Boris Bennett (1900-85), born Boris Sochaczewska in Poland and known professionally as just Boris, was famed for bringing Hollywood glamour to an impoverished area of east London. His Whitechapel Road studio was the fashionable location for wedding couples and families in the 1930s and 1940s.
A new book from Hoxton Mini Press features restored photographs with short biographies of people featured. There are a short tribute from Steven Berkoff and three essays – a biography of Boris by his son Michael, a look at the fashions of the time by Edwina Ehrman, fashion curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an essay by Rachel Kolsky, the East London tour guide, on East End life during the 1930s and 1940s.
MICHAEL GREISMAN, who curated the Boris archive, describes the impetus behind the book.
As a keen amateur photographer and avid collector, it was natural for me to want to create an archive of the most celebrated Jewish wedding and portrait photographer, Boris. My connection with the East End goes back to my mother’s family who lived and worked in the area from the early 1920s to the 1940s. The glamour seen in these images is in stark contrast to the reality of living conditions in London’s East End at that time. A wedding photograph taken by Boris was aspirational, suggesting hope for a brighter future.
The images in this book, taken from 1927 to the mid-1950s, capture a significant era in Anglo-Jewish history that has now long since passed with the movement of Jews out of the East End into the suburbs.
Over the last five years, Frank Harris – another keen amateur photographer – and myself have had the privilege to collect and restore images from relatives of those who posed for Boris and in some cases from the individuals themselves. Some of the prints are well over 75 years old, and we have endeavoured to reproduce them as they would have appeared at the time they were first printed.
We feel it is important to publish a selection of this unique collection now before the originals risk disappearing. We hope that future generations will see these images and their biographical details as an essential part of our shared Jewish heritage.
RACHEL KOLSKY examines the world in which Boris operated.
Progress along the Whitechapel pavement, now quite unimpeded after nightfall, prompts you to recall the contrasting scene of former years, in particular the Friday and Saturday evening parade that extended, beyond Aldgate, as far as the Bank of England. On Friday, when youth clubs were closed, some spoke of it as the ‘Shidduch Parade’ a stroll rich with opportunities for exchanging glances that could lead to the wedding canopy. And often did. -- A. B. Levy, East End Story (London, 1951).
The East End of the 1920s and 1930s was still very much the Jewish East End. Jewish and non-Jewish communities lived and worked side by side, as they had done from the time of the Jewish resettlement of 1656 through to the rapid growth of the Jewish population in the late 19th century when so many fled persecution in Russia and Poland.
By the time Boris opened his studio at 150 Whitechapel Road in 1927, many of the Jewish community were English born and bred, and the move to the suburbs was well under way, particularly to Hackney and north-west London. However, businesses and factories remained, and commuting from the suburbs was not unusual.
Eva Specter and Samuel Goodstein at their wedding in March 1933
Attachment to the East End meant that many made regular return visits to their favourite bakeries and delicatessens such as Barnett’s, Marks’s and Ostwind’s in and around Petticoat Lane and Hessel Street. Business neighbours to Boris’s studios were also Jewish and remained so until the studio closed in 1957.
Post-World War II, the Jewish community dramatically reduced but it was not until the late 1960s that most of the Jewish businesses had closed or relocated.
The area in and around Whitechapel Road was not only a place to work and live but was also a place for entertainment. In the 1930s, within walking distance or a short bus ride from Boris were cinemas such as the Mayfair, Rivoli, Coliseum, Odeon, Empire and, everybody’s favourite, the Troxy (now refurbished and a popular venue for weddings and parties).
The Pavilion on Whitechapel Road was the leading Yiddish theatre until 1935 when it relocated to the Grand Palais on Commercial Road, surviving until 1970, long after Boris had left the area.
The Grand Palais had been a party venue for weddings from 1923 to 1935. Most popular though was La Boheme, where Minnie Bloom and Jack Quint, Jean Wansofsky and David Schwartz, Aida Margolis and Hyman Lever, and Eva Specter and Samuel Goodstein all celebrated their marriages.
Built originally as the Mile End Electric Theatre, it was the first purpose-built cinema in Stepney, though mostly destroyed in September 1940.
