Fermin was introverted as a child. His mother Milly, would forcefully take him by the collar and ‘eject’ him from their flat to go and play in the fresh air with other local children. As traffic was almost non-existent in the early 1900s, parents were not worried about letting their children play in the streets. Fermin reflects on the standard make-believe games he would play with his playmates such as ‘hide and seek’, ‘cowboys and Indians as well as sports such as cricket and football. As a child he would stand out not only for his family and their radical beliefs but for his dress. Millie Rocker was a keen dressmaker and made many unusual garments for her son.
“A favourite of hers was a short-sleeved, embroidered tunic, something of a cross between the modern Russian and ancient Greek type of garment… I doubt there was another boy in our entire borough wearing anything quite as outlandish.” (Rocker. 1998: 55)
Fortunately for Fermin the teasing was minimal and did not stop him from joining in with the other children and their mischief. A less innocent game that Fermin recalls is ‘Knocking Ginger’ their version of the modern ‘Knock-a-door-dash’. Although the artist argues that he was never a ring leader, he doesn’t disguise the fact that he joined in and revelled in their mischievous ways. The majority of the flats around Stepney Green were inhabited by much of the Jewish community. However, the district was rather mixed with a large ’Gentile’ community as Fermin describes ‘one side of a street might be Jewish while the other was Christian’. (Rocker.1998.56)
As I have explored in previous blogs, with reference to Paul Knepper’s article ‘The Other Invisible Hand: Jews and Anarchists in London before the First World War’ there was a distinct division in London’s East End before the outbreak of the First World War. Although the Rocker family did not specifically identify as Jewish, the majority of the anarchist community and those around them did identify with Judaism. Fermin would find himself amongst much xenophobia, especially between young people playing on the streets.
“The fights that sometimes broke out were always between youths, who would form into gangs of Jews and Christians and fight each other in the streets…The Jewish youngsters of Whitechapel and Stepney were a rather rough and scrappy breed who gave as good as they got in those skirmishes.” (Rocker, 1998: 56)
Fermin also describes that class hostility was present within certain parts of the East End. Certain areas were to be avoided especially if you were smartly dressed or showed any sign of being upper class. Fortunately for Fermin, himself and his family were plainly dressed and their own neighbourhood although very impoverished was safer than others.
“Being so close to Whitechapel Ghetto, it had a sizeable Jewish population, which may have accounted for a low incidence of drunkenness and rowdyism”(Rocker.1998:57)
As Andy Croll highlights in Chris Williams’ A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain most working-class areas would see drinking as recreation alongside ‘rowdyness’. Luckily Fermin does not recall the poverty in the surrounding areas of his home, however does refer to his father’s many visitors expressing their shock at the ‘squalor and misery’ they saw in London’s East End.
Fermin and his family identified as atheists. Being neither a Jew or a gentile, Fermin found himself in an awkward position in school especially in terms of friendships. His only friendship with a Christian, was a cockney boy in his class called Georgie Plummer, this however was short lived due to their vastly different beliefs.
“Our friendship had not progressed far before I began trying to interest him in anarchism. Emboldened by his response, I then tried to win him over to atheism as well and I suspect it was there that I made my mistake” (Rocker.1998:112)
Although the antagonism between Jews and Gentiles did not directly involve Fermin, he was forced to remain in the company of Jewish children due to the block of flats he lived in being predominantly Jewish. This would be a concept which a young Fermin could not understand as he enjoyed both Christian and Jewish holidays. It was his Father’s beliefs and politics that would cause much trauma for Fermin as I will discuss in my next post.
If you would like to read more about working class struggles with religious values, Natalia William’s has written an insightful blog about Jamaican born Pauline Wiltshire. Many of the Windrush generation saw religion as a form of control, a concept very reflective of Fermin and his family’s anarchist beliefs.
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Croll,A ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’ in Chris Williams (ed) A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), pp. 396-411.
Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London
Knepper, P., 2008. The other invisible hand: Jews and anarchists in London before the First World War. Jewish History, 22(3), pp.295–315.
Image 1- An illustration from Fermin’s memoir : Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London. 54.
Image 2- A picture of a Jewish ‘Friendly Alien’ slogan . Retrieved via
https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/england-s-been-all-it-can-to-jews-we-will-be-all-we-can-to-england-armistice100-1.472174 [Accessed. 18/05/2020]
Image 3- An illustration from Fermin’s memoir: Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London. 118