17 February 2020

In search of the ‘white
chapel’ that gave its
name to Whitechapel

Adler Street, off Whitechapel Road, with the ruins and churchyard of the original ‘white chapel’ or Saint Mary Matfelon to the right behind the wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Whitechapel is at the heart of the East End in London, with Whitechapel High Street and Whitechapel Road running from Aldgate High Street and Aldgate East underground station in the west and running on into Whitechapel Road. It continues east into Mile End Road, forming part of the A11 and one of the main arteries from one end of the East End to the other, the others including Commercial Road and Cable Street.

During a recent walk through the East End, I also went in search of the original ‘white chapel’ that gave its name to Whitechapel, which is part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Originally, this was part of the Roman road between the City of London and Colchester, leaving the city at Aldgate.

Whitechapel was once part of the ancient parish of Stepney, and takes its name from a small chapel of ease dedicated to Saint Mary, the second-oldest church in Stepney after Saint Dunstan’s Church. For some unknown reasons, the church was known as Saint Mary Matfelon.

The church was whitewashed at an early stage, and became known as the ‘White Chapel,’ giving its name to the surrounding district. Its earliest-known priest was the Revd Hugh de Fulbourne in 1329.

Stepney was divided into nine separate parishes in 1673, when one of them was the newly formed parish of Saint Mary’s, Whitechapel.

The Rector of Whitechapel, the Revd Ralph Davenant, bequeathed a legacy in 1680 for the education of 40 boys and 30 girls of the parish. The Davenant Centre still exists, although the Davenant Foundation School moved from Whitechapel to Loughton in 1966.

The Revd Richard Welton, who became Rector of Saint Mary’s in 1697, had strong Jacobite sympathies, and regarded his Whig contemporaries as apostates. In 1713, he placed a new altarpiece in the church, depicting the Last Supper. The painter, James Fellowes, was commissioned to paint Judas like Bishop Gilbert Burnet, but Fellowes instead used an image of permission to substitute White Kennett, Dean (and later Bishop) of Peterborough, with the words ‘The Dean the Traitor’ underneath. Saint John the Divine, depicted as a youth, had a likeness to the Stuart pretender, Prince James Edward.

The bishop of London, John Robinson ordered its removal, and Welton was deprived of his office in 1715.

A third church was built on the site in the 19th century, largely at the expense of Octavius Coope, and it was opened and re-consecrated on 2 February 1877. Three years later, on 26 August 1880, the new church was devastated by a fire that left only its tower, vestry and church rooms intact. It was rebuilt and opened once again on 1 December 1882, this time with a capacity for 1,600 worshippers and including an external pulpit for sermons, some of which, it is said, were delivered in Yiddish.

A German fire raid destroyed the church during the Blitz on 29 December 1940. It was left in disrepair until it was finally demolished in 1952.

The site of the church and the churchyard became Saint Mary’s Gardens in 1966, and an outline of the footprint of the church is all that remains of it. The park is known to many local people as ‘Itchy Park.’ It is officially named Altab Ali Park in memory of a young Bengali tailor who was murdered nearby in 1978.

Whitechapel was at the heart of the East End Jewish community in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was also the scene of the infamous Whitechapel Murders by ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the late 1880s.

In more recent decades, Whitechapel has become home to many people in the Bangladeshi community in London, and in many cases mosques have replaced the old synagogues: Spitalfields Great Synagogue or Brick Lane Synagogue has become Brick Lane Mosque, and Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue has become the East London Mosque.

But one reminder of the once-strong presence of the Jewish community in this part of Whitechapel is in the name of Adler Street, to the east of the site of Saint Mary’s and the park surrounding the ruins of the original ‘White Chapel.’

The name of Adler Street commemorates Herman Adler (1839-1911), who succeeded his father, Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-1890), as former Chief Rabbi. Chief Rabbi Herman Adler was a regular visitor to Ireland, including two pastoral visits to the Jewish community in Limerick in 1888 and 1892.

The Adler Hall, which once stood on this street, was home to the New Yiddish Theatre in 1943-1947.

An East End fountain
recalls a generous
Jewish philanthropist

The fountain beside Saint Botolph without Aldgate recalls Frederic David Mocatta and his philanthropic work in the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Weekends are busy, with services and sermons in two churches, and I usually find – no matter how much preparation has gone into these during the week – that there is a need for tweaking, adjustments and alterations to sermons and intercessions on Saturdays.

This weekend also saw the deadline for two diocesan magazines: Newslink in Limerick and Killaloe and the Church Review in Dublin and Glendalough.

Without stealing my own thunder, my column in the Church Review next month [March 2020] is my own personal look at the East End in London, and how it has changed over the generations with the arrival of new immigrants, from Sephardic Jews in the late 17th century, to Huguenot and Irish weavers, Ashkenazic Jews fleeing pogroms in East Europe and Tsarist Russia, and later arrivals of Italians, more Irish people, and Muslims from Bangladesh.

The East End became an important focus for Anglo-Catholic ‘slum priests,’ political activists from Emily Pankhurst to Kropotkin, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, and social activists and philanthropists like Thomas Bernardo.

I have got to know the East End in recent years, walking along its many streets, including Commercial Road, Whitechapel and Brick Lane, and visiting its churches, synagogues and mosques.

Beside Saint Botolph without Aldgate, the church where the Revd Kenneth Leech continued the tradition of those radical ‘slum priests,’ an almost forgotten landmark is the fountain erected in 1906 and that recalls the philanthropic work of Frederic David Mocatta (1828-1905).

