HAROLD POLLINS researches the story of the Netherlands Choral and Dramatic Club, one of the many now forgotten Jewish clubs that flourished in the East End
In 1951 the veteran journalist, Gabriel Costa – he had been writing for the newspapers before the First World War and continued to do so until the 1970s – published an article entitled ‘The Dutch Club: a Vignette.’2 He described certain aspects of the vanished Netherlands Choral and Dramatic Club. “At no time in its variegated story,” he wrote, “had the Dutch Club cherished ‘high-brow’ ambitions. Its mission was frankly the entertainment of the jaded workers of the Ghetto at a minimum of expense and with a minimum of ‘trimmings’.”
It was a social club and, in particular, he described the often raucous reception of new plays put on at the club. The actors would, inter alia, be interrupted by the waiters’ loud inquiries of the audience: “Any olives, coocumbers, sammon sangwiches?” Occasionally the actors would be pelted with pennies but “olive stones worked out cheaper”.
It is worth stating at this point that doing research on this and other Jewish clubs is difficult. Their records do not appear to have survived and I have had to make use of items in the Jewish and other newspapers as well as the published reports of the Club and Institute Union, to which some of the Jewish clubs belonged. From them one can piece together at least the outlines of the various clubs' activities. Unfortunately there seem to be no lists of members, but this is not surprising since members paid monthly or weekly subscriptions and, with several hundred people with fluctuating membership, it is unlikely that accurate records would have been kept.
Costa was describing the club’s later years.The Netherlands Club had begun quite differently from the description he gave in 1951, coming into existence as the Netherlands Choral Society on August 15,1869, at a meeting at the Zetland Hall, 51 Mansell Street, a well-known East End venue for meetings of all kinds.
The Choral Society had been formed “For training choristers, and for giving Entertainments in Aid of Charitable Institutions”.3 As befitted the Dutch origin of the members (at first the language spoken was Dutch) it had a title “Nut zy ons doel” (which may be translated as “Good Intent” or “Usefulness is our Goal”).Another title was “Ons Genoegen” (“Our Pleasure” or “Our Content”.)
It was indeed a choral society. Its conductor was the renowned Julius Lazarus Mombach (1813-1880), for many years choirmaster at the Great Synagogue and a composer. Early in society’s life, the Jewish Chronicle reported that“at the funeral of one of its members, the association, headed by the choir, marched to the cemetery, singing very finely”.4 And a few months later, onJuly 8, 1871, the Jewish Chronicle reported that “members of the Netherlands Choral Society serenadedMr J. L. Mombach, their conductor, at his residence, Finsbury Square, in honour of the success which attended their first public concert on Wednesday, 5th inst., at the New Town Hall, Shoreditch. An immense crowd of persons was attracted by the scene”.5
The second portion of the club, the Dramatic part of the title, was formed separately in 1881 and met at 25 Gun Street. The 1888-9 annual report of the Club and Institute Union,to which both societies were affiliated, noted that both clubs supplied alcoholic drink, and that neither provided educational classes nor had a library (important, for the CIU advocated education as a feature of working men’s clubs). However the Choral Society did provide, along with games, some lectures. The Dramatic Society had no provision for lectures but provided Sunday concerts and games.
This, though, was to neglect some aspects of the Choral Society. For example, Henry Hymans, a member of the Society, obtained a certificate for excellence in the CIU’s History examination and in 1885 the club won the whist tournament held among London clubs.6
Soon after its formation the Choral Society had moved from Zetland Hall to nearby Vine Street but its new and permanent premises (a former bottle factory) in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, adjacent to the Jews’ Free School, were opened formally on July 18, 1887, by Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP for Whitechapel, beginning with a consecration service.
Montagu congratulated the club and spoke of the advantages of such an institution “promoting cordiality and good fellowship amongst the members, spreading a love of music and harmony, successful rivalry to the public-house – which, however, Jews need not much fear – and, principally, its great Anglicising influence”. He wondered, though, whether the word Netherlands in the title was still appropriate since the club had recently decided to conduct proceedings in English and was now open to the English, Germans, Poles and others.
