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An Unknown Soldier: Harry Mitchell Davidson,
A World War I Jewish soldier from Oxford and his family

by Harold Pollins

Originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 130, December 1993 [Updated November 2003]

One item, among the sad columns of lists of casualties, in the Oxford Times of 26 May 1917, was as follows.

Pte. Harry Mitchell Davidson, Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry, aged 34, only son of Mr. And Mrs. D. Davidson, 57 St. Clement’s, died of wounds received in action at Salonika on May 9, leaving a wife and two children. He was an old Wesleyan Schoolboy, and was in business as a draper at 5, Cowley Road. He joined up nearly twelve months ago.

David Lewis, in his history of the Oxford Jewish community, The Jews of Oxford, refers to only one fatality among the tiny resident (non-university) Jews of Oxford, viz., Lieut. Victor Albert Villiers Zacharias Jessel. He enlisted soon after the beginning of the straight from Magdalen College School (where he was captain of boats and of football). He was killed on 6 April 1917, just over a month before Davidson’s death. Harry Mitchell Davidson was thus a second Jewish soldier, born and resident in Oxford, to fall. Even more poignant, the two soldiers were cousins, Davidson's mother being the sister of Jessel's father.

Nor was he from an unknown family. Daniel Davidson, the father , was an important figure in the local Jewish community, referred to frequently in its history, making his first appearance in 1881, acting as Treasurer in 1897 and, as late as 1919, was Warden. He was a shopkeeper in St. Clement’s from the early 1880s, at first at 31 High Street, St. Clement’s, his business described variously as ‘fancy repository’, a ‘toy warehouse’ and a ‘Birmingham and Staffordshire Stores’ - selling goods made in those towns. When Boulter Street was built in 1888 he came to occupy a building near the junction with St. Clement’s Street, the new name for the High Street. His address was 57a for the shop, and 57b for the living accommodation, on part of the site now occupied by the Thai Orchid Restaurant. (There has been some re-numbering. Today 57a and 57b are the numbers for the Old Mission Hall on the other corner of St. Clement’s Street and Boulter Street, whereas the Thai Restaurant is now 58a.)

For most of the time, from about 1890, the business was described as a general stores and he appears to have quitted the premises towards the end of World War I, presumably having retired from business.

According to the 1891 Population Census, Daniel Davidson was born in Russia and his wife Rosa in Oxford and both were aged 41. They had the one child, Harry Mitchell, born 1883 in Oxford, and the household was completed, at the 1891 Census, by the presence of an 18-year old servant.

The school his son went to, the Wesleyan Boys School, was built in 1831 in Bulwarks Lane and was closed down in 1928. Harry Mitchell Davidson married Mary Edith Barrett at the Register Office, Headington, Oxford, on 1 August 1907 . Her father was named on the marriage certificate as John Charles Barret (deceased), overseer of a sugar plantation. Although she was obviously not Jewish the father was one of the witnesses. The couple lived at 24 Cross Street, very near St. Clement’s Street. The local directories usually described their business as a milliner’s and only occasionally as a draper’s.

At the time of Harry Mitchell's death in 1917 the resident Oxford Jewish community was very small. In 1916, writes David Lewis, the active town community appeared to consist of three households - the Davidsons, Franks and Freedsons, and one should include the Jessels.; Franks left Oxford in 1917. The proportion of Jewish soldier fatalities among the few Oxford Jews was thus very high and the coincidence of timing, the two deaths occurring within a month, was an additional tragedy.

A minor curiosity about this story is that within a few years of Daniel Davidson leaving the St. Clement’s Street premises both the shop and the living accommodation were occupied by another Jewish family, and a well-known one, that of Moses Hirsch Segal, including his wife, Hannah Leah, and their sons, Sam and Judah Benzion. Moses Hirsch had been minister of the Oxford congregation in the first decade of the century before going to Newcastle. He and Sam went to Palestine with the Zionist Commission in 1918-1919 and on their return the family came back to Oxford. Was it chance that led them to live, between 1921 and 1926, at 57a and 57b St. Clement’s, for so long occupied by Daniel Davidson? During those years Moses Hirsch  was minister to the Swansea and then the Bristol congregations and his wife sold knitting in the shop. In 1927 they left Oxford after Moses Hirsch was appointed Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the Hebrew University, becoming a full professor in 1939.

 

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