The two largest groups of foreign immigrants into London during the second half of the 19th century were German Lutheran Christians and East European Ashkenazi Jews. The majority arrived without money or possessions and unable to speak English. They needed to urgently seek accommodation, and also work, however low the income. Each group had to live amongst their compatriots due to language and, particularly for Jews, for religious and cultural reasons. It was in the slums around the Whitechapel and Spitalfields districts of East London that they settled.
A Jewish community existed in London throughout the early Middle Ages but they were banished from England by Edward I in 1290. In 1656 some Sephardi Jews (who spoke Judaeo-Spanish, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) arrived, declaring themselves as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. As asylum-seekers from torture by Catholics it was difficult for the Puritan government to refuse them refuge. They settled around Houndsditch and were allowed to set up a synagogue on the upper floor of the house of Moses Athias at Creechurch Lane on the eastern side of the City (replaced in 1701 by the purpose-built synagogue that still functions at Bevis Marks). They arranged a burial ground in a former orchard at Mile End.
By the end of the 17th century there were around 1,000 Jews in London, with homes in villages north of the City, such as at Hampstead. Samuel Dormido became the first Jew to trade on the Royal Exchange and others followed him. Some became diamond traders and bankers. William III’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 was largely funded by Isaac Pereira, a Dutch Jew, and they were useful as agents to disperse plundered booty brought home by English privateers. Loans from Samson Gideon helped suppress the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Sometime after instigating the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Protestant fanatic Lord Gordon turned to Judaism, changing his name to Israel bar Abraham Gordon. Alfred Yarrow, son of Esther, a Sephardic Jew, founded the Yarrow shipbuilding company, initially on the Isle of Dogs and later moving to the Clyde.
The Sephardim created the seven-man Board of Deputies to pay homage to King George III and to represent them in political matters. By the middle of the 18th century there was a Sephardic Orphanage, a Sephardic School of Girls, and the Beth Holim hospital for the sick and aged.
The Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Northern and Eastern Europe are a different strand of Judaism from the Sephardim, and they speak Yiddish, which is a mix of Hebrew, Slavic and German languages. When they first arrived in England they were not welcomed by those already settled and ordered not to come to the Sephardic synagogue. In 1692 the Ashkenazi created their own Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place, north of Aldgate, in the precinct of the former Priory of the Holy Trinity. (It was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War). Several years later they established a burial ground just to the north of Mile End Road at what is now Alderney Road. The rabbi of the Great Synagogue became recognized as the principle religious authority by most Jews in London and the Provinces.
Between 1725 and 1892 a splinter group of Ashkenazim from Hamburg held services at the Hambro synagogue near Fenchurch Street. The Ashkenazi New Synagogue also functioned from 1761, with a burial ground at Ducking Pond Lane, Mile End.
The rabbi of the Great Synagogue took the position of England’s Chief Rabbi, although it was only in 1780 that the post was recognized by the Hambro and New synagogues. In 1870, as Jews were beginning to move to the suburbs, the Ashkenazi synagogues came together under one body as the United Synagogue. A Beth Din (House of Judgement) was formed to interpret and rule on religious matters and arbitrate in family issues. In the middle of the 19th century a group of several West London families, with their own religious views, broke away from the Great Synagogue and Bevis Marks to form the West London Synagogue in Burton Street.
In 1745 Jews were expelled from Prague. Some of them, together with Germans and Poles, made their way across the North Sea via Holland, arriving penniless and unskilled. They were followed in the first half of the 19th century by those from the Netherlands and Germany via Amsterdam and Hamburg. Often poor, they varied from silversmiths and jewellers to thieves and receivers of stolen goods. On the other hand, some became prosperous businessmen, founding banks and textiles businesses in particular. Nathan Meyer Rothschild arrived from Frankfurt and built a successful banking business, acting as a financier for the government during the Napoleonic wars. Ludwig Mond arrived in 1862. He jointly-founded Bruner Mond, a major British chemical company that became Imperial Chemical Industries under Ludwig’s son, once Britain’s largest company. (More about Brunner Mond here). Louis Samuel arrived from Mecklenburg and became a watchmaker and silversmith. His brother’s son, Samuel Montagu, became a wealthy banker, MP for Whitechapel, and knighted as Baron Swaythling.
