23 June 2023
Whitechapel fountain is
a reminder of East End’s
diversity and Jewish history
One of the most unusual Jewish monuments in the East End is the King Edward VII Jewish Memorial Drinking Fountain on Whitechapel Road. A plaque on the fountain records that it was erected ‘from subscriptions raised from Jewish inhabitants of East London’ in memory of Edward VII.
Today, the fountain surrounded by a market that fills the street and looks forlorn and forgotten, without water and often with piles of rubbish from the market collecting around it. It appears less like a reminder of its regal legacy and more an image of the cultural variety that has always been a distinctive mark of the East End.
The idea for the memorial was conceived by the writer Annie Gertrude Landa, better known to young readers as ‘Aunt Naomi.’ Gertrude Landa was an author, journalist and playwright. Her book Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends was published in 1908, republished in 1919, and expanded on several times.
She was born Hannah (Annie) Gertrude Gordon in 1892, a sister of the writer Samuel Gordon. She married the Jewish writer Myer Jack Landa, and together they published a number of novels and plays. She also wrote a children’s column in the Jewish Chronicle.
The fountain on Whitechapel Road was unveiled on 15 March 1912 by Charles Rothschild (1877-1923), a banker and entomologist who is best remembered for ‘The Rothschild List,’ a list in 1915 of 284 sites across Britain that he considered suitable for nature reserves.
Nathaniel ‘Charles’ Rothschild was a partner in the family bank NM Rothschild and Sons. He went to Rothschild’s Bank every morning and never missed a day, despite his varied interests in science and in natural history. He identified the Bubonic plague vector flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, and his enormous collection of 260,000 fleas is in the Rothschild Collection in the Natural History Museum.
Charles Rothschild was married to Rózsika Edle von Wertheimstein (1870-1940), a descendant of an old Austrian-Jewish family who was born in Nagyvárad, Hungary – now the Romanian city of Oradea. She was a champion lawn tennis player in Hungary, and they met on a butterfly-collecting trip in the Carpathian Mountains.
The fountain cost £800, is made from Hopton Wood Stone, and was made by Henry Poole, who made a number of public fountains around Britain.
The figures on the fountain are the work of William Silver Frith (1850-1924), an architectural sculptor who often with architect Sir Aston Webb. Frith studied at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. He succeeded Jules Dalou as master of the South London Technical Art School – now the City and Guilds of London Art School – where he was a guiding force to several figures in the New Sculpture school, including FW Pomeroy, CJ Allen and George Frampton. His other work includes statues of the sculptors Grinling Gibbons and John Bacon for the Victoria and Albert Museum (1899-1909).
The fountain is designed in a classic pillar style, and is made from white stone with a tapered central square pillar. The pillar displays bronze figures of the Angels of Peace, of Liberty and of Justice, and four cherubs holding objects that were significant to the Jewish community at the time the memorial was unveiled:
• a ship is a reminder that many members of the local Jewish community were recent immigrants;
• a needle and thread signifies the clothing industry that employed the majority of the East End Jewish community until the 1970s;
• a book signifies the importance of education to the community both from the local secular Jewish schools and the schools of Talmudic study;
• a car held by a cherub shows the increasing pace of modernity and the shift away from the horse and cart.
A crowned roundel on the north side carries the inscription: ‘In grateful and loyal memory of Edward VII, Rex et Imperator, Erected by subscriptions raised by Jewish inhabitants of East London, 1911’. The side facing the street has a relief portrait of Edward VII with emblems of the Order of the Garter.
The fountain was listed at Grade II on the National Heritage List for England in 1973.
Michael McNay, in the Hidden Treasures of London, describes the memorial fountain as sitting ‘in the ethnic Asian community today as naturally as the exotic and overweening architecture of Mumbai, built on the high tide of the British Raj, suits the gateway of India.’
The memorial was covered with pieces of raw meat and chicken in August 2015 in what newspaper reports described as an ‘apparent anti-Semitic attack.’ The incident was reported to police and the memorial was cleaned by Tower Hamlets Council workers.
Despite its anachronistic pledges of royal loyalty and its forlorn and forgotten appearance today, this fountain remains a reminder of the need to appreciate the diversity that is part of the East End and a reminder of the need to be vigilant when it comes to antisemitism and racism.