Centenary Stories from the Archives
Posted by Claire Jackson Ben Uri archivist / Posted 28th August 2014
Ben Uri spent just two years with a gallery in London’s East End, at the Jewish Temporary Shelter, 63 Mansell Street. What was the Shelter and why was Ben Uri based there?
The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed in the previous blog post in this series that the 1931 flyer for the Engel Lund recital showed a new address for Ben Uri, one which they shared between 1930-1932 with ‘The Jews Temporary Shelter’.
The Shelter, originally known as the ‘Poor Jews Temporary Shelter’, was founded in 1885 to provide a refuge for the homeless, jobless and destitute arrivals in England. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had been the catalyst for wide spread pogroms which together with enforced conscription of boys aged 12-25 into the Russian army caused a large number of Jews to flee from Eastern Europe.
As there were very few direct shipping routes from the Baltic ports across the Atlantic, many initially went to Hamburg. There, if they could obtain a visa, (which usually involved bribery), refugees could sail to London in appalling steerage class conditions for 16 shillings a head, they were also often sold bogus onward tickets to America.
The Shelter originally gave aid only to emigrants in the form of a bed for 14 days and 2 meals a day (3 meals from 1897). Inmates were required to pay what they could afford for their keep and after 1905 Aliens Act there was a test to ensure they were fit for work. As well as staff to run the Shelter, representatives would meet ships coming into the docks in order to offer immediate assistance, as newly arrived refugees were vulnerable to waterfront thieves and fraudsters. Those in transit were helped to buy steamship tickets mainly to South Africa and to get their currency changed.
According to the records held at London Metropolitan Archives in 1910, the Shelter helped 11,000 migrants. Aid was not only given to Jews, during the first World War refugees fleeing Belgium were also helped. It was estimated that from 1885 to 1937 the Shelter had been responsible for meeting 1,180,000 migrants at the docks and that 126,000 had stayed at the Shelter.
The Shelter was based at 82 Leman Street and later moved to Mansell Street in Whitechapel. During the Second World War, the building was used to house those who had lost their homes in the blitz but was later requisitioned by the American army. In the 1970s, the Shelter moved to Willesden in North London.
Location of the Jews Temporary Shelter in 1906 and 1930.
The superintendent of the Shelter between 1912 and 1940 was Adolph Michaelson. He married a year before obtaining this post and lived with his wife Sarah and five children in an apartment in the shelter building. Outtakes from a film available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website shows shelter residents in the dining room in 1938. Michaelson (as in this portrait identifiable by his moustache), his wife and daughter also appear in the film.
Portraits of Adolph and Sarah Michaelson by D Mandel. Ben Uri Collection.
Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London
In addition to his busy role at the Shelter, Michaelson was the Chairman of the Ben Uri from c. 1926-1944. Committee meetings were held at the Shelter in Leman Street from 1922 and when the Shelter rebuilt its premises in Mansell Street in 1930 room was made for a Ben Uri gallery too.
Now, when so many groans are heard from groups, institutions and individuals, it is truly a joy to hear that the Art and Literary Society Ben Uri is beginning vibrant work in the most oppressed part of London, in the hotbed of Jewish poverty, the East End. The new home could become the refuge for the Yiddish word and for an exchange of thoughts and convivial pastimes, as well as a support point for art and artists
To coincide with the new premises Ben Uri published a catalogue of the collection which included descriptions of 77 works with 13 reproductions. It was written in Yiddish and translated into English both versions being available.
Catalogue – Yiddish 1930. Ben Uri Archives.
Catalogue – English 1930. Ben Uri Archives.
The German newspaper Die Zeit noted:
To come into the Ben Uri gallery is truly to see a temple of art. A wonderful collection of paintings by famous Jewish artists adorns the walls. [There are] sculptures and engravings. The whole environment is artistic and the members will have a friendly home for two evenings a week.
There was even a report in the London Times: ‘Though it only represents a beginning the opening of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Gallery at 63 Mansell Street, E1 is a first step towards filling an obvious need’.
Art classes, which had stopped in 1916, were restarted, this time targeting the young and a building fund was launched. When the Jewish Communal Centre at Woburn House in Bloomsbury was opened in 1932, Ben Uri moved there, together with the Jewish Museum.
It was never to have another gallery in the East End, when a writer to the Jewish Chronicle complained that they were betraying their roots by moving to Woburn House, the reply was that Ben Uri was not an East End body, its original home in 1915, being in Notting Hill, the studio of their founding Director, Lazar Berson.