Tuesday, 18 February 2020
A Whitechapel sign recalls
a Jewish newspaper and
artist before the Holocaust
As I walk around looking at buildings, one certain way of coming across an unusual story is to keep my head and my eyes open.
Walking along Whitechapel High Street in the East End one day last month, I could easily have missed the fading but ornate symbolism that decorates an upper floor at No 88 and that is a reminder of pioneering journalism and the many stories of the Jewish East End.
No 88 is an early 19th-century shop and office building, with an entryway to Gunthorpe Street, was once the offices of the Jewish Daily Post, the first Jewish daily newspaper in England. But the story of this building dates back further.
An early, substantial building was standing on this site in 1666. It had nine hearths, and the tenant was Hugh Best, who may have been the tenant of the Star Inn in Bishopsgate. Best leased Whitechapel property to John Sanford before 1677, and left Whitechapel by 1674.
By 1720, this was the London premises of Samuel Bellamy, coppersmith of Whitechapel and Erith. That year, he became a tenant of and subcontractor to the English Copper Company, leasing two copper mills and a house on the Wandle at Wimbledon.
Bellamy left all his properties in Whitechapel and Wimbledon to his widow, Elizabeth and she in turn left them in 1732 to William Thoyts (1708-1773), whose father was her husband’s executor and her cousin.
From 1732 to 1773, No 88 was run by Thoyts, described as ‘a great coppersmith in Whitechapel’ and ‘the King of the Tinkers.’ He died in 1773, leaving a substantial fortune, and his business and property were inherited by his son John Thoyts.
John Thoyts left the business, including his copper mills, to be run by his assistant, Peter Robinson, until his son, William Thoyts, became an adult. The firm continued as Thoyts, Miners and Co at 88 Whitechapel High Street until 1807, succeeded by Morgan & Ward. Thoyts, Morgan & Ward moved to 63 Whitechapel High Street in 1809, and by 1812 No 88 was the Coffee Mart, run by John Johnson, an agent for the West India Merchants.
This four-storey, three-bay building, was extensively rebuilt and extended in 1838 by the Scots distiller James Goldie, he took over the premises from Dudderidge & Co, drapers.
Two years earlier, Goldie had built a new distillery to the rear in George Yard (Gunthorpe Street). But Goldie over-extended himself and went was bankrupt by 1841. The premises were taken over by a new gin distillery, the British Hollands Company, with Goldie as manager. He was also the founding secretary of the Commercial Gas Light and Coke Company.
British Hollands went out of business by 1843, but Goldie’s gas company flourished, and was soon supplying most of East London. The gas company moved offices by 1845, Goldie left London, and from 1847, for almost 90 years, No 88 was an auctioneer and pawnbrokers, first run by George Bonham.
Ashridge Brothers, pawnbrokers, were at No 88 until No 88 became the offices in 1934-1935 for the short-lived Jewish Daily Post. The English-language Jewish newspaper began in 1926. It said its ‘primary object is to give an unbiassed account of daily happenings of interest in Jewish life.’
The building was refurbished by HP Sanders for the Jewish Daily Post in 1934-1935. The ground floor was reinforced by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts to take the presses, and the upper storey offices were refurbished. The most striking additions from the Post’s brief time at No 88 are the decorative metal reliefs by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).
Szyk was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Lodz, and studied drawing and painting at the progressive Académie Julian in Paris. The Jewish Daily Post published his earliest anti-Hitler cartoons in February and March 1935. Two of his metal reliefs survive at No 88: one over the main door and one inside above the entrance to the lift.
The metal relief above the main door was once painted in gold and depicts a Magen David or Star of David supported by two Lions of Judah wielding sabres. Two medallions on the lions are decorated with menorot or seven-branched candelabra. The lions’ clawed feet rest on a thin turned base that is fixed to the wall.
I did not get inside the building this time, but I understand the relief by Szyk above the entrance to the lift on the first floor depicts traditional Jewish symbolism often found on Torah Arks: two Lions of Judah holding the Luhot or Tablets of the Law, inscribed with the first Hebrew letters of each of the Ten Commandments.
Originally, there were signs on each floor; all but these two were destroyed in a fire in the second half of the 20th century.
In the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, the Jewish Daily Post reported on the sufferings of Jewish communities around the world, from Germany to Afghanistan, and in 1935 the editor wrote of events in Germany and ‘the Jewish tragedy in all its full nakedness.’
However, the Jewish Daily Post struggled to compete with its long-established rival, Di Tsayt (The Jewish Times). It went into liquidation in August 1935 when it was sued for libel after it published a salacious story about a rabbi. It ceased publication shortly after the refurbishment of No 88, and Arthur Szyk moved to the US in 1940.
Albert’s menswear moved into the premises in 1942, after their premises nearby were damaged in an air raid. The ground floor shop was refurbished for Albert’s in the 1950s.
The shopfront of polished granite with brass-framed windows, along with shop panelling, dates from alterations made in the 1950s. The entry arch to Gunthorpe Street through No 88 has tiled decoration painted with a map of the area, inspired by Ogilby and Morgan’s 1676 map of London.
In recent years, businesses here have offered Jack the Ripper tours of Whitechapel and vaping accessories.
This building is listed, primarily because of the signs made by Szyk.
As for Arthur Szyk, he developed a line in political caricatures that earned him considerable fame after he emigrated to the US in 1940. His mother, Eugenia Szyk, was murdered by the Nazis in Poland during the Holocaust. He died in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1951.
Szyk was identified as the artist who made the medallions at No 88 Whitechapel High Street by Charles O’Brien in Pevsner City Guides: London East in 2005.