Family & Education

The friends who cared

An old photograph brings back memories


Let us take a close look at this group photograph from the 1930s. Nineteen women in their 30s and 40s and three men smile as a photographer from the World Jewish Press Photographic Agency, headquartered in Fleet Street, clicks the shutter. The occasion is clearly a significant one: everyone is formally dressed, with a couple of tiaras and some floral adornment in evidence. The men, one or two spouses and the regulation guy from head office, are incidental to the proceedings. Seated in the front row are the movers and shakers, decorated with sashes of office.

Among them, the third woman on the left, bespectacled, in a black dress with a lace top, clutching a small object (an evening bag?) is my mother, Rachel Finestein. She wears the collar of her past presidency. Unlike her brothers, who anglicised their name to Fenton, she would remain 
Finestein for another ten years or so until, at the age of 42, she was introduced to Maurice Cohen, aged 39, with whom she, later, had a child. Me.

The gathering is to celebrate some event in the calendar of the Princess of Wales Lodge No 25 (Ladies) affiliated to the order of Achei Brith (Brothers of the Covenant) and Shield of Abraham, a mutual self-help alliance of friendly societies which acted as a safety net in times of sickness before the establishment of the Welfare State. So, who are the women behind the smiles?

I can contribute only my own recollections, now fast fading, of my mother and her friends. I knew several of them as “aunties”, women who never married, largely due to the shortage of men after the carnage of the Great War. They were the progeny of immigrants in the East End of London who, on leaving school at the age of 14 or thereabouts, seized the opportunity to avoid the drudgery of the garment factories by learning shorthand and typing and progressing to clerical work.

My mother, Rachel, was typical. She joined a City company, newly qualified, in May 1918 and retired from the same firm only in 1993 when her health began to fail. She retained her friendship with the girls from the Lodge throughout her life. A memory of my childhood is being taken to tea with her pals at the Regent Palace Hotel off Piccadilly Circus in the mid 1950s. Very posh, although the orchestra and the cucumber sandwiches impressed me less than the marble urinals in the basement.

As young unmarried women with a degree of financial independence, they also went on holidays abroad, unimaginable to the majority of East Enders: Norwegian fjords, an excursion down the Rhine. Another photo, with an inscription in French on the back, shows Rachel and her friend, Sarah Harris, posing in an entente cordiale with some Gallic chums, looking like they are having the time of their lives.

By contrast, running the Lodge was a serious undertaking. The friendly society depended on the scrupulous honesty of its elected honorary officers in collecting subscriptions and distributing benefits to members in times of sickness and financial need. Socially, the Lodge also played a huge part in the lives of these women. And they were not uninvolved in the febrile political atmosphere of the 1930s either. My mother described to me how she was delegated to take shorthand notes at an anti-fascist meeting — just in case there was a Metropolitan Police undercover agent present who might present a false account of the proceedings to his superiors.

Devoted to duty, Rachel, like her friends, took her quiet, unassailable spirit into wartime. Holding down her clerical job by day, by night she was a volunteer St John Ambulance nurse in the London Hospital in the heart of the East End. She always claimed that being selected to march in the St John contingent in the 1946 Victory Parade was a reward for her efforts in collecting donations around the East End tenements. Researching this article in a publication of the Jewish Historical Society, I made a discovery which brought tears to my eyes: a photograph of her own Presidential Collar, the one which she is seen wearing in the group photograph, identified in the archives of the United Jewish Friendly Society as: “worn by sister R Finestein 1933-4”. She would have been delighted to know that her badge of office was preserved on the internet for posterity.

Remarkable women, living in a remarkable era, whose sense of community ensured that life would still be liveable even in the hardest of times.

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