Latest revision or update: 28 August 2016
An Archival Adventure in Scotland
Published in Oxford Menorah, issue No. 142 Winter 1996 (updated November 2003)
In a side street, off Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, up a short, steep hill, is Garnethill Synagogue. It was built in the 1870s to house a thousand people and although its congregation has diminished, as Jews have moved away from the centre of the city, it is still in use. More than that, it is being refurbished with grants from various heritage and other bodies. There is something else about the building: it houses Scottish Jewish Archives and great efforts have been and are being made to collect documents and artefacts which record the history of the Jews in Scotland. I had been in touch with Harvey Kaplan, who is the Director of the Archives, about some Anglo-Jewish historical research I was doing (in this connection perhaps Scoto-Jewish would be a better title) and since I knew I would be spending a few days in Scotland, I arranged to meet him.
Actually, I was going to stay in Greenock, some 30 miles to the west of Glasgow on the River Clyde. Just before I went I looked at one of the books on the history of the Jews of Scotland by Kenneth E. Collins and found a short paragraph on the Jewish community of Greenock. It was one of a number of small Jewish communities in Scotland which came into existence during the East European immigration in the late nineteenth century. Apparently it had a minister in the 1890s, there was a reference to a synagogue in Cathcart Street and to a cemetery. The organised community was said to have been dissolved in 1936.
Since I would be in Greenock for a few days I thought I'd try to find out more. I asked the people I was staying with where Cathcart Street was. They looked blank. I spelled it out. "You mean Ca'cart Street." Two nights of German bombing in May 1941, along with post-war redevelopment, had changed much of the centre of the town, and there was no sign of the building in that street which had reputedly housed a synagogue.
The most illustrious figure in Greenock's history was James Watt. It is not surprising to learn that there is a James Watt College in the town or that the local history library and archives are in the Watt Library. The latter was in a road just behind where I was staying. I told the librarian that I wanted to find out more about the Jewish community. "I've only come across a few sentences", I said. "That's about all there is", was the answer. But she recommended I go to Greenock cemetery to see if there were graves there. Kenneth Collins's paragraph seemed to suggest that there was a Jewish cemetery in Cathcart Street but that had been an important commercial area. The public cemetery was a more likely location and she explained where it was.
It was a hot day. After perhaps half a mile or so I came to the gates of the cemetery and saw in front of me a long incline into it. Some panting later I spoke to a man coming down, and I asked for directions to the office. He mentioned in passing that it was the biggest cemetery in Western Europe and it seemed like it. Further up, I turned right for the office, an even steeper incline. There I was told where the small Jewish section was. "It's along the wall", and I started walking along the wall against which headstones were visible. This was also uphill and I continued to walk, ever more steeply.
I was quite puffed by this time and was strangely mollified by the sight of a young mother, pushing an occupied pushchair, coming up behind me. She was more out of breath than I was. Ahead I could see the end of the wall and, short of it, decided I was going wrong. I went downhill and there, slightly in front of the wall, was the Jewish section. Under a large tree were seven headstones, two of them - one of them was cracked - flat on the ground; they had either fallen or been knocked over but appeared to have been laid out properly. I was told that there was a lot of vandalism and I could see other, Christian, headstones on the ground, some left where they had fallen, as well as paint on others.
Still puffing, I wrote down what I could. The first stone was dated 1911, yet its lettering had survived better than most of the others. The last was dated 1945, the surname being Ferguson. I'll come back to that. The penultimate one was virtually illegible but I could make out the name, the third member of a family; a son, father and mother side by side, at different dates. One stone, of 1924, also commemorated a son who had been killed in the First World War.
I went back to the Watt Library and spent time looking at the local directories. The names were there. As expected many were in the clothing trade. I could find no reference in any of the books or documents to the synagogue in Cathcart Street. In a list of some 1500 Greenock men who had not survived the war I found the name of the deceased soldier, Pte. Joseph Freedman, who had been in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. That brought back a memory; the first unit I had served in during the Second World War had been in Perth, run jointly by the Black Watch and the Argylls. In the local newspaper I found a reference to Joseph Freedman's brother, Ben, serving in the Black Watch. Just before the war ended he had been gassed; he had been wounded twice before. The next day I went back to the cemetery to take photos of the graves, another, but this time, easier tramp. The photos are now in the Scottish Jewish Archives1.
I went to Glasgow to meet Harvey Kaplan. We met in Sauchiehall Street and walked up the steep hill to Garnethill synagogue. My physical efforts in Greenock had paid off; I took this hill in my stride. Harvey told me that he was aiming to list every Jew who had set foot on Scottish soil up to the end of 1918. As part of this project he had obtained from Greenock cemetery a list of Jewish burials. They totalled more than twice the number of headstones although I noticed that some of the information he had been given did not agree with the facts of the headstones, dates were sometimes different, for example. But the new names enabled me to look up more names in the local directories.
He also gave me a copy of an article which had appeared in the Jewish Chronicle by a descendant of the Kaminsky family whose members lived in Greenock until at least the 1970s when the Kaminsky hairdressing establishment closed. (Manuel Kaminsky had been a master shoemaker in 1905 when he married Etta Blumberg in Greenock.) I got this, and other family details, from Harvey Kaplan, subsequently.
Harvey also sent me a copy of an article in the local Glasgow Jewish paper, The Jewish Telegraph, about the Greenock community. It was accompanied by a letter in that paper, from a former Greenock resident, born there in 1921, correcting the errors in the article. This letter was clearly based on personal knowledge and experience, even if of many years before. In it he mentioned the holding of religious services, but it was not in Cathcart Street. Yet during the First World War the Jewish Chronicle advertised services for Jewish soldiers in 'the synagogue', Greenock, and gave an address, 27 Cathcart Street. What is not known is when it started to be used as such and for how long it lasted.
The writer of
the article in the Jewish Chronicle was a Smith; the letter in the Jewish
Telegraph was by a Brown (his forebear was also a shoemaker). When I
saw 'Ferguson' on the headstone I thought that, at last, I had alighted on the
apocryphal East European Jewish immigrant who, on arrival in Britain, had said
in Yiddish "Schain Ferguson" ("I've forgotten") to a port
officer. Thus he had become Sean Ferguson. Alas, it wasn't the case.
Harvey Kaplan had come across the name, in the naturalisation archives, of the
Russian-born Reuben Fagerson. Obviously only a tiny change was needed to
make it Ferguson. Another myth had gone the way of so many.
1 In fact three Freedman brothers had died in the war. Two of them had married non-Jews and it was for that reason they were not commemorated on their father's gravestone.
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