JCR-UK

Leicester Jewry
in Victorian Britain

 
 

 

   
 


Extract from papers on
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain

Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman for a conference at University College, London, convened on 6 July 1975 by the Jewish Historical Society of England
(Reproduced here with Prof. Newman's kind consent)

Paper first published on JCR-UK: 20 September 2016
Latest revision: 7 October 2016

LEICESTER

Published Data

1874[a]

Synagogue, Crafton Street. Has seat accommodation for 90 persons: 60 gentlemen, 30 ladies.

1901[b]

Synagogue, Highfield Street (built 1898) seatholders, 80. The income and expenditure is 350.

Charity organisation (founded 1886) To relieve poor immigrants and emigrants. Income 50 annually. 250 persons were relieved during 1897, 3s to 5s being given to each person.

Hebrew and Religion School (founded 1881) There are 36 scholars (16 boys, 16 girls, and 4 infants).

Bikur Cholim Society (founded 1896) To relieve its members during sickness, want of employment, and to give a helping hand when needed. The election of officers takes place annually. The invested funds are 50, and the income is 18 annually.

The Leicester Hebrew Congregation is also in connection with the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Orphan Aid Asylum.

Hebrew Literary Social and Debating Society, Crown Buildings, Halford Street, (founded 1897)

[a - The Jewish Directory for 1874, by Asher I. Myers;     b - Jewish Year Book]

 

Board of Deputies returns

  births marriages burials seatholders

1875

 

1

2

31

1880

 

1

4

21

1890

 

0

2

23

(1894)

4

1

-

64

1900

6

3

2

43


Leicester

Aubrey Newman

It is not until 1849 that there is any reliable indication of the presence in the borough of even a handful of Jews. The clearest evidence comes from the various County Directories, and it is in the 1849 edition that the first names can be found, usually identified as 'Tailor' or 'Clothier'. Among the early names was one Joseph Levy who, in 1855, married Cordelia Hart; in 1859 Levy was joined by Israel Hart, a cousin of Cordelia, and brother of Henry Hart of Canterbury and Dover. The combination made the partnership of Hart and Levy, later to be a formidable factor in the growth of the mass-produced clothing trade. It was this connection too which seems to have laid the foundations of the eventual Leicester Hebrew Congregation. It is no accident that the fifteenth Report of the Leicester Domestic Mission Society, for 1860, should have noted that 'amongst the new denominations that have appeared may be named the Spiritualists and Jews.' There was as yet no organised congregation, although there was a steady increase in the number of Jews. Trade Directories continue to give some of the extra names, while others are mentioned in the records of the nearby congregations of Coventry and Nottingham as having contributed to the building of their synagogues, as having been married in their congregations, or having been buried in their cemeteries. The formal founding of an orthodox congregation came in the spring of 1874. No trace of any such congregation is to be found in various national communal records for the year 1873, but during 1874 and 1875 there were several references. The Jewish Chronicle for 6 November 1874 records:

Mr, Israel Hart, the President of the Leicester Congregation - brother of Alderman Hart, of Canterbury, who was twice in turn elected Mayor of that City - has been elected Town Councillor of Leicester by a large majority in a ward containing nearly 4,000 electors.

And on 4 June 1875 it reported a visit to Leicester by Dr. Hermann Adler on behalf of his father, the Chief Rabbi.

The Leicester Congregation and school have only recently been instituted. Dr. H. Adler visited the Synagogue where he was met by the leading members of the congregation and he afterwards examined the school children. On the occasion of his visit he dedicated the new residence of his host, Mr. Israel Hart of Knighton, President of the Congregation.

One thing more was needed to give full form to the Leicester Hebrew Congregation: only when it had been formally recognised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews could the congregation have its own wedding register This recognition was [not] asked for until the autumn of 1875, but the delay was obviously due to the fact that not till then was there anyone in the congregation wishing to be married, This Marriage Register gives valuable information about these early years, Between 1875 and 1905 there were thirty marriages, and in twenty-one cases the bride's father's occupation is given: there were ten tailors, three general dealers, two shoe-makers, two merchants, a confectioner, a 'manufacturer', a corn-chandler, and a clothier. Fifteen grooms were resident in Leicester, and of these eleven were tailors, and the others included an outfitter, a furniture-dealer, a carpenter, and a draper. In other words, out of thirty-six individuals resident in Leicester whose trades are known, twenty-two were tailors.

The places of origin of these Jews are largely unknown, although the 1891 census mentions the presence in the borough of twelve Russians and fourteen Poles who might well have been Jews. Most of the immigrants into Britain in these years went to towns and cities where there were already large centres of Jewish population, such as London. Leeds, or Manchester, but some went out into the provinces, actively encouraged to do so by a Dispersal Committee set up in London by the Jewish communities there in order to promote movements into provincial areas. In 1903 the Chairman of the Dispersal Committee, Sir Samuel Montagu, reported to the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration on the working of the scheme:

We send nobody without the consent of the congregations in these small places; therefore, instead of being received with disfavour, they are already sure of their welcome. At Leicester there is a large firm of tailors which had their clothing made in London, and they desired very much to have it made in Leicester, in order that they could supervise the work. We have sent about ten families already.

