History, Political History

Solidarity and suspicion: Irish Catholic and Jewish radical politics in East London

This piece was originally posted on the Society for the Study of Labour History blog.

Irish and Jewish migrants in East London proved to be fertile ground for the growth of the mass unionisation of unskilled labour, says Dr Daniel Renshaw, author of Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’: A comparative study of Irish Catholic and Jewish radical and communal politics in East London, 1889-1912.

The East End of London at the end of the nineteenth century has become a conceptual shorthand for a whole range of Victorian prejudices and oppositions. Those areas that the social investigator Charles Booth termed ‘the blackest streets’ (a designation later used in an excellent local study of the district by Sarah Wise), Whitechapel, Stepney, Mile End, Bethnal Green, and Limehouse, functioned as a social, economic, and sexual ‘other’ – a place of danger, and a source of fascination for those middle-class interlopers who sometimes found themselves within its confines.

East London was also ‘othered’ for another reason; its ethnic diversity. At the turn of the century the East End had more communities settled there originating from different national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds than probably any other part of the country. There were Chinese, South Asian, Italian, German, and other populations, interacting in what Avtar Brah has described as ‘diaspora space’. But the two communities that captured the popular imagination of the time, and more than any others came to represent minority outsider status, were the Irish and the Jews. Although Irish and Jewish neighbourhoods in London had existed for centuries, the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1851, and the pogroms in the Russian Empire from 1881 onwards had significantly increased the numbers of those living in East London. Certain parts of the city became known as intrinsically ‘Irish’ or ‘Jewish’ in character – particularly Whitechapel in the case of Eastern European Jews, and dockland areas for Irish immigrants.

Banner of the London Trousers Makers’ Union – one of a number of Jewish trade unions in the capital in this era.

Jewish and Irish communities in the East End interacted in numerous different contexts in the thirty years before the First World War. In some parts of East London there was spatial separation and hostility between the two populations – in one notorious instance in Bethnal Green at the beginning of the twentieth century an attempt by some Jewish families to settle in the area was met by a co-ordinated attack on property and persons by Irish locals. There were also narratives of economic displacement in the Irish communal press as Jewish refugees put down roots in ‘Irish’ streets.

But there were positive interactions as well. Jews and Irish Catholics, the children of immigrants, went to school together, socialised together, and worked together. Most appositely for the current discussion, they also engaged together in radical trade union and socialist politics. This period was a time of political ferment, and the genesis of mass unionisation of unskilled labour, of enormous significance for the development of the left in Britain in the twentieth century, lay in the mobilisation of Irish and Jewish migrants, and their children and grandchildren, in East London. The first crucial step was the matchwomen’s strike in Bow in 1888, whose leaders, disenfranchised by virtue of gender, age, and class, were mainly Irish or of Irish descent. In the great wave of industrial action that broke over the capital in the spring and summer of 1889, the Jewish tailors and the Irish dockers, both on strike, fused their struggle together. They joined the same pickets, attended the same meetings, and the general sentiment was that neither victory would be complete if either ended in defeat. Both were successful, in the short term that is. In the long-term the conflict between capital and organised labour was just beginning. A generation later, during the notably violent and bitter national strikes of 1912, Jewish families in Whitechapel and Stepney took in, fed, and clothed the children of striking dockers who could not put bread on the table.

This is one part of the story considered in Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’. There is also the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communal leaderships, which oscillated between a warmth partly based on an acknowledgement of common class interests, and a frigidity arising from religious and ethnic prejudice. There are also the highly ambiguous attitudes of the wider metropolitan left towards their new Irish and Jewish comrades, in particular expressions of a virulent antisemitism that ran like a thread through elements of the turn-of-the-century socialist movement, reaching a peak during the Boer War of 1899-1902, but that was still there at the outbreak of war in 1914. The relationships between Irish and Jewish EastEnders continued of course, after the First World War, and both communities would begin to move out of the area and head east and north at about the same time in the 1950s.

This narrative examines the multiple and insidious ways in which prejudice can be expressed, the use of pernicious stereotypes, the disenfranchisement of communities, mutual incomprehension, and sometimes the employment of physical violence. But it also considers solidarity, generosity, and the recognition of a shared struggle and common goals. The story of the diasporic East End, in this period and later, encompasses all of these varying phenomena.

Dr Daniel Renshaw is lecturer in nineteenth and twentieth century political and cultural history at the University of Reading. He is the author of Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’: A comparative study of Irish Catholic and Jewish radical and communal politics in East London, 1889-1912 – now available in paperback.


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