Sunday, 28 December 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old chronicler of the East End of London, Bill Fishman

Bill, an academic and a pioneer of history from below, who unearthed the stories of ordinary people’s lives in the impoverished and marginalised communities of London’s East End in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has died at the age of 93.

What you possibly didn't know about Bill, that he :

*  was born in 1921 in a house close to the London Hospital off Jubilee Street, the son of  Russian-born Jewish immigrants, Simon, a tailor and Annie and shared the house with his Mother's parents and Ukrainian-born, Grandfather Orloff who had a powerful influence on him as 'a tall, heavy-bearded, Moses-like figure' who, having obtained 'semicha' or rabbinich authority in the Ukraine, was held with respect and affection within the East End Jewish community.

* as a boy, from his Grandfather, learnt the basic moral precepts of 'rachamonat', 'compassion' and 'tsedoka', 'charity' and remembered friday night was special because, returning from the synagogue service, his Grandpa would bring home a visitor, 'always a poorly clad man from the 'heim', 'old country' who would join us for the Shabbat meal and bed for the night on an old sofa in the kitchen'.

 *  also remembered, approaching the synagogue : 'I saw the dockers coming up the hill, and as they passed Zeida (his Gandfather), they would doff their hats and declaim together “Aye Reb”, not mockingly but with obvious respect. For they had seen him on many occasions being stopped by a beggar and his immediate response, a handful of small coins pressed in the beggar’s hand. It was there that I learned religious tolerance.'

*  at the age of 11 in 1932, went to the 'Central Foundation Grammar School for Boys', Islington and also moved to near the East End docks, to live among mainly Irish Catholic docker families and worship at a small synagogue off The Highway.

* as a teenager in 'the Hungry 30s', saw the family fall on hard times as his Father fell into lengthy periods of unemployment and he himself, left school at 14, in 1935, to work as a clerk to help out and in 1936, moved again, with the family, to Clapton.

 at the age of 15 in 1936, joined the 'Labour League of Youth', a non-violent group dedicated to opposing Fascism and later wrote that : 'It was the Mosleyite incursion into the East End during the 1930s that helped direct me towards a socially-based ideology, cemented by the personal experience of family hardships. To the insecurity of jobs was added the Blackshirt terror on the streets. The fascists jibes – PJ , 'Perish Judah' or HEP, a rallying cry of attackers in early 19th century German pogroms, 'Hierosolyma est perdita', 'Jerusalem is lost', and even attacks on anyone who looked Jewish.'

* later he recalled that he saw Oswald Mosley, would-be Adolph Hitler and Leader of the 'British Union of Fascists', twice : 'Once was at the corner of the Salmon and Ball pub at the end of the Bethnal Green Road. Tall, with arms akimbo, the Blackshirt leader was on top of a van surrounded by a bevy of tough-looking women and uniformed men, working his voice into a high pitch as he came to the point of “the alien menace threatening our jobs”. “Alien” was his code term for Jews.'

* remembered October 4, 1936 "distinctly, I was a young lad fifteen and a half. I took a train down to Mile End and got off  and there was a massive crowd congregated within a few hundred yards of where Mosley was going to advance and you could hear the chants : " One, two, three, f our five. We want Mosley dead or alive" . I can see them now, young and old, but mostly local people consisting of Irish and Jewish working class coming there to stop the fascist invasion of our patch."
* was at Gardiners Corner and witnessed the commencement of the legendary 'Battle of Cable Street', "when we stopped the Fascist march into the East End. Catholic dockers, side by side with bearded Jews, built and manned the barricades that prevented Mosley’s incursion" and was "moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockersstanding up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism."

* after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, enlisted in the Army as an infantryman at the age of 19, where the sense of camaraderie and mutuality had lasting effect on him and after service in the Far East, ended the War as a 24 year old Army School Master in India, where he met Ghandhi, supported the independence of India and picked up some Hindi.

* back in Britain, after Wandsworth Teachers Training College, started his career in education teaching English and History at the Morpeth School in Bethnal Green (left), then worked as the Principal of an evening institute and in the daytime, completed a degree at the London School of Economics and in 1954 at the age of 33, created and managed, as the Principal, 'Tower Hamlets College of Further Education' in Jubilee Street near his childhood home.

* recalled that, in 1965 at the age of 44, he realised his 'real bent was in both teaching and research, not in administration' and successfully applied for a 'Visiting Student Fellowship' at Balliol College, Oxford and decided to dedicate himself to help the young, 'particularly those emanating from working-class families, keen and able to pursue a university career.'

 produced his first book, 'The Insurrectionists, an appraisal of Jacobin-Communism from Robespierre to Lenin' in 1969 and was encouraged by the renown historian of France and fellow of Balliol, Richard Cobb (left), to return academically to his roots and as a result uncovered the radical movement that had flourished in the East End before the First World War, led by a gentile German anarchist, Rudolph Rocker, who learned Yiddish, partnered a Jewish girl and became editor of a Yiddish libertarian newspaper, 'The Arbeiter Freund', 'The Workers’ Friend.'

* saw his academic career flourish in the USA as a 'Visiting Professor of History' at Columbia University, New York in 1967 and the University of Wisconsin, Madison from 1969–70 and in Britain 1972 was appointed 'Barnet Shine Senior Research Fellow in Labour Studies' with 'special reference to Jews', at Queen Mary College, University of London where he taught, gained his professorship and continued his research into the social history of the East End.

* in 1975 at the age of 54,  published 'East End Jewish Radicals', which won the 'Jewish Chronicle Prize' and the main chapters of which were dedicated to Pre- First World War Jewish radicals, the survivors of whom he had spoken to in the 'Workers' Circle Club' in Hackney in the 1960s.

* four years later in his book, 'The Streets of East End' combined text
spanning the 19th century and first decades of the 20th with black and white photos highlighting the areas poverty and celebrating its secular, political campaigners, philanthropists and social reformers, from the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, to the anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, Bishop of Stepney from 1968 to 1978.

 * in the 1980s conducted walking tours of the East End with sites relating to anarchists: Rudolf Rocker and Peter Kropotkin;  socialists : Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx and Yiddish poets, Morris Winchevsky and Avrom Stencl and took in 77 Jubilee Road, where, in a doss house during the 1907 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, Joseph Dzhughashvili, later 'Stalin' stayed with Litvinov and related how Stalin had been brought back there after being beaten up by Irish dockers in Wapping after he'd tried to chat up a pretty Irish girl outside a pub :

 * in 1998 at the age of 67, published 'East End 1888', which focused on the year of Jack the Ripper and the Match Girls' Strike as well as  poverty, crime, disease and social unrest, the communal life of the streets, pubs and clubs,  ghettos, sweatshops and poor tenements and threat of the workhouse.

* was complemented by Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University with : 'in the hands of any other historian would have been a depressing book. But Bill Fishman has a great gift, shared with Richard Cobb, of writing about horrible subjects in such a way as to leave you thinking that there is a God in heaven after all'  and eminent sociologist, Michael Young : 'the picture he paints in ' an elegant, scholarly, but above all compellingly readable book is no less horrible than the 'shock horror' stories of the yellow press of the day.'  

* despite the fact that he received recognition for his work from the world of academia, never lost sight of who he was and from where he came, his passion for social justice and the precepts of his Grandfather : compassion, charity, religious tolerance and his love for his East End.

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