There was certainly an abrupt increase in the size of the community The annual reports of the Board of Deputies record faithfully the seatholders as notified to London. Between 1874 and 1893 the number varied between 31 and 21; in 1893 there were 30 seatholders reported, but in 1894 there were 64, in 1895 there were 66, and although over the next twenty years the numbers dropped there were never fewer than 43, the average was 54, and on occasion the total reached 60.

The key figure in the congregation was Israel Hart, a rather unusual figure even in a national context, and certainly a most surprising one to find in Leicester. He was not born in Leicester, but he certainly came to dominate it, and eventually was to be Mayor of Leicester for a total of four terms. When he retired finally from that office the Town Council placed on records

The unique and interesting fact that never before in the history of Great Britain has a member of the ancient and noble race of Judah held for four years, by the free election of his fellow-citizens, the Mayoralty of a Christian Municipality, and rejoices that Leicester has been among the first thus to put into practice the spirit of universal brotherhood.

A recent history of Leicester records too that he was the richest Mayor of Leicester during the Victorian years, and his will was eventually proved at over 200,000. His money came from the activities of Hart and Levy, and obituaries both of his partner and himself emphasised the way in which they had brought a new industry - mass-produced clothing - to the borough and had provided work for thousands. His greatest contributions to the borough - the elaborate square outside the Town Hall - and the first free branch library - still remain a memorial to his activities.

The first synagogue of the congregation was a converted warehouse, and contained seating for eighty men and women. The growth of the congregation, however, made it necessary for a new building to be erected, although its members were unable to meet the total cost. A notice appeared in the Jewish Chronicle:

The Place of Worship at present rented by the members of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation, being for many years past wholly inadequate for the requirements of the community, the members have resolved to build a synagogue and school rooms of their own, The scheme has the hearty approval and support of the Chief Rabbi, the Reverend Dr, H. Adler. The committee estimate the cost of ground and buildings at 2,500, towards which they have in hand 150 from the Levein Bequest. The members, the majority of whom are of the working class, have generously subscribed to the fund The committee, finding they cannot carry out this important undertaking unaided, earnestly appeal to friends for their hearty support. Donations (which will be duly acknowledged in the Jewish Press) will be thankfully received by the President, Treasurer, Hon. Sec, or any member of the committee.

This was not at all uncommon; the columns of the Jewish Chronicle included many such appeals at this time from all parts of the county. Not all the money was immediately forthcoming, although Israel Hart, now knighted, donated 250 and made himself responsible for collecting over 800 more. Indeed, it was not until 1940 that the initial mortgage was eventually repaid. The foundation stone was laid in 1897 and Dr. Adler consecrated the building on 5 September 1898, By this time Sir Israel had retired from active control of the affairs of the congregation. Each year the minutes of the annual general meeting faithfully recorded his protestations that he was not really suitable as President of the Congregation but that he would undertake the office if asked, and each year his re-election was agreed to, usually unanimously. He had served the congregation well; he had made it possible for the congregation to come into existence, he had made himself responsible for its expansion into new buildings, and he had given the small Jewish community in the borough a dignity and place in civic life which was unequalled. The later purchase of a cemetery crowned the community's religious existence'and made possible the arrival in Leicester of other Jews who would not otherwise have dreamt of moving there.

Leicester must have been typical of many of the small provincial communities. As they grew in size and complexity they could not rely on laymen as spiritual leaders and needed to look to qualified ministers for a wide range of functions The growing 'anglicisation' of such communities and the dwindling number of laymen with the knowledge or even desire to act as substitutes for the minister in the myriad duties that arose in even the smallest community - teacher, shochet, mohel, or cantor - meant that the burden on the minister could become correspondingly greater, and he had to be available for virtually twenty-four hours a day for almost every conceivable need of the congregation. There was a further quality which the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Hermann Adler, urged on Leicester at one particular vacancy: 'I fully concur with your Executive in deeming it highly desirable that you should engage an English Minister and Teacher.' In a community which had a high proportion of immigrants, the minister had the task of helping the absorbtion and cultural assimilation of his congregants. All this was on a wage which many would have considered derisory and which, since he was also the collector, he had to gather for himself.

The Leicester Hebrew Congregation was not, in these years, a large congregation. But it illustrates several significant features of Victorian provincial Jewry. Its lay leaders were men of very high distinction in the life of urban community in which they lived, seeking to maintain a link between these two aspects of their careers. At the same time the very existence of these small communities illustrated the way in which Anglo-Jewry maintained a provincial dimension and prevented the concentration of its numbers into a small group of quasi, ghettoes.

Aubrey Newman


Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain - List of Contents


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