In the spring of 1889, east London was gripped with social unrest. The recession had hit hard, unemployment was high, and casualised labour and miserable working conditions were causing chronic poverty and ill health. But a new spirit of working-class defiance was rising.
The previous year, the women of Bryant and Mays’ match factory in Bow had launched a strike demanding better conditions of employment, and their success had galvanized other trades to unite and harness the power of collective action. In this promising political climate the East End’s sizeable Jewish immigrant population staged their first public protest. ‘The Hebrews are a peaceful and industrious folk,’ editorialized the East End Advertiser, ‘but on the principle that even a worm will turn, we have been treated to a Hebrew demonstration’. On a Saturday morning in March, a large crowd, accompanied by banners and a brass band, marched to the Great Synagogue in Aldgate and from there to Mile End Waste in Whitechapel, ‘to show the world our plight and that we will no longer be slaves to the sweaters’.
Our event for the Being Human Festival, 'The great Yiddish parade', recreates the Whitechapel march, using song and oratory from 1889 to evoke the fervour of political protest in the Victorian East End. The event is a collaboration between Nadia Valman, who researches the cultural history of the East End, and Vivi Lachs, who rediscovered the radical song culture of Jewish immigrants when researching her doctorate, and established a Yiddish marching band and choir with musicologist Sarha Moore in 2015. As part of the project, we are working with three east London schools to explore the cultural forms of nineteenth-century protest and their contemporary resonances, which will be incorporated into the Parade.
In Victorian London it had long been difficult to rouse Jewish immigrant workers to direct action. They were nervous of losing their jobs and some clung to the hope that they might soon rise from being an operative to owning their own sewing machine and running a small workshop for themselves. Many were recent arrivals who did not speak English and were vulnerable to ‘sweaters’ -- exploitative employers willing to offer them work. And there was some reason to be wary about involvement in radical protest: only two years previously, marchers demonstrating in Trafalgar Square against unemployment had been brutally beaten by police.
The theatrical form of the parade, with music and visual spectacle, was designed to appeal to the wavering East End worker. Our Parade seeks to recapture the feelings of solidarity and political optimism that collective chanting, singing and walking can generate. Indeed, the Whitechapel parade of March 1889 ignited a new enthusiasm among immigrant workers for the trade union movement.
The following summer was dominated by the successful strike for better pay by east London’s dockworkers, and in early September six thousand Jewish immigrant tailors walked out. Among their demands was the reduction of the working day from eighteen hours to twelve. Parades became a familiar sight on the Commercial Road: striking workers processed daily through the streets to mass rallies in Victoria Park, with fluttering banners and marching bands noisily asserting their presence and bolstering their morale.
The strike is faithfully documented in Israel Zangwill’s ethnographic novel of East End Jews, Children of the Ghetto (1892), in which a union leader tries to motivate the downtrodden tailors by announcing that ‘Our great teacher, Moses, was the first Socialist. The legislation of the Old Testament – the land laws, the jubilee regulations, the tender care for the poor, the subordination of the rights of property to the interests of the working-men – all this is pure Socialism!’
Other publications attacked religious culture for hoodwinking the workers and turned instead to protest poetry. In August 1889, the Arbayter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend), a Yiddish-language socialist newspaper in London, excitedly reported on the strikes that were erupting all over the East End. The paper noted that when a procession passed a notorious sweatshop the band played the Dead March, and eagerly directed its readers to the contemporary poem ‘Es rirt zikh’ (It’s Moving), which begins: ‘Children, can you hear how it’s moving? Do you notice how the end is coming?’
It’s in the stirring song culture of the East End protest marches that the spirit of this extraordinary moment is best captured. Sung in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Jewish immigrants in Victorian east London, they call on fellow workers to strive together for equality for all. Many were written by the Lithuanian-born socialist poet Morris Winchevsky, who edited the Arbayter Fraynd. They lament those ‘who sew clothes but can’t afford to wear them, build houses for others, yet live like cattle in overcrowded rooms’, and they imagine a time when ‘the world will have more love and less hatred between women, men, between nations’. It’s hard to resist joining in with these rousing lyrics and catchy tunes. Brought to life once more in the Whitechapel streets, the songs have as much resonance today as they did in 1889.