Provincial Jewry
in Victorian Britain




Extract from papers on
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain

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
Reproduced here with Prof. Newman's kind consent)


Page created: 8 May 2017
Latest revision: 9 May 2017


by Miriam Steiner

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This account of the Manchester Jewish Board of Guardians, must, by virtue of its brevity, be presented in very general terms. It will deal with those forces in mid-19th century society that led to the foundation of the great Jewish charitable bodies and be more about the ideas behind an institution than "the men who made it". They will be discussed in terms of somewhat arbitrary group memberships; viz. that varied body collectively known as the middle class, who, in the provinces particularly, were the spearhead of charity work, and the working class who formed the philanthropists constituency and whose needs and pressures helped shape policy.

Anglo-Jewish charity in the 19th century must be seen in the context of two traditions. One arose out of Judaism which has charity as one of its primary tenets. Customs originating in the Biblical era developed into effective institutional forms in Diasporic times when the need for mutual support and protection in a hostile environment became crucial. While the Synagogue was the central relief agency, others developed to deal with specific needs. V.D. Lipman, in his history of the London Jewish Board of Guardians, lists charities that provided for orphans, widows, invalids, lying-in women, the aged, and burials as well as ones distributing food ant fuel in winter and at festivals, and others sponsoring education. The needy could be provided for from virtually "the cradle to the grave".

The second tradition originated in the host nation. An intrinsic element of the British social code was that the wealthy had duties as well as privileges and that these duties included attending to the welfare of the poor. In a predominantly rural society, the provision of welfare and aid was based on a virtual one-to-one relationship between the gentry and their dependents. With the growth of large impersonal cities and the consequent explosion of widespread urban poverty, new solutions had to be found. On the one hand, the sheer numbers of necessitous slum dwellers ruled out individual relationships. On the other, the new urban aristocracy, the middle class, were for the most part hard-headed and busy men of business who had neither the leisure time nor the inclination to devote themselves very intensively to the care of the poor.

Nonetheless, the charitable tradition survived, partly because of the desire of this middle class to replace the gentry as the ruling class. It was felt that they must be seen to be worthy of acquiring power and one demonstration was in their assumption of charitable duties. And just as the rural setting had encompassed both the private efforts of the gentry and the public responsibilities towards the poor of the magistrates under the old Poor Law, so the cities witnessed the proliferation of private and voluntary charities run by the middle class alongside the development of the Parochial Boards of Guardians under the new Poor Law of 1834. Thus throughout the 19th century it was accepted that charity work was a middle class responsibility, both through private work in voluntary bodies and as elected Guardians within their communities.

Furthermore, the English Poor Law system was based on the premise that everyone had a right to relief, although the framers of the Poor Law regulations of the 1830s had operated on the principle that the circumstances under which this relief should be given and received ought to be as unpleasant and humiliating as possible. This was to discourage the poor, whom they believed to be basically idle and shiftless, from "living off the State", As a consequence, the welfare centres of the 19th century were the notorious unmixed workhouses where recipients of assistance stayed, segregated into women's and men's quarters, performing token tasks, losing their voting rights and certainly paying for very meagre material aid with their self-respect. The harshness of the system was aimed at promoting self-sufficiency among the urban poor.

It was in this setting that the London and provincial Jewish Boards of Guardians arose. While Jews were not debarred by law from using the public relief system, workhouse relief was impracticable because of the difficulties of complying with ritual requirements. The Poor Law authorities were willing to allow Kosher food to be brought to Jewish inmates at the community's expense and to allow them to attend religious services outside the Workhouse on the most sacred Holy Days. But they objected to Jewish paupers coming and going for regular Sabbath services, the ostensible reason being that Roman Catholics would request similar privileges for all their holidays. For the same reason, the Poor Law Board refused for a long time to pay allowances to Jewish schools for Jewish children sent from the workhouse. There was also a strong desire within the community to preserve its good name and to avoid accusations that Jews were a burden on the rates. Thus, although the Poor Law was employed as a last resort for incorrigible cases or to put pressure on husbands who abandoned their families (their wives and children were sent to the workhouse to spend time in order to qualify for legal assistance in claiming maintenance from the husbands), the Jewish community rarely used this State-provided facility. Finally, as V.D. Lipman says, "... the Jewish community would no more rely on the Poor Law without their own voluntary provision than, in fact, did the general community".

Just as the community was influenced by social and political forces originating in the general English society, so too did philanthropic trends have an effect. Thus the 1850s constituted the period of charity reform, when the overlap of voluntary bodies and the general inefficiency of private relief became something of a scandal. Mention has already been made of the wide variety of charitable bodies that had developed in the London Jewish community. Manchester had an equally diverse number. The problem of coping with distress grew with immigration. Public begging became a source of embarrassment and it was feared that assistance was not always being given to those most in need. As an early historian (and outstanding worker) of the Manchester Jewish Board of Guardians, Max Hesse, has said:1.

