19th Century London: a primary attraction for Ashkenazi Dutch immigration
As far as I have been able to discover London was home for the largest conglomeration of for Ashkenazi Dutch immigration to leave Holland (largely from Amsterdam) in mid 19th Century.
Readers may find echoes in their own experience in various towns and Countries in New World. For example, Boston, New York.
The following article was written to explain the historical background to my own genealogical research into the Ashkenazi Dutch.
- The 1891 Spitalfields Census Index
- Statistical analysis of the 1891 Spitalfields Census Index
- Reasons for Dutch Emigration to London
- The Tenterground Environment
- Tenterground housing and living conditions
- Extract from 1871 Spitalfields census
- Relations between Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities in Victorian London
- Effect of the arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe
- Marriage patterns
- The emerging homogenous Jewish community
- Acculturalisation and National Identity
- Immigrants Occupations
- Dutch traditions continued
- The “English Jews”
I started research into my wife’s family history 20 ago. We were married in 1952. I was from a Polish immigrant family, my father being born in Poland and my mother was the only one of her family born in England. My wife’s family on the other hand were seemingly “Dutch” — they called themselves “Chuts”, possibly because of the guttural sound of their native language (we were to them “Pullacks”) but they in turn were referred to in a slightly disparaging way as “Dotchkies” in my family. It soon became apparent to me that I had innocently strayed into the fossil remains of an “ethnic battlefield” (I hope you will excuse the mixed metaphor).
In fact my wife’s ancestry proved to be much more complex and my research took me into the lost and historically neglected world of the vanished “Dutch” community of the latter half of the 19th century which then existed in Victorian Spitalfields Whitechapel.
In 1995 the invaluable “Spitalfields 1891 Census Index of Heads of Family” was published by The Jewish Historical Society and University of Leicester History department:
Paperback: 25 pages
Publisher: D. Rau; 2nd edition (1995)
This index, which, had it been available earlier, would have saved me countless hours of research and as well as providing a short cut to vital family history data contains many illuminating facts about the lives of our immigrant ancestors.
The index of the 1891 census was limited to an area of Whitechapel bounded by Brushfield St. to the North, Wentworth St. to the South , Middlesex St. and Commercial St. to the West and East respectively (see plan) an area inhabited overwhelmingly by poor predominately Ashkenazi Jews.
We are also told that in “the Eastern side of this area where 66% of all Heads were born abroad a large number of Heads originated from Holland - 37%” (i.e. over double the average) whereas the Western side produces a figure of only 4% of Heads coming from Holland. The publication of the Spitalfields 1891 Census Index of Heads in 1994 thus confirmed what I had already discovered, that virtually all my wife’s “Dutch” ancestors had lived not only in the Spitalfields area but in one of six streets in Spitalfields, namely - Whites Row, Shepherd St., Tenter St., Butler St., Freeman St., and Palmer St. an area fondly referred to by the children of parents that lived there as “The Tenterground”.
In 1891 the analysis tells us that half the Dutch Heads were over aged 50 compared with only a quarter of the others. The reason for this statistic can be deduced from the Censuses (by noting the date of the first London birth) indicating that immigrants from Holland (often young married couples) were arriving from 1850 onward and by 1891 the Dutch born immigrants were an elderly group and it was not uncommon to find that an widowed Dutch mother or mother-in-law of the Head of family living with the family in Spitalfields. Immigrants from Poland in this period were relatively few.
There was a small number of middle class Ashkenazi Dutch families in London (diamond cutters, agents and merchants etc.) but they lived generally in the more salubrious area to the south of Spitalfields known as Goodmans Fields or in the London suburbs.
I am often asked why, since there was no religious persecution of Jews in Holland as there was elsewhere in Europe, did the Dutch Ashkenazim bother to emigrate at all. I think the answer to this must be that they were “economic refugees”. Unlike the distribution pattern of Jews in England, where you find communities only in the larger towns, in early 19th century Holland every small town and village had its Kehilla complete with Synagogue, Jewish school etc. but gradually there was a drift to the metropolis and very small communities had difficulty in finding a minyan and were forced to follow their children to the large towns especially Amsterdam. In Amsterdam the poor were crowded into appalling slums, an article in the Jewish Chronicle on 1872 describes these shocking conditions, which were so bad that the government attempted to encourage Jews to move to new-towns in the countryside. In 1849 Amsterdam 55% of the Ashkenazi population were according to the Encyclopedia Judaica officially designated as “paupers”.
