01 February 2018

The changing faces of
a street in Spitalfields

French Huguenot weavers lived at No 5 Fournier Street until about 1820 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

My journey through the East End this week, as I strolled from the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse to Liverpool Street Station, brought me along Commerical Road, and the former heart of the Jewish East End of London.

Eventually I came to Fournier Street, formerly Church Street, an East End street of 18th-century houses in Spitalfields, and a street that has been home to successive generations of new religious refugees and immigrants, from French-speaking Huguenots in the early 18th century, to Jewish refugees from East Europe in the 19th century, to Bengali Muslims in the 20th century.

Fournier Street runs from Commercial Street to Brick Lane, from a church to a mosque. Its French-sounding name from George Fournier, a member of a family of Huguenot refugees.

This was the last street built on the Wood-Michell estate in Spitalfields. It was developed in response to the settlement of a significant community of French Huguenots around Spitalfields after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. By settling here, outside the bounds of the City of London, they hoped to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City Guilds. These Huguenots brought with them little apart from their skills, and an Order in Council in 1687 raised £200,000 to relieve their poverty.

Many of these refugees brought silk-weaving skills from Nantes, Lyons and other French cities. The houses were initially built as domestic dwellings, but they were immediately turned to use for this new silk industry.

The houses mainly date from the 1720s and they form one of the most important and best preserved collections of early Georgian domestic townhouses in Britain.

Fournier Street was designed to be both well-appointed and of a higher standard than previous residential developments in the area. They were bought and leased by the master silk-weavers and silk mercers.

These houses are notable for their fine wooden panelling and elaborate joinery, including carved staircases, fireplaces and highly detailed doorcases that were made by skilled craftsmen.

Silk-weaving activities were carried out on the upper floors to gain the best light for the looms. This use explains unusual highly glazed lofts that are still found in these houses. The ground floor rooms often served as elaborate showrooms for the finished products.

Christ Church Spitalfields was built at the west end of Fournier Street in 1714-1729. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a former assistant of Christopher Wren, and the church is regarded as the highest expression of English Baroque architecture.

But as the French weavers and their community prospered, they had their own religious needs, and a new Huguenot church, La Neuve Eglise, was built at the east end of Fournier Street in 1743-1744.

After the decline of the silk weaving industry in London at the end of the Georgian era, the community moved on and the Huguenot church became a a Wesleyan chapel in 1809 and a Methodist chapel in 1819.

At the west end of Fournier Street, on the corner opposite Christ Church, the Ten Bells public house has notorious associations with Jack the Ripper from the 1880s.

The area was changing in character, and in time both Fournier Street and Brick Lane became the heart of the Jewish East End. There had been a small Jewish community in the East End for some time, and a large number of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia arrived to Spitalfields in the 19th century.

They developed into a thriving community, with new schools, cultural activities and businesses, including the Jews Free School and the Jewish Chronicle, the oldest Jewish English-language weekly newspaper in the world.

In 1898, the Methodist Church at the east end of Fournier Street, built by the Huguenots as La Neuve Eglise in 1743-1744, was converted into the Maz’ik Adath Synagogue, or Spitalfields Great Synagogue. One new community of religious refugees had given way to another.

In recent years, the famous residents of Fournier Street have included the artists Gilbert and George, who lived and worked on the street for many years, and today the street has some of London’s finest Georgian houses.

Weavers lived in the house at No 5 Fournier Street until about 1820, before two doctors, a father and son, moved in. They lived there for 50 years until the 1870s and built what is now the rear gallery as their surgery.

A succession of people and businesses followed including a Russian translator, a furrier, coffee rooms and storage for the vegetable market. At the end of World War II, this became the Market Café, where Gilbert and George breakfasted for many years.

No 5 remained the Market Café until 2000, when Fiona Atkins, a long-time resident of the East End, bought the house, which was then run down and in need of repair.

