People and Places gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census People and Places

Spitalfields, London

Spitalfields, London  
By 1901, the area of east London known as Spitalfields (now Whitechapel) had become home to a large Jewish population. From 1881, mounting persecution in eastern Europe and Russia led to the arrival of thousands of Jewish immigrants. They made their way to the tenement houses of Spitalfields already occupied by a considerable Jewish working-class community. By 1901, parts of Spitalfields had a 95% Jewish population, this proportion of foreign-born inhabitants being among the highest in the country. This same area now has a high proportion of residents of Bangladeshi origin, continuing a long tradition of immigration into this part of London.
Jewish East London  -  link to an enlarged version


Follow this link to immigration.

By the time of the 1901 Census, the area around Flower and Dean Street in Spitalfields contained a wide range of dwellings, from slum properties and cheap lodging houses to newly-built model housing for the poor. Connecting to Brick Lane in the east and to Commercial Street in the west, Flower and Dean Street was fronted along most of its north side by the flats of the Nathaniel Dwellings and along half of its south side by those of the Charlotte de Rothschild Dwellings. Although desperately cramped as family homes by modern standards, these Rothschild Buildings were constructed as model housing.

Follow this link to housing and the Rothschild Buildings.

In the 1870s, this street and those around it had had the reputation of being the poorest and most dangerous in the East End of London. Alarmed by the miserable condition of the newcomers to the area and fearing to be associated with their poverty and alien culture, the established Anglo-Jewish bourgeoisie (as represented by the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor) took action.

Baron Nathan Meyer de Rothschild, the unofficial leader of Anglo-Jewry, formed a company to build cheap tenement dwellings for Jewish tenants while at the same time providing a reasonable return to its shareholders. The Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company was formed in 1885 and opened the Rothschild Dwellings to tenants in April 1887.

Further redevelopment of the area soon received a lurid impetus: all five of Jack the Ripper's victims lived in, or had connections with, Flower and Dean Street and its immediate environs. These events led to both a renewed interest in slum clearance and public outrage at the activities of slum landlords. Most of the rest of Flower and Dean Street was bought by the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company in 1891 and the Nathaniel Dwellings opened the following year.

The tenants of the two buildings were mostly, but by no means entirely, Jews and had mainly emigrated from Eastern Europe and Russia. They brought with them to the Spitalfield area their trades, predominantly tailoring, cabinet making and cigarette manufacture.


Listen to a sound recordingListen to Bessy Schiffenbaum's story of her family's journey to Britain.

  1901 Census return for the Schiffenbaum family - link to an enlarged version The religious needs of the residents were met by a wide range of places of worship within walking distance of Flower and Dean Street: from the grand Ashkenazi synagogue at Duke's Place in the City of London (destroyed in the Second World War) to the Great Synagogue in Fournier Street, Spitalfields (once a Huguenot chapel and today a mosque) as well as by a multitude of smaller local schuls.

Shops such as kosher butchers, bakers, grocers and the like were all to hand both in Brick Lane and in Flower and Dean Street itself. In the other direction, in Wentworth Street, was the 'Lane' in which was held the market for all the Jewish East End.

The majority of the tenants of the Rothschild and Nathaniel Dwellings were young married couples and their children received education in accordance with their religion both at state schools and at voluntary schools such as the Jews' Infant School in Commercial Street and the famous Jews' Free School, at one time the largest in the country.

Follow this link to education at Commercial Street school.

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Tower Hamlets official borough map (part), showing Spitalfields and surrounding areas today - link to an enlarged version Distribution of people of Bangladeshi origin in Tower Hamlets, based on 1991 census data, showing how the identity of the population of the East End has changed in a century - link to an enlarged version