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Latest revision or update: 26 October 2014
"To Be Buried in Grimsby" by Avrom Saltman
While the Jewish community in neighbouring Hull, on the opposite bank of the river Humber, reaches back to the late eighteenth century, only a handful of Jews were to be found in Grimsby as late as 1870. They were later to be called the "English Jews", who were swamped by the tide of immigration from Eastern Europe in the 1880's and 90's.
The first recorded Jewish settler in Grimsby was Victor Abrahams, born in 1810 near Posen, Prussia. He came to England as a young man and took up his abode in Grimsby at some time in the 1840's. For a number of years his was the only Jewish family in the town and he crossed over to Hull regularly to attend synagogue services on the Festivals. In order to eat meat, he was obliged to engage a shochet at his own expense. Little wonder that he was ambitious to found a Jewish community in Grimsby. This was achieved in the 60's. Abrahams, his relatives and friends made up the dominant "English" element in the community. Victor Abrahams lived to see his son Moses a town-councilor in Grimsby, while remaining active in Jewish communal life. Victor died in 1895 and Moses went on to become the first Jewish mayor of Grimsby in 1901.
The English Jews, most of whom had been only a generation in England, would speak somewhat disparagingly of the "foreign" Jews, with a mixture of pity and contempt. For their part, the foreigners were jealous of their better established brethren, who appeared to them more English than Jewish, and despised them for their ignorance of Yiddishkeit. The Litvacks were the first foreigners to arrive, e.g. the Kalsons and the Saltmans, followed by the "Austrians", really Galicians from Austrian Poland and the "Russians", generally Volhynians or Ukrainians, like my mother's family. All these diverse groups, which did not agree amongst themselves, gave rise to repeated communal schisms, reported at some length in the Jewish press. By 1883 there were some thirty Jewish families in Grimsby. At its height, say from 1900 to 1920, the community consisted of some 500 souls. It still exists (1997), although very much decayed.
According to the 1881 Census, Zelig and Hossel Saltman inhabited a tenement at Allington House, 32 Bath Street, in a slummy area near the docks. Other occupants of the house were rope-spinners, rivetters, a washerwoman, a general housemaid and a labourer. In the census of that year, Zelig (widower, 60) and Hossel (unmarried, 20) were described as glaziers, their place of birth Poland, with the added particular (untrue) that both were naturalized British subjects. The family name is given as Soltman, although as we have seen the prevalent spelling Saltman had been adopted in the 1875 and 1876 records.
Their nearest Jewish neighbours lived at 22 Bath Street, and they had previously been neighbours in Lithuania. The Kailsons, as they were then known, still live in Grimsby under the name Kalson. Some of them lived in Shaki (also in the Government of Suvalk and within walking distance of Krüky). Then they were called Keilsohn and under that name figure among the Prenumeranten. Miss Rose Kalson ( to whom I am indebted for much information both officially as hon. sec. of the Grimsby Hebrew Burial Board and in her private capacity) tells me she was a close friend of Shmulitzig Saltman's daughters and that my mother ("a very pretty girl") gave her piano lessons. In 1881 her grandfather, Calman Kailson, a glazier aged 22, lived with his wife and two small children (born in Grimsby) a cousin and two lodgers, all three of them glaziers, and Nathan Levy, described variously as a Reverend Gentleman or priest, aged 28. He was probably a shochet ( ritual slaughterer).
These glaziers, Saltman, Kailson etc., were really hawkers who travelled in glass over the surrounding countryside, returning home for the Sabbath. Needless to say, it was an extremely hard life. The Jewish glaziers had to face a certain amount of discrimination or anti-semitism, even if trivial in comparison with what they had undergone in the Russian Empire. According to a letter in the "Jewish Chronicle" of October 20, 1875, a glazier with his own premises did not require a license to trade, but Jewish glaziers were being fined for hawking with glass without a license. Wolf Friedman, a Grimsby glazier, was persecuted for two years by a couple of youths who would lie in wait for him and hit him in the face when he had his glass in his hands. In August 1892 he took them to court and they were fined two guineas each after pleading guilty to assault.
While the Kailsons remained loyal to the occupation of glaziery, eventually achieving the largest business of its kind in Lincolnshire, Hossel Saltman turned to the allied trade of picture-framing, in which he set up shop, leaving Zelig to continue as before. Hossel was soon employing two or three workmen, more recent immigrants. He also received a more problematic reinforcement in the person of his brother Shmulitzig. In those times working hours were long, especially if there was any work to be had. An order would be completed shortly before midnight and my grandfather would tell one of the workmen to deliver the goods at the other end of the town. "Gib a spann", he would urge him on ( "Step around the corner"). Subsequently this became a family expression.