Today, No 5 is part museum, part gallery, part guesthouse and part shop, selling antique furniture and upholstery alongside a mix of locally sourced artefacts and objects. A kitchen in the basement area sells old china, glasses, serving dishes, colourful modern pottery and coffee and cake.

At the back of the shop, the gallery – in what was once the doctors’ surgery – hosts regular exhibitions by contemporary London artists.

No 5a Fournier Street fuses original Georgian features with 21st century comfort. The property can accommodate four adults, or a family of two adults and two children and includes two bedrooms, two living rooms and a modern kitchen and bathroom. One bedroom has amazing views of Christ Church Spitalfields and the City. It costs £600 for three nights.

Howard House, a three-storey mansion at No 14 Fournier Street, was built around 1726 by William Taylor, carpenter and gentleman, for himself, but he later leased it to two silk weavers, Signeratt and Bourdillon. It is here the silk for Queen Victoria’s coronation gown was woven.

The unique hardwood staircase balustrade is carved to display fluted columns with Ionic capitals placed on each turn for 100 steps, and each step is expertly carved with a masterly design of hops, barley, and wild roses.

No 23 Fournier Street is one of the best surviving example of a classic, single-fronted early Georgian townhouse of simple but elegant design.

Meanwhile, the surrounding area had evolved to become the heart of the Bengali community. In 1975, Spitalfields Great Synagogue was relocated to Golders Green, and in 1976 the building was reopened as the London Jamme Masjid or Great Mosque. A minaret was added to the building on the corner with Fournier Street and Brick Lane in December 2009.

The building’s changing use in response to the changing religious needs of the surrounding population over its 300-year history is symbolic of the place of Spitalfields in immigration and in providing refuge. On a wall on the south side, a large sundial survives, carved with the date 1743 a Latin inscription Umbra sumus, a quotation from an ode by Horace (4.7), meaning ‘We are a shadow.’

The full stanza poses a contrast between the moon’s renewal and our own mortality:

Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae; Nos ubi decidimus, Quo pater Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus, Pulvis et umbra sumus.

The moons, however, quickly repair their heavenly losses; when we have fallen to where father Aeneas fell, and wealthy Tullus and Ancus, we are dust and shadow.

An East End synagogue that
‘is a remarkable survival’

The Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob at 351-353 Commercial Road is one of just three synagogues still functioning in the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford
The East End is the cradle of Jewish life in England. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was said there were as many Jews living in one square mile of the East End of London as there are throughout Britain today – over 250,000 people.

Today, estimates say, about 2,000 Jewish people live in the East End. Many of them are elderly, and there are just three synagogues still functioning in the East End.

After my reflections early this week in the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine on Dan Jones’s painting of Jewish figures in the East End, I decided to visit one of these three still-functioning synagogues in Stepney.

The Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob stands at 351-353 Commercial Road, in the middle of a terrace of typical East End shops. The Congregation of Jacob or Kehillas Ya’akov Synagogue has been described as a ‘valuable and venerable relic of Anglo-Jewish social history’ and ‘one of England’s last intimate folk-art Eastern European synagogues.’

Sam Melmick has mapped over 150 synagogues in the area, as well as a multitude of shtiebls serving the Jewish community in the East End. Today, only three remaining synagogues are still in use: Sandy’s Row, East London Central, also known as Nelson Street, Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and the Congregation of Jacob, or Kehillas Ya’akov.

An English Heritage report said Kehillas Ya’akov ‘is a remarkable survival ... and is all the more exceptional for continuing in use as a synagogue.’

This is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside, it looks unremarkable, sandwiched in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney. But inside, there is a fusion of two worlds: one that has disappeared, and another that may be fast disappearing. Here East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London, and it is here that hope springs eternal.

Despite the date 1921 on the façade, the synagogue was founded in 1903 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Although the date above is ‘5681 – 1921’, this community has been present in the area for over a century. It was founded in 1903, but incorporates three smaller, earlier synagogues – Chevra Yisroel, Bikur Cholim and Steziver Synagogue.

