The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

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Flyer for 1949 Workers’ Circle meeting in Stoke Newington, courtesy of Hackney Archives.

I’ve been a bit negligent in documenting Jewish radicalism in Hackney so far. The reason for this that there is so much of it that it’s a slightly intimidating prospect.

One of the first books I ever read about the radical history of Hackney was Morris Beckman’s superb The 43 Group: The Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism (Centerprise, 1993). Doing a blog post about the 43 Group seems pretty redundant when Beckman’s book is such an amazing combination of social history, good humour – and Blackshirt Fascists getting righteously duffed up. It’s recently been republished, so you really should be reading that instead of this.

On a similar note, even listing radical Jewish people who have been active in Hackney is fraught with problems as I’m sure I’d leave someone out. And the nature of radical politics is that many of the people I have in mind have wildly divergent politics anyway – “Jewish radicalism” isn’t just one thing.

Let’s just start by saying that there is a continuous line of radical Jews in East London from at least the formation of the Hebrew Socialist Union in 1876 right up to Jewdas today. I say “East London” because Jews were generally concentrated around the industrial heartland of Tower Hamlets in the 1870s. Moving out to the leafy suburbs of Hackney became fashionable (and economically viable) between the wars.

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Nevertheless, radicals like Rudolf Rocker lived in Shoreditch in 1896 whilst editing the Jewish Anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend). And we know that fellow Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman attended fundraisers for the paper in the East End too. (She properly disses Eastenders for all being drunkards in her autobiography Living My Life though).

The paper eventually gained a circulation of 5,000 copies. There is more on Arbeter Fraint at the excellent London Rebel History Calendar site by our comrades Past Tense.

Arbeter Fraint activists Arthur Hillman and Nathan Wiener were also involved with setting up the Workers’ Circle Friendly Society.

This superb article by David Rosenberg describes the energetic atmosphere of early Jewish radicalism in London. It includes the following about the establishment of the Workers’ Circle in 1909:

[Morris Mindel] chaired a group including anarchists and socialists that established the Circle. While unions fought for better conditions in individual workplaces, the Circle organised joint activities across occupations to strengthen secular Jewish working class life and culture in the East End.

Other friendly societies at the time were often boosted by an initial injection of philanthropic money, but the Circle stuck firmly to its principles of doing everything from its own resources and from the bottom up. It collected weekly subscriptions from members to fund its initiatives. Its most basic economic role was providing benefits for members facing great hardship. Those who were long-term unemployed through illness could draw benefits. Those suffering bereavements could arrange secular Jewish burials through the society.

It established a building fund and in 1924 purchased a large building in Whitechapel known as Circle House which had two halls, a library and several meeting rooms.  On Thursday nights, two sympathetic law graduates provided a free legal advice surgery. The Circle’s “propaganda committee” set up a series of Friday night lectures. On Sunday nights it offered concerts and Yiddish theatre performances.

In the late 1920s young Polish Jewish immigrants colonised a top floor room to establish the Progressive Youth Circle, which used Yiddish as the medium for discussion on women’s rights, free love, communism and Zionism. They invited trade unionists and political activists to speak to them, studied left wing writers, and developed Proltet an agitprop Yiddish workers’ theatre group.

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Circle House at Alie Street, Whitechapel . From Joe Jacobs’ Out of the Ghetto

Jack Shapiro recalls that the Workers’ Circle was “full of a vast variety of militants fresh out of the revolutionary parties in their own countries [whose] militancy and keenness to keep the struggle alive was an important inspiration to young people such as myself.” 

Joe Jacobs gives a flavour of the day to day activities of the Circle in his autobiography Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End – Communism and Fascism 1913-1939 (another book everyone should read):

There was the Workers’ Circle, “Circle House”, in Alie Street, a hive of working class activity. This was a Jewish organisation organised on the basis of a friendly society with all sorts of mutual aid activities. Many of the leading lights had tried to bring a little of the ‘old country’ into their lives. They were former ‘Bundists’ from Poland, Anarchists and Libertarians from all parts, Socialists and Freethinkers. Every shade of Russian and European Labour thought and action were represented here. In addition there were Zionists and other purely Jewish organisations. There was a very good bar – no alcohol, but good food, continental style, Jewish of course. Chess and draughts as well as the inevitable dominoes were played for hours on end.