My great-grandfather's settlement in Grimsby and my grandfather's successful career - probably greatly magnified at a distance - encouraged other members of the family to take the plunge and come to England. These included two more of Zelig's children, Pearl ( "Perkie") and Samuel Isaac ("Shmulitzig").
It is quite possible that they came over with Selina, but my first knowledge of their presence in Grimsby is derived from the public records. Perkie's marriage certificate is dated March 8, 1885 and Shmulitzig figures in the 1891 Census as a lodger in my grandfather's house. His own marriage certificate is dated September 14, 1891. My first task is to try and determine when they were born. As usual, the evidence is inconclusive and contradictory, suggesting that either or both of them were born either in 1863 or 1868. As they were not twins, they could hardly have been born in 1863 or 1868. According to her marriage certificate, Perkie would have been born in 1863, but when she died in 1931, her age was given as a 63. Contrarywise, when Shmulitzig died in 1949 his age was given in his death certificate as 86 and in the announcement in the "Jewish Chronicle" as 85 giving the date of birth as approximately 1863. In the marriage certificate his age is put down as 23, pointing to 1868 as the year of his birth. In the 1891 Census he is made to be even younger - his age was given as 21, which could bring forward the date of his birth to 1870, which would mean he was 78 or 79 when he died. I think that in both cases the marriage particulars seem to be more reasonable and reliable, so assuming Perkie to be the older of the two, we will deal first with her and her descendants.
On her marriage certificate her forename is given as Rebecca. Elsewhere she is invariably called Pearl, or in Yiddish Perel Rochel. The inauthentic Rebecca must be rejected out of hand. In any case her mother's name was Rebecca, which was also the name of one of her daughters. Ashkenazi Jewish custom strictly forbids a child to be named after a living parent. Furthermore the marriage certificate is self-contradictory. She signed the marriage register in Hebrew characters. The copyist at the General Register Office made a valiant effort to transcribe this signature, unjustifiably described as a "Hebrew mark". Although the result is gibberish, it is possible to make out something approximating to Perell and Saltman, with a squiggle in the middle presumably representing Rochel. Her address was given as Strand Street (in which the Synagogue was then situated, and old haunt of my grandfather's). It is likely she was keeping house for Zelig, still described as a "traveller", although one would have thought by then he was getting too old for the roads. Zelig must have been pleased to attend his daughter's wedding and doubtless the youth of Grimsby received an extra ration of sugar to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps for his sake, it was arranged to take place on Sunday, a very unusual day for a wedding in 19th century Anglo-Jewry, so that he could set out on his travels the next morning. Surprisingly, this was the only Saltman wedding ever to be held in Grimsby. It was solemnized by the Rev. Goldstein and the witnesses where Moses Abrahams (the future mayor) and Harris Altman. The latter appears frequently in the Grimsby records and I must confess at one time caused me a great deal of trouble as I thought it was a misprint for Harris Saltman. This error may be named "the egoistic fallacy", a danger present in all forms of historical research.
The bridegroom, Mendel Hitner, (died 1905) is a shadowy figure and I have been unable to find out anything much about him. At 24, he was two years older than Perkie. He is described as a picture framer and I expect he was working for my grandfather. His father, Jacob Louis Hitner is the only farmer to appear in these records. Where or what he farmed is unknown to me. It is not without significance that this was a "mixed marriage", the Hitners being "Austrians" (Galitzianers). Mendel had a cousin in Grimsby, Joseph Hitner, a prosperous furniture and antique dealer, and a close friend of my Rosenberg grandfather (who was also in the furniture business). Joseph who died in 1914, was learned and excitable, but not a schismatic like my Saltman grandfather. He was particularly active in the Burial Society and Zionism. In the next generation, one of my mother's oldest friends was Naomi Gersten, Joseph's daughter. They went to school together. My mother and Miss Kalson were unaware of any relationship between Mendel and Joseph, and it was Naomi who informed me of this in October 1983, shortly before she died. She also confirmed that Mendel's father was indeed a farmer. Perkie and Mendel went on to have at least ten children, this being Mendel's most successful activity, four of whom died in infancy. His picture framing was probably inadequate to support a growing family, so Perkie opened a small grocery shop in Victor Street. She was known to be extremely froom and was doubtless patronized by the more Orthodox elements, I hope also by the Saltmans and Hitners. I believe my mother was also sent to buy provisions from her, but did not take to her.
