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Two Oxford Jewish Court Cases of the 1840s

by Harold Pollins
 

Originally published in Oxford Menorah Magazine, issue 213, December 2014, pages 18-19

You can access old copies of certain newspapers on the Internet. If you’ve found something of interest you can read the item in full, for a fee. One of these newspapers is the Oxford Journal and I found two entries about Jews in Oxford in the 1840s, in the early years of the modern congregation. Both of them were court cases, one criminal, the other civil. The civil case concerned two members of the congregation; the other one was about two Jews who happened to be in Oxford.

The first, criminal case, was heard at the Quarter Sessions in April 1845 (Oxford Journal, 12 April). Thomas Phillips, alias Lawrance Phillips, pleaded not guilty to stealing a box of jewellery, sovereigns, watches and other items, belonging to Joseph Harris. The newspaper report noted that ‘Both prisoner and prosecutor are Jews’. They had apparently met in Winchester and they travelled together to Oxford, the prisoner carrying sponges. Clearly the two were hawkers, Jews often travelled as sponge-sellers and it was common for jewellery hawkers to carry a box containing their goods. They spent the night in the Blucher public house, in the same room, and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.

John Harris returned to the public house, asked for the key to his room, found that Phillips had taken it and had left. When he eventually got into the room the sponges were there but not the jewellery box. Some witnesses testified that the prisoner offered to sell them items of jewellery from the box. He had been in prison before this and had a conviction for felony.

Although the newspaper report does not include any evidence of behalf of the prisoner he was found guilty. The sentence was harsh: 15 years transportation.

The second case was heard by the magistrates in the City Court (Oxford Journal, 28 July 1849). The newspaper report was headed: ‘A ROW IN THE SYNAGOGUE’. It went on: ‘Abraham Davis, a Jew, made a complaint against Louis Solomon, of the same persuasion, for assaulting him by knocking him about with the candlesticks in the synagogue, in Paradise-square, on Sunday last.’ It appears that there had been an argument in the synagogue about expenses, leading to ‘angry words’, followed by blows. The candlesticks and stools, belonging to the synagogue were damaged. The magistrates  advised the parties to become reconciled but Davis at first was reluctant and, the newspaper commented, ’seemed resolved to let the public into the mysteries of the synagogue, and the disorderly brethren who were there on Sunday last’. Eventually they agreed and left the court.

I’m unclear what they were doing in the synagogue on a Sunday, but more is known about the two men.  Both were jewellers and Davis was already settled in Oxford, as a single man, at the time of the 1841 census. He married Maria Harris in 1844, one of three daughters of Abraham Harris of Walworth, south London, who all married Oxford men. The other two were Leah who married Israel Abraham Zacharias, parents of Joel (of ‘Zacks for Macks’), and Sarah who married (as his second wife) Israel Morris Levi. Louis (or Lewis) Solomon arrived in Oxford in the 1840s, his first wife Matilda died in childbirth in 1851 and he married Dinah Kauffman. Both he and Abraham Davis were long-time residents, Davis died in Oxford and Solomon stayed in Oxford until 1893, having been president of the congregation for many years.

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1. The 1845 mention of the synagogue in Oxford appears to be the first reference to it in print. I assume it was in Paradise Square. David Lewis, in his The Jews of Oxford, considered the evidence about its origin and, on the material which he had consulted, stated (p.17), ‘In 1845 there was no synagogue’.

2. The Blucher public house, in Castle Street, was the residence, at the 1851 census, of ten lodgers, eight of them Jews, six of whom were dealers in jewellery, one was a general dealer, and a non-specific travelling hawker. I would guess they were all mainly hawkers.]


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