Thame and Its Jews
by Harold Pollins
Originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 196, September 2010
There used to be, certainly up to the start of WWII, a Children’s Country Holiday Fund whereby this charity would take poor children to the country for summer holidays. There was a Jewish branch and one of its destinations was the town of Thame. But although Thame does not have much of a place in Anglo-Jewish history, one can go back to at least the start of the 19th century to find references to it. They are to the Davis family. Jacob Davis, the son of a rabbi, came from Bavaria and presumably settled in Thame where at least two children, Edward and John, were born, respectively in 1807 and 1810. Edward went to Leeds where he eventually took over the optician’s business of his uncle Gabriel. John, an engineer, optician, and maker of mining equipment, went to Derby.
This was an important family in Anglo-Jewry. Two of his children were Hebrew scholars. Arthur, another engineer, was instrumental in translating the Routledge Machzor, assisted by his two daughters, one of whom was Nina. She married Redcliffe N. Salaman, a well-known scientist, Zionist, and active in many Jewish organisations. He was one of the 15 children of Myer Salaman, who was in the particularly-Jewish ostrich feather business, a successful international one. Among other interests he had served as the Medical Officer of one of the battalions of the Jewish Legion in the First World War.
As it happens I came across Radcliffe Salaman in the flesh twice. In the early 1950s, when I was living in Swansea, he came to address a meeting to appeal for funds for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to which he was devoted. Salaman had written a book on the history and social influence of the potato which I had read when I was doing my History degree. One of my lecturers was an expert in Irish history and had written a book on Irish history in which the potato and, of course, the great Irish potato famine of the 1840s, played a central role. In the book the historian had a minor argument with Salaman’s history and when I spoke to Salaman in Swansea I mentioned this little spat. His eyes lit up, perhaps because this was a life‘s interest for him.
The second occasion was in 1953 when I attended a meeting of the Jewish Historical Society at which Salaman was giving a lecture on the state of Anglo-Jewry. The Chief Rabbi of the day, Israel Brodie, was due to give the vote of thanks. Salaman, being an independent -minded person, made some critical comments on Jewish matters. He was interrupted by the Chief Rabbi who protested at some of Salaman’s remarks. The Chief Rabbi gave his ‘vote of thanks’ in which he commented adversely on Salaman’s talk. A fairly full report of the meeting can be read in the Jewish Chronicle 22 May 1953 and it became a cause célèbre and was followed by much discussion and correspondence in the Jewish Chronicle. Salaman’s wife, Nina, a daughter of Arthur Davis, died young in her forties, and was described in the Jewish Chronicle as ‘Hebraist - Poet - Author‘.
After the Davis family in the early 19th century, the next Jewish connection with Thame was via one of the Harris families of Oxford in the 19th century which was headed by Henry Harris. His shop was at 45 and 46 Queen Street and he was, as the Census described his occupation, an ironmonger, a china and glass dealer, and a fancy bazaar keeper, He and his wife had four children and at the 1881 Census two daughters, Elizabeth and Esther, were at the Old Grammar School in Thame, run by Elizabeth Ann Pearce.
The Old Grammar School (for boys) had been founded in the mid-16th century by the will of Lord Williams who died in 1559, but it had fallen on hard times in the 19th century. In the 1870s the old school building was sold and a new boys’ school was built. The old building became the girls’ school, which was established in 1877, just before the two Harris daughters attended. As might be expected the current educational establishment is called Lord Williams’s School.
Immediately prior to WWII the Jewish Chronicle reported:
‘Negotiations are in progress between a Committee in London and Magdalen College, Oxford, for the taking over for refugee-training purposes of Tythrop House, near Thame, and its estate of some 200 acres. It is proposed to bring over some 100 Jewish boys between the ages of sixteen and nineteen’. A body called the Langham Committee was formed to raise funds for the project. And during the war evacuee Jews held services there, in the Congregational Church in 1941 and in the Town Hall in 1942. Hebrew classes were held as were children’s services.
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