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
Paper first published on JCR-UK: 9 October 2016
A SKETCH OF LEEDS JEWRY IN THE 19TH CENTURY
by A. S. Diamond, LL.D1
(By hovering your mouse cursor over the superscript footnote number in the text,
The Jewish community of Leeds is remarkable for the comparative homogeneity of its origins. Manchester, through a large part of the 19th and 20th centuries, has received immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany and Central Europe, the Sephardic East and the Mediterranean. Bradford (only 9 miles from Leeds) owed the origins of its community to cultured Jews of Germany and Central Europe, arriving in the middle and second half of the 19th century, as well as to immigrants from Eastern Europe; but the Leeds community, by and large, was created by a late influx from the Russian provinces between 1870 and 1907. Isolated figures appear during the 18th century and a small group was settled there in the middle 1820's comprising some 3 or 4 families. In 1850.there was a population of about 70 souls, rising in 1877 to about 2,250, in 1888 to 6,000, in 1897 to some 10,000, in 1900 to about 12,000, in 1904 to about 15,000, in 1907 to perhaps 20,000; and continuing thereafter with little change.2 Only some 200 came in the 1930's from Germany, and an insignificant number from Egypt and Hungary in 1956 and 1957, and they left little mark on the city. The bulk of the Jews of Leeds are Yorkshiremen of the third generation, whose ancestors came from the one area.3
Leeds, in the middle of the last century, was exceptional in this country in the wide range of industries represented in it. They included paper, leather, boots and shoes, glass, cloth, wool and engineering, but the latter two started to give way about 1865 to the new industry of the wholesale manufacture of clothing which became the city's chief industry, as Leeds became the chief centre of the industry in the world. It was begun by a non-Jew, John Barran, in 1856, with the assistance of a Jewish outworker, Herman Friend. The bulk of the immigrants of 1870-1907 were tailors and other garment workers 4 and unskilled men and women, travelling mainly via the Baltic and Hull or Grimsby, a few having intended to proceed to Liverpool and America, but the bulk making for Leeds in the hope and expectation of obtaining employment in the new clothing trade among friends, relatives or strangers, and it was they whose labour built the new industry. They were extremely poor and on the whole culturally undistinguished.
Religiously also they differed from other large centres of Jewish immigration. The immigrants into the United States had pulled up their roots culturally as well as geographically, and when the religious features of the community could be discerned it was almost equally divided between the orthodox, conservative and reform groups. Manchester, influenced by its German antecedents and by the West London Synagogue, produced a Reform Congregation (standing midway between the American Conservative and Reform) as early as 1856; and Bradford has had a Reform Congregation, largely founded by its German citizen pioneers, since 1873. But the Jewish population of Leeds, like the Israelis of today, were either orthodox or unattached, and it was not till the 1950's that a Reform synagogue was established in the city. Reform Judaism is the creation of Germany and the West. The Judaism of Leeds in the 19th century was a strict narrow and unimaginative orthodoxy.
The terminal date that we have taken for this sketch of the Jewish community of Leeds - namely, the turn of the century - represents, from many points of view, a dividing-line in the story of Leeds and its Jews. The population of Leeds had grown from 53,000 in 1801 to 428,000 in 1901, and grew slowly thereafter. The Jewish numbers had increased from 3 or 4 families in the 1820's to some 20,000 in 1907, and grew little thereafter. The period of the sweating system was over,5 and the strikes of the clothing-trade workers of 1885 and later had been followed in 1893 by the formation of the Jewish Amalgamated Tailors', Pressers' and Machinists' Union and the passing of the Factory Act, 1901; and in 1902 Montague Burton set up his business in Leeds, with new ideals of good working conditions and good relations between employer and workman. There were other respects in which it was a dividing-line, but above all it was the time from which the poor wandering immigrants of the 1880's became the large, established Jewish community of Leeds, and began to take over the status and influence of the home-born Jew.
