The rise and decline of Forest Gate's Jewish community

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Anti-Jewish activity in Russia in the 1890s lead to a mass exodus of refugees, many of them coming to London's East End.  It is estimated that as many as 100,000 emigrated here in the quarter of a century preceding the First World War.

Most settled in and around Whitechapel, but according to Howard Bloch, the sadly now deceased local historian and chronicler of Newham's Jewish community, in his book: Earlham Grove Shul :

Some with a burning ambition for a better future for their children and with a strong sense of adventure moved further eastwards to establish a new life amid the leafy lanes and fresh air ... from those pioneering few was born the Forest Gate synagogue.
London's Jewish community had already seen some of Forest Gate's benefits - close to the city, good transport links, opens spaces, cheap land etc - when they established a cemetery here in 1857, on land purchased from Samuel Gurney (see here).

Of the refugees who moved to the Newham area, Bloch noted that: "The more prosperous moving into the large houses in the pleasant suburbs of Stratford, Forest Gate, Manor Park and East Ham. Those who were poorer tended to move to the commercial areas, especially the street markets and small shops in and around Canning Town and Upton Park."

By 1897 Hebrew classes, catering for up to 120 children, were held in a house in Forest Lane.  In 1900 the local Jewish community resolved to spend £1,200 to build a synagogue at 95 Earlham Grove.  It was to become Essex's first and Newham's largest. The adjacent properties at 93 and 197 were bought soon afterwards, for an expanded facility.

Exterior of West Ham synagogue
 pre demolition, on Earlham Grove
The synagogue - following the Ashkenazi Orthodox tradition -was built behind the houses, rather than at the front, where it would have been a prominent feature on a residential street. As a result, services were frequently interrupted by noise from the railway line at the rear.  The synagogue accommodated 426 people and was consecrated in 1911 by the Chief Rabbi, Herman Adler.
The majority of the regular attendees, or "seatholders", came from Forest Gate, and many, according to the 1912 Kelly's Directory, were shopkeepers in Stratford and Green Street, as well as Forest Gate.

Plaque, from the former synagogue
 commemorating members of the West
Ham congregation who
 perished in First World War
There continued to be an influx of Jewish people into the local community until the start of the second world war.  Many of them became local employers and manufacturers - some of whom developed products that were to become household names.  The Ibcol brand, for example, was developed in a shed at the end of a garden in Romford Road, before being sold out to Jeyes.

In 1928 a Communal Hall was built, at a cost of £6,500, in front of the synagogue and in October of that year the Forest Gate and District Literary Society was established there, with 200 members.

By 1933 there were 336 male and 160 female "seatholders", when the building was further extended, at a cost of £2,000.  It was reconsecrated in 1935.
The emergence of Hitler in Germany and the rise of fascist activity in Britain in the 1930s, unsurprisingly, impacted on the local Jewish community.  A number of German refugees came to Forest Gate at the time. 

A hostel was opened at 51a Romford Road, accommodating up to 20 refugees, it later moved to 16 Earlham Grove.  This was supported by donations collected at the Earlham Grove synagogue; other families from the local community took in refugees who could not be accommodated in the hostel.

Mosley made his first appearance at a British Union of Fascists meeting in West Ham Town Hall in 1935. He described fascist policy and virulently attacked the Jews in his speech.  Those who interrupted were ejected by blackshirted stewards.

The British Union of Fascists opened a bookshop at 18 Woodford Road, held meetings every Sunday on Wanstead Flats and organised meetings in and around Woodgrange Road.  The Jewish population showed its opposition in many ways - often riding by on bicycles and catapulting the shop's windows.

