"It is not a sin”, said that legendary Franciscan Fr Neville Palmer
SSF, towards the end of the 1950s, “to vote for Solly Kaye.”
The death of the equally legendary former Communist councillor for Stepney,
Solly Kaye, at the age of 91 on May Day — he always planned things well —
brings almost to an end a remarkable generation of Jewish Communists who played
a key part in fighting injustice in the East End of London.
Solly was an atheist, though he retained and manifested much of the power
and passion of the ancient Jewish prophets. I once wrote that “he was a
charismatic orator whose election meetings resembled old-fashioned revival
meetings, though without reference to God.”
Why should Solly Kaye be commemorated in a church newspaper? Because he
stood for justice for humanity, and fought for the rights of all people. But,
in the East London context, his relationship with the churches was fascinating.
Fr John Groser, who worked in the East End from 1922 to 1962, said that
“Solly Kaye is the one remaining prophet of the Lord amid all the prophets of
Baal on Stepney Council” — a comment that amused and moved Solly enormously,
but did not please the (very right wing) Labour establishment. Both Solly and
John were involved in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
One of Solly’s great enemies, for a while, was Fr Joe Williamson of St
Paul’s, Dock Street. Williamson was an ardent royalist, and fiercely
anti-Communist. Although Solly was equally committed to combating slum
landlords, and was a key figure on the Anti-Vice Committee, Williamson had no
time for him — until 1963. In that year, a slum tenement in Whitechapel, Eileen
Mansions, was put up for sale.
Solly disguised himself as a City tycoon and appeared at the London Auction
Mart as a potential buyer. When Eileen Mansions was announced, he jumped on to
a table and proclaimed: “If any of you buys this property, you will get more
trouble than you bargained for, not only from me but from the tenants I
represent.” He was thrown out, but nobody bought Eileen Mansions. The
following day, Fr Williamson told church people in Stepney they should always
vote for Solly Kaye.
Some of the graffiti about him probably still survive. When the Granby
Estate in Bethnal Green was being built in the mid-1970s, the cleansing
department was ordered to wash off all the graffiti before building began. This
they did, until they came to one that said “Vote for Solly Kaye.” They refused
to remove that one. In the 1960s, the artist Geoffrey Fletcher published his
book Pearly Kingdom, a book of drawings of East End scenes. The last drawing is
of a public lavatory in Limehouse. On the wall is written, “Vote for Solly
Kaye”. No other local figure ever had his graffiti preserved for so long.