In 1775 Leeds was a small town of some 17,000 inhabitants, situated at the north end of the bridge over the River Aire, and consisting of one street, Briggate, with its houses, gardens, and market place, and a few neighbouring streets. To the north-east and outside the town lay an area of low-lying meadow land, known as the Leylands. In the 19th century, Briggate was continued north into "North Street",6 along the western side of the Leylands, and the Leylands were covered with cobbled streets of mean, two-storey, back-to-back, brich houses, shops and workshops, where lived and toiled the labour force needed by the rapidly-growing industries of Leeds. It was in the Leylands that the immigrant Jews settled, and by the time they arrived in numbers, in the 1880's, it was a shabby and decaying area, bounded by Regent Street on the East, Byron Street on the North, and Lady Lane on the South. The immigrants came as lodgers or tenants to relatives, friends or strangers, and the local population moved out; and by the end of the century the Leylands were almost solidly Jewish, and so were the 4 local board schools (including Wintoun Street School, on the west side of North Street). But two of the synagogues (the Great Synagogue, Belgrave Street, and the New Briggate Synagogue) were in the area between the west side of North Street, Camp Road and Meanwood Road, and here lived a number of the Jewish community who were a little better off. In the following years the Jewish population began to move north up the Chapeltown Road and towards Street Lane and Roundhay. The Savile Estate on the west side of Chapeltown Road, was being built in 1905, and on the east side of Chapeltown Road were a few houses of the more prosperous, and some of their children attended the new Cowper Street School, under its excellent, towering headmaster, Mr. Lang, who was ambitious for his bright Jewish pupils, though they were only a minority of the children.
We first hear of a Jew in Leeds in the year 1739, when the burial of Israel Benjamin of Vicar Lane, believed to have come from Germany, is entered in the register of the Leeds Parish Church on the 3rd June, so that he was buried in the churchyard. A Moses Levi was in business in Briggate as a silversmith in 1758, for on the 7th March of that year a commercial advertisement on his behalf appeared in the Leeds Intelligencer. It was recorded in the press that he was baptised in 1772 on his marriage to a certain Mrs. Gordon. Lazarus Levi, described as "a Jew well known in Leeds", died in 1799 in his 105th year, according to the Gentleman's Magazine. He may have been the father of Moses Levi, and have carried on the same business. In 1817 one John Aaron was in business in Leeds as a brushmaker, and by 1822 there were at least two families living in Leeds, and they received their kosher meat from Sheffield, where the only Jews were the family of a Mr. Jacobs (son of Joseph Jacobs of London) who had his synagogue in his house, and his own licensed shochet, one Abraham Neugass, who was in his employ for 25 to 30 years. But in 1823 the Leeds families acquired their own shochet, for an employee of a Mr. S. Newman, one Nahman Levi, was licensed as such by Chief Rabbi Hirschel in that year. He did not continue long, for in the next year Abraham ben Schraga was licensed. In 1833 an employee of Mr. Gabriel Davis was licensed, and in 1840 one Nathan ben Joseph Cohen, an employee of a Mr. Mayer.
Between 1822 and 1846 the community grew but slowly, leading a somewhat secretive existence. It continued to bury its dead in churchyards, where this could be arranged, or sent them to Hull for burial. By 1840 divine service was being held in an upper room in Bridge Street, at the bottom of Lady Lane, which was little better than a loft, and access was obtained by means of a ladder.
In 1840 the group had grown sufficiently to require a cemetery, and on the 12th May Lord Cardigan granted it, for a nominal sum, a parcel of land in Gelderd Road for that purpose. The first Jewish marriage of which we hear, registered under the new Act of 1837, tool place in a private dwelling-house in June 1842. In 1846, in place of Bridge Street, a room was acquired in Back Rockingham Street, in the Camp Road area, and converted for use as a synagogue, with accommodation for some 50 persons. In 1849 the Reverend Ephraim Cohen became Reader, Shochet and certificated Mohel of the congregation, and conducted marriages in Sheffield as well as Leeds, by authority of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler.7 He officiated at the first marriage held in the Synagogue in 1850. He continued to fill those offices till October 1860, when he removed to Hull and was succeeded by the Rev. Mr. Kaufman, late of Portsea.8 At that time the congregation was building a new synagogue nearby, in Belgrave Street,9 and when that became too small erected in 1877 the Great Synagogue, Belgrave Street, on the same site, as extended. It had an unhappy architectural history, for the Ark was on the wrong wall and had to be moved, so that the width was always more impressive than the length but in spite of a dull facade it was a passable building for its day It was planned to hold nearly 900 persons, for negotiations were on foot to amalgamate this and the two other Leeds congregations, all of which were then without a permanent home, but these came to nought,10 as all similar negotiations for many years to come. But although ii was not now the only, it remained the chief synagogue of Leeds for over half a century thereafter. To the immigrants it was known as the Englische Shool, because its members spoke English and the sermon were in English, and the congregation included the older families of the community. In 1900 it had 200 seatholders.
