Provincial Jewry
in Victorian Britain




Extract from papers on
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain

Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newmanfor a conference at University College, London, Jewish Historical Society of England
Reproduced here with Prof. Newman's kind consent)


Page created: 6 March 2017
Latest revision: 7 March 2017


by Nigel Grizzard - Research Officer of the Board of Deputies

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The information for this paper is drawn from the half yearly reports from 1851-1874 and the annual reports from 1875 to 1901, of the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews. These list the main events of the period in which the 'Board' was involved and this paper concentrates on those that concerned the provinces.

Many of the matters that the Board acted upon involved the whole Anglo-Jewish Community. These included such items as - the appointment of Marriage Secretaries - a duty for which the Board was responsible to the Registrar General for all the Orthodox Synagogues in Britain, the Factory Acts as they related to the Jews, polling on Sabbath and Festivals in local and especially in Parliamentary Elections, obtaining facilities for Jewish candidates to sit University examinations on days other than Sabbath and Festivals, obtaining facilities for Jewish Servicemen to observe their faith, and any Parliamentary Legislation affecting Jews.

From its formation in 1760 the Board was essentially a London based committee, and only in 1913 was the title changed to 'The Board of Deputies of British Jews officially known as the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews'. For most of the period 1851-1901 the deputies from the London Synagogues outnumbered those who represented provincial congregations and even then most of the provincial deputies resided in London.

The bulk of the Board's work in the early part of this period was concerned with Foreign Affairs. A large amount of the Home Affairs section in the reports is taken up with letters to various members of the Royal Family on the occasion of their celebrating a joyous event or in obituaries for Royalty and former Government Ministers. It was only after 1881 when the Russian immigration was started in earnest that Home Affairs tend to take an increasing significance.

The effectiveness of a specific community's representation depended on its deputy; in many cases the question was whether a synagogue could afford the luxury of a deputy at all. Between 1851 and 1883 the method of representation was such that the running costs of the organisation were apportioned to each congregation according to the number of its deputies. This meant that the amount due per deputy varied with.the Board's expenses and the number of deputies. For example, in 1853 there were 58 deputies and the levy was 1.19.3d. for the half year, for each deputy. By 1859 the number of deputies had fallen to 25 and the half yearly levy had risen to 6.16.4d. This system obviously penalised the small and poorer communities who might find themselves faced with a comparatively large bill to pay at the end of each half year. Thus in 1859 the Bath Synagogue informed the Board that it was unable to meet its arrrars of 12.11.11d. In 1871, Article 6 of the constitution stated that 'all congregations of Jews in the United Kingdom might elect one deputy and if they had more than 200 male members they could elect a second deputy.1. However, there was still nothing to alleviate the plight of the small communities until finally on the 23rd February 1883 a conference to revise the constitution was convened.

As a result of this, Clause 31 of the New Constitution instituted a Capitation Allowance for smaller communities. Part of this clause stated:

That all the expenses of the Board shall be assessed upon and paid by the congregations represented at the Board in the following manner.

Each provincial congregation, the male renters of seats on the 1st day of Iyar in any year that shall not exceed altogether one hundred in number but shall comprise ten male renters of one year's standing or upwards being bona fide residents in the town in which the synagogue or congregation is situate shall contribute towards the expenses of the Board for the next ensuing year a sum of 2/- for each and every male renter of a seat in the congregation on the aforesaid 1st day of Iyar; the residue of such expenses for the same year shall be contributed by all other representative congregations proportionately.2.

Thereafter the smaller congregations could be represented on the Board and know at the beginning of the year exactly how much they would have to contribute. When the constitution was again revised in 1881 it was decided to fix the maximum levy for each deputy at 9 per annum.3.

One of the functions of the Board which it considered most important was ensuring that Jewish marriages and burials were carried out in accordance with the Law of the land. At the same time the Board endeavoured to see that British legislation took into account the Jewish practices. For example, in 1849 the Board was in communication with the Government about a Bill in progress in Parliament for the registering of births and marriages and deaths in Scotland. The Whig Government of Lord John Russell agreed to take notice of the Board's solicitor's suggestions. However, at this stage the Bill was withdrawn. In 1854 when the Bill was again mooted, the President Sir Moses Montefiore, and the Secretary, Samson Samuel, met with the Lord Advocate of Scotland with the result that clauses in the Bill wore modified to suit people of the Jewish faith.4.

The reports often contain articles about irregular Jewish marriages, a practice that mainly occurred in the provinces. Many of them were between uncle and niece, a situation legal in Jewish law but illegal in British law. Other problems concerned divorcees who had received gittin but no Civil divorce. The reasons for the provincial preponderance appear twofold:

a) in many of the smaller communities there were no Jews sufficiently conversant with the relevant British legislation.

b) family relationship between the parties was known and came to light after the marriage whereas in London where the community was much larger it was possible to retain anonymity.

