East End memories

My Grandpa, Michael Sherbourne, with his oldest grandchild, Danya, and youngest, me.

I first designed an interfaith walking tour of the East End of London when I worked at CCJ (Council for Christians and Jews). I've re-jigged and re-used it in several different contexts, and it is an area that continues to fascinate. But I'm still always amazed by my own grandpa's vivid memories of life there. Grandpa Michael is one of my all time hero's, but more of that for another time. 
He has begun typing up his memories (he received a computer for his 90th birthday!) for Martin Gilbert, and he distributed it to those of us with an interest. He has continued with later episodes in his life, but the life he describes in the East End is so vivid and so far from our reality today. I thought his memories were worth sharing:
  I was born in February, 1917, my older brother Syd in December, 1914, and two younger brothers, Louis in August 1919 and Cyril in July, 1923.
    We lived in a small house in a street off Stepney Green. There were two parallel streets, and a very short one connecting them at right-angles.
They had the most incongruous names for a district where poverty was rampant.  We lived in Gold Street, parallel to Silver Street, and joining them was Brilliant Street.
Three more unsuitable names I find it hard to imagine !
Our house, No.67, was one of a terrace of houses, all more or less alike.  The front door opened onto the pavement, in the street, and, of course there was no garden, and the back door opened onto what we called a yard, a small area paved with cement, about 14 feet long by about 6 feet wide. If we wanted to see any grass, or trees, or wild or cultivated flowers, we had to walk a mile or so to Victoria Park in Bethnal Green. 
The houses were of the back-to-back type with a high wall in between, and the kitchen, which was our living room, had a window that looked out into the yard and, over a low wall, directly into the kitchen window of our next-door neighbours at No.65, the Cohens.  Fortunately there was a very good community relationship among all the Jewish people in our street and the next street, Wellesley Street.
   The lavatory (we didn't learn to call it "the toilet" till many years later !) was at one end of the yard, and every winter it froze solid, being outside the house, and Mum had to unfreeze it with hot water from the kitchen. There was, of course, no bath-room, and it was not until I was about 16 or 17 that I ever saw a real bath, in a real bath-room.  We washed at the sink in the scullery adjoining the kitchen, and we had a bath once a week on Friday afternoon, after school.  With there being no bathroom or bath, Mum used to  bring in the aluminium bath that hung on a nail in the back wall of the yard outside, put it on two stools, i.e. chairs that had lost their backs, and fill it with hot water that she would ladle out of "the copper" in the scullery.  Her "ladle" was a large saucepan with a long handle. "The copper" was so-called because it was a boiler made of copper, shaped like an  upturned dome, and bricked in with a small space underneath where a fire was made to heat the water which was "ladled" in  with the same saucepan that was used to "ladle" out when hot.  The fire was made with some old newspaper and a small bundle of firewood that cost one penny and then a few VERY small pieces of coal or coke.  We would be bathed two at a time in the aluminium bath on the stools, then the other two, in the same water, and finally Dad had his turn, still using the same water !

photograph taken by a wandering street photographer. cost ONE penny. the photographer used a very large camera based, on a tripod, about 5 feet in height,
with red painted legs, and he had a black cloth over his head.
The photograph (the word "snap" had not yet been coined for this operation) was taken on 24th July, 1923, outside a closed shop, opposite our house at
67, Gold Street, Stepney Green, London, E.1.
My mother was in labour, delivering our youngest brother, Cyril, who was born that day. I was ordered by my older brother, Syd, to go and ask my mother's
sister-in-law, Auntie Kitty, (who was acting at the birth as midwife) for a penny that had to be paid before the man would take the picture.
The three young gentlemen were: - Sydney (on the right) aged 8 years and 7 months
Louis, in the middle, aged 3 years and 11 months
Mickey (Michael), on the left, aged 6 years and 5 months