Its minister and secretary was the Rev. Moses Abrahams,11 and its chazanim Solomon Diamond12 and S. Davidson. Moses Abrahams was for many years the hard-working religious head of the established community and represented it to the outside world. But the authorit of the Jewish minister, as compared with the prosperous honorary officers, was less than today. The leaders of the Leeds Jews of 1900 were mostly to be found among the members of the Belgrave Street Synagogue, and consisted chiefly of Victor Lightman,13 Paul Hirsch,14 David Lubelski, 15 Joseph Cohen16 and Moses Myers.17
Next in date and importance among the synagogues of Leeds was the New Briggate Synagogue, called, in contrast to the Englische Shool, the "Grinne Shool", with 200 seatholders. The president in 1897 was M. Raisman.18 it originated as a chevra in St. Alban's Street in 1869, and became a congregation in 1876, acquiring at the same time a cemetery in Gelderd Road. In 1883 it obtained a mansion in St. John's Place, New Briggate, and adapted it for use as a synagogue. But in 1894 the house was demolished and a new building, modelled on that of Belgrave Street, was erected on the site, and in 1896 the cemetery was extended.
Next in date and importance among the synagogues of Leeds was the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol, of Hope Street, which became the principal synagogue of the immigrants. It was founded in the early 1870's and moved successively to larger premises in 1880, 1386 and 1895. In 1901 its means were such that it was able to send to Russia for the distinguished scholar Israel Chaim Daiches, who came as rabbi of that synagogue.
Next in date and importance was the Central Synagogue and Beth Hamidrash (commonly known as the "Bismedrish") in Templar Street, founded in 1885 and rapidly growing, and just (in 1898) rebuilt. It had now 230 seatholders. It was the largest place or worship in the Leylands but its interior was bare and unattractive.
There was also the Hope Street Synagogue (known as the Mariempoler) which began as the Mariempoler Chevra, and was founded in 1885 and had 120 seatholders. Then there was the Polnische Shool in Byron Street, which was founded in 1893 and had 90 seatholders. Lastly there was the Regent Street Beth Hamidrash, of which the rabbi was J.L. Herzog.
The names of these synagogues, attended mostly by the immigrants, attest their origin in a small group hailing from one district. There were also in 1900 smaller places of worship, some begun by the members of societies (chevras) formed for special purposes and attached to a larger congregation, and some ultimately formed their own synagogue.
But the great bulk of the Jews of Leeds - perhaps two-thirds of the whole - were not affiliated to any synagogue. This is manifest from the figures given above.19 The situation is by no means limited to Leeds: even in London, as late as 1933, only 35 per cent of the community were formally affiliated to a synagogue, and even in 1961 only 61 per cent were so affiliated.20 For one thing, the Jewish immigrants of Leeds in 1900 were too poor to pay the dues; and for another, there was a certain antipathy to the Bosses and their ways and institutions in the Jewish trade union movement, and the immigrants included a proportion of Fast European free-thinkers, socialists and anarchists; and many sought a means of securing Jewish burial without the necessity of paying for membership of a synagogue. In 1900 some of them formed the Leeds Jewish Workers' Burial and Trading Society, which went from strength to strength, and developed its own butchers' shops and poultry-house. From the beginning, however, it had its own small place of worship, which sufficed for its needs till 1924.
The synagogues of Leeds were separate and aloof from one another, and no organisation connected them till many years after. There was no Leeds Beth Din till 1913; no United Shechita Board till 1924; no United Hebrew Congregation (of the Belgrave Street and New Briggate Synagogues) till 1930. Dissensions between the rabbis were not unknown, and sometimes impeded due administration. in 1900 died Rabbi Israel Hirsch Levinson, who had come as rabbi 22 years before, but Rabbi Sinsohn remained. Rabbi Herzog was a newcomer, and Rabbi Daiches arrived in 1901.
Religious education was still highly unsatisfactory by modern standards. There was, as early as 1853, some sort of a Jewish school with 10 pupils.21 For most of the 19th century there was little but the chedarim, with their traditional but inadequate methods of teaching Hebrew and Judaism. In 1879 the Leeds Talmud Torah (Jews' Free School) was founded in Lady Lane, and by 1897 it had 140 boy pupils,22 and most of the Jewish boys of Leeds who received Hebrew and religious education received it there. The system was still archaic and at the beginning of the present century the proper administration of the school was being considerably hampered by dissension between the rabbis.