Finding business unprofitable and having attained a sufficiency of Jewish learning in Lithuania, as we have seen, he became the Shammos or beadle of the Grimsby synagogue. Named after Sir Moses Montefiore, this building had been opened for worship in December 1888. It is described in the "Jewish Chronicle" as an edifice of Byzantine character, having a bright and attractive appearance, capable of accommodating three hundred worshipers. Out of loyalty to the town of my fathers (and mothers), I feel I ought to expatiate on the unique distinctiveness of the Grimsby Synagogue. Just look at how the great writer Agnon idolized out of all recognition Buczacz, that miserable Galician backwater, as the very fountainhead of Jewish glory, and yet I am convinced that Grimsby far outshone Buczacz in all respects (except that unaccountably, it did not produce an Agnon). In my time I have visited hundreds of synagogues of all shapes and sizes, and in all humility I claim for Grimsby the distinction of possessing the ugliest Synagogue in the British Isles. Its nearest competitor is Chatham, falling short by some considerable distance. I am disgusted that the lake Nicholas Pevsner (whom I knew slightly when I was teaching at Birkbeck College) failed to mention this remarkable edifice in his otherwise exemplary volume on the Buildings of Lincolnshire, but after all what can you expect from a Meshummod ?
This is hardly the place to particularize the activities and duties of a Shammos, which I take it Shmulitzig carried out with commendable efficiency. All I can say is that if the rewards or perquisites of the position were at all commensurate with its burdens, he would probably not have got the job. I would be greatly surprised if his wages, tips and windfalls could ever have exceeded fifteen shillings a week. Still, it could hardly have been a full-time occupation, and he probably never entirely gave up the picture-framing. If I may be permitted a personal note - as a boy I never had the slightest inclination to be a glazier, picture-framer or even a credit-draper, but would have given the world to be a Shammos or at least the captain of the South Shields ferry
Miss Rose Kalson of Grimsby replied to my queries about the Saltmans of Grimsby in a letter dated March 5, 1980. She appeared to be unaware of the existence of my grandfather and his family who had left Grimsby just before the turn of the century, and assumed that I was a descendant of Shmulitzig. "I knew the Saltmans well when I was a young girl. Samuel the father (he was the beadle) and his family -Leslie (Lomley), Manny, Jack, who was killed in the first war and the girls, I think Dinah, Rosie, Lena. I think there was another whose name I can't remember. Lena spent a lot of time at my home - I remember her coming the day she learned Jack had been killed and my mother trying to comfort her. The family moved to Manchester but the father Samuel and Leslie always wanted to come back to Grimsby to be buried".
In the "Jewish Chronicle" of 7 October 1887, the results were announced of the Grimsby synagogue elections held on 25 September. The following were elected. President: Moss Berman; Treasurer and auditor (!):Benjamin Cohen; Secretary: Selig Saltman. Committee members were S. Starfield, J. Susman, L. Malson, H. Grant, J. Cantor and S. Green.
Surely, we have at least a minimal justification for dubbing Zelig "a veteran, community worker". It was not just epigraphic shmooze, or as my father would have said, "soft soap". It will furthermore be agreed that a secretary, unlike the others, must be able to read and write, so this appointment provides badly needed evidence for my great-grandfather’s achievements in the Liberal Arts.
There was, however, an unexpected sequel. A week later the "Jewish Chronicle" published a firm denial on behalf of S. Bennet (usually Bennett), President of the Grimsby congregation. No synagogue elections had been held on 25 September, but they would take place on Sunday next, (16 October 1887).
Was the earlier announcement a hoax? Mr. Bennet did not make such a claim. It is more probable that the elections of 25 September (by the way, no report was never published of the 16 October elections) signalized the formation of one of a series of dissident or schismatic congregations, which appeared in Grimsby between 1880 and 1900, embodying a compound of personal rivalries and solicitude for hard-line Orthodoxy. In the twentieth century the now-defunct Hamilton Street Beth Hamedrash must have served as a safety-valve or lightning-conductor and much more harmony prevailed in the community, moving inexorably towards indifferentism and decay.
The late nineteenth century dissidents would have been described by the community at large as "a running sore on the Grimsby Hebrew body politic”. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that opposition and even schism are at least a sign of vitality, but these views of mine, are doubtless based on inherited characteristics. I am proud to claim that the Saltmans have always been against the government, whatever form it may take.
Copyright © 2000 - Avrom Saltman
Complete text of "To Be Buried in Grimsby"
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