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The school made a promising start under its first headmaster, the young and very competent Henry Naphtali Solomon. Other masters came and went with rather less distinction, until the appointment in 1842 of Moses Angel. Angel (1819-98) has been described as 'the single most significant figure in Anglo-Jewish religious and secular education in the 19th century'.
He was a stern disciplinarian who 'moved around the School constantly. Despite his enormous administrative burden, he still found time to teach several classes each week.' And he taught not only reading, writing and grammar, but geography, history, arithmetic, algebra, and chemistry as well.
Angel kept a meticulous record of daily events in the school log books - those dating from 1863 till his death in 1898 survive.
Angel's long career with JFS saw the school grow and evolve through some momentous changes. The introduction in the 1870s of a national system of Board Schools funded by local taxes - the forerunners of today's county schools - looked at first as though it might threaten the existence of voluntary schools like JFS, which relied heavily on donations. But the voluntary schools survived, and JFS went from strength to strength.
Indeed, the school was needed more than ever when, in the 1880s and 1890s, the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe placed huge pressures on housing and welfare provision in the East End. Not all the immigrant children could be accommodated at JFS, expand though it might. But it is estimated that JFS took in a third of the children of the East End in the closing decades of the century. By 1900 it had over 4,000 pupils on roll.
Moses Angel continued to stamp his vision on the school for much of this period. By the early 1890s, more than a third of his pupils had been born abroad and, of those born here, the majority were the children of recently arrived immigrants. Many were still struggling with the new language and all the dislocations that their new lives would bring.
Although determined to keep the Jewish faith alive among his pupils, Angel was adamant that they should adopt English culture and customs. In particular, he strongly discouraged the use of Yiddish, which he condemned as unintelligible.
His efforts were successful. According to a Board of Trade Report in 1894,
A far more powerful instrument [than adult evening classes] for 'anglicizing' the foreign Jewish community is the great Jews' Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields which, in the spring of 1893 was attended by 3,582 Jewish children...They enter the school Russians and Poles and emerge from it almost indistinguishable from English children.
The attempts to eradicate Yiddish was clearly successful. Within two generations, there were few even in the East End who spoke it comfortably. Yiddish theatre continued to serve as a sentimental reminder of a lost culture, but gradually became a minority taste.
Creators: Petra Laidlaw
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