The National Archives notes that the Workers Circle began partly because its founders “did not find existing Jewish friendly societies suitable, because of their religious and class bias.” Morris Mindel’s son Mick later mentioned that the Circle’s rules and regulations “caused quite a stir among bourgeois friendly societies, especially the declaration that we welcomed women to free membership”.

Indeed, in this short lecture, a Mr Pearce recalls that many of the working class audience at Workers Circle concerts didn’t quite know how to behave properly:

The second half of Pearce’s lecture covers the discussions around how Jewish groups should respond to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. He mentions a delegation from the Workers’ Circle visiting the Board of Deputies to discuss setting up Jewish self-defence organisations. And being rebuffed. Undeterred, the delegates worked with other radical groups to set up the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism. All seven members of the first executive committee of the Council were Workers’ Circle members.

The Council organised opposition to a British Union of Fascists march through the East End on October 4th 1936 which became the infamous Battle of Cable Street. Joe Jacobs notes that people who required legal assistance after Cable Street were instructed to go to Room 5 of Circle House.

Pearce also states in his lecture that Workers’ Circle members volunteered to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, some being killed as part of the conflict. In her dissertation on East End Jews in Politics, Elaine Rosa Smith mentions that the Workers’ Circle was involved with fundraising for anti-fascists in Spain and subsequently aid for Jewish child victims of Nazism in Poland.

Circle House in Alie Street was bombed during the 2nd World War.

David Renton’s Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s gives some clues about the continuing work of the Circle after the war in 1947:

In London, the Workers’ Circle concentrated on putting pressure on the London City Council not to let halls to fascists, and the Circle also called a large anti-fascist public meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Although the Circle was active it was not complacent. Members of the Workers’ Circle criticised the Circle itself and other Jewish organisations for not doing enough. As M.D. Rayner commented, “At the fascist meetings at Hackney, Bethnal Green etc., individual Jews were present, and they were vocal and otherwise active, but the communal organisations and leadership had fallen down.”

The National Archives notes a general decline in Circle mutual aid activity after the war:

In its heyday there were about 3,000 members paying 2s. 6d per week for which they got 30 shillings a week when sick, £5 towards cost of seeing specialist and grant to buy false teeth and glasses. [1] […]

The Second World War saw another decline in membership, destruction of the Alie Street hall and considerable damage to the rest of the premises. The formation of the NHS also reduced the incentive for membership.

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After the war Circle House was sold and the organisation moved to 13 Sylvester Path, Hackney, in 1956. Membership continued to decline, with branch mergers, though post-war activity included an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and support for the the state of Israel.

It’s clear from the “how to fight anti-semitism” flyer at the top of this post and the Renton quote above that the Circle had been active in Hackney and Stoke Newington prior to its HQ moving here, so I think we need to up our game in documenting its activities in the Borough. (If you have anything to add to this piece, leave a comment!).

The Sylvester Path premises were shared by the London Jewish Bakers’ Union. There’s a short clip about them and their banner on Youtube courtesy of the Jewish Museum:

Two members of the Workers’ Circle went on to be Mayors of Hackney:

Sam Cohen (former Workers’ Circle Chairman) became Mayor of Stoke Newington in 1959 and Mayor of Hackney in 1978.

He seems to have fared better than Solomon Lever who was Mayor of Hackney from 1951 to 1952. Solomon was the acting general secretary of the Workers’ Circle in 1959 when he was tragically and brutally killed as part of a robbery of its premises at 13 Sylvester Path.

The Workers’ Circle closed down shortly after its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1985.

One thought on “The Workers’ Circle – fighting anti-semitism in Hackney

  1. Pingback: Anti-fascist Hackney: The 43 Group – in their own words | The Radical History of Hackney

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