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Son of a gun

He was the youngest, the longest-serving and certainly one of the greatest heads of Victorian Britain. Now the family secret that drove Moses Angel can finally be told . Reva Klein reports

What makes a truly great head? In the case of Moses Angel, the answer is revealed in a newly published history a century after his death. And the answer is as astonishing as his career was remarkable.

There is no doubt that he was one of the truly great headteachers. Appointed head of the Jews' Free School in east London at the age of 22, he led what became Europe's biggest school - it had 4,300 pupils at its peak - for 55 years, inspiring generation after generation and rising to become one of the most respected educationists of the 19th century.

What was not generally known until now was that he was the son of a highwayman, a latter-day Ronnie Biggs, who was deported to a Tasmanian penal colony for his part in a stagecoach robbery.

That traumatic event in the life of young Angel Moses may well have been the seed of his greatness. From it rose a fierce determination to rise above the crimes of his notorious father.

The transformation began with a change of name: Angel Moses became Moses Angel, a brilliant student whose ambition and aptitude combined to put him on the fast track to success and respectability.

The year after Emmanuel "Money" Moses was convicted for his part in a stagecoach robbery of 1839, his son had already put it behind him and landed a job as English master at the Jews' Free School.

Two years later, in 1842, he became headmaster. And 55 years on, in 1897, he was still there. Only Queen Victoria served longer.

The details of Angel's origins are revealed for the first time in a history of the school by retired lawyer and amateur historian Dr Gerry Black.

Dr Black tells how from those unpromising beginnings Angel rose to be lauded as one of Britain's outstanding educationists by the likes of poet and government school inspector Matthew Arnold and education minister A J Mundella. The latter turned to him above all others "for impartial opinion upon any question, free from prejudice, free from all selfishness".

If further distinction were needed, Angel also became the first editor of the Jewish Chronicle. Quite an achievement for a man whose father worked as a labourer and publican - when he wasn't delivering stolen gold dust to the smelters - and whose sister served four months' hard labour after joining her father in that ill-fated final robbery.

In JFS: The History of the Jews' Free School, London, Since 1732, Dr Black tells how Angel was saved from the fate of his sister (what happened to the nine other siblings is not known) by acquiring a patron at a young age who paid for his education. In an interview shortly before his death, Angel mysteriously described him as a "non-Jewish gentleman".

So brightly did the young Angel shine as a schoolboy that he was given special permission to attend classes at London's University College, and matriculated from the adjoining University College School two years early, at 14. If his benefactor had not gone bankrupt, Angel would have gone on to law school. In the event, he landed himself the teaching post at JFS, even though he had not had a single day's teaching experience.

The Jews' Free School had been set up more than a century earlier as a charity school by the great and good of the Jewish establishment, including the Rothschilds and Montefiores, to educate poor orphaned Jewish boys in Jewish studies and the three Rs. Situated in the unsalubrious Bell Lane in London's East End, the school expanded rapidly, though never quickly enough to meet the demands of families clamouring for free elementary education. In the 1830s, an adjoining girls' school was opened, and was soon as full as its neighbour.

By the time Angel handed over the reins at the end of the century the roll had peaked at nearly 4,300 pupils, making it the largest comprehensive school in Europe. Between 1880 and 1900, according to Dr Black, "JFS educated no fewer than one-third of all London's Jewry of school age".

Such was the crush for places on enrolment days, that Windsor magazine reported in 1898: "Crowds of anxious parents with equally excited children fill every available place in the street, besiege every entrance until the regular pupils find it impossible to get in. Formerly some of the weakest were actually trodden under foot ... nowadays the assistance of the police is invoked to keep the crowd in order."

During the concurrent reigns of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and Moses Angel, most Jews in London lived in cramped and unsanitary houses, and disease ran rampant through the mean, dark tenements off Petticoat Lane. London's Jewish population had quadrupled in 80 years to 20,000 and was mostly concentrated in the East End. Many families spoke no English, having recently fled poverty and anti-Semitism in rural central and eastern Europe.

