An East-End street described as a haven against antisemitism and British fascism is being remembered in a BBC TV documentary this week.
Arnold Circus, in Shoreditch, was once a Victorian slum with up to 60 people living in each house and an average life expectancy of 16.
In an 1886 survey, the social chronicler Charles Booth designated the area dark blue, indicating “chronic want”, and black, for “vicious and semi-criminal”.
But in 1890 the London County Council launched what was then a radical social experiment and began replacing the buildings with the country’s first council estate.
As BBC2’s The Secret History of Our Streets reveals, architects designed it without a pub but with green space and a bandstand. The intention was to help the poor to become respectable citizens.
Nevertheless, life on the estate was basic with 12 public baths between 5,000 residents. Many of the initial tenants were Jews who had fled Eastern Europe in the preceding decades.
Having established themselves in the garment industry and other trades, they were able to afford the rent for the new properties, which were only partially funded by the LCC.
When Booth returned after Arnold Circus opened, he discovered that one block was 75 per cent Jewish, a trend that continued until after the Second World War.
Kossoff’s bakery became a local institution and the council posted the signs for upkeep of the blocks in Hebrew as well as English. Yet, unlike elsewhere in the East End in the inter-war years, former residents today recall an absence of tension between Jews and non-Jews.
“It was like living on a precious island,” said Minnie Finkelstein, a former resident whose grandparents Celia and Simon were among the first to move in.
She described the non-Jews she grew up with as sharing Jewish ceremonies and coming to sit with the family when they lit candles on a Friday night: “Can you imagine that happening today?” she said. “We were an extended family.”
She was five when Mosley’s Blackshirts marched through Cable Street. “It didn’t trouble us,” she recalled.
“We were very aware of [the fascists],” said Aubrey Goldsmith, who grew up on Arnold Circus in the 1930s. “The conflict didn’t touch us. It was like Tony Martin’s song Tenement Symphony about the ‘Cohens and the Kellys’— we all lived together; we helped one another.”
His father was born and died on the estate. “I bought him a house in Cockfosters but he refused to move,” he said. “It was a great start in life… There are people I know that did very well in their lives but started on Arnold Circus with brown paper on the floor.”
‘The Secret History of Our Streets’, BBC 2, July 11, 9pm