We followed this system until I was 14 in 1931, when there was a grand opening of the Mile End Municipal Public Baths. We paid threepence and were loaned one towel and given a 
tiny piece of foul-smelling soap, or fourpence for two towels and a better piece of soap !  The bath was filled (and emptied) from the outside by the bath attendant who also cleaned it.
This ceremony was also performed on Friday afternoon.  There was at that time, a famous (lady's) hair shampoo, called "Amami", whose advert was "Friday night is Amami Night".
      Our house like all the rest in the street was 3-bedroom, but although there were 4 boys we only used one bedroom upstairs. in which we all four slept in one bed, head to toe, 2 at one end, 2 at the other.  The other two bedrooms and the landing were occupied by tenants, a married couple and a small girl.  Their "kitchen" space was on the landing. My parents' bedroom was the "back room" downstairs, with a window that looked out into our back yard.  The "front room" was not  furnished except for a sideboard, which we called the"Shenkelleh" (which was about the sum total of our Yiddish knowledge), probably as it had been left behind by "Booba and Zeida"  My mother's parents were both British born, grandpa in 1866, grandma in 1864. Grandma's parents came from Amsterdam about 1858. Grandpa's ancestors have been traced by my niece as far back as 1705 in London. I shall have more to say about Grandpa later. My mother, who was born in 1891, was often referred to by the neighbours, in the most friendly way, as "die englisher".
My father was the first-born of his family, his parents having been born in Poland, in Pinsk, married there in 1887 and came straight to England, where my Father was born in 1888.  There were six other children, 4 sons and 2 daughters.  The 4 other sons had gone to live in America, and in May, 1921 "Booba and Zeida" and the 2 daughters (my aunts) left the house in Gold Street and went to New York to join their sons there, and we then moved into 67 Gold Street, from Fulham where we had been living temporarily. Syd was 6, I was 4, Louis was 1 year and 8 months old and we never saw them again.
My father was in the tailoring trade, as what I am told was the lowest grade, a "felling hand" and he was more out of work than in work. I don't know if at that time there was any Unemployment Pay (now called  "Benefit"?) but he certainly did not get any "dole", as it was known colloquially.  Probably because he had not paid any voluntary contributions.  So to help to eke out a living, he became what is known as a "hawker".  He bought a variety of chocolates from a wholesaler
although, knowing his need, they took advantage of him, and made him pay above wholesale price.  He would buy them on Thursday, as I remember, and every Thursday evening Mum and Dad would sit in the otherwise empty front-room, with a bottle of benzine, (a kind of petroleum alcohol) and a piece of rag-cloth and
they busied themselves erasing the printed prices on the chocolate wrappers, so that Dad could ask for a higher price from the purchaser. The chocolates were
then stored in the "Shenkelleh" and every other evening apart from Thursday and Sunday, he would pack the chocolates into a tray that he wrapped in a waterproof cloth and made his way to the West End of London, and opened up his tray held by a strap round his shoulders and stood outside a different West End theatre each night selling, or at least trying to sell his chocolates to the theatre-goers. As can be imagined he did not find it easy to make a living that way.
     So he decided to become a London "cabbie", a taxi-driver. I imagine that it is still the same today, a would-be cabbie has to register with the police, and  have a series of tests, when he is asked how would you go from "X" to "Y", e.g. "How would you go from Victoria Station to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith".  The reply has to be the quickest, most direct route and  the answer has to be given without hesitation.  To pass this series of weekly or fortnightly tests a candidate has to go on a bicycle to learn every street in London, as well as the whereabouts of every theatre, museum, art gallery and public building and so on.
They call this being "On the Knowledge" (i.e. knowledge of London)
My father was not the brightest of students, and it took him FIVE years of hard grind before he was told by his police examiner that he had passed the "Knowledge".  Then he had to learn how to drive a London motor-cab.  I don't know how long that took him, but he was failed four times.  Other cabbies commiserated with him, until one of them casually asked "Did you put the £5 on the seat ?"  Now at that time £5 was  like £500 or more today. He asked:-
What £5?  and was told that unless he left a £5 note on the examiner's seat he would never pass. He borrowed  £5, put it in an envelope on the seat, and
Lo ! and Behold ! he passed and became a qualified London Taxicab Driver in, I  think, but am not all sure, 1932 or 1933.
      Our financial situation was now improving, especially as Syd left school aged 15, In July 1930 and began to work as a clerk in Houndsditch, bringing in some very welcome finance, small, but very welcome.  The normal school-leaving age for most children, at Elementary School, was 14.  Syd went to Mile End Central School, leaving-age there being 15.
I went to Parmiter's School, in Bethnal Green;  it was at that time called a secondary School, equivalent to what later, after World War II, was called a "Grammar" School. there we learned French and Latin, Mathematics (Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry) Physics and Chemistry  ---  subjects that were not taught at the Elementary School.  I was able
to go to a Secondary School as I passed a scholarship which both paid for my fees at the school (they were as you see,
fee-paying) but I also received a grant, which increased when I reached 14 years of age. The scholarship was from the
London County Council (LCC).
    Both Syd and I went to the famous Redman's Road Talmud Torah, after school hours.  After the first two introductory
