Professor Bill Fishman, East End historian – obituary

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History professor who studied the rich tapestry of life in London’s East End

Bill Fishman in Fournier Street

Bill Fishman in Fournier Street Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Professor Bill Fishman, who has died aged 93, was the son of an East End tailor who became a professor of social history and one of the greatest experts on the area where he was born.

In his youth Fishman took part in “the Battle of Cable Street”, the clash between Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and Jews and others in 1936. He recalled how, as the Blackshirts advanced protected by a phalanx of mounted policemen, “We all charged towards Cable Street. At the bottom end, an overturned lorry was used as a barricade and we blocked the road – Hasidic Jews with little beards and great strapping Irish dockers all standing together. People began to throw down their mattresses to block the street and a mass onslaught on the police ensued with two officers even being taken hostage. It all came to an end about 5pm when Mosley did an about-turn. I headed to Dubowzky’s pub on Cannon Street Road, where everyone was embracing.”

His experience of the possibilities of collective action undoubtedly informed his view of the 19th-century predecessors of the Cable Street defenders, in which he moved away from the common representation of the East End poor as a passive, downtrodden underclass. In works such as East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (1975) and East End 1888 (1988) he showed them as agents of change — people who, through cooperative and collective action, were capable of winning significant victories.

In the first book, for example, he showed how, in 1889, during a prolonged strike by Jewish tailors in pursuit of shorter hours, a crucial donation by the Irish dockers to the tailors’ dwindling strike fund helped them to continue and to prevail; 23 years later, in 1912, tailors’ families took in 300 children of striking dockers whose employers were attempting to starve them back to work.

In East End 1888, meanwhile, Fishman explored a year rendered infamous by the murders of Jack the Ripper but full of hope by the strike encouraged by the social reformer Annie Bessant on behalf of children employed in the making of sulphur-headed matches.

Fishman gave credit to those members of the establishment who sought to reach across the yawning social divide — William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, Dr Barnardo, Canon Barnett and Frederick Charrington, son of a local brewer and tireless persecutor of brothel-keepers. Indeed, he argued that the history of the East End showed that crime, disease and extremist politics develop where the wealthier classes fail to intervene.

Therefore, although he was a lifelong Labour supporter, Fishman never forgave Tony Blair for his advice to the public not to give money to beggars. Recalling that his grandfather, a rabbi, never passed a beggar without giving a donation, he said: “I asked him once what if the man was a scrounger or a drug addict? My grandfather said: ‘Let that always be on his conscience, never yours.’ ”

William Jack Fishman was born on April 1 1921 to a Jewish Russian-born father and a mother whose ancestors had come from Ukraine.

Fishman was educated at Central Foundation Grammar School for Boys, which he left aged 14 to work as a clerk. He also joined the Labour League of Youth.

He was 15 when he became involved in the Battle of Cable Street and was later dismissive of Sir Oswald Mosley’s claims that he had never been anti-Jewish. “They came into Stepney with the express purpose of attacking Jews,” he recalled. “I never heard Mosley refer directly to Jews, he was too clever for that. He always spoke of ‘aliens’. But everyone knew what he was talking about. The idea he was not anti-Semitic is absurd.”

After training as a teacher and active service in the Army in the Far East during the Second World War, Fishman taught English and History at Morpeth School, Bethnal Green. During his time as principal of Tower Hamlets Further Education College from 1954, he embarked on a degree at the London School of Economics. This was followed by a student fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford. His first book, The Insurrectionists (1970), examined the influence of the revolutionary theories of the French Jacobins of the late 18th century on the Russian Bolsheviks of the early 20th century.

In 1972 Fishman became the Barnet Shine senior research fellow in labour studies at Queen Mary College, University of London. He was later visiting professor to its Centre for the Study of Migration, where he taught an oversubscribed course in East End studies and led guided walks round the area. He also taught as a visiting professor at universities in the United States.

In 1979 he wrote the text for The Streets of East London, to accompany a collection of black and white photographs by Nicholas Breach. His other publications include East End and Docklands (1990, with John Hall and Nicholas Breach) and Into The Abyss: The Life and Work of GR Sims (2008), about George Sims, a Victorian journalist (most famous as the author of Christmas Day in the Workhouse) whose writings and lectures, Fishman believed, did as much as the work of Charles and William Booth to lay the foundations of the social welfare movement of the late 19th century.

In 1947 he married Doris Levy, who survives him with two sons.

Professor Bill Fishman, born April 1 1921, died December 22 2014


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