“Not of our type”: hidden histories of immigrants in the East End

Yesterday I went on a guided history walk through an area I normally power straight through on my way home to work. Ayahs and Anarchists, Sailors and Seamstresses: Tracing Migrant Lives in Pre-War Whitechapel was guided by Nadia Valman and Rehana Ahmed of QMUL and being an immigrant and historian living near Whitechapel, naturally I was curious.

Slum clearance of the 1930s, the Blitz, and postwar reconstruction means that Whitechapel has visually changed almost completely in the last 100 years (unlike the area just north, Spitalfields, which was been much more preserved). Whitechapel history is invisible, and you have to use your imagination and know where to look, if you want to find its past. Even the origin of the name Whitechapel is hidden, in a way that aptly reflects the history of the area. It comes from St Mary’s Church, a white church, which was destroyed in the Blitz. St Mary’s Park was built on the spot, and the park was renamed in 1998 after a Bangladeshi teenager who was killed in a race-motivated murder in the 1970s.

Take for example this ornate doorway on an otherwise ordinary building on traffic-chocked and unappealing (though it is just opposite the best curry house in London, IMO) Commercial road. Would you know it used to house a Yiddish theatre?

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And then there’s this synagogue living in the shadow of the East London Mosque (just by another great curry house). When the new mosque building was designed in the 1980s, they added special windows so they wouldn’t block out the light for the synagogue. The synagogue was known as the “great”, not because of its size, but because it was one of many on this one street. Now it’s owned by the mosque, the worshipers at the synagogue having decided to sell it, because they were no longer local and coming from elsewhere for prayers.

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Speaking of mosques, apparently the Brick Lane mosque used to be Spitalfields synagogue — and before that, it was originally a French Huguenot church. We didn’t see the building on this walk, but maybe on the next one! While the East End is commonly celebrating for it’s embracing of immigrants who leave their mark on the area, it’s a myth that they came in tides, one replacing the other then the other. This walk showed how Jewish immigrants and Asian immigrants rubbed shoulders, overlapping for centuries.

It’s a familiar story, though, and a depressing example of how history repeats itself. Initial sympathy for Jewish refugees has ebbed away by the 1890s, when immigrant populations were blamed for housing shortages and unemployment, and politics took on a distinctly xenophobic tone. Hmm.

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