The once powerful Dutch Empire was in terminal decline while the British Empire was reaching its peak, Amsterdam as a finacial centre had given way to London (a fact which sparked a bitter and unseemly sectarian struggle between the old Sephardim merchants in Amsterdam and the “upstart” Ashkenazi brokers in London). Unfortunately their new home offered an almost equally depressing environment to the one they had left.
An indication of the level of poverty of the community in Spitalfields may perhaps be judged from the weekly appeals in the Jewish Chronicle for contributions towards the cost of maintaining the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor (JC Appeal) in Fashion Street in 1872. The weekly notice published the number of “portions distributed” averaging 4,000-5,000 per week as well as the names of contributors and the amounts individually donated.
An examination of the Spitalfields street map reveals that five of the six streets of the “Dutch Tenterground” form an urban enclave, since only Whites Row could be entered without passing through the stuccoed arched “bottleneck” at the North end of Shepherd St. (see photograph below). Within these mean streets in overcrowded and insanitary slums lived the poor Dutch immigrants and their numerous children.
Rev Samuel Barnet vicar of a Church in Commercial Rd Spitalfields wrote in 1873 “the whole parish is covered with a web of courts and alleys some houses three storeys high were hardly 6 feet (2.4m) apart. The sanitary accommodation being in the cellar and a standpipe at the end providing the only water. Each chamber was the home of a family who sometimes owned their miserable furniture but in most cases the rooms were let furnished at 8 pence per night. in many cases broken windows had been repaired by paper and rags. The balusters used for firewood, the paper hung from the walls which were the residence of countless vermin.”
A note in “The Builder” 1872 records that great hardship was caused by the mains water supply to the Tenterground being cut-off at week-ends for reasons unstated.
The houses in the Tenterground were cheaply built by speculative builders for letting between 1819 and 1824 with individual frontages of about 15 feet (4.5 m) and were demolished to form the Holland Estate 1927-1936. One house at least collapsed 40 years after being built.
We are fortunate to have a detailed insight into living conditions in the “Tenterground” of the late 19th century, thanks to the fact that a section of the “Tenterground” came up for auction 10 April 1878 and included 122 houses.
The auction particulars survive in the archive of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library. The houses were let by the freeholder Mr. Robert Reid to tenants who in turn sublet the rooms to the families. The auction particulars state that the properties were “unencumbered by leases, early possession may be obtained if required.” A typical example of the “properties” taken from the auction particulars Auction notice:
Nos. 2,3 and 5 Butler St.
Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Middlesex
Ground floor . Entrance passage , front parlour with cupboard. A back room with cupboard under stairs.
First floor - A sitting room with cupboards and a bedroom with cupboards
Second floor - One room with cupboard
In rear - Yard and WC
The 1871 Census records for us the occupants of these houses.
|Sheffer||Abraham||H||44||Cigar mkr||Amsterdam||2 Butler St|
|Rosa||D||17||Cigar mkr||NY USA|
|Van Cleef||Bernard||H||40||Cigar mkr||Amsterdam||3 Butler St|
|Krager||Abraham||H||30||Cigar mkr||Holland||5 Butler St|
|De Lara||Judah||H||32||Cigar mkr||Holland|
** the appearance of a non-Jewish family in sections of the parish where Jews lived was a rare occurrence.
I leave it to the imagination of the reader to allocate the accommodation. These families are very typical of the poor Dutch Ashkenazi immigrant in Spitalfields 1861. It is interesting to note that Abraham Shaffer and his wife were born in Amsterdam, the eldest daughter in New York and the remaining children were born in Spitalfields. They must have arrived in England around 1851. The census tells us that Soloman Haag on the other hand arrived with three small children about 1846 and had three more children subsequently.
