The Great Synagogue and the East London Mosque in Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel

The Synagogue and Mosque Dome in 2009. As the mosque exapanded over the next few years this view disappeared.

This is a story based on my photography about two different religious communities that co-existed for more than 60 years in Whitechapel. Both have seen dramatic changes in the size of their communities and the impact on their places of worship.

In 2004 two unusually good pieces of luck happened to me. Firstly, I qualified as a teacher and, secondly I began my first and only teaching job working at a secondary school in Brady Street, in the heart of Whitechapel.

Swanlea School in Brady Street, Whitechapel (2016) my first and only teaching post for 13 years. 

Although I was vaguely aware of the importance of Whitechapel to the Jewish community in London, prior to that date I had visited it only a handful times. I have an early memory of standing in a tailor’s workshop with my father who was on an errand for his mother (a highly skilled and in much demand seamstress). Thinking of that memory now, the ancient windows high up in an old building makes me think it might have been in a Huguenot villa in Brick Lane. At least, that’s how I want to think of it now. On another visit to Whitechapel with my father I realise now I saw the ‘Waste’ along Whitechapel Road and marvelled at how in London there could be a boulevard wide enough for several lanes of traffic in two directions!

From almost the first day of working in Whitechapel I was fascinated by the area. Stepping out of the station onto Whitechapel Road was like entering another London; a far more exotic one than I had ever encountered. It was fascinating and thrilling at the same time. Looming in front of a sometime visitor like me was the magnificent edifice of the Royal London Hospital.

The exit from Whitechapel Station onto Whitechapel Road (2012); the view is almost entirely filled with the edifice of the Royal London Hosptal. The building is now being transformed into the corporate offices of Tower Hamlets Council.

In Brady Street where I worked I discovered an ancient Jewish cemetery which I later learned was the second oldest Ashkenazi (European) Jewish cemetery in the UK, founded in the 18th century. This discovery became a long term photographic project which lead to a book published in 2017.


The 18th century Jewish cemetery in Brady Street, the subject of my book 'East End Jewish Cemeteries' published by Amberley Books in 2017.

However, it was the daily walks before I started work between Liverpool Street and the heart of Whitechapel which I enjoyed the most, exploring the back streets of the area. I often repeatedly visited the same spot and photographed the same view at different seasons of the year.

My explorations began to take up my weekends and holidays, and my wife also took an interest and came with me. One time, we walked to all five sites of the victims of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888, starting with the place opposite the back gates of the school I worked in, which was built over 100 years afterwards.

The approximate location of the body of the first victim of the 'Jack The Ripper' murders, Mary Ann Nichols (31st August 1888), near the end of the wall on the left hand side of Durward Street, or Bucks Row as it was called then. The wall which was contemporary to the event was demolished during Crossrail construction in 2016. The School Board of London building, now Trinity House, is the only contemporary building left at the site.

I was one of only two Jewish teachers in my school. The other was a brilliant and much liked teacher of drama and he was the person who first said to me, “Louis, go check out the synagogue in Fieldgate Street”.

Until my first visit I was completely unaware of the proximity of the Great Synagogue of Fieldgate Street to the East London Mosque, the oldest and largest place of worship for the Muslim community of London. Of course, by the time I was aware of the two places they were a visual reminder of the changing demography of the East End in the last quarter of the 20th century.

A photograph from the 1960s showing the early temporary buildings of the East London Mosque on Fieldgate Street, next to the synagogue building. With thanks to the Tower Hamlets Facebook group.

By comparison, the East London Mosque in 2016, seen from Whitechapel Road.

One of my first photographs of the two buildings was at a time when it was still possible to juxtapose the ‘Star of David’ the symbol of the Jewish faith above the door to the synagogue, with the of the symbolic dome and crescent of the mosqe. Later, additional construction would obscure this view.

"Sons and daughters of Abraham", 2009 outside the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue with the dome of the East London Mosque visible next to it.

From the humble beginnings in the 1960s of some temporary buildings on a site next to the synagogue in Fieldgate Street, by 2016 the mosque had grown to a size and importance that eclipsed the vanishing Jewish community who by 2015 had as its last activity sold the building and moved on.

A view of the synagogue and mosque in July 2016, shortly after the community closed and sold off the building to the East London Mosque.

Before the closure, back in in 2010 as part of the annual Jewish Heritage Weekend, the handful of remaining synagogues in the East End opened their doors to visitors. My wife and I hurried around to each one managing to visit Fieldgate Street between Sandy’s Row and Nelson Street (both still in existence, today). At one time in the 1930s there were approximately 100 synagagoues in East London so the change by 2010 was dramatic.

