My New Year ramble has become an annual custom - this time (new camera in hand) there was a touch less serendipity about the route. I wanted to walk along Jubilee Street in Stepney, and visit one of the last surviving Jewish institutions in the old East End.
The walk began at Aldgate tube station and took me along Commercial Road, the distinctly shabby main road heading east towards Canary Wharf. There are a few old mansion blocks still lining the street, but most of the businesses are given over to wholesale garment shops - and the cheap end of the business. Almost all are South Asian-run, but it's a continuation of what was the defining industry of the Jewish East End. Coincidence perhaps, but a curious and heartwarming one.
There's still a synagogue on Commercial Road - one of, I think, only three surviving in the East End where once were were 150 or more. The Congregation of Jacob dates back to 1903 though this building was consecrated only in 1921. It has an imposing frontage and by all accounts the interior is even more splendid - but this morning it was firmly shut.
Jubilee Street runs from Commercial Road several hundred yards north to Whitechapel Road, and at the northern end is Rinkoff Bakeries. I'd never been there before. I'll certainly be going again. I had a coffee and a smoked salmon and cream cheese beigel. Excellent! And I brought back pastries for the family.
The place does good business. There are a few tables - both inside and out (and even on a nippy January morning most of the outside tables were taken) - and a steady stream of customers ... tourists, 'pilgrims', but mainly locals who want a take away cake, beigel or coffee.
That's Ray above, with a model of himself in his days as a master baker. He trades a lot on tradition, but there's quality in the mix too. I had never heard of Rinkoffs until I started thinking about this walk - if you haven't been, do go!
Jubilee Street has been knocked around a lot. There's only a short stretch towards the north end that looks a little as it would have done a century ago, when this area was overwhelmingly Jewish.
The street has a special place in the history of the East End - it was the epicentre of of the once formidable anarchist movement in this part of London.
The Jubilee Street Club was established in 1906 and for eight years was both a social and educational centre. Rudolf Rocker was closely associated with the club, and such anarchist luminaries as Kropotkin and Malatesta spoke here. I once interviewed Nellie Dick (born Naomi Ploschansky) who as a young woman was active in the Jubilee Street Club and helped to organise a 'Modern School' here.
There's a wonderful account of this and other London anarchist clubs, including a rather grainy photograph, in this research paper by the historian Jonathan Moses. It's worth a read. The old club building was demolished many decades ago and Jarman House, with its distinctive sky blue balconies, now stands on the site.
A little to the east lies Stepney Green, a wonderfully peaceful and historic spot. Rudolf Rocker and his family - including his younger son Fermin, an artist - once lived in a top floor flat here. By chance a few year ago, I had the opportunity to visit that same flat in Dunstan House when my friend Bill Schwarz was putting up here. Fermin's drawing of the building graced the cover of his memoir of his East End childhood, and you can see how little it has changed.
Just to the south is the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney - one of the few London churches which is genuinely medieval. In origin it is Anglo-Saxon and houses a tenth century rood, a representation of the crucifixion (the photo is from the church's website), which is believed to be a remnant of the church that St Dunstan himself may have founded here.
And as so often with old London churches, its memorials are testament to the human cost of Britain's Imperial ambitions.
Just east of the church and its grounds, there's the sort of street that I just love - Durham Row, tiny post-war bungalows on one side, and (at a guess) mid-nineteenth century buildings on the other, several of which seem once to have been shops. And above one of these one-time shop windows, it's just possible to make out an inscription: E, Andrews, FLORIST.
Another couple of hundred yards, and I reached the Regent's Canal - the end of my walk. Thanks for making the journey with me.
And as I looked back, there was the City looming over the East End, looking almost enticing ... from a distance.
A very convivial lunch today at a friend's place - he's recently started renting a flat in Stepney Green. Dunstan Houses, to be precise. Top floor. In fact, the exact same flat where Rudolf Rocker - the leader of the influential Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement in the East End before the First World War - lived a century ago.