There was a long history of bad relations existing between the Ashkenazi and Sephadi communities stretching back before the beginning of the 19th century. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue was the only communal Jewish institution in London in the latter part of the 18th century when poor Ashkenazim were arriving from all parts of Europe , so it was the small but wealthy Spanish and Portuguese community members who unwillingly were forced to find funds to support these penniless immigrants . The Haham tried every means to influence the King to refuse entry to the unwelcome newcomers and severely limited the cash grants made to them.
After the establishment of a substantial Ashkenazim institution — the Great Synagogue at Dukes Place &mdash there was an agreement that the charitable duty to bury Jews who died penniless in consecrated ground should be shared. On at least one recorded occasion a dispute arose which resulted in a coffin being left in the street until the matter was resolved.
Their share of the cost of “Burial of Strange Poor” was recorded by the Hambros Synagogue and an annual statement issued. A section for the year 1866 (5626) is attached (Burial statement).
For example, on April 15 1866, Adelaide Defries was buried at a cost to the synagogue of one pound five shillings and nine pence (approximately $2.00 US) — no “watching”; was provided and on May 6 1866 the “stillborn” child of Levy van Gelder was buried at a cost of three shillings and sixpence (30 cents US).
That the Sephardic establishment continued their policy of non-cooperation with the Ashkhenazi well into the 20th century is evidenced by the editorials and letters published in the Jewish Chronical as late as the 1920s.
The Influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe increased the number of Jews in England from 47,000 in 1881 to 150,000 in 1906. Friction between long established immigrants and those newly arrived is a well known phenomenon everywhere, but for the Jews not only did the newcomers increase competition for jobs and accommodation but their “foreigness”produced fears that they would stoke the fires of anti-Semitism which were burning brightly in late 19th century London. It was for example a widespread and popular belief that “Jack the Ripper”, the serial killer in Whitechapel, was a Jew and the only person ever arrested for the crime was in fact Jewish.
The flavour of intercommunal rivalry found in Spitalfields in the late 19th century may perhaps be gathered from this children’s street chant of the period:
“Two dirty Pullaks and a proud Portigee
One jolly Chooty boy can lick all three”
The “Pullack” being the Yiddish speaking immigrant (note: no discrimination whatever being made between the many and diverse Yiddish speaking groups: Chassidim, Litvak, Pollak, Gallitzian etc.) and the “Portigee” is of course the Sephardi.
It is ironic to note that a fairly common family name among the Dutch was Polak, indicating without much doubt their pre-Chut origin.
I discovered this interesting letter in the archive material of the Federation of Synagogues:
To Federation Secretary
from L Berg Hon Sec Lodz Synagogue.
28 Sept 1913
I am surprised at you for asking for a long time one of the Reverends to come to the Lodz Synagogue to give us a preaching. The last time you asked for the Very Reverend Maccoby to preach in our synagogue you altered your mind and he did not come. Today I saw an advertisement for Sandys Row Synagogue* that the Very Reverend Haikin will preach there of the first day Rosh Hashonna at 4.30 pm. That Synagogue has nothing at all to do with the Federation** therefore I ask that you desire one of the Very Reverend to attend and preach on the first day Rosh Hashonna. I hope you will consider the matter immediately and do as I ask you.
L Berg Hon Sec Lodz Syn - 14 New Goulston St
** Sandys Row was the Dutch Synagogue – which broke away from the Federation; the indigation in the letter reflects the mutual dislike that existed between the Dutch and Polish congregations.
It is an even greater irony to find that when the penniless Ashkenazi refugees from persecutions of Central and Eastern Europe arrived in numbers in the late 18th century Netherlands they were received by the established Dutch Ashkenazi community there with the same hostility that their own descendants in London 100 years later received the new arrivals from persecutions of Poland and Russia.
The children of the “Dutch” immigrants married at first generally within their community, either to cousins or neighbours children or to children of families they were associated with in Holland. Marriage between the children of Dutch born immigrants and those from “English” parents naturally became frequent. Marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, while not unknown, were rare and obviously difficult judging by the fact that that the Ashkenazi bride in early “mixed” marriages at the Sephardi Bevis Marks Synagogue was nameless and merely referred to as “tedesco” (German) or as “bride from the German community”.
