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LONDON 1850 and beyond

Nathan &  Sarah Arrive 



There had been a previous influx of Dutch Jews to East London but these middle class Ashkenazi Dutch families consisted of diamond cutters, agents and merchants who lived generally in the more salubrious area known as Goodmans Fields or out in the London suburbs.

Nathan and his family were part of a main wave of immigrants of a completely different class consisting of tobacco workers, tailors, but mostly unskilled manual labourers.  They along with thousands of other Dutch Jews were moved into tenements in Spitalfields a neighbourhood  which was already characterised by poverty and overcrowding and as the flow of new arrivals increased so did the conditions of severe overcrowding, dirt and lack of sanitation.

However the promise of a new life and a new opportunity must have been foremost on Nathan and Sarah’s minds as they set sail from Amsterdam, sometime around 1855 and arrived at the Port of London, England.

In Amsterdam in the early 1800s poor Jews were crowded into appalling slums, and conditions were so shocking that the Dutch government attempted to encourage Jews to move to new-towns in the countryside. In Amsterdam in 1849 55% of the Ashkenazi population were (according to the Encyclopedia Judaica) officially designated as ‘paupers’ a fact which Ruth Diamond who was both Dutch,  a co - researcher  and most importantly a descendent of Sarah Boekman  agreed.

The Dutch Empire which was once powerful was in terminal decline while the British Empire was still thriving and Amsterdam as a financial centre had given way to London.

The decline of Amsterdam and the promise of a more prosperous lifestyle in London drove many Jews away.

Their first sight of London would have been the Irongate Stairs, a flight of stone steps that rose out of the Thames directly beneath where Tower Bridge is today. The ship that brought them the short journey across the Channel would have laid at anchor and the immigrants taken off by small rowing boats to a wooden jetty. What could they have thought when they saw their first glance of London most probably at night and could only speak Dutch?

Most of these immigrants were immediately allocated rented accommodation by the local parish in the Tenterground, Spitalfields area of East London and Nathan and Sarah found themselves in a poor quality apartment in Shepherd Street.

The Tenterground consisted of six streets - Whites Row, Shepherd, Tenter, Butler, Freeman and Palmer Streets. Five of the six streets formed an urban enclave as only Whites Row could be entered without passing through a stuccoed archway at the north end of Shepherd St.

Jewish immigrants arriving at Irongate S

Jewish immigrants

arriving at Irongate Stairs

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The Tenter Arch and everyone turned out for this photo opportunity

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It is hard to imagine how poor the conditions were at that time in this small area of London. The local vicar of a church in Commercial Rd Spitalfields wrote at the time


the whole parish is covered with a web of courts and alleys. Some houses are three storeys high and were hardly 6’0” apart. The sanitary accommodation was in the cellar and a standpipe stood at the end of the street providing the only water. Each “chamber” was the home of a family who sometimes owned their miserable furniture but in most cases the rooms were let furnished at 8 pence per night. In many cases broken windows had been repaired by paper and rags, the balusters had been used for firewood and the paper hung from the walls and were the residence of countless vermin.“

The Metropolitan Police reported on the abuses to which the immigrants were exposed on their arrival in England, and praised the virtues of Jewish immigrants in a report to Parliament in 1800s but it also noted that many of those guilty of crimes against the Jews were themselves Jewish immigrants.

A note in “ The Builder” in 1872 records that great hardship was caused by the mains water supply to the Tenterground being cut-off at week-ends for reasons unstated.

The Jews formed their own self-contained street communities with workshops, stiebels and all-purpose stores where the men would gather on Sundays to discuss the 'rabbi's' sermon, politics and local scandal.


On Fridays, the eve of Sabbath, the cloistered alleys and thoroughfares came to life as candles blazed from the front parlours of the shabby one-storied cottages or tenements.

The streets would be thronged with Jewish shoppers, housewives, and children running errands. Everything they needed was available from the thriving street markets or the many small grocery shops selling pickled herring, smoked salmon and onion bread, which were often open till midnight.

Nearly all the shopkeepers and stallholders were Jewish. There was even a herd of cows just off the Whitechapel Road that supplied kosher milk.

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Artillery Street -  a typical Spitalfields Street

 We get a rare insight into the conditions when in 1878 a section of the ‘Tenterground’ came up for auction and included 122 houses. The auction particulars survive in the archive of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library. The houses were let by freeholder Mr. Robert Reid to tenants who in turn sublet the rooms to the families. The auction particulars state that the properties were “ unencumbered by leases “early possession may be obtained if required.”.A typical example of the “properties “ taken from the auction particulars and which were similar to Nathanand Sarah’s accommodation 

Nos. 2,3 and 5 Butler St. Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Middlesex

Ground floor . Entrance passage, front parlour with cupboard. A back room with cupboard under stairs.
First floor - A sitting room with cupboards and a bedroom with cupboards

Second floor - One room with cupboardIn rear - Yard and WC

Nathan was one of a considerable number of tobacco workers who settled in Spitalfields at this time. Tobacco growing and cigar production had been introduced into the Netherlands by Abraham Cohen of Amersfoort in the early 18thC and he accumulated immense wealth and founded a dynasty which married into almost every Jewish ‘aristocratic’ family in Europe. Perhaps the Barmes family hoped to emulate that.


The tenement in Shepherd Street where Nathan and Sarah lived was shared with two other families – Seynour Schoffer and Isiah Coster plus their families all from Amsterdam and  cigar dealers. In all 12 people lived in that one small tenement.

In 1870 Nathan moved his family out of Shepherd Street and into Palmer Street next door on the same estate. The new home was slightly better and only had to be shared with one family but never the less there were still 12 people under the roof and Nathan and Sarah had 6 children aged eleven or under. 


Chuts (ˈxʊts/) is the name applied to the Jews who immigrated to London from the Netherlands during the latter part of the 19th century. Many were from Amsterdam bringing with them trades such as cigar, cap and slipper making. Read more here

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Nathan must have done moderately well because in 1873 he crossed the river Thames and took up residence over a shop in the Old Kent Road, Bermondsey. The area was not much better but at least they were not living in a crowded tenement and did not have to share so they were definitely moving up.

They got out in good time as conditions really deteriorated in Spitalfields and within a few years it became the perfect setting for the infamous Jack the Ripper to carry out his gruesome murders. It must have been a very frustrating and worrying time for the people of Whitechapel and the immigrant families in particular.

In fact Nathan was now moving from being a cigar maker to a manufacturer and he formed a partnership as Barmes & Santcross at 38 Old Kent Road, Cigar Manufacturers. He continued to manufacturer cigars at that address until his death 

36-40 Old Kent Road, Bermondsey

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