By Sophie Eastaugh
On Shabbat morning on 20 April 1912, the unknown Essex-based photographer C.A. Mathew walked from Liverpool Street station into the heart of Spitalfields, taking his large format camera with him.
A century later, contemporary Spitalfields photographer Jeremy Freedman stumbled across a dusty, unmarked box of photographs in the Bishopsgate Institute, a local cultural archive and community charity. The contents astonished him.
“We all just stopped talking. These pictures depict Jewish Spitalfields in unprecedented detail. C.A. Mathew did something no Jewish photographer would dream to do – work on the Sabbath. Thank goodness he did, because we now have an incredible insight into our ancestors who lived in the area.”
Freedman, whose family have lived in the area for more than 100 years, has carefully restored the 21 photographs and curated their exhibition, which runs until the 27th April at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery. Large scale limited edition prints are on sale, with a proportion of the proceeds going to the Bishopsgate Institute, a not-for-profit organisation that works in the local community.
Taken in 1912, at the height of Jewish migration to the East End, these striking photographs offer an intimate window into the lives of our Jewish forebears.
“We can tell this was a very heavily populated area, with a large grouping of families and lots of immigrants. But the most remarkable thing about these photos is what they don’t show.
“We imagine our ancestors living in absolute poverty in this area, but as the pictures were taken on the Sabbath, the week after Passover, the people are in their Shabbos best.
“They’re wearing shiny shoes, white shirts and bows in their.hair. I’ve seen thousands of other photographs from this time, and it’s quite common to see children without shoes [and] in dirty clothes. In these, they’re dressed to the nines.
“It was quite common for the Rothschild family to give out shoes on Passover to Jewish children, and you can see these ones are brand new.”
He added: “This is the finest evocation of Spitalfields from this era. You can see the shop signs, Jewish furrier companies, barber shops and butchers, posters with Yiddish theatre advertised.
“You notice how the children are really looking at the camera – they had probably never seen a camera of this size before. Taken just before the First World War, their worlds would have changed beyond belief.”
• The exhibition is open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 12pm to 6pm and weekdays by appointment. Prints range from £280 to £450 for a 1m print. Eleven Spitalfields, 11 Princelet Stret, E1 6QH, 020 7247 1816. Click here for more information