“There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…”

Readers of this blog may be interested in an article just published in Material Religion, which explores the relationship between patterns of immigrant settlement and religious practice in the East End of London over the past 350 years.

Fig4_BevisOutside_MediumThe Material Religion article examines the role played by religious organization in immigrant communities; typically this is a multiple role: as centre for charitable support, locus of social organization in an ‘alien’ culture, bridge between cultures and source of economic opportunity. This is illustrated beautifully by the picture on the left, which shows Bevis Marks Synagogue’s external gate. The synagogue, founded 1701 when the Jewish community of London was, given that this was only several decades since the community’s readmission into England, still in need of a hidden space – an ‘enclosed sanctuary tucked away from public gaze’ (Kadish 2002: 387). The building is set back from a quiet street with its façade positioned perpendicular to its entrance courtyard. (Image courtesy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.)

Fig1_FrenchChurch_Synagogue_RocqueThe 1746 John Rocque map of London shows (inset left) how the French Hugeunot church was by this point situated relatively prominently, although entered from a lane behind the main road, whilst Bevis Marks (inset top left) was in a much more secluded location. Nevertheless, the historian Hyamson has stated how “… the friendly relations between the local church authorities and their Jewish parishioners cannot be better illustrated than by the mention that on the occasion of … Jewish funerals the church bells were tolled.”

StMarysChurchMoving into the 19th century we can see St Mary’s Church, a focal point for Christianity in the area, which also attempted to provide for the Jewish population of the parish. (The banner on the side advertises a sermon in Yiddish). On Saturdays at 5.00pm, addresses to the Jewish community would be made from St Mary’s open-air pulpit. Special services for Jewish festivals would also be conducted, read in Hebrew and German, and sermons preached in English and Yiddish. Up to 500 people would make up the congregation. This photograph was one of many Galt produced to show conditions in the East End and the work of the mission. His intention was often to show that, contrary to popular middle-class belief, the people of the East End were worthy of salvation. There is an amusing piece in Bill Fishman’s East End 1888, which confirms the suspicion that the service to the Jewish community was for the purpose of proselytising – and costly at that. Fishman quotes the East London Observer that the cost of bringing into any reformed church was for: an African $14, a Spaniard $55, a Japanese $80 and a Jew $2800.

The article ends with a discussion regarding the way in which configuration of public space transforms the individual migrant identity. It concludes that places of worship satisfy a variety of needs in the life of the migrant and that over time religious need and external practice change – some becoming more, and some becoming less – in tune with those of the host society.

Download: a pre-publication version can be downloaded from here: Kershen, A.J., Vaughan, L., 2013. There was a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam…: an analysis of urban space and religious practice in London’s East End, 1685-2010. Material Religion 9 (1), 10-35.

Further reading:

Cottret, Bernard. 1991. The Huguenots in England: Immigration and Settlement 1550-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hymason, A.M., 1951. The Sephardim of England: a history of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, 1492-1951. Methuen, London.

Fishman, William J. 1988. East End 1888: a year in a London borough among the labouring poor. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

Kadish, Sharman. 2002. Constructing Identity: Anglo-Jewry and Synagogue Architecture. Architectural History 45:386-408.


Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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