Exploring the East End

My office is in the East End of London, right next to Brick Lane, famed for its curry houses. From there I can easily walk into the City, or to Spitalfield’s Market, or to any number of labyrinthine streets that snake their way behind the main thoroughfares and are filled with interesting independent shops. This week I decided to take a trip to Whitechapel on my lunchbreak, scene of many of Jack the Ripper’s murders. Nowadays the slums that would have filled the little streets and alleys running off the main High Street have been largely replaced by modern council estates, and there’s little left to enable today’s visitor to even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the late 1800s, when families lived in overcrowded, poorly built houses, stretching higgledy piggledy amidst dark and dank streets piled with filth.

However, on Brady Street, behind modern day Whitechapel tube station, and sandwiched between a council estate and a secondary school, sits a historical gem that is hidden from view behind shoulder height brick walls. Behind these walls is a Jewish cemetery, opened in 1761, and filled with an amazing array of beautiful headstones in both Hebrew and English. The cemetery got quickly overcrowded and closed in 1858, having already expanded by piling 4ft of extra soil on top in the mid 1800s to allow for bodies to be buried on top of one another; as such, some headstones are laid back to back.

The cemetery’s most famous residents are Nathan and Hannah Rothschild. German-born Nathan founded the British banking dynasty of Rothschilds in the early 1800s, and next to him is buried Nathaniel, the third Baron Rothschild, who died in 1990. This exceptional recent burial was carried out in order to save the cemetery from destruction; as no burials had taken place for 100 years, the council was legally entitled to purchase the land, exhume the coffins, and redevelop it into whatever they wished. This would have been a great loss to Jewish history in London, and as such, Baron Rothschild wrote it into his will that he wished to be buried at Brady Street, ensuring it will not be threatened again until 2090.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful space; a lovely and special piece of history in an area that has largely been decimated of its heritage. On the way back to work, I also passed some amazing old Victorian buildings with trees growing out of them; they have been left to largely rot, which is a terrible shame. Another amazing piece of history is the Bell Foundry, founded in 1420 and still going today, manufacturing bells. The building is gorgeous and I hope to one day be able to get a sneaky peak at the workers in action. What I love about the East End is that there are so many layers of history and culture; it’s always been a place where immigrants have lived, and always been a place where the poor have clustered, but it is also a vibrant, fun and increasingly artistic centre that embraces those who are different and encourages diversity, innovation and change. It’s a wonderful place to work, and despite being a stone’s throw from the glass and metal skyscrapers of the Square Mile, take a wander down a side street and you can step back in time and imagine what London must have been like 400 years ago.


  1. Charles Baker says:

    This is a beautiful and educational post, as always, dear Rachel. The “Dallas” sign made me laugh out loud! Thank you for sharing so much of your time, talent, and heart.


    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Charles! So glad you enjoyed it. The Dallas sign is a bit..hopeful..isn’t it? Trying to add a bit of glamour I think! 🙂 You are welcome…it’s a pleasure!

  2. luvviealex says:

    Great post…thanks for sharing this…I can’t get over the picture of the building with the tree growing out of it….it must be wonderful to live somewhere with such a rich heritage all around you.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Alex, it really is a great city! So much to see and do…I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life and still haven’t even scratched the surface!

  3. Yvann says:

    It is such a pleasant change to see someone write positively about East London… I live a bit further east than Whitechapel but the “impoverished East End” tag does not do the area justice.

    1. bookssnob says:

      No, it doesn’t, Yvann – people make a lot of assumptions without actually bothering to visit. There is so much regeneration going on right now – it’s exciting to watch, though I wish they’d show a bit more regard for preserving historical buildings!

  4. Susan in TX says:

    Oh, thank you for sharing this. Here’s hoping the Baron will have descendants to carry on his tradition in 2090! The tree growing out of the building does make one do a double-take, but the Dallas sign did that for me as well.

    1. bookssnob says:

      You are welcome Susan! I hope so, too – or that the council will realise it’s a historical treasure not to messed with, hopefully! I did a massive double take when I saw the tree – it so surprised me that I didn’t even notice the Dallas sign!