'Yes, this was the Rocker residence', he declared, with a distinct and entirely justifiable sense of pride. 'There used to be a portrait of Malatesta on that wall, and of Bakunin on that wall.'
Hang on a moment - entirely credible but how does he know? Well, because Rudolf Rocker's son, the artist Fermin Rocker, wrote a wonderful memoir of growing up in Dunstan Houses - graced by his own drawing of the building.
The family moved in in about 1910. 'Dunstan Houses', Fermin recalled, 'though hardly an abode for the affluent, nevertheless had its own class distinctions and offered a scale of accommodations for the poor, the poorer, and the poorest. ... No. 33 was in what might be termed the luxury wing of the building. We had such conveniences as a private kitchen and a private lavatory ...'
Fermin writes that he looked upon his father 'as a god' - a sentiment not entirely in spirit with the movement. Then again you could say that Rudolf Rocker's undoubted leadership of the Jewish anarchist movement (though he was himself a 'goy', a gentile) was also not entirely in step with the libertarian, 'no master, high or low', ethos.
Rocker's own memoir, The London Years, has a drawing of him by his son on its cover.
Heading back from Stepney Green, we drove along Jubilee Street - the site of the anarchist club, which thrived from 1906 for almost a decade and was the beating heart of the movement. Nice to have a sense of proximity to a culture, a movement, which has now so utterly gone.
Every now and again, when I pop into a second hand bookshop, I buy something I've already got - just because it's a book I like so much, I can't leave without it.
Yesterday, at the Oxfam bookshop in Kentish Town, I bought this title - Fermin Rocker's lively reminiscences of his East End childhood before and during the First World War. It cost £1.99. I've already got a copy - indeed I also have a copy in the original German, a language I don't read or speak.
So, the first person to tell me as a comment on this blog that they want this book gets it. Gratis! I'll even pay the postage. And let me explain why you should want it.
Fermin Rocker's father was Rudolf Rocker, a German gentile who was the leading figure in the very influential largely Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement in London's East End in the early years of the last century. Fermin's memoirs cover the period when that movement was at its zenith.
Fermin grew up to be a considerable artist - and his painting of the paper kiosk at Tufnell Park tube, which I posted here some time ago, attracted a huge amount of interest. His memoirs have several of his drawings - including the one on the cover, of Dunstan Houses in Stepney where he grew up. There are also photographs such as the one below, Fermin with his parents, taken - at a guess - in the early 1930s.
So, anyone interested?
It was portrayed at the time as Churchill against a bunch of alien anarchists. Monday (3rd Jan) marks the centenary of the 'siege of Sidney Street' in Stepney. This was when Churchill, as home secretary, deployed the army against a group of armed robbers tracked down to a room in the East End. The gang had, the previous month, shot dead three policemen whil trying to rob a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch.
Churchill went along to Sidney Street, replete with top hat, to see for himself. Two of the armed men, Latvian revolutionaries, were founded dead in the burnt out embers of the house at 100 Sidney Street. A third man, 'Peter the Painter', disappeared - and has been the stuff of legend and conspiracy ever since.
The excellent Museum in Docklands is holding a small but very appropriate exhibition linked to the centenary. It has items related to the siege and recovered from the aftermath, and a sensitive account of the political background to the incident.
Sidney Street was commemorated in a huge number of postcards - the few years between the siege and the Easter Rising in Dublin, a similar bonanza for the postcard trade, represented the high water mark of the political postcard. There's a couple of examples below.
Anarchists were blamed for Sidney Street - largely because they were a powerful force among recent Jewish migrants settled in the East End. The anarchist club was at Jubilee Street, close by the scene of what was described as the 'battle of Stepney'. I once interviewed a then very elderly woman, born Naomi Ploschansky, who as a youngster was active in the Jubilee Street club and met the men involved in Sidney Street. They wanted her to teach them English - but her mother said there was no way that Naomi could go round to the men's rooms unchaperoned. Mum knows best!
A century on, the Observer reports - rather approvingly (26 Dec, annoyingly not available online) - 'the return of anarchy'. Whatever next.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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