Saturday, 25 August 2012

Stella's schools

Towards the end of her life my Auntie Stella had a number of chats with her daughter Cynthia, recounting what she remembered of Shreibman family life in the East End of London in the early part of the 20th Century. Cynthia recorded the conversations, and later used them to write up an account of Stella's story.

It was 1999, and Stella, the oldest in a family of eight children, was nearly 90. She had been living in New Zealand for 50 years, and I don't think she ever returned to the UK. I don't think she ever saw her mother Sarah or any of her brothers and sisters again, bar the youngest, Alice, who emigrated to Australia in the 1960s. Nevertheless, her memory for people and places seems remarkably vivid.

I was particularly intrigued by the schools she said she had attended (see the end of p2, and then p3-4, of her Story), so when I was at the Tower Hamlets local history archives the other day I tried to track them down. She was born in 1909, so will have been at school during the period 1914-1923 or thereabouts. It is unlikely that the schools will still exist in the same form as then; the buildings may no longer even be there. But contemporary maps should show where schools were located, and the Library also has a very handy guide to London schools which can help us work out if particular schools were in use in the period we're looking at.

Stella's parents, Morris and Sarah Shreibman, had both come to England a few years previously, and spoke very little English. The language of the home, Stella's mother-tongue, was Yiddish, and she herself spoke no English until she started school.

Her first school was in Hare Street, the street they lived in for the first few years of her life. She says, "It was a Church School, and had a tiny Church building with a hall in it." There was indeed a church just up the road from their home, St Mathias. It had a little school for Infants which had opened in 1848 - one of a wave of church schools set up in the East End in the middle of the 19th Century.

(Click for larger version)
St Matthias Infant School is on Hare Street, just to the right of the church, in the centre of the map. The Shreibmans had two upstairs rooms at number 12, towards the Brick Lane end of the street, and later moved to slightly larger accommodation in Sclater Street, just off the map across Brick Lane. Wood Close School is to the right of the map, above Hare Street. Possibly before Stella left Wood Close, the family moved to Grimsby Street (here called St John Street), opposite the railway viaduct, just round the corner from Hare Street.

However, she was only at the church school for a short while, and says she then moved to an all-Jewish school near Petticoat Lane (Middlesex Street). We know that Stella's grandmother Michla - Sarah's mother - was very religious; she lived nearby, and was a frequent visitor. Her grandmother's influence may have been a factor in Stella's move from a church school to a Jewish one.

There are two candidates for this Jewish school, and we are not sure which one Stella went to. The Jews' Free School in Bell Lane was one of the biggest schools in Europe, and it had two associated Infants' schools not far from where they lived, one on Commercial Street (pictured), and the other a bit further away in Buckle Street (see map below for locations).

She probably stayed here until the end of infant schooling, at age 8. 

The third school she mentions is Wood Close Girls' School, a few yards down the road from her first school (see map above). Wood Close took children from both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. She was there for several years, until she left school, probably aged 14. She recounts some of her memories of the school in her conversations with Cynthia.

(photo by Reading Tom)

There is a successor school, William Davis, operating now on the same site, and they have a brief history on their web-site which gives a flavour of those early years. The writer Emmanuel Litvinoff, who died earlier this year, attended the Boys' School - he was a contemporary of Stella's brother Barney, and may well have been a classmate - if Barney went to Wood Close, of course! Litvinoff talks about the area and the school in this interview.

During the period Stella was at school the family lived at three different addresses, all of them within half-a-mile of the schools she attended. By the time she left school four of her brothers and sisters - David, Esther, Barney, Michael - were also at school in the same area.

I would love to be able to check the school admissions records, and put names and dates to Stella's school story, but I am told that for privacy reasons there is a 100-year block on access, as some people in the records may still be alive. I shall nevertheless incorporate these schools into our East End Walks, and say, "We think this is where Stella learned to speak English." Which is something she never tired of doing throughout her very long life.

Click on this 1922 map for a larger version, and find all the streets and schools mentioned. Buckle Street is just above Little Alie Street, at the bottom of the map; it is not labelled, but you can see the location of the school. The Commercial Street school is on the left towards the bottom, opposite Thrawl Street.

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