Traditional marriage customs were observed by the Dutch immigrants, e.g. weddings should take place in the bride’s hometown and the prospective bridegroom would leave for Holland and return with his bride. It is a never-ending source of amazement to me that I find evidence in the mid 19th century, in spite of the expense and difficulties of travel, how contact was maintained between the London-based Dutch and their distant families. You often will find “visitors”from Holland in the Spitalfields censuses and it is clear that trips to Holland (and even to the USA) were made from London.
In my wife’s family we have an example where a young woman died during her first pregnancy, the bereaved husband was in 1862 prevented by English Law from marrying his dead wife’s sister (not permitted until 1907, but incidentally a woman could marry her dead husband’s brother) so the couple returned to Amsterdam where special permission was granted for the marriage to take place, and they then returned to England.
The “ethnic composition” of my wife’s family is a very typical illustration of the historical pattern of absorption of the Dutch Jewish immigrant family into the Jewish community as it is constituted to-day. Of my wife’s grandparents, 3 were London-born (all circa 1870); of these, two are from Dutch parents and one from London-born parents who came from families who were established in London from at least the late 18th century. The fourth grandparent was from a Litvak family. It is significant that the Litvak always maintained he was “English”-born and did not understand Yiddish; in fact, I found he arrived in England when he was 6 years old and lived with his totally Yiddish speaking parents until his marriage. The reason for this charade lies in the fact that finding himself totally surrounded by the extended Dutch/English families of his in-laws and their friends, and such being their disdain for the Pollacks, he found it necessary to adopt a pseudo “English” identity.
The reason for the obvious differences between the Pollaks and the Chuts is that came from radically different national environments.
The mass of immigrants from Eastern Europe in the closing years of the 19thcentury came straight from the closed community of the Shtetl. Their lingua franca was Yiddish, they had virtually no secular education and had even been disinclined to learn Polish or Russian for fear of encouraging assimilation. They were the product of centuries of Christian “ghettoisation&lrquo; and religious persecution.
Things were very different in the Netherlands. Even though the Jews formed an autonomous community in Holland under a Chief Rabbi, the Dutch government took active and successful measures to encourage Jews to consider themselves as Dutch nationals first.
King Louis Napoleon made a “oukaze” in 1809 which contained the prohibition of the teaching of Yiddish. Dutch Jews after their Emancipation in 1806 were told to learn Hebrew or Dutch. The Tenach (five books of Moses) was translated into Dutch at the King’s direction. A law in the Netherlands of 1857 introduced compulsory education and Jewish education was consequently reduced to evenings and Sunday cheder attendance. By the time the emigrants left for England in significant numbers after 1840, Yiddish was no longer spoken in the Netherlands. There was no overt religious persecution.
The Dutch immigrants carried this “tradition” of acculturalisation with them and were keen to become “English” while paradoxically jealously protecting their “Dutchness” — I have seen gravestones in West Ham Cemetery inscribed entirely in Dutch and, 150 years after her great grand parents arrived, my wife still retains a Dutch vocabulary of sorts (mostly vulgar, it cannot be denied) and still remembers the Dutch dishes her London-born mother and grandmother cooked and perhaps most remarkably of all she carries in her head a formidable index of Dutch families who were neighbours or relatives of her grandparents and great grand parents in the “Tenterground”
The Dutch had long established their own “exclusively” Dutch Synagogue (Sandy;’s Row ), their own burial societies, numerous Dutch friendly societies and other mutual welfare organisations. They were not alone, later in London we find the Lodz Synagogue and the Warsaw Synagogue.
I learned quite recently that even in the 1930’s Jewish children from Dutch families used to attend lessons in the Dutch language at Whitechapel’s Townbee Hall on Sundays; I was told by one lady who remembers the Dutch songs she learned there as a child that the classes were reputedly paid for by the Queen of the Netherlands.
The Dutch immigrant of course knew no Yiddish. One can imagine the suspicions of the Polish and Russian immigrant on meeting for the first time a Jew who knew not a word of Yiddish and, as he had little or no English, communication was impossible — what sort of Jew is this who speaks no Yiddish but only English?