18 Woodford Road - site of British
 Union of Fascists bookshop in 1930's
Local boy Bryan Forbes (see here), who was born in Cranmer Road, recalls one of Mosley's visits to the area in his youth, in his autobiography:

Mosley came to Wanstead Flats some Sunday evenings.  He came in a sealed truck with a wire cage let into the roof. Surrounded by a black garland of close-cropped, scrubbed and wax-like bodyguards, he stood within the cage and screeched his British upper class impression of Streicher to an audience that mostly consisted of children, derelicts and the police.
Forbes also recalled listening to Lord Haw Haw broadcasts during the blitz and him making derogatory remarks about the Forest Gate Jewish community:
We shan't be dropping bombs on Earlham Grove tonight, we shall be dropping Keating's power. (a disinfectant).
Unlike much of Forest Gate - to which we will return at a later date - the synagogue was relatively undamaged by the Blitz.  The worst incident affecting the building occurred March 1945, when a V11 rocket fell across the road, between Norwich and Atherton Roads and most of its windows were shattered.

The local Jewish community declined a little in numbers during the war, but revived on its conclusion.  So, in 1946, for example, there were 579 male and 53 synagogue members, up almost 10% on the previous year.

However, a pre-war trend of Jewish people leaving the Forest Gate area soon resumed.  This was accelerated by the Central Line extension to Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Wanstead, Redbridge, Gants Hill and Newbury Park, in 1947, and the subsequent completion of the line to Hainault and Ongar over the next two years.

Site of former communal hall of
 the synagogue, while up for sale in 2004
The exodus was encouraged by local bomb damage and the growing aspirations of many young married couples to purchase modern houses in pleasanter surroundings. close to newly established synagogues. Local synagogue membership declined by over a third in the 1960s. 

Numbers of full time staff at the synagogue were reduced and a series of meetings were held to consider closing or amalgamating some or all of the synagogues in the Newham area. The Upton Park synagogue merged with it in 1972 and the East Ham and Manor Park synagogues in 1986.

In August 1984 a fire destroyed the main building of the Earlham Grove house of worship, and £500,000 was received in insurance compensation.  The congregation continued to meet in the Youth Synagogue, next door.  By the time of the synagogue's centenary, in 1997, it had 200 members - only 63 of whom still lived in Forest Gate.

The synagogue eventually closed in 2004. It was demolished after its sale and the rather pleasant Adler Court social housing development now occupies its site.  It incorporates a memorial to the former house of worship.
Memorial to the synagogue in grounds
 of Adler Court, including head
 stone of former communal hall
Bloch quotes one ex-member of the Earlham Grove community - Maurice Wayne - in an undated attribution, as saying:

The Forest Gate I remember as a teenager was a very Jewish area. It had three kosher delis and three kosher butcher's shops.  Walking up Woodgrange Road on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was quite like walking in a ghost town. Nearly every shop was shut, quite a contrast to today.
This story of immigration, settlement and relocation in a part of London's east end is such a familiar one that fifty years down the road much of it could probably be convincingly retold substituting "Moslem", "African" or "East European" for "Jewish" in the text and amending the dates accordingly.

We are wholly indebted to Howard Bloch's Earlham Grove Shul - one hundred years of West Ham Synagogue and Community , 1979 for the contents of this article. We, of course, accept responsibility for any errors in the piece above.

We would be delighted to hear recollections of life within the Jewish community from any existing or relocated members.


  1. As always - extremely interesting.

  2. Being a Gentile attending Whitehall School Forest Gate i learnt yiddesh and having a Jewish Headmaster Sydney Rose i am not sure this heplped, but Shallom

    1. He was my Great Uncle. I remember he Smoked a pipe, always smiling was involved in sports training and a connection of schools to Olympics not 100% sure only what I can remember. He received an OBE for either education or sports.. I'm trying to find out about that.

  3. My grandparents, aunts, my mother, a cousin, my father, all lived in Forest Gate. 3 or more marriages at Earlham Grove shul. 1933 to 1961.There were many that had moved from Whitechapel. Grandad worked as a presser and in the evenings finished suits that were sold in a shop in Green Street.One of my aunts was married in another nearby shul as my grandad had a huge row over something and the wedding was moved.This was in the late 1940s.Grandad worked from 6am to 2pm in a factory as presser, with evening work. It was tough work. My mother told me she remembered in the late 1930s coming across graffitti, "All Jews are rich" This was far from the truth.