  5. EllenB says:

    Lovely post, Rachel. You may know that traditionally Jewish burials do not have coffins placed one on top of another; however, over the centuries this tradition had to be compromised for lack of space. Judaism is a very practical religion and even a century or more ago the modern Rabbis would always attempt to figure out the wisest course of action given changing circumstances and adapting to modern life. Even the smallest Jewish community had its own cemetery to ensure that Jews would not be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery so the stacked burials occurred frequently. I find these traditions fascinating. When my Jewish husband attended my Mother’s funeral (non-Jewish) he was shocked to know she would spent eternity atop my father!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Ellen – no I didn’t know that, and something I’m not sure of is just how big the Jewish community was in the East End – as far as I know this is the only (surviving) Jewish cemetery in the area but there may be more. That’s funny about your mum’s funeral – funnily enough, I didn’t realise that stacking was even possible – apparently so!

  6. Liz says:

    Interesting. I wonder whether anyone has preserved the names from the old grave stones. Some online lists are available for small, and disappearing, grave yards in Maryland (and I’m sure elsewhere). Genealogists would be thrilled with history at their fingertips.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m not sure, Liz – the cemetery is owned and run by the United Synagogue, I believe, so hopefully they have kept a record somewhere – a lot of the graves are in terrible condition and illegible, so it would be a real shame if there weren’t reliable records for people to consult.

  7. Deb says:

    Thanks for the lovely tour–I’m sure people pass these places every day and don’t “see” them.

    I’m a true east ender, born in East Ham to a cockney mother from Islington/Finsbury Park/Dagenham (courtesy of WWII, she moved around a bit) and a Dad from Barking. I was raised on a post-war prefab housing estate between the East Ham bypass and Beckton Road. All gone now. Torn down in the 1980s to build (in my cousin’s words) “three-quarter-of-a-million pound masionettes for Margaret Thatcher yuppies.”

    1. bookssnob says:

      What an interesting place to grow up, Deb! My mum’s family are all from the Marylebone slums, or from Deptford and Lewisham. I found their old addresses online through ancestry.com, but now all that there is to see is a fancy new Waitrose and new flats. It’s a shame that so much has gone – and also that it’s so expensive to live in places that were home to the poor not so long ago. How life moves on!

      1. Deb says:

        Yes–to think that anything with an E6 postal code would one day be trendy!

    2. Mark says:

      Hi Deb, I also lived in Beckton prefabs as a child and went to Roman Road infants, which then (in the 60s) was a former isolation hospital. I have a few photos of the prefabs (not very good ones) but always looking for more.

  8. Chrissy says:

    Those trees growing straight out of houses are amazing. It seems even more amazing that nothing is being done about those particular houses which must once have been quite beautiful. No one builds like this anymore.

    I used to attend the Sir John Cass art school years ago – my Dad taught silversmithing there and I was in his class. I wonder if it’s still as it was? Is Jewry Street in Whitechapel? It’s been so long!

    I share your love of ancient cemetries. That’s a particularly interesting one. Good for Baron R!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I suppose in London there is so much Victorian architecture around that it’s just not valued. Much like 1930’s – such a shame, as once it’s gone, it’s gone!

      Sir John Cass buildings are all over Whitechapel and Aldgate – I haven’t been past the art school but I’m sure it will still be there! Jewry St is more Aldgate than Whitechapel I think.

      I love old cemeteries! Such beautiful and fascinating places. I know -Baron Rothschild did the right thing!

  9. Chuck says:

    Ooh, you should go to the Lahore Kebab House and have the dry lamb curry. It is five minutes from Brick Lane but the food is so much more exciting! Mmm, curry… x

    1. bookssnob says:

      I might just do that Chuck, thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Daniel says:

    I just finished reading ‘Ruben Sachs’ by Amy Levy depicting the life of a Jew in 19th Century London. So fascinating and so educational for me…as was this post!

    1. Deb says:

      There was a thriving Jewish (and Irish) immigrant population in east London right up until WWII (when so much of the east end was destroyed by the blitz). Being an east ender, it’s not surprising that I have both Irish and Jewish ancestry. Is Ruben Sachs related to Oliver Sachs, the neurologist who wrote AWAKENINGS, THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, and many other books? For decades, Oliver Sach’s father was one of only two obstetricians working at the Jewish Hospital. He delivered almost every Jewish person of note in the East End (Harold Pinter, Arnold Wexler, Lionel Bart, the list goes on) through the middle of the 20th century.

      1. bookssnob says:

        Fascinating, Deb! Maybe Reuben Sachs is the book for you – how interesting about Oliver Sachs…maybe he features – Daniel can you tell us?!

    2. helen says:

      Hello Daniel, I’m curious about this novel and hoping that you will blog about it!

