23 January 2020

Brick Lane Synagogue
is a reminder of a once
vibrant East End community

Brick Lane Synagogue, also known as Spitalfields Great Synagogue, opened in 1898 in a former Huguenot church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During this week’s visit to London for the launch of resources for Holocaust Memorial Day, I also visited one synagogue (Bevis Marks Synagogue) and the site of two former synagogues in the East End, Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and Brick Lane Synagogue.

The former Brick Lane Synagogue, now the Brick Lane Mosque, is a prominent, Grade II* listed building on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane, just a short walk from Whitechapel station.

High above the separate entrances for men and women to the mosque, a stone sundial is carved with the Latin words Umbra Sumus, ‘We are shadows.’

These words and the date above them reflect the long history of a building that has stood on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane for almost 250 years. It has been a centre of worship successive waves of immigrants over the centuries who have made the East End and London a colourful place of diversity and pluralism.

This building has been a Huguenot church, an evangelical mission hall, a Methodist chapel, and a Jewish synagogue before becoming today’s mosque.

The building was originally built in 1743 as a church by French Huguenots who settled in the Spitalfields area, having fled religious persecution in France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685.

Many Huguenots moved into the Brick Lane area, where a thriving weaving industry developed. The building was erected in 1743 as La Neuve Eglise or the ‘New Church’ by the Huguenot community. The church was designed by the architect Thomas Stibbs (d. 1759).

The Latin inscription on the sundial, Umbra Sis umus, 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.

The sundial on the side of the former synagogue dates from 1743 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Meanwhile, the Church of England built Christ Church, Spitalfields, on Fournier Street, designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The Huguenot chapel on Brick Lane survived for more than six decades. But when weaving declined with industrialisation in the north of England, these Huguenots moved west, becoming part of the larger French-speaking population in Kensington, Chelsea, Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and the Huguenot church on Brick Lane fell out of use.

The building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street was bought in 1809 by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, now known as the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People. But this mission chapel lasted only 10 years, and from 1819 the building was a Methodist chapel.

In an ironic twist of history, the former church that had been used as a mission hall by a society seeking to convert Jews soon became the main synagogue of a new Jewish community that started to arrive in this part of the East End from the mid-19th century on.

From the 1880s into the early 20th century, massive pogroms and the May Laws in Russia forced many Jews to flee the Tsarist Empire and parts of Central Europe, and about 140,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Britain.

The former Huguenot church at 59 Brick Lane was acquired by a Jewish immigrant community in 1898 and became the Machzike Hadath (‘Upholders of the Faith’) or Machzike Adass Synagogue, and was also known as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue.

The community previously had a smaller synagogue at Booth Street, Spitalfields. The former Booth Street is now the east section of Princelet Street. Nearby synagogues included the Great Synagogue of London and another church building that had become a Jewish place of worship, the Sandys Row Synagogue.

Machzike Hadath was formed as a society by individual members of the North London Beth Hamedrash and the Machzike Shomrei Shabbat Synagogue of Booth Street. The Machzike Shomrei Shabbat Synagogue formally joined the society in February 1893, and adopted the name of the Machzike Hadath Synagogue.

It is this ultra-orthodox community that moved to the former church in Brick Lane in 1898, and transformed it into Brick Lane Synagogue or Spitalfields Great Synagogue.

With services almost around the clock, the congregation was renowned for its piety and strict adherence to orthodoxy. There was a Talmud Torah school next door on Brick Lane, attended by over 500 boys. From 1916, the synagogue’s leader was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, later the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Palestine.

The name Machzikei Hadass (מחזיקי הדת, ‘those who reinforce the Law’) comes from a 19th century organisation of synagogues and yeshivas in East Europe that aimed to improve Jewish education and observance. It was also used in Dublin by the community that had a small synagogue on Saint Kevin’s Parade, off Clanbrassil Street, from 1883 and that moved to Rathmore Villas, Terenure, in 1968. The Machzikei Hadass movement owes its origins and traditions to the teaching of the Chatam Sofer.

Over the years, the population of Jews in the East End declined, with many people moving to other parts of East London, and to suburbs in North London. By the 1970s, the congregation had dwindled. The synagogue in Brick Lane closed in 1973 and a successor congregation opened in Golders Green in north-west London, Machzike Hadath.

Meanwhile, the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets was growing rapidly in the second half of the 20th century and it now makes up 32 per cent of the total population of Tower Hamlets. The Brick Lane Synagogue was sold in 1975 and was transformed into a mosque, reopening in 1976 as the London Jamme Masjid or the London Great Mosque.