And a rough lot some many of them were. Dr Black quotes Angel's log book entry of November 6, 1872: "At 5 o'clock the mother of Schwab of no. 6 room made a great disturbance because her son was kept. As she would not desist, I directed the porter to remove her from the premises. On his endeavouring to do so she attacked him violently, bit him till the blood flowed copiously and made use of very bad language to him and to me. I ultimately let the boy go and told her not to send him to school here again. She continued her abuse and violent language for some time longer and was joined by her daughter, who was also very violent."

Not surprisingly, discipline was a major concern at the school. Angel documented one incident of a pupil threatening a teacher with a knife, and many instances of bullying, graffiti writing and male pupil-teachers chatting up their female counterparts through open windows.

All were reprimanded severely by a headmaster who suffered no insubordination. Yet Angel was also scrupulously fair. In his log book, he cites the case of a pupil-teacher who flogged a boy "contrary to the discipline of the school and to express orders given to junior teachers". After an enquiry, the young teacher was dismissed.

The pupil-teachers were 13 to 18-year-old apprentices chosen - in a scheme instituted by Angel as part of a national programme - to be trained as teachers in the evening after a full day of teaching. The government's Committee of Council for Education gave the JFS special permission to retain its young pupil-teachers after they had qualified, since there was no Jewish teachers' training college that could provide the school with Jewish teachers. Such was Angel's success in teacher training that of the 120 students nationwide who received their teaching qualifications in 1873, the only two who passed in the first division had both been trained at JFS.

The school had a built-in insularity because all its teachers were trained in-house (though many went on to teach at the nine other Jewish schools in England), yet its head was very much part of the education scene of Victorian London. He had a close working relationship with the schools' inspectorate, the minister for education, other educationists and magistrates. The London School Board, according to Dr Black, regarded JFS students' annual exam results as "phenomenal".

Angel was also a leading campaigner for the emancipation of Jews. That battle was finally won in 1858, but it is likely he would regard his greatest achievement as the transformation of thousands of Yiddish-speaking immigrants into Little Englishers who studied reading and writing, Greek, Roman and English history, geography, chemistry and algebra alongside the Torah. And these were primary schoolchildren.

Today, JFS is a different place. Relocated to Camden Road in north London after the original building was destroyed in the Blitz, it is now a high-achieving, grant-maintained comprehensive of 1,460 pupils, including a sixth form. Its intake is mixed and comes from all over London. The teaching staff is also rather different. More than half are not Jewish, although all teachers receive training on Jewish festivals and culture and undergo a full induction programme.

One tradition that has lasted, however, is longevity of headteachers. Nobody has come anywhere near Angel's 55 years, but current headteacher Ruth Rob-ins first came to the school when she qualified as a teacher 25 years ago.

Angel would still recognise his pupils today. Girls - and all female staff, no matter what their religious persuasion - must wear skirts of at least knee length and have their arms and legs covered, irrespective of temperature. And boys must wear the traditional kippa, or skullcap. As in Angel's day, all students take Hebrew and Jewish studies, which account for 20 per cent of the school curriculum. And all Year 9 pupils have the opportunity to spend a term in Israel following their normal course of studies.

The big question is whether, at the end of the millennium, there is a need for Jewish schools in Britain. One JFS old boy from the 1930s told me: "It was wrong for us to have been separated from everybody else. It made me feel ill at ease for the rest of my life when I was around non-Jews. I felt I didn't know how to behave around them."

But another said: "I learned about Judaism and about who I was. It gave me an identity and I left JFS confident to go out into the world and deal with everybody I met."

That was all Moses Angel himself could have wanted for his pupils.

'JFS: The History of the Jews' Free School, London, Since 1732' by Dr Gerry Black is published by Tymsder Publishing, pound;9.99Tel: 0171 372 9015


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