On Brick Lane

8 June 2012

To many people, Brick Lane is the beating heart of Spitalfields and so as a sincere lover of that area of London, I was held enthralled by Rachel Lichtenstein’s book On Brick Lane, which is about the road and its ever changing face over the decades.

Like Rachel Lichtenstein, I come from an East End family (in my case white Cockneys) that eventually moved out to the more salubrious Essex countryside and like her I am really keen to trace and understand my family history within Spitalfields, having been brought up with family stories about Jack the Ripper, the Krays, the Cable Street riot and the Blitz.

In Lichtenstein’s case, her family heritage is Jewish and I was fascinated to learn more about Jewish Brick Lane and the way that it gradually evolved to become contemporary Banglatown, the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community.

Lichtenstein’s prose is thoughtful and sympathetic as she describes several meetings with the different groups in the area from the eager young Bangladeshi men who attend one of the area’s youth groups, to the artists who now work in what used to be the Truman Brewery, to an irreverent pair of tour guides who hate Ripper Tours to a group for Bangladeshi women, providing them with childcare, language lessons and essential support.

I find it fascinating that the Brick Lane Synagogue, the Machzike Adass that my own ancestors would have known very well in passing is now a mosque, the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid with a beautifully elegant minaret that glows becomingly in the dusk and from where the call to prayer I heard a few weeks ago from my hotel on Brick Lane was called. In the past, this building was a Huguenot church, La Neuve Eglise built by the French immigrants to the area and I wonder what it will be in another hundred years as the local population worry that they are being effectively shouldered out of the rapidly gentrifying Spitalfields area. I hope they stay personally.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter devoted to the workings of the Truman Brewery in its heyday as my great grandfather was transport manager and heavily involved in the trade union for Charrington’s on Mile End Road (I was always told that he worked for Truman’s but it seems this was wrong!) back in the day and I was fascinated to learn more about the workings of an East End brewery. I wonder if the Charrington’s workers got a daily two pints of beer as well as a free bar like the Truman’s guys? I certainly hope so.

On Brick Lane is a fascinating look at an area that is in an almost constant state of flux and essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of London’s East End. Personally, I now feel more inspired than ever to find out more about my family’s history in the area.