Leeds Jewish Community - The Early Years
by the late Murray Freedman
Originally published in
THERE is no evidence that Jews lived in Leeds prior to the l8th Century. The first reliable record of a resident Jew dates from 1735 when the burial register of Leeds Parish Church recorded the death of Israel Benjamin. The entry for him slates that he was "was born of Jewish Parentage, became a Christian and was Baptized at Dublin in Ireland in the 45th year of his age". His age at death was not recorded, nor is it known how long he had been living in Leeds.
From then on there are records of individual Jews in the town and, in 1823, Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschel licensed Nachman Levi to operate there as a shochet. It must not be by this that there was more than a handful of Jews in Leeds at the time. For example in Sheffield, from where the Jews in Leeds obtained their kosher meat before 1823, the shochet was later said to have lodged with the only Jewish family in the town.
The Jewish community in Leeds is generally regarded to have been established in l84O, when the first cemetery (still in use today) was opened [see Leeds UHC Cemetery - Webmaster comment]. By that year it is known that the first minyan was meeting regularly in an upper room approached by an outside staircase in Bridge Street in the Leylands - the district to the north east of the centre of town which was later to become the main area of settlement of the Jewish immigrants.
The national census returns of 1841 reveal the presence of 56 identifiable Jews of all ages in Leeds. Most were of German origin and their listed occupations show that many of them were wool and cloth merchants - for Leeds was then an important wool manufacturing centre. Neighbouring Bradford soon overtook Leeds in pre-eminence in the industry and some of the German Jewish wool merchants moved there to be nearer the mills.
They included Martin Hertz, a relative of the scientist who was to have his name given to electromagnetic waves, and Jacob Arnold Unna who, besides founding the first Bradford synagogue in 1881, helped found the Bradford Chamber of Commerce. He was also the great grandfather of the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft, the famous actress.
The 56 Jews listed in the 1841 census were made up of only nine families and a number of single lodgers - all very recent immigrants and mainly from Eastern Europe. Only one of the families, headed by Solomon Flatow a dealer in watch and dock materials, lived in the Leylands.
One of the German born Jews was Gabriel Davis, an optician and optical instrument maker who had arrived in the town in 1817 and set up business in Boar Lane. (He may have been a relative of David Davis, also an optician, who played a similar important part in the early history of the Glasgow community.) Sometime about 1818 he married Ann Aaron of Birmingham - a member of an old Jewish family of that Midland city whose founder Moses, a pencil maker and rabbi, was born there as early as 1718.
Gabriel Davis and family lived in a house in Little Woodhouse, then a salubrious suburb and now the site of Leeds University. He can be regarded as the father of the Leeds Jewish for he was its first leader. He was the prime mover in obtaining the land for the cemetery and was the community's first marriage secretary appointed after the new Marriage Act came into force in 1837. It was therefore entirely appropriate that his daughter, Abigail, should be the first recorded Jewish bride in Leeds.
Abigail Davis married James Cohen Parani on Wednesday evening, 1 June 1842, at the couple's home, 21 Commercial Court, Briggate. The houses in the Court have long since been demolished, but the dilapidated entrance still exists. The groom had probably been born in London but his family had originated, long before, in Pirano, northern Italy (now called Piran in Slovenia). He worked as a manager in the Leeds branch of S. Hyam & Co. at 9 Briggate, just round the corner from where the couple lived.
The two witnesses at the wedding were Samuel Hyam, his employer and owner of a chain of men's outfitters shops, and John Aaron, the bride's uncle. Both lived in Birmingham. The couple left for Birmingham in 1849 where James became manager of the Hyam shop in New Street. They and their family emigrated to Australia in 1857 where they assimilated so much over the years that sadly, none of their descendants now have any connection to Judaism.
Leeds, in those days, had recently been transformed from a small market town to an industrial town with the typical forest of chimneys punctuating the skyline and depositing soot over all its buildings. The railways came to the town in 1834 which helped in its rapid development as an industrial centre. The main and widest street was Briggate, the road to the bridge, off which there were many yards based on mediaeval burgage plots of which 29 still survive. During the middle decades of the last century [i.e. the 19th century - Webmaster note] a number of Jewish families lived and traded in these yards.
The community grew very slowly from its humble beginnings so that even 20 years later, in the 1861 census, only 219 Jews resided in Leeds. By then, however, immigrants from Germany were being exceeded by those from Eastern Europe. Although most immigrants passing through Leeds were on their way to America, a sizeable increase in settlement in the town took place in the 1860s when the American Civil War made the U.S.A. temporarily less attractive as a destination.
1856 was an important year in the history of both Leeds and its Jewish community. In that year the tailoring industry, which was to make the city so famous, was established. Started by John Barran and Herman Friend (a Jewish outworker who adapted divisional work to tailoring for the first time), it grew so quickly that there was a constant demand for workers. Many Jews in Eastern Europe were encouraged to come to Leeds by Herman Friend and the word soon got around that there was plenty of work available for tailors and for those willing to learn the craft. Working conditions were generally very poor, but the sweat shops which sprang up were said not to be as bad as in London or Manchester.
Immigration gradually increased so that by the 1881 census the population had grown to nearly 3,000 (though this expansion was boosted by a very high birth rate - a feature to be evident right up to the first world war in 1914). The majority of the immigrants settled in the Leylands, a run down area covering hardly more than 50 acres of poor buildings - most of which were the notorious back-to-back houses which were such a characteristic of northern Victorian industrial towns and, particularly, of Leeds. Overcrowding was rife but, surprisingly, the evidence was that the Jewish children living there were, on the whole, healthier than their non-Jewish neighbours.
The first synagogue
The first real synagogue, opened in 1846. was a converted house in Back Buckingham Street - now the site of a large shopping centre. The first purpose built synagogue was erected in Belgrave Street, in 1860, on a site which was to serve the community's religious and welfare needs for the following 123 years. The congregation, officially termed the Old Hebrew Congregation, was better known among the large immigrant section as the Englisher Shul for the members were more anglicised and the sermons were in English. The main immigrant synagogue, known as the Grinner Shul, was soon added to by many small chevrot often bearing the names of the places of origin of their congregants, such as Lokever, Vilna, and Mariempoler. As these names might suggest, the majority of the immigrants to Leeds were Litvaks hailing from Lithuania. the Baltic states, north east Poland and Byelorussia.
The four Board schools situated in the Leylands became almost completely Jewish, and due to the enlightened and sympathetic outlook of the dedicated staff and the encouragement and support of the parents, they produced some remarkable results. Although never constituting more than 5% of the total population of Leeds, the Jewish children often gained as many as 25% of the free scholarships made attainable by the city.
In 1881 the Russian Czar was assassinated and pogroms followed which spurred a mass emigration of Jews to the west. Although America was the favoured destination of most of them, more than 100,000 did come to this country between 1881 and 1914 - with 2,700 of them settling in Leeds in the 1880s alone. The 1891 census, made available for inspection two years [i.e. in 1991 - Webmaster note] ago reveals that the Jewish of Leeds had increased to almost 8,000.
The 1891 census returns also confirm the preponderance of tailoring in the listed occupations with as many as 72% involved in some aspect of the industry. Other favoured occupations were slipper making, cabinet making and hawking. The Leeds community was overwhelmingly working class and was to remain so for very many years. It took a long time before the products of those Board schools entered the professions. The first Jewish J.P. was not appointed until 1899, and it was to take a further 41 years before the first Jewish Lord Mayor was elected.
Formatted by David Shulman and first published on JCR-UK: 3 August 2014
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