Tag: Spitalfields

Diaspora in the East End

In this Rosh Hashana greeting card from the ea...

The 19th century saw increasingly hard times and harsh persecution for Jews throughout Eastern Europe. Many Jews had emigrated to Eastern Europe in medieval times. They lived for many years under Polish rule; however, when the kingdom of Poland was divided in the late 1700s, a huge percentage of the Jewish population suddenly found themselves under Russian rule.

By the late 19th century, the Jewish people found conditions harsh and restrictive. They were confined to the Pale of Settlement, a section of western Russia between the Black Sea and the Baltic. Opportunities for employment were limited, as the Jews were only permitted to work in certain occupations. Most worked as artisans, tailors, metal workers, or carpenters. Many Jewish boys were forced into the Russian army, where they were required to serve for 25 years, facing a high risk of death and guaranteed brutality.

The local population was hostile, actively barring Jewish children from public schools, and increasingly forcing Jews out of villages into smaller towns. In 1882, the May Laws were passed, which forced the Jews in the Pale of Settlement to live in only a few select towns.

These towns were severely overcrowded, and the Jews had to compete fiercely for the few available jobs. Due to the intense competition, wages dropped far below the poverty line. Those not confined to towns fared little better, scratching out a meager existence on tiny farms.

Because they were so pressed, the Jews formed tightly-knit communities. They spoke Yiddish before learning Polish or Russian, and religious customs were strictly observed.

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews took on a new vengeance. A young Jewish woman was associated with the assassins, and this spurred the population on to violent attacks on Jews during the 1880s. Jews in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe lived in constant fear of violence, theft, and ever harsher restrictions.

This spurred a mass emigration to freedom as the Jews sought to escape the dangers and persecution of Eastern Europe. Between 1881 and 1914, over 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe looking for a new home.

Many, in fact, intended to go to America; however, upon arrival in England, over 120,000 Jews settled and stayed. Once again, Spitalfields drew an incoming population. The Jews were attracted by the opportunity for cheap living, and by 1900, a huge percentage of the Spitalfields population was Jewish.

Unfortunately, the Jews did not receive the warm welcome that the Huguenots had enjoyed. Overcrowding was horrific as the beautiful Huguenot structures were subdivided to house the huge population. Sanitization was a nightmare, and living conditions (in many cases) were scarcely better than those the Jews had left behind.

The huge Jewish immigration caused some friction amongst locals. The Jews were accused of taking local jobs and aggravating the already appalling working conditions present in many of the local businesses. Because the Jews were willing to accept overcrowded conditions, rents in the area shot up, further irritating the local population. Because of the unrest, the first Aliens Act was put into effect, restricting immigration into the country.

Soon, however, the Jewish population began to thrive, making themselves a distinct and prominent presence in the East End. Their tight-knit communities allowed them to hold on to their cultural heritage, with Yiddish being predominantly used as a spoken and written language.

The Jewish population developed into a vibrant community, centered in the East End. Small synagogues popped up throughout the community, providing a focal point for the Jewish population. Kosher butchers and food providers found huge success with acceptable foods being in high-demand. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper was widely read and Jewish trade unions flourished.

In time, much of the Jewish population became integrated into London society. People spoke Yiddish less and less, religious rituals were less distinctive, and Jewish children were noted to be “almost indistinguishable” from English children.

In time, the Jews too, moved away from Spitalfields. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews left little to mark their time in the East End. Though the Jewish East End shows little of its history, the Jewish legacy and heritage has carried on to new generations throughout the UK.

The Silk Weavers of Spitalfields

London played host to a substantial number of French Protestants throughout the sixteenth century. France – a staunchly Catholic country – heavily stigmatized Protestantism, making the country somewhat uncomfortable for deviants from the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the 1680’s however, that the Huguenot migration began en masse.

Christ Church Spitalfields. Photograph taken b...
Christ Church Spitalfields. Category:Images of London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years, the Edict of Nantes had granted the Protestants the freedom to worship as they chose in designated areas, providing a measure of safety. This marginal security came to an end with the Dragonnades, a policy introduced in 1681 by Louis XIV. Dragonnades were coercive tactics intended to make France increasingly uncomfortable for the Huguenots by forcing them to re-convert to Catholicism. Finally, in 1685, King Louis overturned the Edict of Nantes, resulting in heavy-handed laws and severe persecution of the Protestants.

Hundreds of thousands of Protestants were forced to flee the oppressive rule in France. Many found new homes in the Netherlands, others in America, and others still finding refuge near the Cape of Good Hope.

In keeping with the strong British anti-Catholic sentiment of the day, King Charles II flung open the doors of England, offering a place of refuge to the fleeing Huguenots. Thanks to widespread propaganda depicting the persecution inflicted on French Protestants, the refugees arrived to a warm welcome by the English people. In fact, they were the recipients of generous charitable support from the British monarchy throughout the end of the seventeenth century.

By 1710, between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees had made their way to the safety of England. Historians estimate that around half of that number settled in Spitalfields where housing was cheap and the London trade guilds held less economic power.

The Huguenots came from all walks of life, though many were intellectuals and highly skilled tradesmen with backgrounds in weaving, clock making, and financial services. Textile manufacturing, in fact, was the prevalent occupation amongst the refugees, and they found their services in high demand among the British upper class.

Thanks to the hard work and skill of the Huguenot weavers, the textile trade thrived, and Spitalfields soon became known as “Weaver Town.” The influx of silk and French styles had quite an impact on the fashions of the British upper class. Many workshops were opened, and their owners soon became extremely wealthy with many hundreds of employees. The wealthy Huguenots built large, distinctive houses in Spitalfields – many of which still remain today.

The Huguenot Churches were a binding quality in the community, providing both a connecting point for the immigrants, as well as a support system for the poor and new arrivals. Two churches in particular became very well-established. A very strict, Calvinist church thrived on Threadneedle Street in the City, while a more Anglicized worship took place at the Savoy in the West End. These two churches became focal points for the many refugees, and led to the development of two distinct communities.

Due to the high concentration of French immigrants, they managed to retain much of their distinct culture and language for several generations. Their high fashion and language set them apart somewhat from the general population, and over time they achieved a level of respectability – particularly in contrast to the squalor and immorality of many Londoners.

In time, however, the Huguenots gradually assimilated into British culture and society. The strict Calvinist Protestantism drifted gradually toward a more Anglicized form of worship, and the Huguenots eventually took on Anglicized surnames (though this was often due to English clerical error in record-keeping).

As Indian and Chinese silks became more readily available, the Spitalfields silk weaving went into decline. This seriously affected the community in Spitalfields, and though the industry struggled on, the 30,000 workers were reduced to starvation wages. The ebbing prosperity, along with the introduction of new machinery, led to violent clashes between factory owners and their workers.

By 1801, the “Spitalfields Acts” were passed in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions, and to protect the domestic market. Eventually, however, many Huguenots moved away from Spitalfields, settling in the suburbs.

The Huguenot impact on Spitalfields remains today though, with many French-sounding street names, and many well-preserved Huguenot houses. In fact, it is estimated that Huguenot blood still runs through a quarter of London’s population.


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