The interior photographs taken that afternoon seem almost to come from a time warp. We can see a large influence of 1950s updating of original late Victorian or early 20th century installations but no further improvements. Seating existed for several hundred members and I am sure the synagogue was full to the brim on high holydays 70 years ago but in 2010 it was obvious to a visitor like me that only a handful of dedicated members remained from this once thriving community. Services at the synagogue had been reduced to only one sabbath a month.

(Left) The entrance to the synagogue bearing the traditional sign of the Jewish faith, the Star of David and the year of establishment in both common era and the corresponding Jewish calendar. The official hebrew name of the synagogue 'Sha'ar Ya'akov' - Gate of Jacob - is above the name in English by which it became more commonly known. 

(Right) The ground floor corridor which leads to the sanctuary. Note the ritual washing basin on the left and the extract from the Torah above the door leading into the sanctuary which translated reads: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your habitations, O Israel" (Numbers 24:4)

A view from the Ladies Gallery above the main sanctuary (women sit separetely from men in traditional synagogues). The ark containing the Torah scrolls is open. Above it on tablets are the ten commandments. The people in the photograph are standing by the 'bima', the lecturn on which the scrolls are rested when the weekly portion is read during the Sabbath service.
Looking towards the stained glass windows from the top floor. The Star of David is seen both in the glass and in the shape of the light fixtures. The synagogue was remodelled in the early 1950s as a result of damage sustained during the Second World War. As this photograph shows little had been done to update the interior since that time as I suspect even as early as the 1970s the community was beginning to fade away.
One interesting fact about the building is that in a former shop on the ground floor, the first Grodzinski bakers opened in 1888. This later became the largest Jewish bakery chain in Europe and although its scale has changed the company still exists today.
As already mentioned, in 2015 the remaining members of the synagogue closed the building and the synagogual organisation that owned it put it on the market. A charitable drive to raise the funds to purchase the building by the East London Mosque saw it transferred to their ownership. Today, it is the Zakat (or Sadaqah) Centre operated by the National Zakah Foundation, a registered UK charity which collects charitable contributions from Muslims and uses it to alleviate poverty and hardship across the country.

In October 2018 I contacted the East London Mosque with an enquiry about access to the old synagogue building. I was curious to see how it had been adapted for its new use. My contact was very helpful and a visit was arranged. Although much of the interior by necessity had to be removed, some architectural features remained including the two stained glass windows as well as the original Victorian corinthian columns.

(Left) October 2018: The new interior benefitting from the improved natural light of a replacement glass roof. The ground floor is a meeting and presentation space and the level of the old Ladies Gallery has been enclosed to make offices. (Right) The original late Victorian corinithian columns have been retained as architectural features.

(Left) The offices have retained the stained glass windows. (Right) A window seen from inside the mosque. As the mosque expanded in the 2010s it installed light wells to ensure that the windows in the synagogue would still be illuminated by natural light.

As an amusing aside, as I was photographing my contact mentioned that only the day before another professional photographer had visited the mosque: “his name is Don McCullin. Have you heard of him?!”

(Left) The refurbished entrance to the new Zakat (charity) Centre operated by the National Zakah Foundaton and (right) the Tzedakah box in the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the UK in nearby Alderney Road near Mile End, showing how closely the words are linked between the two religions.

Even in this new use there is still a relationship between the former and current faiths on the site as within Judaism the idea of the charitable contribution of Tzedakah by the community is also of great importance. These similarities in words and deeds are far from coincidental in faiths that share the common ancestor of Abraham.

My contact at the East London Mosque afforded me one final opportunity before I left which was to let me photograph the dome over the prayer hall and the minarets from the roof the building - which is approximately at the same height of that of the old synagogue.

(Left) The dome on the roof of the main prayer hall and (right) the traditional minarets which overlook Whitechapel Road.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that Whitechapel has been the home to many faiths in its long history, as evidenced by the medieval church of St Dunstan’s in Stepney, the 18th Century Huguenot 'La Neuve Eglise' in Brick Lane and the towering edifices of the Hawksmoor churches dotted around the area, and St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in the centre of Whitechapel, so important to the largely Irish immigrants who also came to area in the 19th century. In neighbouring Bethnal Green and Mile End are Buddhist and Hindu temples.

Roman Catholic Church of St Anne, Underwood Road, founded in 1855 and an important place of worship and resources to the large immigrant Irish community of the 19th and 20th centuries in Whitechapel.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Usamah K Ward of the East London Mosque who made my visit to the new centre possible and also Ittay Flescher for his translation and advice of the Hebrew in the photographs and the admin of the Tower Hamlets Facebook group for allowing me to use the photograph from the group.

All photographs copyright 2009-2020 with the exception of the photograph used with kind permission from the Tower Hamlets Facebook group. No unauthorised reproduction allowed.