Old Castle Street synagogue, Whitechapel.  ©Public Domain.

Following the dispersal of the Huguenots and Irish after the collapse of the silk weaving industry, in the middle of the nineteenth century a significant number of Dutch Jews or Chuts settled in the Tenterground area of Spitalfields, bringing with them the trades they practised in Amsterdam such as cigar, slipper and cap making. These tradesman and their families emigrated due to the prejudice which barred them from the guilds in the Netherlands and the slide of the Dutch economy.

Following the assassination of Alexander II of Russia in 1881, 120,000 Ashkenazic Jewish émigrés, mostly impoverished rural workers, fled persecution in Europe and also settled in England. A significant proportion of these refugees gravitated to the East End, often sub-dividing the old Huguenot houses to accommodate as many families as possible, until in some areas Jews accounted for up to 95% of the population. Their vast numbers initially caused much local tension, not only between themselves and the Chuts (whose practices such as eating non-kosher seafood were considered unclean), but with other local communities too.

British Brothers League poster, 1902

A popular and media backlash ensued, gaining the support of notables and the trade unions which resulted in the formation of the anti-semetic restrictionist group The British Brothers League, the demands of which prompted the government to introduce The Aliens Act of 1905. The Act sought to control immigration by preventing paupers and criminals from entering the country, but also ensured asylum for the religious and politically persecuted.

Before long, mechanised cigarette making machines caused the cigar economy to collapse and the Chuts began to disperse, some returning to Amsterdam, others emigrating to the USA, and some assimilated themselves into the wider Jewish community in the East End.

The language of the Ashkenazim – Yiddish – a High Germanic dialect formed from a fusion of Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romanic languages, and written in the Assyrian script, soon predominated the area and could be seen in shops, signs, billboards, newspapers and theatres. Food and its preparation was obviously important, and soon shops and markets began to thrive, such as kosher butchers, bakers, fish sellers, general grocers and sundry stores.

Of course religion played an important part in Jewish life, and just as everyone in England lived within the sound of a church bell, synagogues sprang up to tend the spiritual needs and to provide welfare to the living, and chevra kadisha to deal with the practicalities and rituals of the dead.

Old Castle Street synagogue in Whitechapel was a typical example of old housing converted to a place of worship within the Jewish ghetto. The entrance (to the right of the wagon) was an obvious feature, situated as it was within a residential and commercial terrace. Joseph Polowski, a china and glass wholesaler, had his export warehouse to the right, as well as a corner shop beyond the wagon in Wentworth Street (one of the border streets of the Tenterground enclave), in which, incidentally, there were no fewer than fifteen kosher butchers by 1901.