The Board, the Chief Rabbi and the Registrar General did all they could to remedy the situation of the marriages. In 1888 after a form of marriage of a Jewish woman and her father's half-brother had been celebrated in Hull - even though the Chief Rabbi and the Registrar General had refused to sanction it - the Board's powerful Law, Parliamentary and General Purposes Committee actually, prepared a draft Bill designed to stamp out abuse of the marriage laws by Jews and force the community to abide by British law. The Bill was submitted to Parliament but there was no time available in the session to debate it.

There were also problems associated with burials. In February 1896 a complaint was addressed to the Board about alleged abuses in the running of the Sheffield Jewish cemetery. It was claimed that among other misdemeanours corpses had been interred without death certificates being obtained. The Board inquired of the Sheffield community about the veracity of this information but received conflicting replies. In May the Chief Rabbi visited Sheffield on a pastoral tour and together with Mr. S. M. Harris, the Deputy for Southport, the charge was investigated. Some of the complaints were found to be true but the matter was cleared up and the Chevra Kadisha given proper guide lines on how to carry out their work.

In the nineteenth century the Board was very conscious about the need for accurate statistics of the Jewish community. In all the reports - except those from 1853-1855 - data are given by Synagogue for the numbers of marriages, deaths and seatholders. In some years figures are also provided for the number of male and female births; however, the Secretariat of the Board was aware that the accuracy of the returns varied with the Synagogue. In the 1881 report there is an estimate of 62,656 for the Jewish population of Britain based on the number of interments (1,297) and the Annual Death Rate for England and Wales for 1830, which was 20.7 deaths per mille. However, a rider was added that mortality in the rural districts was 4 per cent lower than in the main towns, where the majority of the Jews resided, so that the true figure for the Jewish population may have been lower than the estimate of 62,656. This shows there must have been someone with some statistical knowledge and ability associated with the Board for at the time of the 1891 census it went out of its way to ensure the full participation of the Jewish community, especially the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. It was stated in the 1881 report that a religious census was needed in order to provide accurate figures for the Jewish population of the whole country.

The 1895 report regretted that the Synagogue secretaries did not always prepare their returns on the same basis and asked for the following guidelines to be adopted:

1) No female births were to be asked for as the numbers were nearly always inaccurate.

2) The returns for the number of seatholders were misleading as there was no uniform definition of seatholders. In future figures were to be returned for the number of seats paid for instead of the number of seatholders.

Obtaining consecrated ground for the burial of the dead has always been an important concern of any Jewish community. In 1880 the Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent) Jewish community wanted a burial ground and applied to the Board for assistance as they could not afford to purchase a plot. The Board wrote to the Town Clerk asking for a portion of the local cemetery to be granted to the Jewish community, and the Corporation resolved to grant the community the land.5.

While the Jewish communities in the main industrial cities of Britain were rapidly increasing as a result of the Russian immigration, some of the congregations in the smaller market towns were dying already. In 1887 the Board was notified by a Christian resident at Kings Lynn, Norfolk, about the neglected condition of the disused Jewish cemetery. Through the good offices of the Chief Rabbi, funds were collected from the descendants of those buried in Kings Lynn, and plans were made to restore the cemetery.

The 1893 Annual Report noted that there were disused cemeteries at Kings Lynn, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth, Falmouth, Exeter, Gloucester and Sheerness, and that the cemeteries at Bath, Cheltenham and Penzance would soon become disused. Since there was no one to maintain most of these cemeteries the Board undertook to supervise their maintenance. It was estimated that the cost would be 60 per annum and to this end a Disused Cemeteries Fund was established.6.

Over the years the Board undertook a variety of occasional duties on behalf of the provinces and it is perhaps of some interest to investigate a representative sample of these.

In Mareh 1897 the Board was asked to obtain the release of two Jewish girls aged 11 and 13 who were detained against their mother's wishes in a Convent in County Monaghan, Ireland. The Law and Parliamentary Committee investigated the case and discovered the girls' father had been a professional strongman, who had travelled around Ireland exhibiting feats of strength. In 1891, when the girls were aged 5 and 7, the father put the children in the care of a Catholic woman in Monaghan and promised to pay for their board. In 1893 the father died and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Dublin. The children were then sent to a Convent by the Catholic lady. From then until March 1897 the mother, with the help of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation, tried unsuccessfully to obtain the release of her children. In 1897 the Board successfully petitioned the Government with the result that the children were returned to their mother.