The Metropolitan Drinking Association was set up in 1859 by Samuel Gurney, a Quaker philanthropist, to provide safe drinking water available for people long before water was provided, on tap, in the poorer housing districts of London.

The Mocatta family, also known as de Mattos Mocatta, Lumbroso de Mattos Mocatta and Lumbrozo de Mattos Mocatta, was a prominent Anglo-Jewish family originally from Portugal and one of the first Sephardi families to move to London following the resettlement in the 17th century.

Family members were known for their philanthropy, leadership and sponsoring the arts and letters. For generations, they were involved in finance, commerce, and the law, they are considered to be one of the principal families that formed a closely-knit nexus of senior Sephardic Anglo-Jewish families. Their family names included d’Avigdor, Sassoon, Goldsmid, Henriques, Kadoorie, Lousada, Mazza, Montefiore, Spielmann, Samuel and de Leon.

The origin of the name Mocatta is unknown. Potential origins include: Mukattil, Arabic for champion; a river called Wadi Mokatta; or Mukataa, Arabic for fortress.

The family left Spain in 1492, moving in France, the Netherlands and Italy, after the Alhambra Decree expelled Jews and Muslims from Spain, not long after the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition.

Antonio de Marchena was a member a branch of the Mocatta family that stayed in Spain during the Inquisition and seemed to become Catholic. He left Spain for the Netherlands in the mid-17th century, and was welcomed back into the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam, where he adopted the name Moses Mocatta.

Moses Mocatta moved with his family to London by 1670, and in 1671 he founded Mocatta & Co, a bullion brokerage firm in Camomile Street in the City of London. It was renamed Mocatta & Goldsmid in 1799, after Asher Goldsmid was admitted as partner in 1787. It is the world’s oldest bullion house and continues today largely as ScotiaMocatta.

One branch of the family obtained a royal licence in 1790 to cease the use of Lumbrozo de Mattos. Members of the Mocatta family were also involved in the beginnings of Reform Judaism in Britain in the 19th century.

The beautifully weathered fountain at Saint Botolph without Aldgate on Aldgate High Street, near Liverpool Street Station and Aldgate Station, was erected in 1906 in memory of Frederic David Mocatta.

Mocatta was a tycoon, financier who had been a partner in Mocatta & Goldsmid and directed the business from 1857 to 1874. But he was also one the great Victorian philanthropists. When he was still only 46, he retired from the family business in 1874, and devoted the rest of his life to works of public and private benevolence, especially among deprived people in the East End.

He was concerned that charities should encourage the independence of the poor. He had a particular interest in housing, education supported many Jewish charities, and many London hospitals and the RSPCA were among the beneficiaries of his philanthropy.

Mocatta was also of learning and was the an author of historical works, including The Jews of Spain & Portugal and the Inquisition. The Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition (1887) owed its inception to Mocatta. He also funded publications by other writers and researchers.

To mark his 70th birthday in 1898, he was presented with a testimonial from more than 200 philanthropic and literary institutions.

Mocatta was an observant Jew and belonged not only to two Orthodox synagogues but also to a Reform congregation that his family had played a prominent part in founding. For the last years of his life, he was chairman of the council of the West London Synagogue on Seymour Place, near Marble Arch, Hyde Park and Oxford Street.

When there were calls for the immigrants from East Europe in the late 19th century to be barred from entering Britain, Mocatta fought on their behalf, pleading: ‘It is not right for us as Englishmen to try and close entrance into our country to any of our fellow creatures, especially such as are oppressed. It is not for us as Jews to try and bar our gates against other Jews who are persecuted solely for professing the same religion as ourselves.’

Mocatta died on 16 January 1905. Ironically, later that year of the Aliens Act was passed, bringing in measures to curb immigration.

He bequeathed his library to the Jewish Historical Society of England, of which he was a past president. This library formed the basis of the Mocatta Library, now the Jewish Studies Library, at University College London.

Mocatta House in Whitechapel is a small block of flats on Brady Street, off Mile End Road in the East End, was built that year too and named in his honour.

The fountain at Saint Botolph’s Church without Aldgate was erected to his memory by the people of East London. The fountain is dated 1906 and has a carved stone with an inscription that reads:

Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association
Erected by permission
of the vicar & churchwardens

Below, a metal plate reads:

In honoured memory
Frederic David Mocatta, in recognition of a
benevolent life.
Jan[uar]y. 16th 1905

Low down, a stone side piece has the lettering:

Vicar – J.R. Marr (possibly J.F. Marr).

I doubt whether any passers-by are tempted to drink from the chained cup and the fountain. But this remains a reminder of a benevolent Victorian philanthropist who devoted his life to impoverished people of the East End.

A nearby blue police phone box survives from the age when telephones were new and the emergency services knew their usefulness.

As for the West London Synagogue, built in an ornate Byzantine style by Davis and Emanuel, it has become the flagship synagogue of the Reform movement in Britain. With its vast domed ceiling, gilded mosaics and bronzed gallery it is still one of the largest and most beautiful Reform synagogues in Britain, and it the only synagogue in Britain with an integrated pipe organ. The senior rabbi is Baroness (Julia) Neuberger, who is due to retire next month.

A blue police phone box beside the fountain survives from an age long before mobile phones … and a reminder of continuing poverty in the East End(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)