In 1772 Russia annexed Poland, home to many Jewish communities. It became the policy of successive Tsars thereafter to destroy their Jewish population through persecution and massacres encouraging hundreds of thousands of refugees to leave the country. It was the United States that offered greater opportunity and where the vast majority of Jewish emigrants headed. Thousands on their way to the New World initially landed at an English port before taking a second ship to America. The sea crossing over the North Sea was so traumatic for many that they decided against the longer journey across the Atlantic and many stayed in England. Some only stayed as long as to earn enough for the onward journey to America but entry became increasing restricted there from 1882.
It was in the decade from 1865 to 1875 when new arrivals changed from predominantly Dutch and German to those from Eastern Europe. From 1881 widespread pogroms – organized massacres of Jews – occurred in Southern Russia following the assassination of Alexander II that year, creating a greater urgency amongst Russian Jews to emigrate. In 1883 half of Jews in London had arrived within the past decade and around 90 percent of the Jewish poor in London at that time originated in the Russian Empire. There were still German Jews arriving, but they were generally a more prosperous group of tradesmen and skilled workers. A further peak of arrivals occurred in 1886 when Bismarck expelled Poles from Prussia. Another wave came when Jews were expelled from Moscow and other Russian cities in 1890.
The majority of those who left Eastern Europe were young, unattached men. They had to first travel to a coast to sail to Britain. The main ports of embarkation were Riga in Latvia, Bremen and Hamburg in Germany, Rotterdam, and, after 1900, Libau in Lithuania. They disembarked at Glasgow, Grimsby, Harwich, and Tilbury, or at Irongate Stairs by the entrance to St. Katharine’s Docks. Those arriving at Grimsby went on to Liverpool to continue their journey to America. Many of the earliest arrivals came from Lithuania and north-east Poland, two regions that were relatively close to Riga. As railways cut deeper into the Russian Empire, allowing travel from greater distances, later emigrants came from further afield.
Friends in England often sent money to pay for the passage to London. It was not easy to leave Russia. It was a long and arduous journey to England from their former home. Passports were not provided to men of conscription age so many had to be smuggled out. It was not unusual to be held up at a railway station or border for two or three days before having to pay a corrupt official, perhaps in collusion with a villainous ‘agent’.
Travellers often found themselves exploited by unscrupulous agents, many of them Yiddish-speaking Jews. This included stolen baggage and tickets sold for the wrong destination, some paying to travel to America but instead sent to England. Jews are not sailors and this may have been their first time on a ship. The North Sea can be notoriously rough, particularly in winter, and many would have been seasick. The sea journey alone often took two days and two nights, cooped up in uncomfortable and cramped conditions below deck. Shipping agents arranged for a secret section in the hold of passenger ships where those without passports could hide until beyond the reach of officials. Few were ever caught, indicating that officials were bribed, or the Russian government turned a blind eye. The conditions on board ship were extremely poor, with passengers crammed into overcrowded and filthy cabins.
Dangers also awaited on the dockside upon arrival in England. Many arrived with only the clothes they wore for the journey, arriving in a dishevelled and unsanitary state, with an address of a relative, fellow townsman, or a boarding house written on a crumpled piece of paper. Yiddish-speaking fraudsters waited at the dock gates to direct newcomers to a boarding house where they would be cheated of their little money. Police officers would watch but rarely intervened. The writer George R. Sims witnessed a group of arrivals being ferried ashore from a ship moored in mid-stream on the Thames. The boatman demanded six pence from each traveller. He wrote:
Two English policemen, stolid and self-possessed, listen to the complaints poured into their ears in half a dozen languages and say nothing. When I explain to one that a gesticulating Pole wants to give the boatman into custody for refusing to give up his bundle without the sixpence is paid, the policeman grins and says ‘Lor now, does he?’. With their faces woe-begone, their heads bent, [the arrivals] appear more like a gang of convicts marching to the mines than free men and women making their acquaintance with the capital of the British Empire.
If they were lucky, there was a representative from the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter on hand to give them a place to stay for the night.