‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen’: racism in 1880s’ Whitechapel

Style: "Neutral"

Anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise in the 1880s fueled by racists (anti-alienists) like Arnold White, a populist politician in the Farage mold. White attempted to undermine a parliamentary committee investigating ‘sweating’ (the use of cheap labour in poor conditions in the East End) by paying witnesses to lie under oath. He also gave public speeches that blamed the  problems of society on those migrating to London from Eastern Europe.

In reality London was experiencing a large influx of foreign Jews in the late 1800s because of the persecution they were suffering at the hands of the Russian Tsar and his policies towards non-Christians. Many fled pogroms and forced enlistment in the Imperial army to seek a better, safer, life in England and, hopefully in the USA if they could get there.

Many settled in Whitechapel and Spitalfields because it was close to the docks, where they landed, and because there was an established Jewish community here. That meant there were people that spoke their language, practiced the same faith, and observed the same customs. ‘Ghettos’ exist because people naturally gravitate towards those that understand and support them.

Arnold White wasn’t the only anti-alienist in London. One of the East End’s Police Court magistrates seems to have held very similar and equally distasteful views.  When a poor Polish man applied at Worship Street for help he was summarily dismissed by the justice. The man spoke no English so a friend was there to help him. He said his employer had refused him his wages and wanted the court to intervene.

‘Why doesn’t the man speak for himself?’ Mr Saunders demanded.

‘He can’t, he is a native of Poland’, his friend replied.

‘Well, let him go to Poland’.

‘He has no business in this country’ declared the magistrate. ‘He is taking the bread out of the mouths of Englishmen. You may have a summons, but I hope you won’t succeed’.

It was a typical response for someone ignorant of the ways of working in the Jewish community but Saunders should have known better. Jewish businesses did not employ gentiles (non-Jews) and – generally speaking – vice versa. Jews needed to keep the Sabbath sacred and so did no work after sundown on a Friday and throughout Saturdays. English businesses could not operate like that and so tended not to employ the immigrants. So immigrants worked in established Jewish firms (like this man’s tailors) and were taking no Englishman’s job at all.

In the autumn of 1888 the prevalent anti-immigrant feeling encapsulated by Saunder’s comments and exacerbated by men like White help fuel anti-semitism and violence towards the Jewish community. This was exacerbated by the Whitechapel murders that year and then, and since, it has been common to blame a Jew for the killings. Currently that suspect is Aaron Kosminsky even though there remains little evidence to tie him to the killings. Some people want it to be an outsider like Kosminsky, because the alternative, that ‘Jack’ was an local and an Englishman, means we have to examine our own society rather than blaming it on others.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 13, 1888]

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