Bill Fishman, honorary president of JEECS who has died at the age of 93, was an extraordinary figure in the life of the East End: inspiring teacher, ground-breaking academic and highly regarded author.
The following edited extracts are from an article he wrote in 2003 describing his journey from life in a poor immigrant community to a professorship at Queen Mary College, University of London.
The son of a tailor, Fishman was born in a house close to the London Hospital and lived with his parents and maternal grandparents at 35 Hawkins Street, off Jubilee Street.
My grandfather was a tall, heavy-bearded, Moses-like figure. Having obtained semicha in the Ukraine, among our immigrant settled milieu he commanded respect and affection. His religious-based maxim and practice was never to pass a beggar without giving. He taught us our basic moral precepts of rachamonat – compassion – and tsedoka – charity.
Friday night was special. Back from the synagogue service Zeida – grandpa – would bring home with him an unexpected visitor, always a poorly clad man from the heim – old country. He would join us for the Shabbat meal and bed for the night on an old sofa in the kitchen.
Fishman’s paternal grandfather had died when his father was 16. So, as the eldest, Fishman’s father had had to provide for his mother and four siblings When Fishman was 11, the family moved to near the docks, among mainly Catholic docker families. They worshipped at a small synagogue off The Highway.
As we approached the shul I saw the dockers coming up the hill, and as they passed Zeida 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.
In early 1936 the family moved to Clapton, and Fishman joined the Labour League of Youth, a non-violent group dedicated to opposing fascism. His father suffered lengthy periods of unemployment.
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.
I saw Mosley 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.
One could neither forget nor forgive this ersatz Fuhrer and his followers. We had already learned of the anti-Semitic and murderous onslaught of Hitler and his Nazis.
On October 4, 1936, I was at Gardiners Corner, Aldgate, perhaps one of the few survivors who 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.
In 1940, the 19-year old Fishman enlisted as an infantryman, experiencing that sense of comradeship and mutual aid that has strongly influenced him since. Subsequently he was an Army schoolmaster in India before teaching English and History at the Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, and then becoming principal of an evening institute. In the daytime he completed a degree at the LSE. He went on to create the Tower Hamlets College of Further Education in Jubilee Street near his childhood home. His first book, The Insurrectionists, an appraisal of Jacobin-Communism from Robespierre to Lenin, was published in 1969.
I then realised that my real bent was in both teaching and research, not in administration. An advertisement in the national press led me to apply for a Visiting Student Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, for which I was chosen in 1965. It was the third great turning point in my life, towards a dedication to help the young, particularly those emanating from working-class families, keen and able to pursue a university career.
One of his mentors was Richard Cobb, the great French social historian. Cobb directed him back to studying the East End Jewish experience.
I became fascinated by a 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 Freint – the Workers’ Friend. There were old survivors who met at a diminished Workers’ Circle club in Hackney. I found their way of life attractive in spirit and practice. I spent some years writing up their story in the main chapters of my book East End Jewish Radicals, which gained the Jewish Chronicle prize in 1975.
In 1972 Fishman was elected Senior Research Fellow and later Professor at Queen Mary College where he both taught and continued his research into the social history of the East End. His other books include The Streets of East London and East End 1888.