There was in late 18th century Holland and Germany many organised gangs of Yiddish speaking petty criminals and Yiddish words were picked up by the Dutch and German underworld and by this route (ironically) many Yiddish words have found there way into the present everyday Dutch and German languages. In passing, I would note that I was told by a 90-year-old Dutch lady that she remembers from her childhood that young Jews who were in trouble with the law being advised “to go and buy a box of English kippers, and don’t hurry back”. I have to say however that I have not come across any evidence that criminality was more prevalent among the poor Jews of Spitalfields than elsewhere in Victorian London.
Dutch and Polish/Russian communities differed also in their occupations, whereas the latter had all manner of artisan skills, cabinet makers, tailors, shoemakers, etc., the former by being denied entry to the Dutch Guilds had virtually no skilled tradesmen. The poor Dutch immigrant were largely hawkers, peddlers , “general dealers”, low-grade leather workers or worked in the tobacco factories of the East End. There is one notable exception to this “no-tradesmen rule”. Jewish butchers were at one time to be found in every small town in the Netherlands and this often resulted in the anomalous situation that on Yom tovim the butcher shops were closed and gentile customers had to go without meat.
The lack of a skilled trade among the poor Dutch immigrants may well have hampered their children’s upward mobility into the English middle and professional classes compared with their Eastern European neighbours.
Perhaps also, the fact that so many of their Dutch parents were forced into “self-employment” as “General dealers”, Hawkers and Costermongers, account for the large number of taxi drivers which was noticeable among the grandchildren of the Dutch immigrants, a means of livelihood which gave them the same benefit and feeling of independence they saw in their fathers without some of the insecurity.
The preponderance of tobacco workers (there was a cigar and cigarette factory in Whitechapel until recent times) among the original immigrants and their children may be attributed to the fact that tobacco growing and cigar production was introduced into the Netherlands by Abraham Cohen of Amersfoort in the early 18th century and he accumulated immense wealth as a result and founded a dynasty which married into almost every Jewish “aristocratic” family in Europe.
I have seen an extract from the Jewish Chronicle (January 15, 1858) during a cigar workers strike. A spokesman for the workers wrote accusing the masters of exploitation by travelling to Holland an enticing immigrants with a false picture of conditions in the UK.
The cigar trade here was in depression and the influx enabled employers to reduce wages by half (from 20 shillings) per week!!! - until the strike.
The “trade” replied to say the work was unskilled and that wages had risen previously during a boom - so it was tough and the charity organisations who were feed the strikers were wasting money on the undeserving.
The JC Editorial says it was a natural law…
It is clear from the census the Dutch came in force 1951-1861.
The Dutch Ashkenazi immigrant’s adherence to their traditions cannot be challenged, I have never found in my researches an example in the middle 19th century of one marrying “out”. There was a totally unfounded prejudice among the later Polish immigrants that the “Dotchkies” lacked Judischkeit; my wife’s great uncle Isaac Lion de Vries, the son of a Dutch immigrant, was the Shummas of the Great Synagogue for 40 years.
I think this prejudice arose from the fact that the Dutch had become anglicised well before the mass entry of Jews from Eastern Europe (which occurred a generation after the peak of Dutch immigration) added to the fact they knew no Yiddish. The Dutch immigrant quickly adopted English given names e.g. Jonas became John, Hartog became Henry, Meitje became Maria, and often anglicised their surnames, e.g. by substituting C for K and F for V - de Kromme = de Cromer and de Vries = Defries. For some reason the universal popular myth found among the descendants of the families from Poland and Russia, that their “English”surnames were attributable entirely to the whim of the Immigration Officer, is not found among the “Chuts”.
In Holland it was virtually impossible to change your name you had at birth, so it must have been a great novelty to find that in England you could call yourself whatever name you pleased without formality. A feature of the Ashkenazi Dutch naming conventions was continued for a generation in England in that a male child carried as a second name his father’s given name e.g. a son of Levie Moses de Vries would be Moses Levie de Vries, which by the same process would be the name of the child’s paternal grandfather. The convention was sometimes applied to daughters - so we could find that a sister of the same Moses Levie de Vries might be registered incongruously as Maria Levie de Vries. The existence of this tradition underlines how foreign to them must have seemed the adoption of surnames in that they continued the use of patronymics.
