The Jews Free School was established in 1732 as the Talmud Torah of the Great Synagogue of London, and served orphans of the community.
In 1822, the School moved to Bell Lane, in Spitalfields, and, throughout the 19th century, it absorbed thousands of immigrant children, at one time accommodating 4,000 children, making it the largest school in the world.
For many years, the headmaster of the school was Moses Angel (1819 – 1898), a man who has been described as “the single most significant figure in Anglo-Jewish religious and secular education in the 19th century.”
On Wednesday 22nd April 1896, The Sketch published the following appreciation of the life and work of Moses Angel.
There is a certain amount of “poetic licence” in the piece – for example, he didn’t, as the article states, begin as a pupil at the school, and he had attended to University College London, so the claim that he was not university educated isn’t true – but those aside, it is an intriguing piece in that it captures the spirit of the man and the esteem in which he was held by the community at large.
A DISTINGUISHED SCHOOLMASTER
MR. MOSES ANGEL, HEADMASTER OF THE JEWS’ FREE SCHOOL
“The child is the father of the man,” said some sage person, who probably knew all about the matter, and, granting the truth of the statement, the paramount importance of the schoolmaster becomes at once apparent.
He prepares the mind to receive the impressions left by laws and persons, eradicates hereditary faults while their immature development renders eradication possible, and inculcates ideas and principles that go far to mould the subsequent life of the pupil.
Such powers are common to all good schoolmasters, but in the case of Mr. Moses Angel, who has devoted more than fifty years of his life to the service of the largest school in the world, they reach a magnitude that can scarcely be estimated.
BELL LANE, SPITALFIELDS
At the time of writing, the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, affords instruction to more than three thousand five hundred children, through the medium of more than seventy masters and mistresses.
It has grown with the demands made upon its resources, and, while conducted on absolutely practical lines, gives the necessary time and attention to religious and Hebrew instruction.
HE STARTED AS A PUPIL
Mr. Angel entered as a pupil, remained as a master, and celebrated the jubilee of his headmastership five years ago, when his portrait, from which our likeness is taken, was presented to him by the staff.
Now in his eightieth year, after achieving far more than one man’s work, he remains at his post, with faculties and enthusiasm untouched by age.
The duties of headmaster in so vast an institution are no sinecure; from early morning till late in the afternoon he is in his place, bringing to bear on every matter a shrewd yet tolerant judgment.
Not alone in questions of management, but as an instructor, he keeps his place, and holds his own among many who might be his grandchildren.
THE TEACHERS WERE PUPILS
The secret of his success, apart from the possession of rare natural talent for organisation and supervision, lies in the fact that almost every, if not every, master in the establishment has been a pupil there, and as such has been brought directly under the headmaster’s influence.
As pupil, he has received instruction on the plans formulated by Mr. Angel; as master, he has been able to bring experience to bear on these plans, to approve or suggest modifications of them.
Thus progress has been secured to the greatest possible extent, and Mr. Angel, constantly brought into contact with the latest phase of thought, has remained in all respects up-to-date.
HE OFFERED TO RESIGN
It is significant of the esteem in which his life’s work is held by the Board of Directors that he offered to resign some few years ago, and, speaking for the entire committee, Lord Rothschild, the president, said that, so long as Mr Angel would remain in his place, that place would remain in his possession.
Then, having obtained a promise that the age limit should not prevent Mr. L. B. Abrahams, the distinguished vice-master, from ultimately succeeding him, Mr. Angel decided to remain at his post.
His jubilee brought congratulations from pupils all over the world, and there can be no doubt that, had he resigned, thousands of emigrants would have felt that the one solitary link connecting them with the land of their education had been broken.
NOT SUBJECT TO THE RULES
One curious result of the long tenure of his position is that Mr. Angel is not entirely subject to the rules governing other headmasters of schools receiving a Government grant.
Nowadays, a headmaster must be the possessor of a University degree. However, Mr. Angel, though a fine scholar, did not take one. When first the question of degrees arose, I believe, he offered to take one, and was told by the powers that were that it would not be necessary.
Then came the enactment by virtue of which it was sought to give the veteran some trouble; but he saw the responsible member of the Government, Lord Granville, if I mistake not, and made his lordship see that, after his offer, which had been refused, it would be bringing ex post facto legislation to work, if they made him suffer in any way.
A SUPPORTER OF THE JEWISH FAITH
He is a firm supporter of the Jewish faith, and was, I am told, unwilling in the first instance that the school should come under the rule of her Majesty’s inspectors, feeling that the fee grant would lead to the undoing of the religious side of the school’s work.
His fears are now overcome, for, although the pupils are judged by the severe standard of the Board School, the Free School has the best average in attendance and results, while the hour and a half of Hebrew and religion with which each day begins has no effect upon the good work done in other directions.
VERY HIGH STANDARDS
The standard of intelligence among the pupils is very high.
Perhaps the influence of Moses Angel and his work is felt in the colonies and provinces as much as in London.
Certain it is that during the present century no man has moulded more lives into ways before unknown.
CHILDREN LEAVE WELL EQUIPPED
Within his sphere of influence, the children of the Jewish refugee and outcast have come in their thousands, with no knowledge of civilised life, timid and unhappy.
They have left as well equipped as children may be who have to give up education directly they can earn a few weekly shillings to contribute to the wants of their destitute families.
HIS RANGE OF INFLUENCE
From these countless children the best and brightest have become teachers and preachers, and today all the provincial Jewish schools, and many of the colonial ones, arc headmastered by Mr. Angel’s pupils.
Thus his personality has been impressed on the first and second generations, and it will probably be handed down from one generation of teachers to another.
THE PROBLEM OF IMMIGRATION
The huge alien immigration has sprung up during the consulship of the veteran headmaster, it has augmented the school attendance until today the limits are reached, the capacity exhausted, and for one vacancy there are six applications.
With this problem Mr. Angel has grappled, and his success in this matter alone would be enough for another man’s entire reputation. Yet, with him, it is but one triumph among many.”