Born SUTTON, SURREY, OCTOBER 30, 1949
Died SUTTON, SURREY, OCTOBER 8, 2014
Philip Walker, who has died aged 64, held a remarkable store of knowledge about UK Jewish history, and especially that of London’s East End, that he communicated with enthusiasm and gusto while never losing the excitement of finding out more.
He died on October 8th, just weeks before what would have been his 65th birthday, after a short illness that was initially thought to be a minor chest infection.
Television documentary makers, magazine and newspaper journalists, book researchers – all benefited from his energy and expertise, generously given to all who asked. He also contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
His big interest was the Jewish East End; his mother had been born there and his father’s business – which he later took over - had had East End roots a generation earlier. This is what led him to record all his findings and discoveries on his own, highly regarded website, www.jewisheastend.com, now preserved by the British Museum. His many guided walking tours of the East End were also renowned and deservedly popular.
He was one of the earliest members of the Jewish East End Celebration Society, which seeks to increase awareness of the history and culture of the Jewish East End, and ran the organisation’s website as well as handling the production of its magazine, The Cable, edited by his brother, David.
Beyond all this Philip found time to be a leading member of the South London Liberal Synagogue where for over 40 years he had been involved in the management of the congregation and its financial affairs, chairing its various committees and teaching in the religion school. He had served with great distinction as treasurer, as chairman three times, and was elected president in 2013. He represented the congregation in the wider community and on the council of Liberal Judaism and on the Board of Deputies. He also regularly attended the remaining few synagogues of the East End and was a member of Sandys Row Synagogue.
He lived all his life on the South London/Surrey border, first at Banstead and then at Belmont. A pupil at the Glyn Grammar School, Epsom, he then studied at Brunel University. But a year into his course, his father died suddenly and he left university to help his mother Leah run the family business, a sack and bag merchants. They were originally based at Rotherhithe, and then later at Mitcham, Surrey on the banks of the River Wandle.
The Rotherhithe premises were sold whilst at Mitcham, as the sack business gradually declined, the site was rented to a range of other businesses, eventually being sold for housing development. He kept a tiny remnant of the sack business going while also helping his wife Gillian with her catering business. Married in 1974, they were much in demand for simchas across London.
He was also a keen motorcyclist, fan of fast cars, enjoyed opera and theatre and travelled extensively.
Philip’s energy, enthusiasm and generosity helped to build a happy inclusive community at the South London Liberal Synagogue. He was surprised to be told how highly he was valued, when a less modest man might have gathered that being elected President was a sign of the regard that was felt for him.
One of his last acts as president was to write about his illness for the synagogue’s November newsletter, though his death occurred before its publication. He wrote: “Well, sometimes things just happen that are outside our control but, if I have learnt anything through all this, it is to value the role that family plays in our life. Without the love and support of my wife and children, I would be nowhere and have nothing. Gill, Ben, Bess and Sophie, thank you and God bless you. To my wider Synagogue Family who has sent endless loving messages of support, thank you and God bless you also.”
He is survived by his wife, Gillian, son Benjamin, daughters Sophie and Bess, and grandson Noah.