Former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue

1898-9, rebuilt in 1959-60, closed and converted for use by the East London Mosque in 2015-16

Contributed by English Heritage

After 1880 persecution and economic depression in Russia and Poland brought about a wave of Jewish immigration into Britain that continued up to 1914. A large proportion of the Ashkenazi and generally poor East European immigrants settled in tight-knit groups in London’s East End. Culturally distinct from London’s established Anglo-Jewish population, more Orthodox and speaking Yiddish, these immigrants established and worshipped in their own numerous small congregations, in what were known as chevrot (conventicles), or sometimes shtieblakh (prayer rooms). Typically, groups of immigrants from the same town or district came together in these improvised one-room synagogues. They were often tucked away at the backs of buildings, and frequently cramped and insanitary.

In 1887 Sir Samuel Montagu MP founded the Federation of Minor Synagogues, aiming to improve conditions for largely working-class, traditional and Orthodox East End Jews, setting out to amalgamate small congregations in improved premises by giving loans for the renovation or conversion of buildings. The Federation steered an architectural middle course between the Anglicising assimilation represented by the grandeur of the United Synagogue’s East London Synagogue in Stepney of 1876-7 and the rough and ready inadequacies of the chevrot.

The Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue was founded and first built in 1898-9 with William Whiddington, otherwise obscure. Montagu was the first President, the Federation having contributed £500. Following war damage the synagogue was rebuilt in 1959-60. Despite the rebuilding it remains typical of the Federation’s small synagogues or chevrot. Latterly dwarfed by the East London Mosque it is a modest building, a plain stock-brick cuboid with a three-storey two-bay front, appearing as if a house with a shop. However, the building’s function is revealed by a foundation stone from the rebuilding, placed beside the entrance. A monument-lined passage along the east wall leads back into the full-height shul. This is a long galleried room with a traditional Ashkenazi floor plan, a bimah (reading platform or pulpit) standing at the centre, with bench pews along the sides facing the bimah at right angles to the ark, which is at the back or north end and which contains the Torah scrolls. In an Orthodox synagogue the ark should strictly be oriented towards Jerusalem. Here, as in many other East End synagogues, the long thin urban plot that demanded entrance from the south, made this practically difficult. On top of the ark there are Luhot (Decalogue) tablets in Hebrew, with carved and gilt lions of Judah as supporters. To the left or west of the ark there is a stone prayer board dedicated to the British Royal family, an affirmation, which, while no doubt sincere and typical of the Federation’s middle-way approach to assimilation, perhaps also serves as a kind of insurance against persecution and prejudice. In fact, Jewish law requires the public recitation of a prayer for the welfare of the nation, wherever Jews live in the diaspora. Above the ark there are two high-level round windows with Star of David stained glass. There are also Star of David light fittings, and the whole space is skylit via a single large lantern in a reinforced-concrete roof, in part supported by two tiers of marbled cast-iron columns with loosely Corinthian capitals which survive from 1899. Panelled gallery frontals serve as donation boards, bearing commemorative inscriptions. From the west side of the entrance hall stairs lead to the ‘ladies gallery’, and also provide access to the caretaker’s house in the front part of the building. A movable curtained trellis has been put up on the main floor to save women from having to go upstairs, while still seeing to it that they remained separated from the men, as Orthodox Jewish worship requires.

The synagogue has a capacity of 150, but attendances have gradually fallen off. By 1960 the East End’s Jewish population was moving away. Declining attendance at the area’s synagogues was in part a reflection of the requirement that Orthodox Jewish worshippers must be able to walk to their synagogue on the Sabbath.

Until its closure in 2015 the building was a remarkable survival, which, despite rebuilding, reflected the scale and nature of the numerous synagogues that were in and around Whitechapel and Spitalfields through most of the twentieth century. There were once at least four synagogues in Fieldgate Street, explaining why this one is referred to as ‘The Great’. Another was a few doors away at No. 35, and behind No. 89 there still survives the shell of a shtiebl, in use as the kitchen of the Tayyab Kebab House. The Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue remains one of the last reminders of the small synagogues that were once widespread in the East End. It was all the more exceptional for continuing in use as a synagogue up to 2015.

Database of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage in the UK and Ireland. The assistance of Dr Sharman Kadish in the preparation of this account is gratefully acknowledged.

See also:
Geoffrey Alderman, The Federation of Synagogues, 1887-1987 (London, 1987).
Gina Glasman, ‘London Synagogues in the late nineteenth century: Design in context’, London Journal, 13/2 (1988), pp. 143-155.
Paul Lindsay, The Synagogues of London (London, 1993), pp. 51-3.

The Great Synagogue seen in 1977
Contributed by Survey of London on Dec. 19, 2016

The Great Synagogue surrounded by cleared sites now occupied by the East London Mosque, London Muslim Centre and Maryam Centre, from a digitised colour slide in the collection of the Tower Hamlets Archives:

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue in 2003, view of the interior from the south gallery
Contributed by Peter Guillery

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue in 2003, view to the Ark on the north wall
Contributed by Peter Guillery

Fieldgate Street synagogue in 2003, view across the gallery looking east
Contributed by Peter Guillery

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue in 2003, dedicatory inscription in entrance passage
Contributed by Peter Guillery

Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue in 2003, prayer board dedicated to the British Royal family
Contributed by Peter Guillery

Former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, April 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, April 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Nat Roos speaking in the synagogue, 2011

An interesting piece of amateur film shows Nat Roos addressing the congregation at the Great Synagogue about its history and memories of Jews in Whitechapel more generally

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Dec. 2, 2016

Choral Selichot service at the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, 2011

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Dec. 2, 2016

East London Mosque film of interior of Great Synagogue

A short film made by the ELM showing many of the rooms within the Great Synagogue, at the time that the Mosque was acquiring the building in 2015

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Dec. 2, 2016

Interior of the synagogue in 2015

This is a video I took in the Fieldgate Street Synagogue in Whitechapel in 2015, after it had closed and been sold, but while most of the interior was still intact. When I was in the building the call to prayer started from the neighbouring East London Mosque, so the video is a evocative combination of the two traditions.

Contributed by Shahed Saleem on March 4, 2018