No proper inquiries could be made as to the merits of the recipients; the most clamorous obtained the lion's share of relief, and the disappointed ones went begging from house to house.

Thus in line with the Gentile philanthropic world, Jewish charity workers sought more efficient and co-ordinated means of helping the destitute.

In this movement, the London community led the way in establishing a central regulating body that would investigate applicants for assistance and co-ordinate their relief. This was the Board of Guardians for the relief of the Jewish poor, established in 1859. Manchester followed in 1867. It must be borne in mind during the following discussion that London pioneered many of the methods of organisation and relief employed not only by Manchester but also by the Charity Organisation Society, the leading Gentile co-ordinating agency. Nonetheless, London and Manchester did face some different problems: while London certainly saw the bulk of immigrant poor, it also could rely on both the immensely wealthy aristocrats of Judaism (such as the Rothschilds) and on a large, active, and comfortable middle class. Manchester had fewer men of great wealth and a correspondingly smaller proportion of active voluntary workers.

Who exactly were those in need? What was the constituency of the Jewish Board of Guardians and why was the Synagogue inadequate, even in combination with private groups, to deal with poverty? In the Manchester context these questions must be answered in part by referring to the convergence of two distinct trends.

One was the rapidly increasing immigration of impoverished East Europeans, a development that occurred not as a sudden explosion in 1880, but rather as a continuously rising tide from mid-century. (Work in progress on this subject at Manchester Polytechnic's Jewish History Unit under the guidance of Bill Williams is revealing just how early, in fact, the heavy immigration really began). These newcomers formed, in very large part, what can best be described as an industrial proletariat. Unlike earlier immigrants who had set about "making their fortune" by pursuing some itinerant occupation such as peddling (requiring little capital and virtually no "plant"), many now arrived with some basic skill, especially in the tailoring trade, which they hoped to put to use. Provisional figures based on the 1851 and 1861 Manchester censuses show those engaged in the "itinerant trades" increasing from 69 to 93 persons, whereas the increase in "clothing and allied manufacture" went from 116 to 230.

This created a particularly vulnerable group who were hard-struck by the Lancashire cotton famine of the 1860s. Notices of bankruptcy that appeared in the Manchester Guardian of the era included a fairly substantial number of Jewish capmakers as well as the more notorious failures of large textile concerns (generally non-Jewish). Thus in the 1850s and 1860s when the Jewish Boards of Guardians of London and Manchester were being established, and beyond into the century, Jewish philanthropy had to come to grips with the problem that had always been at the root of the British welfare system. This was how best to deal with industrial and endemic poverty based on the general fluctuations of industry and of trade cycles as opposed to the intermittent relief of a floating and random population of hawkers.

The second problem arose from changes in the Manchester community's synagogue structure. Although a considerable proportion of immigrants undoubtedly formed and attended chevroth rather than the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road, those who did attend the Old Hebrew Congregation were more likely to deplete its funds by their needs than help to swell them. Having a similar effect were the secessions that led first in 1858 to the establishment of the Reform Congregation and, later in 1872, to that of the South Manchester (orthodox) Congregation. In both cases, the Old Hebrew Congregation claimed, justifiably, to have lost its wealthier members.

Thus the conjunction of increased immigration and middle class regroupings left both the major Synagogue and the voluntary agencies in something of a muddle. As has already been mentioned, general philanthropic opinion was moving in the direction of favouring more centralised and regulated private relief. It was a combination of local pressures and national trends that resulted in the foundation of the Manchester Board, stimulated considerably by the formation of the London one, eight years earlier.

It has been stated that the assistance of the needy is an intrinsic part of Judaism and that it was a generally accepted principle in English society during the 19th century. The nature of the Jewish community's constituency (partially outlined above), added a further dimension to communal relief work that can only be dealt with briefly here. All communities throw up those who are unable fully to help themselves - the very young and the very old, those temporarily or permanently physically incapacitated. These groups had always been an acknowledged feature of communal life and, as has been mentioned, established procedures had been evolved to aid them. The steadily mounting flew of immigrants posed very different problems.

On the one hand, unlike the categories outlined above, few immigrants needed sustained relief or become regular pensioners. Most required a small donation to help them establish themselves in some trade, (in Manchester this was often the price of a glazier's diamond or some adjunct of the tailoring trade). In both London and Manchester, the Loan or Industrial Committees of the Boards were highly successful. They offered interest free loans to be applied to setting the borrower up in business. The loans were granted on the basis of sureties usually drawn from the applicant's circle and the rate of default was miniscule. As one historian of the anti-alien agitation of the early 20th century has put it:2.

(The Jewish immigrant) ... was perhaps, the only working example of the principles of laisez-faire and individual self-help that had ever existed. He was industrious; he worked long hours for low wages; he was thrifty. He was very sober, very law-abiding, and so religious that he was given to denouncing the Anglo-Jews for moral laxity. He was intensely competitive, and his great ambition, and frequently his crowning achievement in life, was to become 'a small master'.