He thought National would be a better description and also suggested that women members should be given the same rights as males, as happened at the Jewish Working Men’s Club (of which Montagu was the President).
A month later it was announced that the premises would be used for services during the forthcoming Yamim Noraim (the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur).7
There is something of a mystery about the two societies, the Choral and the Dramatic, notably the date when they joined together. A complaint of 1888 referred to the “Netherlands Choral Club” in Vine Court (sic), in the year following the opening of the Bell Street premises. A letter in theJewish World stated that chometz (leavened food) had been on sale at the club during Passover, especially the sale of beer. “Its sister institution in Bell Lane, as well as other Jewish clubs, does without selling malt liquor during Passover.”
On the previous Friday the correspondent had found kosher refreshments on the same bar as beer and biscuits. The following week J. Hontman, the secretary, replied to the effect that no visitors were allowed that day and that the club was as strict as any others. The original correspondent replied that Hontman had not denied selling chometz and that, as the club was affiliated to the CIU, it could not exclude visitors.8
Was the sister institution in Bell Lane the Dramatic Society? But Montagu had referred in 1887 to the club in Bell Lane “spreading a love of music and harmony”, sentiments more appropriate to a Choral Society.
At any rate by 1889 the two societies had merged as the Netherlands Choral and Dramatic Society – Montagu’s suggestion to change its name had not been taken up and the new name was used in a report that year of the formal opening of an addition to the Bell Lane premises, again presided over by Samuel Montagu. He announced a proposal to add a lending library and promised £20 for the purpose.9 The club now occupied 24 and 25 Bell Lane.
One important feature of the club, as with many other Jewish clubs affiliated to the Club and Institute Union, was its close association with non-Jewish clubs. It was very common for members to visit other clubs for games competitions, concerts or to socialise. One of the unofficial club journals, Club Life, which began life in January 1899, contained a very appreciative article on the Netherlands Club in its sixth issue, entitled Clubs You Should Visit.
Interestingly it ended an interview with the vice-president,I. Danziger, saying:“‘Git morrgen, Rabbi Pip.-Pip. Mozill to Club Life’, or words to that effect.”10 Part of the article was an interview with Mr Danziger, who was asked by the interviewer about Yiddish and wrote some down for him, in Hebrew characters.On the other hand a Jewish Chronicle item about the club in 1913 stated that “Yiddish is seldom heard within its precincts.”11
Perhaps it was true by then.
As well as concerts, games and alcohol the club did other things. It ran a tontine fund for sick and funeral benefits and subscribed to the Jewish Soup Kitchen Fund. It was non-political but, according to Club Life in 1899, it was “a great factor for the Liberal cause”. It also contributed to the CIU’s Convalescent Home and ran parties for children, a common feature of many workingmen’s clubs. 12
The leading light in the club was Samuel Strelitski, president for many years. He wasborn about 1833 in Amsterdam, according to the 1871 Census in which he is described as a tailor. He arrived in Britain in the early 1850s; in 1904, after 52 years in Britain, he was created Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau by the Queen and government of the Netherlands. The Jewish Chronicle described this award as recognition of his being “regarded as the unofficial head of the Dutch Jews in the East End of London”. 13
The Netherlands Club was one of the two largest Jewish social clubs in the East End, the other being the Jewish Working Men’s Club in Great Alie Street. This had been founded, probably by Samuel Montagu, in 1874, following the establishment in 1872 by the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge (of which Samuel Montagu was president) of the Reading Rooms in Hutchison Street. These had been intended to provide an alternative for young men who would otherwise frequent public houses and desecrate the Sabbath.
