Updated: Nov 28, 2020
by Steve Smith
I've long had a fascination with the East End of London and its industrial heritage from when dad took us there as kids to visit a tailor, drive around the then derelict docks, grab the obligatory salt beef sandwich. He'd tell me about how his dad had taken him there when the docks were working and full of ships. Later on, when I started taking pictures, it was one of the first places I sought. I'd often wondered if, and wanted, my heritage to be connected to the Jewish history of the area. I'd take the Docklands Light Railway from Tower Gateway and, pulling out of the station, I'd always think about the three tower blocks visible just to the south as they seemed to me to symbolise the start of the East End.
So I've often walked around here since moving to the area, taking in its history. After coming across Jeff's website and realising that I do, after all, have that connection, I've tried wherever possible to find where my forebears lived and the location of the box-making factories.
One of the areas I've walked down to a few times is the site of the earliest record we have of where the family lived after coming here from Poland: Prince's Square. The square is now a small park called Swedenborg Gardens, taking its name from Swedenborg Square, as Prince's Square was renamed in 1938. To the east, there is a '60s council estate called St Georges, named after the original name of area, St George in the east and the parish of St. George. Nothing remains of the original square itself, victim of the demolitions or 'slum' clearances of the '60s, apart from one small fragment of cobbles that lead down to what is today The Highway. Looking at old maps, the cobbles would have been in Britten's Court, a small courtyard or alley way.
Although virtually nothing exists, it's fortunate that the square, along with its neighbour, Wellclose Square, were of sufficient historical and architectural interest to have been fairly well documented. Photos exist of pretty much the whole square and the houses where they lived.
There are two addresses listed for the family there. Number 32 in 1908, listed when David Zmidek died, and number 12 on the 1911 census. I've tried to locate both these addresses but the numbers have changed over time, I guess when the square was renamed. So there are two possible locations for each address.
It's possible that number 32 was the house right on the corner of Britten's Court, seen in the Photo 1, but this is according to a post-war map. According to earlier maps, it's more likely that number 32 is the house in the far corner of Photo 8.
According to the same map then, that means number12 is one of the houses in Photo 4, possibly the one with the children outside or one of those nearer to the camera.
Jews that arrived from Poland at that time around 1903, were likely to have disembarked at Irongate wharf, St Katherine's docks. The Jews Temporary Shelter - and Jewish East End of London Photo Gallery & Commentary - based in Leman and then Mansell Street - had links to the shipping companies and housed people locally. At that time, St. George in the east was one of the poorest parts of the East End. We know the family was poor and came here with only what they could carry and it seems quite likely they would have been housed this way.
Whichever house it was they lived in, they would have known Britten's Court and most likely would have walked along those very cobbles. As far as I can tell, they are the original cobbles that were left after the demolition of the square because it seems unlikely they would have been put there after. It's quite something to be there and let your imagination go a bit and to think that you're on the very site where they lived. And given it would have provided the most direct way from St. Katherine's dock to the square, who knows, maybe they walked up there on their very first day in London.
So for all those years of being fascinated by the East End as a result of going there with dad, and wondering if I had that connection, my fascination was, unknown to me, a result of that connection all along. The tower blocks that signified the start of the East End to me are the ones that make up the St George's estate built on the very site of where the family lived when they first came to the country .
The links to the maps take you to historical maps and can be overlayed with current satellite and map imagery.
The numbers referenced on the photos of the square correspond to the annotated map at the bottom of the page.
The cobbles, all that's left of Britten's Court. (1)
Map of the area early 1900s. Prince's Square is top right, Irongate wharf bottom left, close to St. Katherine's docks where the Tower Hotel is today.
The site of Irongate wharf today
Original warehouses in Pennington street, looking up Breezer's Hill with Swedenborg Gardens just visible. Pretty much the only buildings left in the area that would of been there when the family lived in the square.
Insurance map from 1890s showing number 12 on the west side of the square, and number 32 in the south-east corner.
The Swedish chapel 1908, the year David died, taken from the south-west corner of the square. Number 12 is just out of the frame to the left, so a similar view to the one from their house, where they were listed in the 1911 census. (2)
The site of the church today, looking south-east back to Britten's Court. Number 12 would have been just behind me. (3)
West side of the square showing dereliction and bomb damage,1945. Number 12 would possibly have been the house with the children outside or the one next to it. My photo above was taken from roughly where the small brick building on the right was.(4)
Looking back towards where number 12 would have been, roughly in the centre at the end of the wall, which I think marks the boundary of the church yard.(5)
The south side of the square looking south west. Britten's Court is just visible as a gap in the houses just to the left of the car. Number 32 would be behind and just to the left of the photographer.(6)
Roughly the same view today. (7)
looking south-east, towards and diagonally opposite to where the above photo was taken. Number 32 can be seen in the far corner of the square.(8)
The South side of the square in 1921 looking east. Britten's Court is just visible to the right of where the girl is standing.(9)