  4. My great grandparents got married in the Earlham Grove synagogue in 1915. Thank you very much for writing this blog post which I am sending to my mother who is now in her 70s

    1. I grew up in forest gate and remember my childhood with fondness. When we moved to Forest Gate from Clapton the Earlham Groe Synagoge was full to capacity over the Jewish New Year and we had to use the Youth Services building. The Simchat torah party was very lively. My mother was on the ladies guild and I used to go with her to prepare for the party. I remember buttering so many bridge rolls. Laying the tables for 200 and a lady called Big Bloomah scared the life out of me. The parents association always took the kids from the hebrew classes out every summer, usually to Westgate, and we went to the Norfolk Hotel for lunch. They were good times never to be repeated.

  5. My father was a caretaker at this Synagogue from 1961 to 1963. I was only a 5 month old baby when my mum, dad & I moved here. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. Rabbi Shnider was so lovely, but Cantor Blackman wasn't very nice. There were 2 Irish sisters who helped my dad with the upkeep of the 2 Shuls, 1 Hall and grounds. I remember the children coming into the Hall for lunch. There was a School over the road from the Synagogue, and a mens Gym in the basement of one of the buildings. Thankyou for posting this information. Please can you tell me where I could get a copy of ' Earlham Grove Shul'? I would love to find out more.

    1. I was married at Earls Grove by Rabbi Schneider. I grew up just around the corner in z Norwich road and went to the primary school opposite. We used to go to the shool for kosher lunches every day.

  6. Thanks for comment. The book is now out of print, I'm afraid. Second hand book shops will have to be your best bet, I'm afraid. I tried looking on Amazon, and even they don't seem to have a second hand copy available. Perhaps some Jewish museums, or East London Jewish communities or synagogues may be able to help?

  7. I grew up in Forest Gate my parents, grandparents,aunts,uncles,cousins were all members. I remember some very happy times going to the synagogue for the Sabbeth,High Holidays and Hebrew classes. I made some very good friends there some of which I am still in contact with. I of course remember Rabbi Waller who was a wonderful teacher,all the committee and Ladies Guild. The most upsetting thing was when the synagogue burnt down, it was like losing an old friend.

  8. I grew up in Forest Gate my parents, grandparents,aunts,uncles,cousins were all members. I remember some very happy times going to the synagogue for the Sabbeth,High Holidays and Hebrew classes. I made some very good friends there some of which I am still in contact with. I of course remember Rabbi Waller who was a wonderful teacher, Rev Schneider, Mr. Woolf , Mr Weinberg, Mr Barnett,all the committee and Ladies Guild.
    Ladies Guild. The most upsetting thing was when the synagogue burnt down, it was like losing an old friend.

  9. P. Shapiro 21st June 2015
    I grew up in Green Street, Forest Gate, but my best friend lived in Earlham Grove and my sister married a man from Earlham Grove and got married in that Shul. Back in the 50s and 60s it was a very close community. There were several kosher shops and a large Jewish population who had moved from the East End. I used to attend the Youth Club which was held in the shul hall. A reunion a few years ago brought back many memories. From Stratford Grammer School in Upton Lane, my friends and I went to Kosher dinners at the Shul too. They were not very good, but oh! that jam and coconut tart! My mother had a stall in Queens Road Market, down Green Street. Recently that was saved from redevelopment. It is now called "Queens Market" and there is a support group. Nobody had a car in my family and I remember very clearly the long hikes between Oakdale Road, and Earlham Grove, which seemed a never ending length! Happy days.