classes, we were not allowed to speak in  English to the teacher, only in Hebrew, (Ivriss in the old Ashkenazi pronunciation) as the " Heder" was called "Talmud Torah (Ivriss be-Ivriss)". There were on the average 600 boys there at one time !.  There was another branch of this "Heder" in Commercial Road, with an average of 400 boys so it could truly be said that on an average 1,000 boys at a time, each year, were receiving a very good Jewish and Hebrew education.
 Syd was there from the age of 6  to 13 (1921 to 1928), and ! attended for the same length of time from 1923 to 1930.
We were both  called to the Torah for Bar Mitzvah in the Synagogue in the Talmud Torah, Sydney in January, 1928, and
I in March, 1930.  I remember very little about either of them, probably because we didn't have any big party, as is done today.  I seem to remember that one of my mother's brothers (Uncle Joe, who was an Inspector of Taxes) was in our house for tea, but that is all I remember of mine, and of Syd's I remember nothing at all.  By no means all boys were Bar-Mitzvah, although most did learn to read Hebrew.
    Among London taxicab drivers there were quite a number of Jews, but the main occupations were tailoring both Ladies and Gents, principally the latter, and there were quite a number who were called "Master Tailors", that is they employed others, sometimes just half a dozen or so, sometimes they owned fairly large factories.  I can't recall any of their names at present.  The same applied to other trades where many Jews were employed, such as cap and hat making, upholstery, cushion and mattress making, cabinet-making (i.e. furniture and various other items of woodwork),
printing,  shoe repairing, barbers and hairdressers who made a relatively comfortable living, for the times, as were owners of workshops or small factories.
     So, as can be seen, poverty was by no means universal. Many Jews were self-employed as watchmakers and jewellers as well as diamond cutters. In addition there were, as today, many Jews in the professional world, lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists, journalists, authors (writers), schoolmasters, and university teachers and research workers, although to a smaller extent than is the case today.
     In addition there were a large number of Jewish-owned small retail shops, grocers, kosher butchers, fishmongers, fruiterers, and what we called "oil shops" that sold vinegar, cooking oil,  pepper, blocks of salt, as we did not know of free-running salt,  It was too exensive.  A block had to be scraped with a knife but only cost a penny.
   Furthermore, there was a considerable Jewish community in  London's West End, as is evidenced by the synagogues, as for example, Hammersmith, New West End, St.John' Wood (opened in 1882 in Abbey Rd.), the Sephardi in Lauderdale Rd., and the Reform West London in Upper Berkeley Street, as well as others.
    I know very little about the Jews of West London, but, as I recall, the Jews of East London were generally not very religious, although extremely proud of their Jewish identity.   To my mind not very many young people were regular attenders at Synagogue, and I cannot remember ever having seen anyone at all wearing a kippah in the street, and
I am quite certain, I repeat quite certain, that there were no Hassidim at all in England before WWII.  I certainly NEVER
saw anyone wearing the Black broad brimmed hat, and long black coat, or the tsitsiss hanging outside the trousers.
Any of the adult men who went to shul wore a hat, but this was no indication, as most men in those days went about with either a hat (bowler or trilby) or a cap.  And generally folk were not at all "Shomrei Shabbat", as understood today.
Men would smoke, as most men did, they would ride on buses, or bicycles, and every Saturday afternoon, regularly, without fail, Whitechapel Road, was crowded on the North side with literally hundreds of Jewish youngsters of both sexes, teenagers and early twenties, strolling from where Mile End Road became Whitechapel Road at Cambridge Road, to Woolworths at the corner of Commercial Street, opposite the famous Gardiners Corner, which was on the corner of Commercial Road and quite often, further on to Aldgate as far as Aldgate (Met) tube station. They strolled in  both directions, Eastward and Westward, back and forth, a distance of a mile to one and a quarter each way,back and forth for 2 to 3 hours. There were very rarely any policemen about as they were not needed at all, for the hundreds, possibly a few thousand, were perfectly peaceful.  There were never any fights, or even quarrels, or anything of the sort.  It was just like a peaceful crowd of strollers at any beach promenade at any seaside town. This was where friends met friends or acquaintances and chatted and strolled.  And this was where very many young men met the girls they knew and "chatted them up". And those who had any money spent it in one of the several "Fish and Chip" shops, mostly on chips, the two favourites being Jack Hart's (the boxer) and Johnny Isaacs, next door to the Classic Cinema, which was
crowded on a Saturday evening.   In addition to the Classic, there was the Mile End Empire, ("Ye Olde Paragon") formerly one of the famous Music Halls where entertainers such as Marie Lloyd made their name.  There was the Rivoli
Cinema in Whitechapel, as well as the Coliseum and the Palladium Cinemas, in Commercial Road, and I must not omit the very famous indeed Yiddish Theatre which was very popular.


  1. Brilliant, I love this kind of stuff. Love that your grandfather is doing this now!

  2. What a fascinating account, thank you for sharing it.

  3. benjamin thomas2 July 2014 at 13:36

    wonderful I was there born and bred Christian I went mile end central in 1947 made many jewish friends I will never forget the humour and double session on Friday in the winter

  4. Hello, I have just read your interesting blog, is your grandfather still alive? My father lived at 60 Gold Street Valerie

    1. Alas he died 2.5 years ago at 97 years young

  5. My mother was lived in Gold Street

  6. My mother was lived in Gold Street

  7. My mother livec in Gold Street -The Haig family


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