Life & Culture

Taking a walk through time to the old East End

The Jews may be gone but the memories remain in the streets where they lived.


London Walks, one of the capital's longest established walking tour companies, offers an "Old Jewish Quarter" tour of the East End. I have been on several of their enlightening guided walks - they have scores of them - but I wondered about this one. Hasn't that Jewish past been swept away by the curry houses and mosques of later Asian immigrants? What is there left to see? Quite a bit, actually.

On the day I take the tour, it is led by Shaughan Seymour. Like many of the company's guides, he is a professional actor, his face familiar from many British films and TV shows. Acting and guiding are a good match; trained thesps have the vocal technique to make themselves heard above the traffic and can add dramatic flair to the stories they relate.

Seymour leads a variety of themed walks (which he likens to "doing Trivial Pursuit on your legs") but says the Jewish one attracts people from farther-flung parts of the world than any other. "It's the diaspora walk. About two-thirds who come are Jews eager to learn about their ancestors. I get people from South Africa, Israel, Australia, the US and Canada…"

It is an overcast, midweek morning. The tour group meets outside Tower Hill underground station and I count 19 participants. We have a good view from here of the Tower of London - an apt starting point, as we discover.

Seymour launches into the story of the coronation of Richard I in 1189. Richard had issued an edict that there were to be "no women and no Jews" at his coronation, but a number of wealthy Jewish merchants turned up anyway. When they were recognised, they were beaten, many were killed, and this sparked a massacre of Jews in London and elsewhere. "Some Jewish usurers sought refuge in the Tower and the King said: OK, as long as the money keeps rolling in. Like a Mafia boss, he made them pay for protection. A century later, in 1290, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England."

Guiding a tour is like doing trivial pursuit on your legs

Soon we are walking along Jewry Street (named after the Jewish community which settled in this area on their readmission to the country in 1656) and then on to Duke's Place, where a plaque reminds us that the Great Synagogue once stood there. For centuries, this was the heart of Ashkenazi life in London, until the synagogue's destruction in the Blitz.

From here, we head for the highlight of the tour, a visit to the country's oldest surviving synagogue at Bevis Marks. The vaguely phallic-shaped office block known as the Gherkin, towers above us and Shaughan recalls an elderly Jewish lady on an earlier tour who bemoaned the fact that it was built so near the historic synagogue. "It's all right, dear," Shaughan told her, "it's been circumcised."

Maurice Bitton, the shamash of Bevis Marks, welcomes us into the beautiful building, which dates from 1701. Tucked away in a courtyard, because Jews were not allowed to build on public thoroughfares at the time, it is virtually unchanged since it was built. The great brass hanging candelabra, austere dark oak benches, magnificent ark - everything is original.

Bitton recounts with relish the history of the Sephardi synagogue, and regales us with tales of the congregation's most famous son, the 19th-century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. He shows us the great man's seat, now roped off. The congregation has shrunk since then, but Bitton says it is starting to grow again, as young Jews move back into the area.

For me, the visit brings back memories. In the 1970s, long before the City was redeveloped, I worked for a magazine whose creaky Dickensian offices overlooked this synagogue. On dusky winter evenings, I peered down through its windows into the warm, candlelit glow, mesmerised by the sound of chanting.

From here we walk north-east to Petticoat Lane (aka Middlesex Street), home of the shmutter trade. This is in Spitalfields, the beginning of the East End proper. Jews fleeing the pogroms in the late 19th century set up their stalls in the market here. Later, Alan Sugar, too, started life as a Petticoat Lane stallholder. Now it is abuzz with Asians, hawking shmutter of their own.

On Goulston Street, Seymour points out the Wentworth Dwellings, lodgings built for poor Jews in 1870, and on neighbouring Brune Street we stop before the well-preserved 1902 "Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor", now a luxury apartment block. Further east we arrive at the handsome, early 18th-century Fournier and Princelet streets and learn that their original residents, French Huguenot silk weavers, made way for Irish immigrants, who were replaced by Ashkenazi Jews, who were in turn superseded by Bangladeshi newcomers. "And now they're leaving," Seymour explains, "to make way for yuppies. These Georgian townhouses are being done up and sold to them for huge sums."

As we saunter down Brick Lane, in Whitechapel, I chat to others in the group. Danielle has been carefully taking notes en route so as to help her son with a Jewish history project. "It's not a very serious project," she admits. Her son is six.

Carol and Stan are a middle-aged American couple from Maine. They know little about their Ashkenazi forebears ("Our families wanted to forget - too much pain and sadness") so, whenever they visit a major city, they tour its Jewish quarter in a quest for knowledge.

The two-hour tour ends here. "Shalom everyone!" calls Seymour, but not before directing us to that East End institution, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. Well, it is lunchtime.

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