      Sorry to hijack, Rachel. This was a lovely post, like everyone else I was amazed at the tree growing from the house, although I’ve seen such things in London before. I’m sorry that the East End’s heritage isn’t being preserved as well as it might be.

      1. bookssnob says:

        I am curious too, Helen, no need to apologise! It’s a Persephone that has slipped under my radar but Daniel has piqued my interest!

        I love that tree! Yes, I am sorry too – let’s hope something gets done about it before it’s all gone the way of the house with the tree!

    3. bookssnob says:

      Glad I could educate you! 😉 I’m intrigued to read Reuben Sachs now…it hasn’t been a priority read for me but now I am in the area…it would be fascinating to read, I think, and compare Levy’s London to mine.

      1. Daniel says:

        Hi ladies! You all should really take a look at ‘Rueben Sachs.’ I don’t think there is any connection with Oliver Sachs besides the surname. Not only is it a fascinating and unique book, but the authoress, Miss Levy, was an interesting character herself. One I’d like to read-up more on!

  11. I have never been to England but I would love to someday. Cemetaries always fascinate me and Whitechapel would be fun to explore. Thank you for sharing some of the history!

    1. bookssnob says:

      You are more than welcome Lola- I hope you will get to see it for yourself one day soon!

  12. I work just around the corner from you in Shadwell. Knowing some of the local families through teaching there I would say that the overcrowding hasn’t finished and some of the homes are 21st century slums. When the nights finally get lighter I must explore the cemetry. Hope you have a good week at work.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh absolutely – the council estates are in a shocking condition and I feel awful for the children I see playing outside them – what must their homes be like? How coincidental that you are so near me – we should meet up one evening!

  13. How I wish I could have been with you on this little exploration, Rachel. Such an interesting and varied history of the East End and, of course, the cemetery would hold my interest, and the Rothschild as well. I know I would love to see the foundry. So much history in such a small area. If only the walls could talk.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes – so much history! Sadly much of it has been razed to the ground but intriguing little survivors are dotted around to remind us. I hope one day you can visit for yourself!

  14. Lilac says:

    A lovely post, an area I have never explored, I now want to go and spend the day walking around those vibrant, historical streets.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Lilac – hope you can go and explore soon!

  15. Alex says:

    My boyfriend thinks I’m weird because I love old cemeteries and plaques in old churches. This one in Whitechapel looks like a place I’d enjoy walking around, reading headstones.

    Here’s one of my favorites, in Exeter’s Cathedral: http://thesleeplessreader.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/img_0635.jpg

    1. bookssnob says:

      Everyone thinks I’m weird – but the more I talk about my love of cemeteries, the more people come out of the woodwork with their own stories of grave obsession and I realise I’m not alone! I love that picture – what a beautiful memorial. Thanks for showing it to me!

  16. Darlene says:

    If we could just forget that health and safety measures have ruined all of the fun…wouldn’t it be fascinating to root around in those buildings? I’d love to explore the attics and basements for signs of the people who used to live in them. There’s probably more mouse droppings than anything but still….and I love that that tree has spent years reaching out of the window for the sun.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh, yes, Darlene – I longed to go inside and root around. I’d love to know when they were abandoned as who knows what treasures could be hiding inside?!

  17. AJ says:

    Linda Hunt Beckman wrote an excellent — if somewhat academically written — biography of Amy Levy — very good on both the novels and the poetry. Much better than the recent one that just came out called The Woman Who Dared by I can’t remember who. There is an excellent one volume edition of Amy’s collected works with a very good introduction by Melvyn New.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks for that information, AJ, I had no idea. I will put them on my wishlist!

  18. Georgie says:

    I get my dose of the east end every day via http://www.spitalfieldslife.com – a fantastic blog exploring so many different aspects of the area. Its the closest I get to the east end because I’m in Australia so i live vicariously this way. Anyway, thought it might give you some ideas for exploring the area further if you felt like it. Thanks for sharing your passion for London.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I love that blog, Georgie – I read it frequently. How sad that you are so far, but thank you for pointing me in the direction of the blog – I am sure many others will be grateful for the recommendation!

  19. Herts Man says:

    Reuben Sachs is not about the East End, but about middle and the upper middle-class Victorian Anglo Jewry, set in Kensington and Bayswater. It’s fascinating and highly readable. Amy Levy’s early death was tragic and robbed posterity of many good books!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks for that clarification! I am really wanting to learn more about her now!

  20. Tayeeb says:

    Hi there i am currently researching about nathan rothschild i was wondering if you would kindly share any info that you have on this person. Thanks.

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