It is now known as the Brick Lane Mosque. It is used primarily by the large Bengali community in the East End and can hold up to 3,200 people.

Brick Lane, once an arterial hub in the Jewish East End, extends from Swanfield Street in Bethnal Green, crosses Bethnal Green Road and continues one-third of a mile south through Spitalfields to Wentworth Street. Brick Lane’s continuation to the south, Osborn Street, is about 400 ft long and leads into Whitechapel High Street.

Brick Lane is still a vibrant, populated place, but most of the Jewish community is long gone, and only four of the 150 synagogues that were built in Tower Hamlets remain today. The Jewish Chronicle reported recently (27 September 2019) that the only Jewish retailer remaining on Brick Lane is Leo Epstein, who is 86 and still selling dress fabrics.

The Epstein family now lives in Hendon, in north-west London, and family members criss-cross London from one end to the other each day to reach their shop. Epra Fabrics is sandwiched between a Bangladeshi restaurant and an empty space with a ‘For Let’ sign.

Rents are rising on Brick Lane as the area becomes increasingly fashionable. Vegan cafés and vintage clothing shops sit in between the Bangladeshi restaurants. But Epra Fabrics remains, despite the persistent flurry of change and development which surrounds it.

Leo Epstein came to England at the age of six, as a refugee from Germany. He told the Jewish Chronicle: ‘Because I was a refugee, I have this positive view of England, which has always been welcoming, to not only Jews, but to other refugees. You see that every day lived out here on Brick Lane. I will admit, though, that it is worrying, what is happening in the world today.’

Brick Lane is becoming increasingly fashionable, with vegan cafés and vintage clothing shops sit in between the Bangladeshi restaurants (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Updated 6 March 2020 with photograph of sundial

Fieldgate Street Great
Synagogue, once at the
heart of the Jewish East End

The former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, once at the heart of the Jewish East End, was sold to the East London Mosque in 2015 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During this week’s visit to London for the launch of resources for Holocaust Memorial Day, I also visited one synagogue, Bevis Marks Synagogue, and the site of two former synagogues in the East End, Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and Brick Lane Synagogue.

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, established in 1899, was located at 41 Fieldgate Street in the East End of London. The synagogue’s official Hebrew name was Sha’ar Ya’akov (‘Gate of Jacob,’ שער יעקב), but it became known as the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, as there were several other smaller shuls along the street.

Fieldgate Street is in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and stretches for about one fifth of a mile in the East End. It lies to the south of Whitechapel Road and leads east to New Road and Stepney Way. The east half of the street was once known as Charlotte Street.

The Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue was once a remarkable survival in the Jewish East End and was the last active synagogue in Whitechapel proper.

Whitechapel was known in the1880s for the Jewish community that filled the surrounding streets. Many of the newcomers were refugees fleeing anti-Semitic terror in Imperial Russia.

The relationship between the newcomers and the existing Anglicised community was an uncomfortable one; the immigrants suspected the Orthodoxy of the English Jews, while English Jews, who lived and worshipped in greater affluence, tended to look down on their less fortunate brethren. The new arrivals soon became a majority, but with no effective say in community affairs.

The MP for Whitechapel, Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), also feared for the safety of the members of small synagogues in cramped spaces, and he founded the Federation of Synagogues in 1887 to amalgamate them into larger, safer premises.

Many of the Federation’s synagogues used the title ‘Great’ in their names, and this also helps to explain the name of Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue.

The name of the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue has survived in the present building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue was founded by the Federation of Synagogues in 1899, with the amalgamation of three small chevrot through appeals that condemned existing premises as unsuitable for public worship.

It was built with a 90-year lease of land that was previously occupied by a private house and workshop that was the home of a ginger-beer maker and a tea chests dealer.

The building costs were estimated at £3,500. The Federation of Synagogues contributed £500, private members raised £700 and Samuel Montagu donated £200 of his own money.

Nathaniel Charles Rothschild performed the opening ceremony, Samuel Montagu, later Lord Swaythling, became the Honorary President, and Solomon Michaels, a clothier, was the Acting-President. A city-based architect, William Whiddington, was commissioned to design the synagogue in line with Ashkenazi traditions.

A reminder of the three-storey house that stood at the front of the synagogue, now housing the offices of a charity centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A three-storey house at the front of the synagogue included a shop, a first-floor caretaker’s flat and a top-floor committee room. To the right of the shopfront double iron gates opened outwards for two entrances, as the synagogue segregated men and women. The women’s door would lead directly to a staircase giving access to the gallery, while the men’s door led to a corridor to the main floor of the synagogue behind.

