“Miserable, cold and wet,” is how Naomi Soetendorp laughingly remembers the Oxford and St. George’s annual summer camps, recalling nights in leaky canvas tents and days on perilous cliffside walks.
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For Naomi, now a 41-year-old social worker, these excursions to the Sussex Downs were a strange departure from comfortable suburbia. Yet for her mother and grandparents, these encounters with the O. St. G., as the club was known, were life-changing.
It’s no exaggeration that the club, founded in 1914 by a Sephardi philanthropist, had a transformative effect on thousands of East End Jews, the children of immigrants who learned how to be English through the club’s activities.
On March 3, the club celebrated its centenary with a London party attended by more than 700 people. Some traveled from as far as Canada to be there, and many were in their late 80s or older, including Naomi’s 93-year-old grandmother Hannah.
“You couldn’t hear yourself talk over the sound of people connecting,” says Naomi. “Some hadn’t seen each other for 60 or 70 years.”
The event was hosted by John Sopel, a BBC correspondent and alumni of the clubs; another graduate of the youth program, actor Henry Goodman, gave an impromptu performance from “Fiddler on the Roof.” There was also a camp-song sing-along, with misty-eyed pensioners remembering all the words.
Over cholent, salt beef and fish and chips, they shared the memories of an establishment presided over by a duo of upper-class Jews determined to remake an impoverished rabble of immigrant children in their own image.
Basil Henriques, a cousin of Moses Montefiore, first became interested in philanthropy while studying at Oxford, where he was captivated by tales of Christian groups determined to alleviate poverty in the East End.
In 1913 he began working at Toynbee Hall, an institution providing legal advice and English lessons to the underprivileged. He decided to create a Jewish movement on the same lines; he even moved to the area.
“For him to give up everything and live in an absolute slum was incredible,” says Clive Bettington, founder of the Jewish East End Celebration Society. “The squalor in the East End was appalling.”
This was, after all, Jack the Ripper’s stomping ground: streets of insanitary tenements crammed with Jews who had escaped the pogroms of Poland and Russia. It was also where Theodor Herzl addressed the Jews of Britain in the late 19th century, but Henriques was unimpressed by the idea of a Jewish homeland.
“Some people still vilify him because he was anti-Zionist, which was very common in those days,” says Bettington.
The New Testament and Shakespeare
The club’s name reflected this aim, drawn from Basil’s alma mater and the parish of London – St George’s – where the club was based. It first opened as a boys club a few months before World War I, and the following year, Basil’s future wife Rose – whom he had met at Oxford – opened a girls club.
Basil, an imposing six foot four, read from the New Testament and Shakespeare when leading services at the Reform synagogue he established in the club’s headquarters.
“As a juvenile magistrate he was well known for telling youngsters sternly, ‘I know you will not do this again,’” says his great niece Jane Henriques, a 69-year-old artist.
Rose, on the other hand, was short and plump, a devoted painter and piano player who composed her own campfire songs to classical opera tunes. The two married in 1917.
Rumors were rife. They were childless, which according to Bettington, was down to an agreement to remain celibate throughout their marriage. Instead, the community became their family.
There were few local resources for immigrant Jews who wanted to better themselves, save Whitechapel Library.
So Oxford and St. George’s aimed to provide a service for local Jews of all ages. By 1930 the club had moved to a former school in Berners Street nearby, replete with its own clinics, gym and social facilities for the old and young. Jazz musician Ronnie Scott learned to pay at the club, which also produced many boxing champions.
Cecil Leighton, who joined in 1942, aged 12, recalls making his way to the club through alleys filled with “dens of ill repute,” as he describes them.
“We lived in Stepney, one of the poorest and most criminal parts of London,” says Leighton, who met his future wife Marie at the club. “It was 80 percent Jewish there once; now it’s probably 1 or 2 percent.”
Although his parents were poor immigrants from Poland, Leighton became an insurance accountant, and he and his wife now live in the leafy suburb of Chigwell – though they still belong to the synagogue Henriques established.
Summer camp away from the slums
And then there were the summer camps, held on the Highdown estate of Basil’s friend Sir Frederick Stern.
Naomi’s mother, Ruth Soetendorp, first attended aged 6 weeks old, sleeping in an orange box in her parents’ tent.
“My parents were fairly early members of O. St. G. and met each other there. It functioned as a home from home for young people growing up in the slums, and somewhere where they learnt English habits like cricket.”
Thus her mother Hannah, although a child of Polish immigrants, learned about ballet and opera from Rose.
Her father Jack went on to study mechanical engineering, graduating with first-class honors. Ruth, now a law professor at Bournemouth University, still has a painting by Rose hanging in her hallway – half-naked teenage girls bathing at Highdown camp.
“It hit me years later, driving from the East End to the Downs and seeing the urban East End giving way to the countryside, that this was the only time these children left the city. It had an absolutely profound effect on them,” she says.
The East End was bombed during World War II, driving many Jewish families further afield – especially as their socioeconomic situation improved. New communities sprang up in the north London suburbs and Essex.
Stepney, Bethnal Green and Whitechapel became home to new waves of immigrants, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, and have in turn been gentrified. The main synagogue on Brick Lane – itself once a Huguenot church – is now a mosque, and there are only a handful of functioning shuls left – including the oldest surviving synagogue in Britain, Bevis Marks.
What was originally intended as social housing for the Jewish poor are now luxury flats, including the Berners Street building that the club sold in 1973 – although the street has since been renamed Henriques street.
As for the Oxford and St. George’s club, the centenary celebrations marked the end of an era. The club ceased to function long ago.
Highdown is now a public park, but Naomi and her mother still go there every year. There is a bench there with a plaque in Jack’s memory, where the family goes to say Kaddish on the anniversary of his death. And it’s the site where he asked for his ashes to be scattered, because, according to his daughter, “that’s the place he was happiest.”