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New app takes you back 100 years on walking tour of old Jewish East End

PUBLISHED: 14:41 01 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:09 01 September 2016

Petticoat Lane at turn of 20th century

Petticoat Lane at turn of 20th century

Jewish Museum

IT IS 1892 and the streets of London’s East End are not for the faint of heart. The expansion of free trade has decimated the once-thriving Spitalfields silk industry, there’s a desperate housing crisis—and work is hard to come by.

Spitalfields' soup kitchen in Brune StreetSpitalfields' soup kitchen in Brune Street

Meanwhile, Whitechapel has a macabre reputation for violence and death after the terror waged by Jack the Ripper just four years earlier.

The fortunes and faces of Spitalfields and Whitechapel changed many times in the decades before and after 1900.

But it was at the turn of the 20th century that the area became known as ‘the Ghetto’.

Classroom at Jews' Free School in Bell Lane, 1890sClassroom at Jews' Free School in Bell Lane, 1890s

Now a new walking tour app about the East End’s Jewish past has been produced for students of history.

It follows the story of the Yiddish-speaking community from the 19th century with its once-thriving silk-weaving industry, now decimated, and the desperate housing and employment crisis.

The free app developed by Queen Mary’s University with London’s Jewish Museum uses Israel Zangwill’s 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto as a walking guide to a time when Jews were 95 per cent of Spitalfields’ population.

Author Israel ZangwillAuthor Israel Zangwill

“Thousands of Jews arrived because of persecution and pogroms,” the university’s Dr Nadia Valman explains. “Two million fled Russia and eastern Europe from 1881 to the outbreak of the 1914-18 Great War.”

Many settled in the East End where housing was cheap and there was a chance of work in the rag trade.

“The area is now a symbol of gentrification,” Dr Valman added. “This makes it even more important for students of history that we capture and tell these stories from the East End’s Victorian past.

Jewish Bakers UnionJewish Bakers Union

“But Zangwill’s tale of immigrants and their British-born children struggling with new dangers is a story for our own time, as well.”

The app starts at the soup kitchen in Brune Street, off Commercial Street, where grinding poverty meets Victorian charity, then to the site of Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane round the corner and the once-grand weavers’ town houses of Princelet Street with the whirr of sweat-shop sewing machines, the murmur of prayers—and the bickering of families packed too close for comfort.

Jewish Museum’s social history curator Elizabeth Selby said: “Our collections have been brought vividly to life with this walking tour app, taking a tour of the East End with Israel Zangwill as your guide.”

Russian Vapour Baths in Brick LaneRussian Vapour Baths in Brick Lane

The app uses photographs, documents, and archive recordings to explore Petticoat Lane market.

It also takes you to Brick Lane’s former Machzike Hadath synagogue, originally a French Huguenot church that became a Methodist prayer house before being turned into a synagogue in the 1890s.

The listed building on the corner of Fournier Street has been a mosque since 1976, reflecting the East End’s ever-changing immigration scene.


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