’t up to scratch – was superb discipline and training for his later career.
“Like facing hostile fast bowling,” he laughed.
Bresslaw always prized his classical actor’s schooling but it was a different sort of training that set him up for his big break.
The Army Game ran from 1957 to 1962 becoming the BBC’s top sitcom. Bresslaw drew on his National Service years as a driver/clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps to create the role of gormless giant Private Popeye Popplewell.
Financial security, a spin-off film I Only Arsked and even a string of hits with pop singles followed – all with Bernie in character.
Bresslaw was a household name and his fame grew when, in 1965, he took on the first of 14 Carry On roles. Indian brave Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy, warrior Bungdit In in Carry On Up The Khyber, sinister butler Sockett in Carry On Screaming, Bresslaw played them all while pursuing his classical career in the theatre.
Roles in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave him artistic satisfaction in his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and the Chichester Festival Theatre.
But the heavy workload drove him to exhaustion and a collapse at a 1992 showbiz dinner.
In the Eighties, virtual blindness threatened his career and his love of reading Racine, Milton and history. But a pioneering operation at Moorfields’ Hospital saved his sight and he was back on stage.
And it was there that the comic giant died – not as Bungdit In or Popeye but in the sort of role for which he craved recognition – waiting to go on stage as Grumio in the Taming of the Shrew at the open air theatre in Regent’s Park.

History of Brick Lane

Back in April 1999, Brick Lane was the second target in a bomb campaign targeting minorities in London. A week earlier Brixton, with a large Black community had been targeted. A week later, a Soho gay pub, the Admiral Duncan, in Old Compton Street, was to be hit with tragic consequences, dozens were injured and three died.

At first the police and local people thought fascist terrorists were involved, and indeed Combat 18 claimed responsibility. The eventual culprit, David Copeland, certainly had a grudge against minorities, but turned out to have been working alone. But why did he target Brick Lane?
Brick Lane a Roman burial ground

For centuries this area has been the home of immigrants, outsiders and dissidents. Brick Lane was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London. This outsider status starts to seem more significant as the centuries progress.

Bricks and tiles began to be made here in the late 16th century … hence the name. By 1603, a quarter of a century after the trade started, John Stow called its buildings as ‘filthy cottages’. A rector of Christ Church described it as ‘a land of blood and beer’. This has always been a poor area.

In 1675, when 1,300 new buildings squeezed onto the old market gardens, Brick Lane was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Anglican Church. And in 1612, Britain’s first Baptist chapel was built here.
Silk weavers and Huguenots

There was continual immigration and continual protest. The early eighteenth century saw protests in the Spitalfields streets, the existing residents complaining as the newly built-up area was used to house Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the modern Holland and Belgium.

The weavers came to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets and soon drove the existing weavers out of business. Protest as they might, the locals couldn’t argue with the quality of the incomers’ work … they had been invited in by the Crown for just that reason. Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths and the area became wealthy, with an affluent middle class.
Irish in Spitalfields

The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Lord George Gordon stoked up Protestant panic about the influence of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.

On June 2, 1780, mobs burned Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields and Gordon’s motley crew made for Downing Street. Most of them never got that far. They were waylaid at Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn. Many drank so deeply they died in the streets of alcohol poisoning. Gordon was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison … though he lived there in some comfort.

Brick Lane got an unfortunate notoriety in the 1880s with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. A series of killings that have never been solved, and exercise the public imagination all the more for that.
Jewish immigration to Spitalfields

The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane. This was the community that gave birth to larger than life figures such as Jack Cohen, Lionel Bart, Steven Berkoff, Bernard Delfont Abraham Beame and Lew Grade to name a few.

In the 1930s British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley led his Blackshirts on marches around Brick Lane and Club Row. The challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936.
From Jewish Brick Lane to Banglatown

The Jewish community has dispersed once more, leaving a few remnants such as Tubby Isaacs cockle stall and the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop. And by the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. The Jewish population was replaced by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Brick Lane again became a target for fascists, with the National Front and then the BNP marching through the area. But fascist marchers come and go, and elicit little support from outside their own numbers.

On Brick Lane today you will notice that some of the mosques carry a Star Of David above the door: synagogues converted to new use. Some of them were even Protestant churches before that. Brick Lane (or Banglatown) adapts, absorbs and goes on.