  10. I remember Forest Gate very well I went to Pitmans Collage, I was called a rebel as I did not have many Jewish friends, but I did marry a Jewish Lad in 1967 but unfortunately it didn't last, I do have three wonderful children and 10 grandchildren who I adore. I worked on a Saturday in Harns Jewelers opposite The Market and spent many happy lunch breaks spending as much as I could afford. Happy days

  11. Does anyone here have a photo of the original east Ham synagogue memorial as I have been tasked with repairing it?

  12. Colin Warren Emden19 March 2016 at 17:42

    What fantastic memories this story brings back to me. I think it was around 1949/50 and living in Hughs Mansions, Vallence Road, Bethnal Green I was collected from school by my mum and dad, Morry and Jean Emden from school and instead of going home to Hughes Mansions was taken to 65 Earlham Grove where my parents had bought this great big house. After living in a flat this was a big house to me. It had a 120 feet long garden which backed onto the main line rail way which took us 3 to 4 weeks to get used to so we never even heard the trains. I started at Earlham Grove Infants School opposite the Shul. It was here I met my new school buddies two being Rodney Greyman and Kenny Cohen both of which are not with us any more and several more who I am glad to say I am still in contact with today. We joined Earlham Grove Shul and I went three days a week to Cheda classes with the notorious Dr. Lorraine and Mrs Levkervich. Ahhhh. I still shudder when I hear their names. In Shul was Rabbi Waller then followed down the line by Rev.Schnider
    two lovely people. Rev.Schnider did my Barmitzvah and married us. Not being too bright I went to White Hall Secondary School under the Head being Mr Rose. I think there was only about 10 jewish kids in a school of over 400. Lunch time we went to Earlham Grove Shul where we had kosher meals. I then joined the Maccabi Club in the Shul and did boxing in the basement next to the boilers taught by Mr. Golding. My father delivered the kosher meat to all the jewish butchers in the East End in a lorry and my mum was a fantastic seamstress who could make any thing. Saved us a fortune when we got married making pelmets, bed spreads etc. Sorry to ramble on but that was what Earlham Grove Shul community did to you in those days. The Thursday Nighters etc. Great Great memories.

  13. I lived on Earlham Grove in the Fifties until I was ten years old and remember the Jewish children at Earlham Primary with great fondness. Tony Davis, Hazel Cohen, Lorraine Gritz, Helen Bernette, Rosalind Lightman, I wonder what became of them. Life and circumstances took me far, far away but I recall many happy times at school and at home. The Rabbi lived next door to us at number 173 and as a child I was very frightened of him in his black clothes. I didn't know that he was the kindest of men.

    1. Hi - I'm Hazel nee Cohen mentioned above. Still alive and kicking - but not very good on the computer. When my dear father Mark Cohen died I also left Forest Gate in the 1960's with my Mum Sophie and my little brother Stu. I remember the people you mention and would love to chat about those times. Hazel
      PS If you went to Earlham Grove School, did you go upside-down on the railings?

    2. Hi Hazel, I can't remember doing that on the railings! I remember Mrs Fitch and Mr Diamond with the milk trolley. Please email me

  14. My great grandparents Mark and Sarah Golding lived at 60 Earlham Grove opposite the synagogue. They, my great aunt Hilda who was single and 30 years of age, her brother Jack aged 22, his wife Sadie 23 and baby Geoffrey were killed by the bomb dropped March 1945. My mum, then aged 14, survived and was rescued after being buried for 48 hours. She never really recovered

  15. Anyone know my grandfather, Lionel Shorts, who I think was a founder member of the shul? The family, including my dad, Cyril Shorts, lived at number 65 Earlham Grove. Please get in touch if you have any information -

  16. Anyone know of Ackermans of Norwich Road? Doing a family tree and trying to find a info anytime from 1930 onwards. Thanks.

    1. I lived at 30 Norwich Rd - in the ‘50s and ‘60s - there was an older Jewish lady who lived opposite us. I got married in 1974 and moved away and my parents moved elsewhere in Forest Gate a few years later (Sebert Rd). The name Ackerman is so familiar but I can’t remember details.


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