The synagogue itself was in a spacious, well-lit and ventilated, long room that could accommodate 280 men below and 240 women in the three-sided gallery. On two tiers of paired Corinthian columns, the ceiling rose to a part-glazed seven-sided central vault.

The bimah or reading platform in the centre of the synagogue flanked by high-backed benches on the long walls. Extra rows were inserted behind the bimah. The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark holding the Torah scrolls was set against the back wall at the north end. It had a tall, upper tier with large Luhot or tablets representing the Ten Commandments flanked by Lions of Judah and topped by a semi-dome. Above it was a large round window.

The synagogue did not point to Jerusalem, as is traditional. This was not practical, and so the building had a north-south orientation.

The synagogue was badly damaged during the Blitz, as were many buildings in the East End did. A first phase of essential repair with new steel-work and concrete roofing for the main hall was carried out in 1947-19488 by Lewis Solomon & Son architects, SH & DE White civil engineers and RH Rhodes Ltd builders.

Work on the hall and gallery, retaining the Corinthian columns, was completed in 1952 by Ashby and Horner Ltd, builders, under the oversight of Lewis Solomon, Son & Joseph architects, and the synagogue chairman, Nathan Zlotnicki.

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue reopened in 1959, retaining significant features from the earlier building. The house in front of the synagogue was refurbished as a communal centre in 1959-1960, when Ashby & Horner reconfigured the ground-floor layout and provided a plain front of brick above a rendered lower storey. New dedicatory inscriptions were put in place above and beside the main entrance.

Under the leadership of the Revd Leibish Gayer, the refurbishment kept the humble presentation of the old building. The passage along the east wall led into the synagogue, where the marbled columns and some old pews survived, the remade Ark bore a more humble Luhot and carved and gilt-painted Lions of Judah. To the left of the Ark was a stone Royal Family prayer tablet, a tradition introduced from 17th century Amsterdam that became common in many English synagogues.

Above the Ark, two high-level round windows had stained-glass with Stars of David. There were also Star of David light fittings, and a large ceiling lantern lit the whole space. Panelled gallery fronts served as donation boards, bearing commemorative inscriptions.

Leibish Gayer had arrived from Poland in 1934, and he remained the religious leader here until 1992. However, the Jewish community in the East End dwindled through the second half of the 20th century, moving to better housing and better lives in newer suburbs.

By the early 2000s, the synagogue had a reduced capacity of just 150, and attendances continued to fall gradually as the local Jewish population in the East End declined in numbers. A movable curtained trellis mechitzah was installed at the rear of the ground floor for a dwindling number of elderly women, so that they no longer had to climb the stairs to the original women’s gallery on the second floor.

The last regular service was held on 22 September 2007. However, the synagogue was reopened for services on the ‘High Holydays’ (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) in 2008 and, for a while, other services were held from time to time.

Around this time, one observer noted, ‘There is a lonely grandeur to the place today, worn and dusty now but still with evidence of the attention exercised in its care. Fine gilt texts upon panels around the balcony record benefactors and commemorate loved ones, never to be forgotten.’

Regular services had ceased by November 2009, and the synagogue was open only once a month for a symbolic Shabbat Services. The synagogue finally closed its doors in 2014.

By then, the congregation had about 180 members, but most of whom no longer lived in the East End. The congregation agreed to transfer the building to the Federation of Synagogues, which in turn agreed to use the proceeds of its sale for other projects. In return, the members of the congregation were made life members of a synagogue in the Hendon area, thus safeguarding their burial rights.

The Federation of Synagogues sold the building to the East London Mosque in 2015 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Federation of Synagogues sold the building in March 2015 to the East London Mosque, which by then enclosed the small synagogue building on three sides and dwarfed it.

Makespace Architects designed a conversion in which the synagogue furnishings were removed in 2016 and a new shopfront was created for a Zakat Centre, receiving Muslim donations to Islamic charities.

The changes at Fieldgate Street illustrate the story of the changing cultural and religious diversity of the East End. This diversity is celebrated in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim symbols, including a Star of David, that decorate the Fieldgate Oasis, opened on 18 August 2009 by Councillor Abdal Ullah of Tower Hamlets Council.

A verse at the base reads,

Life is but a stopping place,
a pause in what’s to be,
A resting place along the road,
to sweet eternity.

A Star of David on the Fieldgate Oasis … recalling the Jewish community that once defined Fieldgate Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)