Two years later it became a Working Men’s Club, and in its heyday, in purpose-built premises in Great Alie Street, a major centre for all sorts of Jewish communal activities, including a major Zionist meeting with Theodor Herzl. Unusually for such a club it had women as full members, and it did not allow alcoholic drink or, for most of its life, even card-playing (gambling, said its founders, being the Jewish vice.) It provided lectures and debates and numerous sub-clubs, such as one for cycling. But towards the end it seemed to concentrate on dances and on providing Gilbert and Sullivan operas.14
The heyday of the numerous East End Jewish social clubs was before the First World War, and some had only an ephemeral life. The Jewish International Working Men’s Club, 19 Great Prescott Street, lasted only a year or two from 1890; the United Jewish Club, Aldgate Avenue, failed about a year after its foundation in 1896; the Jewish Social Club, formed in 1891, was located in at least four different premises in its lifetime, until it closed in 1905. Others disappeared during and after the war. The Judaean Social and Athletic Club, at first at 3 Johnson’s Court, Leman Street, and then at 54 Prince’s Square, Cable Street, lasted from 1907 to 1916.15
The Netherlands Club’s reached just over 1,000 in 1901 but by 1910 was just below 600. The Club, it seems, lasted until 1932. Its demise, and that of the other clubs, may be attributed to the fairly obvious causes – the beginnings of the decline of the Jewish population of the East End and, especially, the provision of newer and alternative forms of leisure pursuits. These included the cinema, the radio and the gramophone. Moreover, the benefits provided by the clubs began to become available from the state.
Some East End clubs certainly flourished, however. The Old Boys’ Club, in the Mile End Road, was one and another was the Oxford & St George’s, run by Basil Henriques (which celebrates its centenary in 2014). The Netherlands Club, nevertheless, is certainly worth recalling as a significant feature of the East End and especially of its Dutch component.
The photos in this article are from an album given to me by my late friend Joan Rich, daughter of Julius Rich, a former teacher at Jews Free School, Bell Lane, London E1
Above, decorated wall of the Netherlands club for Jews Free School's George 5th Silver Jubilee celebrations, 8 July 1935, viewed from the playground of Jews Free School, Bell Lane. The foreground shows tables laid for their celebration feast.
Above, the demolition of the Netherlands club, begun during Jews Free School's Summer holidays in 1935
Above, 'Long may they reign', 1936 Edward 8th Coronation decorations displayed on factory built on the site of the Netherlands club that was demolished Summer 1935, viewed from the playground of Jews Free School, Bell Lane
1This article was originally published in Shemot, vol 10 no 1, March 2002, and is reproduced by permission of the author. An earlier version appeared in Harold Pollins’article 'East End working men's clubs affiliated to the Working Men's Club and Institute Union, 1870-1914', in The Jewish East End 1840-1939 (Proceedings of the conference held on 22 October 1980 jointly by the Jewish Historical Society of England and the Jewish East End Project of the Association for Jewish Youth, 1981) edited by Aubrey Newman, pp. 182-186.
2Jewish Chronicle, 10 Aug 1951. He had, inter alia, published an article in the JC on 13 Mar 1914, 'Purim in Spitalfields', which included the statement:“I have a very enjoyable recollection of a Purim masquerade ball celebrated at the Netherlands Club in Bell Lane.” Manifestations of “'outward gaiety”, he said, had occurred up to 10 years before.
3A.I. Myers (compiler), The Jewish Directory for 1874 (1874), p. 53.
4JC Feb17, 1871, p. 11
5JC July 14, 1971, quoted in Doreen Berger, The Jewish Victorian, 1999, pp.395-6.
6JCJun9, 1883, p.12; May 22, 1885, p. 7
7JC Jul22,1887, p.10; Aug 19, 1887, p. 1. This July report was entitled 'The Netherlands Working Men's Club.'
8Jewish World Apr6, 1888, p.3; Apr 13, p. 3; Apr 20, p. 3.
9JC Oct 18, 1889, p. 7
10Club Life Feb11, 1899, pp.1-2.
11JC Sep5, 1913, p. 23. From the style the item was probably written by Gabriel Costa.
12Club Life Feb18, 1899.Page 9 had a description of a party for 1,000 children given at the club.
13He was the Samuel Streletskie (sic) referred to by Doreen Berger in The Jewish Victorian, page. 554. He was the son-in-law of Moses Boam, Superintendent of the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor.
14See Harold Pollins, A History of the Jewish Working Men's Club & Institute 1874-1912, Ruskin College Library Occasional Publication No. 2, Oxford, 1981.
15Details from the CIU records