This is one of the last three synagogues still functioning in the East End and was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain, founded in 1903 by Morris Koenigsberg and Abraham Schwalbe.

The early congregation was made up of first generation immigrants from Poland, Lithuania and Russia, and they were Orthodox Jews from small shtetls such as Stetziver, Kalisz and Vikaviskis. They met in the front room of Morris Koenigsburg’s family house on Commercial Road, and Abraham Schwalbe lived a few doors away.

This shul or synagogue originally was a constituent member of the Federation of Synagogues, founded by the philanthropist Samuel Montague MP in 1887 to improve the conditions for worship of the numerous small and often ill-ventilated chevras or prayer groups in the East End.

The federation offered loans to rebuild and convert many synagogues. But it often insisted that smaller chevras merged into larger congregations. Because of this, Kehillas Ya’akov absorbed the maller Chevra Yisroel (Society of Israel), the Bikur Cholim (Visitors of the Sick) and the Stetziver Synagogue.

The synagogue moved to 351-353 Commercial Road, which had been a bootmaker’s shop before World War I. The new synagogue was designed by Lewis Solomon and Son, honorary architects to the Federation of Synagogues, and was reconsecrated in 1921.

Dr Sharman Kadish, Project Director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage, says that at Kehillas Ya’akov ‘the congregation created for themselves an inner space strongly redolent of the world of East European Jewry which they had left behind.’

Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain, and to this day the congregation remains Modern Orthodox. Most members still live locally, although the character of the congregation is more cosmopolitan than it once was. The service is still Ashkenazic in style, but the Sephardic influence can be felt in the soft pronunciation of the Hebrew. The synagogue is independent and is owned, managed and maintained by members of the community.

The women’s gallery that fills three sides is out of use and needs the repair work to stabilise it. Instead, the women now sit behind the men at the back of the shul, behind a mechitzah or curtain partition.

In summer, light floods through the glass roof, a feature imported from Eastern Europe and a feature common in the shuls of the East End as one of the only ways to bring natural light into buildings in the middle of a terraced row.

The Revd David Brandes leads the congregation and is also the warden of the shul. He has a long-standing family connection with the shul: his maternal grandparents lived on Lucas Street, now Lukin Street, where the Bikur Cholim was located. While he was walking past the synagogue one day about 20 years ago, he saw swastikas scrawled in graffiti on the outside wall, and began to take an interest in its life and its future.

At the time, the synagogue was run by two brothers, Morry and Ixxy Lixenberg. Even when they were ill, the Lixenberg brothers did all they could to ensure that the shul remained open.

A direct descendant of one of the founders, Dr Monty Passes – a grandson of Abraham Schwalbe – is now in his 80s and is a member of the congregation. Kehillas Ya’akov describes itself as a community where everyone is valued and where everyone has a vital role to play and contribution to make.

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, spoke at the centenary service for the synagogue in June 2003. He recalled that most of his early childhood was spent in Commercial Road.

Kehillas Ya’akov is ‘a valuable and venerable relic of Anglo-Jewish history’ and ‘one of England’s last intimate folk-art Eastern European synagogues.’ The presence of this living synagogue on Commercial Road is a reminder of the past and a reminder of the world of East End Jewry that the Jewish community is leaving behind.

The congregation today is welcoming and diverse, with members from all types of trades and backgrounds. They proudly retain their independence, and the synagogue is owned and managed by members of the community.

There are still times when the minyan or quorum is weak, particularly in the winter when it is more difficult for our older members to attend. But somehow, they always manage to find a tenth man on a Saturday morning.

There are some indications that many young Jews are returning to their roots, and in the East End the wider community recognises the need to preserve a fast disappearing heritage. The real fear is that this may be too late to ensure that the remaining East End synagogues not only survive but prosper in the generations that follow.

Will the remaining East End synagogues survive and prosper? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)