In 1880 the Delegate Chief Rabbi, Dr. Hermann Adler, drew the attention of the Board to a report in the Middlesbrough Daily Gazette about a trial before Judge E. R. Turner, in the Middlesbrough County Court. The case was brought by a Jew, Lewis Levi, who wanted to recover some money owed him. The Judge was reported to have told Levi that it was part of the Jewish religion to carry out usury and a Jew ought not to complain if he was cheated. The Board's Secretary, Mr. Lewis Emanuel, wrote to the Judge and asked him whether the report in the Daily Gazette was accurate. After a lengthy correspondence the Board was able to obtain a written apology from Judge Turner and a retraction of the abusive remarks was published in the local press.

The Board also attempted to prevent minor intra-communal squabbles in the provinces from being brought before the Courts. One case where the Board intervened was in June 1893, after an application was received from 20 Jewish inhabitants at Portsea (Portsmouth) complaining of discrimination levelled at them by the rest of the community whereby this group found it difficult to obtain burial rights in the only Jewish cemetery in the town. The Board tried to persuade both parties to agree to go to arbitration before the Board and to accept its decision as final, but it was unsuccessful in obtaining the agreement of both factions. There was no more the Board could do and the dispute was taken to the Courts with the result that the scandal was made public.

When considering the space devoted to the concerns of specific communities there appear to be certain areas in the Provinces whose problems were greater than those of the rest of the country. In the 1881 and 1883 reports there were cases about the intolerance shown by the Stipendiary Magistrate at Merthyr Tydfil, towards Jewish witnesses who objected to signing depositions in court on Shabbat. At Aberdare in 1880 the School Board Chairman stated that if Jewish girls who were candidates to be pupil teachers objected to sitting examinations on Shabbat, then they should not be employed in a State School. The three girls involved in the incident were the daughters of Mr. David Hart of Aberdare and he took the case to the Board. The Board enlisted the help of Mr. Sergeant Simon, M.P. and questions were asked in the House. Mr. Mundella, M.P., the Vice-President of the Committee of Council Education, intervened and the girls were able to sit new examinations. They all were admitted as pupil teachers, yet after a few months they were dismissed from their posts, supposedly as one was not making sufficient progress, and the other two girls were no longer needed. The Board again made enquiries about the truth of the matter, but had to admit defeat when Mr. Muniella replied that he could not interfere with the workings of the School Board.

In Limerick in April and May 1884 a Jewish home was attacked and other Jews were set upon in the streets. The offenders were caught and sentenced to various terms of Hard Labour. The Board was urged to send someone to Limerick to investigate these incidents but it felt this unnecessary as all the trouble seemed to have ended following the conviction of the hooligans. In Cork in 1893 Richard Kelly, the Revising Barrister of the City, made offensive remarks towards the character of foreign Jews. Professor Marcus Hartog of Queen's College, Cork had contacted Kelly and received a written apology from Kelly and the Board used its influence to publish the apology in the local press. Two years later Rev. Myers wrote to the Board from Cork asking for advice because the anti-Parnellites threatened violence to the Jewish electors if they voted for partition in the forthcoming election. The Jews were afraid to leave their homes and had been advised that it would not be safe for them to vote. In reply the Board told Rev. Myers that the Jews should inform the police of the threats and should vote in the election. In the event the election passed off without trouble.

It is interesting to note that these incidents were important indicators of tension which were misread by a complacent Board, since Limerick in 1904, and the South Wales coalfield in 1911, were to be the scenes of the only pogroms to occur in the British Isles since the Resettlement.

In retrospect the Board served the community well in the early part of the Victorian era, but when the East European immigrants arrived in the industrial areas bringing with them many new social problems, the Board. which was basically a London Committee, often found itself unable to provide them with adequate support and guidance because of a lack of knowledge of the specific local situation in the provincial towns.


Appendix I - Analysis of Deputies, 1851-1902

Appendix A - Representation at the Board of Deputies

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  1. London Committee of Deputies of the British Jews, the Sixth Half-Yearly Report, for ADAR, 5631 - March 1871, London, 1871, p.10.

  2. Annual Report 1883, p.37.

  3. In the 1850s the total expenditure was of the order of 250 per annum; this had risen to about 350 per annum by the late 1880s.

  4. The Act is entitled - An Act to provide for the better registration of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland, 7th August 1854.

  5. In the report there is a list of earlier precedents where local authorities gave the Jewish community a burial ground or a separate plot in the local cemetery; these were Great Yarmouth, Southampton, Norwich, Portsmouth 1858, Aldershot 1865, Belfast 1867.

  6. Sheerness was a special case as the funds obtained from the sale of the Synagogue were invested and used to maintain the cemetery.

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