Miriam Moses on screen for TV show This Is Your Life. Photo Credit: Big Red Book
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Trailblazer of Tower Hamlets: Miriam Moses, the UK’s first female Jewish mayor, and her lasting legacy

Miriam Moses gave her life to the people of Stepney, pioneering what was then Tower Hamlet’s future, and now its innovative past. 

Miriam Moses, born at 4 Princelet Street in Spitalfields, was the first female Jewish Mayor in the United Kingdom, serving in Stepney from 1931-1932.  Furthermore, she was the first female mayor in Stepney.

Throughout her life, she accomplished phenomenal achievements. She was a champion of the community and provided a key support network for Jews, women, and victims of both World Wars. 

Moses was born in the East End on 13 November 1884 to Jewish parents Mark and Hannah Moses. Miriam’s father, Mark, was born in Torun (now in Poland, then in Germany) and came to the UK in 1863 aged eight. In London, Mark Moses became a tailor, local councillor, justice of the peace and member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. 

Miriam Moses Birthplace and House. Photo Credit Jim Linwood

Her mother was a charity worker and died in 1900.  

Miriam Moses was one of nine children and studied at Old Castle Street School in Whitechapel.

Throughout her life, Moses dedicated herself to improving the lives of those around her. She has been described in archive newspapers as ‘unsparing in her efforts to help others’. 

Following in her parent’s footsteps of helping those in need, Moses first got involved in community work at 18. She would offer Penny Dinners to those in need.  A Penny Dinner was a meal service provided to the poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Charitable organisations, churches, and philanthropic individuals often organised Penny dinners. 

She then worked as a nurse at Mile End Hospital during the First World War before turning her hand to politics where she focused on housing and health, addressing the poor conditions many residents faced.

In 1922, Moses became the first female justice for peace in Whitechapel. A Justice for Peace is a member of the public who hears less serious criminal cases such as theft, minor assault or antisocial behaviour.

In 1925 she co-founded the Brady Girls’ Club with Elsie Cohen. This was an organisation that offered assistance to the children and families of the local Jewish community. It was a parallel to the already-founded older Brady Boys’ Club, which was one of the first Jewish boys’ clubs in the country. The Brady Club provided educational and leisure opportunities for Jewish young people.

During the early 20th century, the Jewish community in the East End of London faced significant economic and social challenges and discrimination.

Institutions like the Brady Club played a critical role in providing much-needed resources and support to help alleviate these conditions. The building was behind Whitechapel tube station in what was then Bucks Row, before being re-named Durward Street. 

The building of the Brady Club was also used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War. 

The club left the East End of London and moved to the suburbs of London in 1976. The old club building continues to serve the local community and is now the Brady Arts & Community Centre.

Moses was active in politics throughout her life. She stood for election as a local councillor with both the Progressive Party and as an independent candidate in the 1920s. 

Miriam Moses in Tower Hamlets East London
Miriam Moses. Photo credit: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

In 1931 Moses became the first female Mayor of Stepney and was the first female Jewish mayor in the whole of the UK. Opponents questioned her integrity and she faced discrimination, with some describing her as ‘Shylock’ following her election. Shylock is a character from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where he is depicted both as a villain, driven by greed, and as a victim, subjected to anti-Semitic discrimination.

Moses supported the municipal provision of contraception for poor mothers. In 1933 she also proposed a Jewish charitable solution for funding a housing programme. She opposed giving exceptions to Sunday trading laws for Jewish traders. She supported Henrietta Adler in condemning the anti-immigrant housing policies of the Municipal Reform Party in 1932.

During WWII, Moses was chief air raid officer for Stepney, establishing a hostel for young women made homeless by bombing. She was awarded an OBE in 1945 for this work. 

She was a founding member of the League of Jewish Women. She later served as president, and as a member of the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage. She fought for women’s voting rights for the executive of the United Synagogue, succeeding in 1954.  

Her life was celebrated in the TV show ‘This is Your Life’ in 1958. 

According to the archival documentary material used in the film The Life and Times of Miriam Moses OBE JP, many people still alive today have personal stories of Moses’ life. This film was made in 1997 and is a mix of still images and narration. It contains comments from many who knew her.

Moses died on the 24th of June 1965, aged 80. There were huge amounts of commemoration towards her in the press. A blue plaque celebrates her life at her birthplace, 17 Princelet Street in Whitechapel. Moses’ initiatives in social work laid the groundwork for modern social services in Tower Hamlets. The East End has witnessed many social pioneers including Dr Barnardo . However, Moses’ story is all the more impressive considering she faced considerable barriers to entry being both Jewish and a woman.

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