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Workers Circle Friendly Society Records (1909) - 1984
Arbeiter Ring Verein, 1908
Freie Arbeiter Ring, 1909
Immediate source of acquisition:
Accession Number: 1985/28, 58
Administrative / biographical background:
The Workers Circle had its origins in two small groups of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who wanted an organisation that would promote self education, literary work and support for those of the community sick or unemployed. They did not find existing Jewish friendly societies suitable, because of their religious and class bias. The initial group, the Arbeiter Ring Verein, with a membership of twelve was formed in June 1908 in what is now Tower Hamlets; a second was formed independently by five members and called the Freie Arbeiter Ring, holding its first meeting in July 1909. The two groups came into contact a year later and merged in July 1911.
Subsequently the Workers Circle formed a number of branches, some based round groups in East London, others in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, with others in West London. In addition there were activities for members' children and women's groups were formed. Conventions from 1912 held on a two year basis brought the groups together. Trade union membership was important to the Circle and many members were also trade unionists.
Membership declined during the First World War and in 1919 the first branch was formed for English-speaking members who were active in East London labour activities. English influence spread and after World War II the majority of all publications and minutes were being produced in English rather than Yiddish as formerly.
From 1912 the Circle had used rooms at 136 Brick Lane for its activities. In 1924 Circle House, Alie Street, E1 was purchased as the headquarters. The 1920s and 1930s saw an increase in the size of the library, the formation of a Zionist branch and a Yiddish Schule (operated from 1920-1923). In 1928 activity began to found a convalescent home and in 1933 Wilbury House, Littlehampton opened to members. It was owned and operated by the Circle until 1970. The Workers Circle were active in the fight against fascism in the UK and abroad and had their own Propaganda Committee. The Second World War saw another decline in membership, destruction of the Alie Street hall and considerable damage to the rest of the premises. The formation of the NHS also reduced the incentive for membership.
After the war Circle House was sold and the organisation moved to 13 Sylvester Path, Hackney, in 1956. Membership continued to decline, with branch mergers, though post-war activity included an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and support for the the state of Israel. The organisation closed down shortly after its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1985.