Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bagels, Bengalis, Bands and Bells

TAKING a Sunday morning conducted stroll through London's historic East End, a party pauses to look at the Fieldgate Street synagogue, established in 1899,
To its right is the more modern and impressive East London mosque, which opened its doors for worship on July 12, 1985. There had been a mosque in three converted Commercial Road houses as far back as 1940, but this was nothing like sufficient for the largely Bengali Muslim community that has settled nearby. The present mosque replaced a disused cinema on Whitechapel Road, and when completed backed on to Fieldgate Street.

As people get on, or get old, areas change. The synagogue had its last service at Yom Kippur, October 2007.

A year after the synagogue was built, on Saturday May 12, 1900, a large procession which had wound through the East End stopped in Fieldgate Street, while the band played the Dead March, from Saul, by Georg Fredeick Handel. This was nothing to do with the synagogue however, despite the Biblical allusion.The marchers were trade unionists, bakery workers, protesting the employers' failure to honour agreements on the 10-hour day and minimum pay rates. The grim Dead March was aimed at a master baker, probably Grodzinski, whose first shop had opened in Fieldgate street, next-door to the synagogue on its left, in 1888. The tune had the boss sufficiently rattled to call the police, and ask them to stop the musicians playing. But the band played on, and carried on playing the Dead March whenever the procession came to the shops of bakers who flouted union terms.

I've just read about this in Union Bread, the story of the London Jewish Bakers Union, by Larry Wayne, which has just been published by the Socialist History Society, together with the Jewish Socialists' Group.
Arising in the special circumstances of an immigrant workforce, with their own Yiddish language, producing speciality breads for their own community, and often employed on Sundays when Christian bakeries were closed, the union maintained a remarkable separate existence right up till thirty years ago. By then the bigger bakeries were mechanised, special "Jewish" skills were in less demand, and only a bakers' dozen of old timers were left.

But in its heyday, despite the difficulties of organising in small-businesses, with long hours, the Bakers had a lively existence, trying new tactics from appealing to the Chief Rabbi (who declined to get involved) to setting up worker co-operatives. One idea was the union label, which told the purchaser that their loaf had been baked by union labour, under reasonably hygienic conditions. It seems to have worked, too.

Though there were differences and issues that divided, the Jewish Bakers worked with and enjoyed support from the bigger Amalgamated Union of Operative Bakers, as on the 1900 march. Along with other sections of Jewish trades unionists they also extended what support they could to other workers in struggle, whether the dockers near at hand or Welsh quarry workers.

Some well known figures step on to the stage of this story, too, including John Burns, Keir Hardie, Rudolf Rocker, Charlotte Despard and Eleanor Marx.

Sadly, Larry Wayne who was born and grew up in the East End, died last year before his book had been published. It has an introduction about the writer by his daughter Naomi, better known to many through her work for Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

David Rosenberg, who helped to edit Larry's work for publication, is active in the Jewish Socialists' Group, but has become particularly known in recent years for stepping into Professor Bill Fishman's well-worn shoes by conducting East End walks. Walkers these days range from youngsters studying history to old East Enders recreating their own, foreign tourists to trade union parties. On one recent expedition with members of the RMT union, a well-known Millwall supporter and non-Jewish East Ender now living out in Essex told Dave that he still comes back to Brick Lane regularly for a bag of bagels and a chollah. Like the curries for which Brick Lane is more famous nowadays these specialities are no longer special to minorities.

I am sure that story about the band playing Handel's Dead March outside the bakers will now feature in Dave's talk next time he takes a party into Fieldgate Street.

If you carry on down Fieldgate Street and turn left into Whitechapel Road, heading towards Aldgate East, you come to the site of the original 14th century White Chapel, destroyed by Hitler's bombers in the Blitz. It is now the site of Altab Ali Park, named in memory of a young Bengali boy murdered in a racist attack in 1978. And across the street is the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, whose history goes back to 1570, and whose products included Big Ben,at Westminster, and the original Liberty Bell, in Philadelphia, as well as those London bells that play Oranges and Lemons.

It seems a far cry from these poor London streets, beyond the city wall, where generations of immigrants have settled, sweated, and struggled, to these famous national symbols on every tourist itinerary. But as the bells were forged amid the fire and grime of the foundry, so it is in the hearts and minds of working people struggling to live that the dreams of liberty and justice have been cast, to ring true and shine brightly.

East End walks - see:

Socialist History Society -

Jewish Socialists' Group -

Union Bread by Harry Wayne costs £6.

The picture of the union banner (above) appears on the book's cover, courtesy of the Jewish Museum, where the banner is now housed:

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