To anybody interested in British social and political history, 4 May 1926 is an auspicious and important date. The coalminers (in response to a reduction in their wages) had called for a general strike to begin at one minute before midnight on 3 May, so the dispute officially took hold the following day, the day that my grandmother gave birth to my mother. The Britain in which my Grandma Jenny laboured to deliver her daughter was defined by striking miners, iron and steelworkers, railwaymen, transport workers, printers and dockworkers all withholding their own labour. Her brother, my uncle Jack, frequently reminded us that, in the absence of buses, he had to cycle to Mother Levy’s home, the East End maternity hospital where my mum first saw the light of day. Sadly after a strong campaign against demolition, the building was pulled down in 2012.
When mother and daughter returned to the family home at 39 New Road, it was to a very different East End of London than the one that exists now in the early twenty-first century. They lived in New Road, a street that runs between Whitechapel and Commercial Roads, and they shared the house with her mother’s family. Her memories of those years are of close knit families living in the same neighbourhood, where the shops were geared to selling produce for the Jewish residents, and where friends and relations were in and out of one another’s homes as if they lived there themselves.
Thanks to Google Street View, I was able to locate a picture of the house without needing to visit. You can see all three storeys, as well as the basement railings enclosing the area, or the ‘airey’ as mum says it was generally referred to.
Thanks to Google Street View I was able to locate a photo of the house without needing to visit.
Immigrant Jews fleeing from persecution and pogroms in Tsarist Russia and anti-Semitic Catholic Poland had been making their homes in the overcrowded slums around Whitechapel and Spitalfields since the second half of the nineteenth century. My mother is still unsure whether her family originated in Poland or Russia: I suppose it depends on where the borders were drawn at any given time. My great-grandparents made the journey, on what my mother used to refer to as the ‘onion boat’ during the 1870s and 1880s. I never knew Harris and Rebecca Angel, Jenny’s parents, but I wish had met them in person, rather than just visiting their graves in Plashet Grove cemetery. The more my mother recalls those days, the more I can almost feel that I am there with her. This is possibly also coloured a little by the memories I have of visiting the East End during my own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nowadays the area is a mixture of other immigrant groups (particularly Bangladeshis in and around Brick Lane) as well as professional classes, who have moved back to some of these streets, especially where the Georgian and Victorian properties have been restored and become gentrified. A local estate agent is currently offering a renovated 1797 terraced property for £1.5m in New Road and a two-bedroom flat in Myrdle Street (now a conservation area where my mother went to school) is on the market for £450,000. Myrdle Street School itself, which could be seen from my great grandmother’s house, has reemerged as a school for Muslim girls. One immigrant group supercedes another.
The more my mum shares her early memories with me, the more I wish I had spent more time getting to know the older members of the family who were still alive when I was younger. My sister and I are currently encouraging her nostalgia for a world that has passed us all by; there is almost an urgency for soaking up her past and impressing our own stamps on it as a means of preserving it for the future. So many people have regretted not probing past generations for their recollections that I feel it is imperative to glean as much as I can while I can. Prompted by our mother’s wishes my sister has also been trying to compile a family tree; we need to know where we have come from to truly appreciate who we are.
Obviously it is difficult to cast your mind back over a period spanning more than 80 years and we all know that our memories are fallible and subjective, but mum was nodding enthusiastically in recognition and smiling to herself when I read to her from Dr Cyril Sherer’s account of his childhood close to where she lived, and of his account of his time spent at Myrdle Street School. He believes that those days before World War II shaped him, and I’m certain it had the same effect on my mother.