During the 1920s and 1930s there were over 65 synagogues in the Jewish East End. Today just four remain. The wide variety of synagogues cited by Boris’s couples illustrates this concentration and also the prevalence of the Orthodox jurisdiction. Only during World War II did you see registry office marriages, but each one was followed by an Orthodox ceremony.
Aida Margolis and Hyman Lever at their wedding in October 1931
The marriage dates and synagogues used reflect the Jewish migration to the suburbs. The Great Synagogue of Duke’s Place was destroyed during the Blitz, though a temporary building was erected in 1943 and then demolished in 1958. Weddings at South Hackney (Devonshire Road, later Brenthouse Road) and Stamford Hill Beth Hamedrash synagogue (Lampard Grove) in the early 1930s show the shift of the Jewish community northwards. By the late 1930s and early 1940s the Jewish journey continues north-west with weddings at Cricklewood (Walm Lane), Hendon (Raleigh Close) and Finchley (Kinloss Gardens).
If Boris returned to the East End today, only one of the synagogues where his couples married survives – Nelson Street Sephardish. Others still stand – Mile End and Bow, East London Synagogue, Stepney Orthodox, Bethnal Green Great and South Hackney – but have now been converted into flats or are used for other purposes.
Local Jewish businesses provided all the accessories for a great party. Bookshneer’s, a local florist on the Whitechapel Road, regularly worked with Boris; wine and spirit dealer Rumkin’s on Commercial Road was nicknamed ‘The House of Weddings’; and Grodzinski’s on Fieldgate Street, around the corner from Boris, baked the wedding rolls. The wedding rings were likely to have been purchased opposite Boris in Black Lion Yard, the ‘Hatton Garden of the East End’.
The marriage couples themselves represented the diverse working world of the Jewish East End - cabinet makers, box makers, a ‘Stocking King’, electricians, fish friers, handbag makers, fruit salesmen, a boxing referee and shoe maker.
But it is the ‘schmatte’ trade that predominated. Ranging from millinery, button-hole making, designing, cutting, selling fabrics, dressmaking or managing a factory, opportunities abounded.
Companies such as D.L. Ornstein and Ellis & Goldstein, whose factory still stands on Brick Lane, supplied West End shops such as D.H. Evans, C&A and Selfridges.
The late 19th century sweatshops had disappeared, but small workshops still proliferated in the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, including rooms above the Jewish Soup Kitchen, which raised valuable funds from renting the upper floors.
The Garment Makers’ Union had its offices at Great Garden Street (now Greatorex Street) and tailors would gather to catch both the local gossip and, they hoped, more work.
The 1930s saw hardship throughout the nation, but the East End had another battle to fight. The influence of the British Union of Fascists came to a head on 4 October 1936 when, at the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, the Jewish community joined with the dockers and communists to prevent a planned Fascist march from Tower Hill through the Jewish East End, terminating at Victoria Park.
At Gardiner’s Corner, not far from Boris’s studio, the barricades began and the battle ended in victory for the local communities.
Such co-operation was not new to the East End. Jewish families had taken in children of dockers during the dock strikes prior to World War I, and many non-Jewish children earned extra pocket money each Sabbath at Orthodox homes carrying out tasks forbidden to the Jewish families.
World War II changed the East End for ever. With evacuation, many families chose never to return. Some found their homes destroyed, but post-war reconstruction also brought new opportunities and businesses thrived.
One such establishment, not far from Boris’s, was the restaurant Bloom’s, opened in 1952 by Sidney Bloom, which became a magnet not only for Jewish clientele but also celebrities of the day, closing only in 1996.
Boris and Bloom’s have long gone, as have the Jewish restaurants and workshops. The same streets are now filled with the Bengali ‘schmatte’ trade and wedding halls. However, the Jewish East End lives on through the collective memory of the community, the buildings and especially the stories behind these very special wedding photographs and portraits.
Each one tells a family story, but also the story of the Jewish journeys to the East End and then beyond to the suburbs.
Rachel Kolsky is a Blue Badge tour guide and co-author of Jewish London (London, 2012).
Vintage Glamour in London's East End: Photographs by Boris Bennett is available from Hoxton Mini Press on www.hoxtonminipress.com, price £25.
For more on the life and times of Boris see issue nine of The Cable.