Till 1888 there was no teaching for girls, and what instruction was given was in dark and crowded rooms, and hundreds of Jewish children were entirely untaught. But in that year a new Leeds Hebrew School was opened for boys and girls at the instigation of Moses Abrahams and the Great Synagogue, and against the opposition of the chedarim. It sought assistance from the Leeds School Board, who responded generously by enabling the teaching to be given at the classrooms of the Gower Street Board School (one of the schools in the Leylands). The Board found some Jewish certified teachers and trained a staff of Jewish pupil teachers.23 Moses Abrahams remained headmaster for many years, and in 1897 there were 190 girl pupils and 119 boys. At the beginning of this century, parents who could afford it employed a Hebrew teacher to visit their homes and teach their children, but the instruction was still unsystematic and grammar was poorly taught. A certain level of general Jewish culture was provided by the Hebrew Literary Society, as well as the Jewish Young Men's Association, both of which flourished in 1900.
After the introduction of compulsory secular education in 1870, when the influx of Jews was beginning, the deficiencies in the education of the Jews were determined by the circumstances of the community. At first a few of the poorer immigrants needed the labour or wages of their children as soon as possible especially in the family workshops of the outworkers in the clothing trades. Most of the immigrants knew little of the English language and English customs, and needed time to find out how to make good use of the unfamiliar facilities provided, and they followed the practices of their co-religionists. There were very few professional men in the community. In 1900 and for many years before and after there were only two Jewish doctors in Leeds - Julius Friend24 and Moses Umanski,25 the former born in Leeds, and the latter from the Ukraine. In 1900 and for many years before and after there was only one Jewish solicitor in Leeds - Fred Blackston.26 There was no Jewish barrister practising in Leeds before 1921, but there was a painter and a number of teachers. Most of the children attended and filled the four elementary schools that have been mentioned, and showed the characteristic desire to learn.
There were three secondary schools in Leeds: the Leeds Grammar School, the Leeds Central High School, or "Higher Grade School", and the Leeds Modern School. The Grammar School27 was far the best of these, and one of the finest schools in the country. It was an Edward VI Grammar School, with a good headmaster (especially after 1902) and an accomplished staff of masters. As it was well endowed, the fees were low (£15 a year)28 and an adequate number of entrance scholarships were offered. Originally a Church of England school, it had become undenominational in 1886, and there was no antisemitism there. Yet out of the average complement of about 250 boys, there were never more than 3 Jews at the school till at least 1912, and till 1909 there was no Jewish entrance scholar, and it is doubtful if any Jew had competed.29 The bulk of the bright Jewish boys of the primary schools obtained entrance scholarships at the Central High School and sought no other. Unfortunately, by a serious defect in the administration of the Leeds schools, the Grammar School alone aimed at securing entrance scholarships and exhibitions tenable at Oxford and Cambridge, and the Central High School and Modern School only at scholarships at the Yorkshire College. Moreover there was no recognised method of passing on to Leeds Grammar School from the other secondary schools, and only one brilliant student obtained a scholarship from Leeds University to Oxford or Cambridge in this period.30 Yet the academic standard of the University of Leeds was below that at Oxford and Cambridge, and a great deal of the work done there was in direct competition with the 5th and 6th forms of a good grammar school; and Oxford and Cambridge afforded a better ladder to success in life.
The main reasons for this state of affairs were the poverty of the parents, their ignorance of the possibility of obtaining a scholarship at the Grammar School and of its advantages, and their imitation of the habits of the rest of the community. But it should be added that a youth attending the Yorkshire College could live at home in vacations and be less of a charge on his parents. Vacation work was unknown in those days, and for a course at the older universities some £125 a year had to be found in the form of scholarships or money, and though possible it was difficult. So, for many years after 1900, Jewish boys at the Central High School could regularly be seen doing their homework in the Central Reference Library for want of accommodation at home.
