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 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
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
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
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
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.