East Side Story – how 300,000 Jews made a home in London

East Side Story – how 300,000 Jews made a home in London

By Tony ABRAHAMS, author of Dear Relative… A History of Our Abrahams Family

Tony Abrahams 4
Tony Abrahams

In the early 1990s, I realised my memories of my late parents, although fresh in my mind, would be lost to my children. I decided to write my thoughts down and to try to explain my parents’ warmth and humour, as well as their struggle from the self-imposed “ghetto” that was the East End of London to the wilds of NW10.

These early scribbles evolved over 20 years into a book which was finally printed this year and became a history of the Abrahams family (actually, as I have discovered, originally the Abrahamers from Podgorze, near Krakow in Poland.) During those years, both my elder brothers passed away and it had been they who had helped with the book and provided much of the information and stories about my mother and father.

The East End was of course, hugely important to the story. Mum and Dad were born there and went to the Jews Free School, where they received a good education despite leaving in their early teens. As I began to get reviews and reactions to the book, I realised how important this place had been to so many people and the affection it was held in.

Having said that, those same people seem mostly to have left there at the earliest opportunity to better themselves and improve their family fortunes I had never lived there myself and my visits were restricted to Sunday mornings, when my father would take us to my Uncle Sam’s barber shop in Wentworth Street for a haircut – twice around the pudding basin and all the jokes you could remember.

Crowds in Petticoat Lane in the 1920s

All four of my uncles worked there on a Sunday, the busiest day of the week, and I would hear stories of the local villains who fre- quented it. I can’t remember if the Kray brothers went there but I do recall tales of Jack Spot, who controlled much of the crime in the East End and in later life was attacked and badly beaten by “Mad” Frankie Frazer. Frankie was an enormously violent criminal in his early years, who is now living in sheltered accommodation. I was amused although not entirely surprised to read that, aged 89, he was recently given an Asbo for attacking another resident.

The four uncles, Sam, Nat, Morry and Marky Lautman, were not only barbers but entertainers and they performed together in music halls as the Lyons Brothers, singing, dancing and telling jokes. I have often met people who lived in the East End and knew of them from their glory days in the 1920s and ’30s. The shop was a short distance from Bloom’s salt-beef restaurant and we would always have lunch there. It was so busy that you would queue patiently in the street and the waiters would come out every now and then to offer you a slice of salami from a silver tray to keep you going until you were served.

My father was a market trader. While walking through Petticoat Lane, he would be stopped continually by stallholders to catch up with old friends and hear the latest news. The East End was a huge mass of people, thousands on a Sunday, and seemingly all Jewish. It never occurred to me that there had ever been any other group living there. I discovered subsequently that it had been home in earlier years to farm workers in the 16th century, the Huguenots in the 17th and the Irish in the 19th before around 300,000 Jews arrived between 1880 and 1910. Subsequently of course, it has been home to the Bangladeshi community and now it has become fashionable and expensive for city workers and young, cool hipsters to live there.

My father’s three unmarried sisters lived in Ashfield Street in a two-up, two- down with an outside loo – so cold in winter that you did not linger. Those houses that have survived are sold for enormous sums by sharp-suited estate agents and have become very desirable. I think my Mum and Dad would have laughed until they cried had they known that would happen! My mother had worked in The Lane as a young woman in the 1920s and 1930s and was a formidable saleswoman and closer of deals.

the Star Music Hall in Bermondsey

She worked for many years for a Mr. Raven, stopping just short, I was told, of hooking customers into the shop with the handle of an umbrella! She also worked at the Houndsditch Warehouse Company, a huge store near Aldgate, known as the Selfridges of the Jewish Quarter. In later years, she and my father, Kitty and Morry, were a wonderful team in the markets, making sales in a gentle but effective manner that modern salespeople would do well to have learned.

Her father, Benjamin Lautman, had come to England from what had been Romania, although he called himself Austrian. He was an entrepreneur and owned several barber shops as well as a 1,400-seat theatre and picture palace, the Star Music Hall in Albion Street, Bermondsey. I have some photos of it from around the time of the first World War, including the one on this page, taken on a day when the famous singer Florrie Ford was appearing and singing her number-one hit Down at the Old Bull and Bush.

Apart from the market, life was tough in the East End and there was no benefit system or government assistance. You looked after yourself and everyone worked. My four uncles slept top-to-toe in one bed and, when they got up, someone else would often fall wearily to sleep in the same bed.

Uncle Sam’s barber shop in Wentworth Street

One can look back now with affection, but would we have wanted to be part of that pioneering generation, starting out in a new country? Probably not.

• Email Tony your memories of the Jewish East End at tony@ashfieldassociates.com

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