Jewish philanthropists rarely complained, as did their Gentile counterparts, that they were dealing with idle scroungers.

The other aspect of communal work with the immigrants was less straightforward and one in which we can see the Jewish Guardians pursuing policies less frequently adopted by Gentile agencies. This entailed measures for 'civilising' the recipient or for his anglicisation. While the majority of immigrant recipients of help conformed most admirably to the 19th century values of diligence and industry beloved of philanthropists, one aspect of their independence did not find much favour. This was their unwillingness to change their "life-styles" from the shtetls of East Europe. Both the London and Manchester Boards insisted that immigrant recipients must send their children to English-language schools as a condition of relief and furthermore their homes were frequently visited and representations about cleanliness made to them. It was also the case, during the various mini-epidemics that swept the slums, that relief would be refused until the applicant could produce evidence of vaccination for himself and his family.

The unregistered immigrant marriage or 'Stine Choopah' was also condemned, partly because the wives of such marriages had no recourse to the law if they were abandoned. Deserted families were a constant source of anxiety to the Jewish Guardians. Either abandoned in Manchester or arriving there from the continent in pursuit of an immigrant husband, such a family usually requested not only some maintenance assistance from the Board, but also the passage money to follow him on, generally to America. In Manchester, the Guardians found it difficult to agree on a consistent policy. One the one hand, there were those who wanted to discourage "the growing evil, for it is intolerable that able-bodied men should emigrate, whether for a good reason or otherwise, and leave their wives and children as a charge on the community",3. by refusing all but the most meagre aid and sending such families to the workhouse, hoping to deter would-be deserters by this hard-line. Others wished to be more generous. The issue of the treatment of deserted wives was perpetually under debate.

The goal of changing the culture of their constituents was not confined to Jewish philanthropists. As a trend in Gentile philanthropy this can be seen in the work of the 'cultural missionaries' of the Settlement Movement, educated men and women who deliberately lived in the same areas as those they wanted to help. However, there is no doubt that Jewish charity workers wished to effect two changes simultaneously. One was the eradication of the 'culture of poverty' that implied improvidence, dirt, and in general the vicious circle of pauperism brought about by bad living conditions, little education, and poor health. The other was the eradication of those differences in language, custom, and dress that marked the immigrant as being outside the overall British culture. It is not very difficult to find the reason for this second ambition. Countless editorials in the Jewish Chronicle during the last quarter of the 19th century spell out quite clearly the fear that anti-semitism would be provoked by the 'alien-ness' of the immigrants and urged assimilation above all else. There is further evidence of this fear in the records and Annual Reports of the Board of Guardians.

In the end, how did the Jewish Board of Guardians fit into the general patterns of relief work of the late 19th to early 20th century? Can there be said to be anything particularly Jewish in the way they dealt with poverty - other than that they were Jews (middle class) dealing with Jews (immigrant working class)? A study of the Manchester experience would seem to indicate that Jewish middle class philanthropy varied in significantly few respects from that practised by the Gentile middle class. But on the other hand, the Loan Schemes so successfully practised by the Jewish Boards of Guardians do seem to be evidence of a different approach and outlook. It was believed that the Jewish poor could overcome their poverty, that, with a little financial help, they possessed the drive and ability to become self-supporting. By way of contrast, Gentile philanthropy did not share the view that self-advancement from poverty was widely possible. As well, the preoccupation with assimilation and anglicisation led Jewish philanthropists to be more demanding of their clientele and to place a higher premium on education as a means of changing their way of life.

On the other hand, the methods of the Jewish Boards matched very closely those practised generally. Maimonides' guide to 'Zedakah', particularly the injunctions to give joyously and in secret, was certainly not followed. An attempt in 1881 by a member of the Manchester Board to establish a secret charity fund that would give assistance without investigation was defeated. Me Board followed the established procedures of carefully investigating all applicants, and subscribed fully to the notion of 'scientific' charity. There is little doubt, perhaps because of the very size of the problem, that Jewish middle class relief work was not characterised by a particularly religious charitableness. This is, of. course, equally true of Christian philanthropy. It does seem to have been the case that immigrant mutual-help was closer in spirit and practice to older values. However, the lack of records and evidence (so far) makes it difficult to properly examine this aspect of Jewish philanthropy.

This paper has dwelt perhaps too much on Anglo-Jewish middle-class philanthropy; one reason for this has just been offered. Another is that this group did contribute most of the money and volunteer work that, together, are termed philanthropy. It is the conclusion of this paper that if there were any distinct features of Jewish philanthropy in the late 19th to early. 20th centuries, they arose more out of the nature of the, recipients, the immigrant proletariat, than out of the, outlook and practices of the donors.

Note (↵ returns to main text)

  1. Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society, 1902.

  2. John A. Garrard, The English and Immigration (1971), pp. 96-97.

  3. 14th Annual Report, Manchester Jewish Board of Guardians, 1880-81.


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