Upon a community such as that of Leeds, Zionism was bound to have a great impact. The bulk had not yet put down deep roots, and there was not, as in London and other centres, a numerous, long-established and prosperous group likely to oppose it. Nor would there be much of an opposition from an extreme orthodox wing, for the community was homogeneous. The Leeds Zionist Associatiion (Agudath Hazionim) was founded in 1898,31 and a flourishing Ladies Zionist Society (B'nouth Zion) of which Mrs. M. Umanski and Mrs. Henrietta Diamond32 were the leaders, in 1900. Rabbi Daiches was the founder of the Leeds Orthodox Zionist Association about 1902. On the 30th March, 1900, a great meeting was held in Leeds under the auspices of the new English Zionist Federation. Sir Francis Montefiore, Bart., presided, and Rabbis Herzog and Sinsohn, as well as the leading Zionists of Leeds, were present.33 Zionist activities proliferated, and there was a Zionist synagogue as early as 1903. It was also in Leeds that in 1905 a Jewish Workers' Organisation for Zion (Poale Zion) adopted its programme - a national movement to create a national political centre in Palestine for the Jewish people, but also to lead a struggle for civil and national rights in the diaspora and to struggle against the existing economic order equally with other proletarian organisations. A Jewish Hospital - the Merzl Moser Hospital - of which Dr. and Mrs. Umanski and Mrs. Henrietta Diamond were the chief protagonists, was founded in Leopold Street in 1905, in memory of Herzl and in honour of Alderman Jacob Moser, the chief donor, who became Lord Mayor of Bradford.
The estimates, at the beginning of this sketch, of the Jewish population of Leeds at different dates in the 19th century, give a meagre demographic account of the community. Between 1820 and 1846, when the Jews were still to be numbered in dozens, the more prosperous of Leeds Jewry (as of the Sephardim of the Resettlement in the 17th century) were usually jewellers, and they had separate business and residential addresses in Leeds, and some were also goldsmiths and silversmiths and made and sold watches and hardware and fancy goods. Gabriel Davis,34 who lived in Leeds for many years, including the period 1822 to 1851, was a manufacturer of optical and other instruments and another business sold toys. There was also a small group of German Jewish wool and cloth merchants who arrived in the late 1820's and the 1830's and late 1840's -- Jacob Behrens, who came in 1832, and had a business address at 18 Somerset Street and a residence in Brunswick Terrace, and left for Bradford in 1838 to become the honoured founder of the Bradford cloth trade; the firm of S. L. Behrens and Co., importers of wool and stuff, of Bond Street; Heinrich Hertz, stuff and woollen cloth merchant, of Bond Street, and others.35 There were also one or two travellers and peddlers moving over the countryside and selling watches and jewellery to the farming communities. There was a disproportion of single men among them, and a considerable degree of inter-marriage, for several in this small company took local girls to wife. From 1850, when there was a synagogue with 18 paying seatholders, and a movement from Russia was beginning to gather way, the bulk of the newcomers were at first single men, some of whom sent to Russia for wives.36 There were also married men who intended to send for their wives and children to join them when they had made a home, but never did so. This is a characteristic of migrations everywhere. But a degree of inter-marriage and a falling away from Judaism or the synagogue continued in this small community. The existence of a substantial Jewry and the pressure of a Jewish public opinion seem to be necessary, or at least effective, for providing spouses and creating a solidarity and a constant devotion to a Jewish way of life.
The disappearance of names of persons once active and well known in the synagogue is a universal phenomenon, but small, rustic Jewish groups in Western Europe always tend to disappear. The death-rate was still very high, and the infant mortality rate unchanged. So, of those who died each year, 48% were children under 10 years of age,37 and half the children born failed to reach majority. There was a movement between towns and villages of England and little to America, and it was largely a movement in search of a livelihood, in which peddlers were numerous. When the movement from Russia became an influx in the 1870's, the proportion of young males in the community must still have been high, for the male is the more restless sex and the pioneer. The proportion of children must have been smaller than in the general population, and the number of the unmarried and the late marriages higher.
At the turn of the century, there was some movement to and fro between Leeds and Newcastle or Sunderland, and also Bradford and Sheffield. But the chief source of weakness in the community was the constant drift to London, which drew away a large share of the ablest and most ambitious in the settled community, and continues to our own day; so that the Jewish population of Leeds has been diminishing for many years. This movement to London is not limited to Jews, but the non-Jewish population is recreated from the countryside, so that, for example, the population of much of the Pennines has shrunk by two-thirds since the 18th century. The Jews had no such source to draw upon. Moreover Leeds at the turn of the century was an unattractive town. There was not a decent building in it except the Town Hall, which was hardly visible through its envelope of soot and grime emanating from the innumerable belching chimneys of the city, and many of the younger generations sought a wider stage for their interests, their operations and their fame.
The greatest asset of Leeds was, in the last resort, the many fine people who occupied it, and whom the author of this sketch remembers with affection and respect. There have always been "Leeds Loiners", Jew and Gentile, who would never have consented to exchange the sincerity and calm of smoky, industrial Leeds for the meretricious hubbub of the vendors and buyers of the metropolis, and this situation is perennial.
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