The Scum of Europe (Batty Street – Tower Hamlets)

From 1881 onwards the mass exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe to London turned Whitechapel and surrounding boroughs into massive immigrant communities. The arrival of newcomers transformed these areas. Living in poverty, settlers were accused of bringing dirt and disorder with them. Streets strewn with decomposing fish and rotting vegetation were classified by commentators as ‘Jewish’ as though there was a connection between filth and faith. Lack of accommodation led to rent rises and overcrowding which provoked racial agitation. In February 1886 The Pall Mall Gazette warned that ‘foreign Jews … are becoming a pest and a menace to the poor native born East Ender’. With a number of churches turned into synagogues, the clergy feared for the future of Christianity. In 1902, Cosmo Gordon Lang, Bishop of Stepney, accused immigrants of ‘swamping whole areas once populated by English people’. The term ‘swamping’ in the context of immigration would cause renewed controversy during the Thatcher era.

Local inhabitants expressed a sense of isolation which in turn intensified discord. Policing Whitechapel proved problematical because of language barriers. The want of Yiddish among police officers hampered the maintenance of law and order, and impeded investigations into the perceived presence of political agitators. Instead, officers acted as surrogate social workers. They monitored the movement of migrants and were required to brief politicians on socio-economic conditions in the immigrant ghettos. The East London Jewish population was a largely self-surveilling community. The newcomers, though quarrelsome and noisy at times, were hard-working and home-centred – not given to brawling or boozing. This contributed to high rates of social mobility within the community. Territoriality and inter-communal conflict were the main causes of public disorder. Collective resistance to prevent Jewish settlement was rife and the general trend was towards segregation. Rival gangs battled for control of the street. Sections of the borough tended to become either all Jewish or remain Anglo-Irish.

East London immigrants produced individual criminals, but no criminal classes. Urban villainy in the later nineteenth century was an urgent problem, but the reported crime-rate amongst immigrants remained comparatively low. Who was responsible for the ‘new’ wave of wrongdoing? Finger pointing journalism – Daily Mail style – started there and then. Immigrants came to be treated as potential burglars, armed robbers, sex offenders, or murderers. Their crimes were reported in hysterical detail and with a great deal of moral indignation. On 14 November 1864 twenty-four year old Cologne-born Franz Müller was executed before crowd of 50,000 cheerful spectators outside Newgate prison. He had murdered Thomas Briggs, a City banker who was travelling on the 9.50pm North London Railway from Fenchurch Street. The assailant – a tailor by profession – took his gold watch and spectacles and threw the victim’s body from the compartment. It was the very first killing on a British train. His hanging was one of the last public executions in London.

Israel Lobulsk was born in Warsaw in 1865. Having experienced the horrors of the 1881 Christmas pogrom in the city, he left Poland and arranged a passage from Frankfurt to London in exchange for work on a cattle boat, arriving penniless in 1885. Adopting the name Israel Lipski, he worked as an umbrella maker and was one of fifteen persons living in a house at no. 16 Batty Street, running off Commercial Road, East London. In June 1887 one of the other tenants, Polish immigrant Miriam Angel, a pregnant woman who lived one floor below Lipski, was found murdered with nitric acid (_HNO3_ or aqua fortis) poured down her throat. When the police arrived, they found Israel Lipski under the bed, unconscious, with the same corrosive liquid in his mouth. It was concluded that after committing the crime, he had tried to kill himself. Lipski denied any involvement. The case caused furore and touched upon the issue of unrestricted Jewish immigration. A two-day trial took place at the Old Bailey before James Fitzjames Stephen, a well-respected judge. Lipski was poorly defended and, after just eight minutes of deliberation, he was found guilty by members of the jury. Observers raised doubts about the trial’s fairness, but Lipski was hanged on 22 August 1887 at Newgate prison. The execution was carried out by James Berry (during his seven years in office he was responsible for 131 hangings). When the black flag was raised, a crowd of over 5,000 persons gathered outside the prison burst out in jubilation. Thereafter, ‘Lipski’ became a term of ethnic abuse against Jews.

Fear turned into panic in 1888 with a spade of barbaric murders in Whitechapel. The hunt for Jack the Ripper was the talk of the day. Who was this maniac? Surely not an Englishman. Public hysteria, whipped up by unscrupulous politicians and populist press barons, created a Lynch’s Law mentality.

Intense xenophobia made people decide to seek vengeance against a community of aliens in their midst. Hatred of foreigners became mixed up with vitriolic antisemitism. The British Brothers League (BBL) was formed in May 1901 along paramilitary lines with the support of numerous (Conservative) politicians. Using the slogan ‘England for the English’, the movement organised marches and rallies and called for closure of Britain’s borders. London, it was argued, had become the ‘dumping ground for the scum of Europe’. The Gothic metaphor was prevalent in anti-immigration writings, evoking the spectre of racial conflict and painting a hellish picture of cultural ruin. Britain’s identity was at stake. The Eastern Post and City Chronicle headlined BBL activities and demanded that the government end the ‘foreign flood which has submerged our native population of East London’. Within months the league claimed 6,000 members. Parallels with present-day movements are too close for comfort.