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Tag: Jewish London

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.

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 http://www.lulu.com/content/324701. 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…

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.