Dutch Ashkenazim had no hesitation sometimes in naming a child after a living grandparent, a practice which would have appalled their Polish co-religionists. The taboo of naming after “the living” arose I understand from the superstitious fear among Eastern Jews that the malach ha’mauvis (angel of death) might unfortunately be confused in his object; however, they always observed the rigorous tradition of naming children after grandparents who had died. Anyone engaged in Dutch Ashkenazi family history will quickly discover that among families who were unfortunate enough to experience the loss of a child it was a normal custom to give a subsequent child the same name.
The almost invariable pattern seen on the census is of babies being born in this environment to parents at regular 2 year intervals; gaps in the family birth dates point to an infant mortality. Examination of (non-infant) death certificates confirms the expected heavy toll of tuberculosis.
One might have thought conditions in Whitechapel would improve in later years, but this is unfortunately not the case.
I have a record of a suicide by the foreign-born head of a Jewish family of 10 children in 1891, the youngest being 1 year old, where the coroner was so appalled by their living conditions (12 people in 2 rooms) and the condition of the building, that he called for the evidence of the Sanitary Inspector to the Parish, who said he was unable to cope as he had 5,000 houses under his supervision.
Before the arrival of Dutch Ashkenazi immigrants in significant numbers in the mid 19th century there was already a well established Ashkenazi community in London. These families were to found living not in Spitalfields but in Hounsditch and the Eastern fringe of the City of London close to Dukes Place where the Great Synagogue was to be found. Their surnames I found to be very largely based of patronymics, Abrahams, Benjamin, Emanuel, Isaacs, Jacobs, Joel, Lazarus, Moses, Myers, Phillips, Sim(m)ons. It should be remembered that European Jews by and large did not use surnames until it became compulsory under Napoleonic Law after 1811. It is as a rule extraordinarily difficult to ascertain from whence these comparatively early immigrants individually originated since these common Jewish given names are shared by all European Jews. The one notable exception to the rule being the many early English families named Hart, which it is reasonable to suppose is an Anglicised form of the common Dutch given name Hartog. The first British census which included details of the place of birth was in 1851, by which time the almost all the 18th century Jewish immigrants had died.
This essay is a summation of the knowledge I have gained in the course of tracking back through seven generations of my wife’s “Dutch” family. It has been for me a fascinating journey. I had looked for previous research on the history and sociology of the Dutch Ashkenazi immigrants to England in the Victorian era and found a void. Why this should be I cannot adequately explain.
The Dutch community in England may well have developed an inferiority complex in the face of the indifference of their co-religionists. I am led to this unhappy conclusion because I have met many individuals today the descendants of Dutch Ashkenazi ancestors who assumed (until I advised them otherwise) that because their familes came from Holland they must have been Sephardic. The word Sephardi still retains an elitist cachet. Another equally erroneous illusion enjoyed by many of those who know that they have Dutch or English ancestry is that “their family came over with Oliver Cromwell”, but I suppose this is no different from than often heard but optimistic claim to be descendants of the Vilna Gaon. Genealogy is alas prone to myth. Since the Dutch were a small offshoot of the main body of Ashkenazi Jewry it is understandable that they became reabsorbed into it, but I believe I have shown that for a moment in history they maintained a distinct, independent and self-contained subculture under the difficult socio-economic conditions prevailing in Victorian London.
It is my hope that this essay will stimulate new interest in the lost Dutch community of Spitalfields and will encourage others to research and to bring more light into this long neglected corner of Anglo-Jewish history.
Note on Jewish Emancipation in The Netherlands 1796
The question is often raised as to why there was this influx of poor Dutch Jews into the London in the middle decades of the 19th century when it was assumed they were not subject to persecution in Holland as I were the Jews leaving the Poland and Russia 50 years later. The answer to this I found in the invaluable book Emancipation and Poverty by Karina Sonnenberg-Stern (Macmillan Press Ltd, 2002). I quote from her conclusions: “Although the majority of Amsterdam’s Jewish population were reluctant to leave their familiar communal existance and abandon Yiddish for Dutch as the language of every day use, the continuing discrimination to which the poorer Jews were subjected during the first half of the 10th century was the principal factor in perpetuating the poverty of Amsterdams Ashkenazim… Jewish Emancipation therefore was little more than a legal measure in the Netherlands.”
Content last updated Tuesday, November 11, 2014 at 09:17 PM Mountain Daylight Time