Hymie Fagan (1903-1988): Habits, Culture & Beliefs – Writing Lives

Hymie Fagan (1903-1988): Habits, Culture & Beliefs

Where habits, cultures and beliefs were concerned, Hymie Fagan’s childhood was rigidly Jewish. The ‘cockney urchin’ (29) grew up in the district of Stepney where he enjoyed multiple activities despite the hardships of poverty.

The synagogue, central to Jewish culture, became just as much of an educational institute to Fagan than his school. He learnt to speak Yiddish and attended Hebrew lessons weekly, learning to read and write fluently. Religion was very much a part of his childhood, and this was mostly due to his father’s death. Fagan’s mother Kate became reliant on religion, and it was therefore embedded into their daily routine. His mother saw to it that after the year of Kaddish, Fagan kept up his prayers. His mother strictly adhered to the religious customs of Judaism and as a routine would read out loud from the Old Testament every Saturday afternoon to Fagan and his siblings.

Fagan was heavily led by his faith as a child due to his mother. In many respects, he kept to his religion because he felt sympathetic towards her. Alternately, many working-class families attended Sunday, church schools which was seen as a source of respectability. The synagogue was equally the same. It kept Fagan out of trouble on the streets, where he was targeted by the non-Jewish children. The playground at school became a safe haven for Fagan. He remembers playing “diablo, marbles, peg-tops, hop-scotch, five stones and similar games” (5) because outside of the playground, on the streets Jewish children “were at the mercy of non-Jewish children” (5).

Growing up with little money meant leisurely activities were scarce spent. Fagan recalls the summer time walking through Victoria Park or visiting the Tower of London with its exhibition of swords and armour from past wars. Fagan’s love for swimming meant the majority of his summer holidays were consumed by the seaside, he says, “I spent most of my time by the sea” (42) where he would play among the bathing jettys.

The barrel organ was a mechanical, musical instrument used for entertainment
The barrel organ was a mechanical, musical instrument used for entertainment

Fagan describes various forms of entertainment throughout his childhood, which depicts the increase of mass entertainment during the twentieth century. He remembers the barrel-organ as a form of song and dance, where children would play around the organ on the street. For Fagan, he remembers the songs as ‘topical’ (18) calling them ‘news-items’ (18) as they would tell fiction and non-fiction stories.  Music wasn’t the only form of entertainment for Fagan as a child; he also enjoyed the picture palaces or bioscopes as they were known.

The cinema was growing from the nineteenth century onwards in Britain and became the new phenomenon for the working-classes. Fagan regularly attended the cinema where only one film was shown, traditionally a cowboy and Indian film.  Cinemas would cater films specific to the community. In Commercial Street cinema Jewish dramas such as “Leah and the forsaken” where shown where actresses such as Pearl White would play the heroine.

The famous Charlie Chaplin
The famous Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was one of Fagan’s favourite actors at the cinema, where he could watch him for “one ha’penny” (19), similar to working-class author . As a routine he would go and watch Chaplin every Saturday afternoon. He says, “I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”” (42). Whilst the cinema grew in popularity, it provided Fagan with weekly entertainment and amusement. The cinema was a favourite activity of Fagan’s and one he thoroughly enjoyed. He admired actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and in many instances would imitate their acting.

Popular culture also took place at work. Fagan’s childhood memories are filled with leisurely activities, in comparison to his adulthood life. Recreational and leisurely activities are seldom mentioned outside of the workplace.  Through the tailor’s trade union movement, Fagan had become a part of an association. Codes of respectability were grounded in the union, taking members away from debauchery and drink, and introducing them into sports and theatre. The movement looked inwards to improve the social status of their members. Fagan was introduced into the sports of football and boxing which he took up enthusiastically and maintained throughout his adult life. As he moved politically onwards into the British Communist Party he took part in the 1928 international sports event Spartikade.

Spartakiada 1928 Moscow poster
The 1928 Spartakiada event at Moscow

Fagan also describes how theatre played into the factory, “There was at that time a Yiddish theatre in the Whitechapel Road and the factory floor often became a stage” (49). The work-men would imitate Russian-opera singers such as Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin, given that the opera cost “five shillings, a fortune in those days for a work man” (49). Performances of Hamlet were also played by the Presser in the factory. The factory became a source of recreation for Fagan and many workmen in the tailoring industry.  The union shaped experiences of leisure because most of the men could not afford the expense.

Financing leisurely activities hindered most of the working-classes experience of the mass entertainment during the twentieth century. Since Fagan was only earning one pound a week his adult life rarely consisted of cultural activities. For a working-class life, Fagan enjoyed a childhood full of activities which he even admits, “Thinking things over I didn’t have too bad a childhood” (52).


Fagan, Hymie, ‘An Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:261



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