The Jews of Wrexham
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It is often said that the first Jewish congregation in North Wales was formed at Wrexham, a market town in the north-east of the country. This was in September 1894 but it has been pointed out that Bangor was formally consecrated in May 1894 and therefore claims priority.(i) There is no doubt that a few Jews began to settle in Wrexham at that period, and some may have arrived in the late 1880s(ii) and a few were recorded in the 1891 Census. The first Jewish child to be born in the town was Mary Glantz, daughter of Max, a pedlar; she was born in 1892.
As so often happened in provincial Jewish communities there had been much earlier (and temporary) residents. Three were captured as early as the 1861 Census, when the household head was German-born George Levi, a 30-year old painter and glazier, married to Margaret, a 21-year old from Liverpool. This couple had a German-born boarder named Myers Goldman, also a painter and glazier. They then disappear from the records. The next Census in which Jews are recorded was in 1891.
The announcement in the JC about the first attempt to organize the Jews of Wrexham was in September 1892. The local newspaper just before then announced the existence of the Jews in Wrexham.(iii)
THE JEWISH COLONY. – As our readers are aware, there is now in Wrexham a small colony of Jews. We are informed that a room has been taken at the old Guildhall which will be used as a synagogue. Certain formalities have to be complied with before services can be commenced, but these will soon be overcome. We believe the religious duties will be discharged chiefly on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, advantage being taken of the lull in business engagements which come particularly on the first and last of the days named.
The subsequent JC Report had this to say(iv)
At a meeting held in Wrexham at the residence of Mr S. Rosenthal it was decided to hold services on the coming Holydays in temporary premises, Manly Road. Mr Rosenthal was elected President; S. Karasov Vice-President; B. Adler, Treasurer; Mr S. Green Hon Secretary. A committee was elected to decide upon erecting a permanent building. This will be the first congregation in North Wales..
However, two years later the JC reported:(v)
First general meeting of the Jewish inhabitants was held last Sunday. Chair S. Myers.
Of the four men mentioned in 1892 only Samuel Rosenthal, a Russian-born draper, was recorded in the Wrexham 1891 Census. He then moved away and is not mentioned in 1894. The other three men, not in the 1891 Census, were probably Joseph Carasov, although he had a child born in the spring of 1892 in Chester, and his first child born in Wrexham was in 1896. He was a Russian-born clothier and draper. B. Adler was undoubtedly Wolf Adler who by 1911 had become William, a Master Tailor, who was in Manchester in 1892 then moved to Wrexham where a child was born. Like others, he moved on, first to Chester, then Liverpool and Newcastle. The fourth man, Green, must have been Samuel Green, who in a newspaper report of a court case gets a mention as a ‘traveller’ (sc pedlar).(vi) Otherwise he is not traceable.
Only Green and Adler were officers of the congregation in 1894. but Moses Levenssohn was no newcomer, being recorded in the 1891 Census. He was also recorded in a court case of 1891 when a woman was charged with stealing a shawl value 8s the property of Mr Moses Levensohn(sic), general dealer, Wrexham Market Hall. She was fined 10.6d and costs.(vii) Similarly Solomon Myers, a furniture dealer, had been recorded in 1891. Two temporary newcomers were Abraham David Epstein, a commercial traveller in jewellery, and Emanuel Nove, a painter and later a builder, who had two children whose births were recorded in Wrexham in 1893 and 1895.
A report of the death in 1937 in Liverpool of Bernard Harris, 73, stated,(viii) ‘He established the Wrexham Hebrew Congregation and served as President for a number of years’. This must refer to Barnet Harris and he certainly became President but not until after 1900, as he was in Liverpool until 1902 when a child was born there; his first Wrexham child was born in 1904 and he was elected President in 1908. The newspaper report is clearly wrong about his role in founding the congregation.
The Censuses give us only a rough idea of the growth of the community as they do not include temporary, inter-Census, residents. For what they are worth these are the Census figures, the Jews selected on account of name, country of origin, and occupation. In addition names were obtained from mentions in newspapers.
In the 1891 Census there were four households, one family (parents and three children), and three households with sets of two brothers (the third household also included a sister and a cousin). Including boarders and others these households totalled 15 people of whom 10 were adult males, enough to form a minyan.
The people who were in Wrexham in the early 1890s were augmented by a larger number of newcomers to the town. Three of the 1891 households remained in 1901. One was headed by Hannah Myers, the wife of Solomon Myers who had become bankrupt and had left for South Africa. Ellis Rosenthal had married in 1892 in Manchester, and had produced offspring. The third ‘oldster’ was Moses Levenssohn and in 1901 his household contained a child of two and a half named Aby (but with a blank space in the column for relationship to the head of household) and a non-Jewish housekeeper, named Sarah Roberts. This couple had four more children by 1911 having married in 1905. He had been active in the congregation in the early 1890s but having cohabited and then married a non-Jewish woman he seems to have withdrawn from the community. His last recorded official position in the congregation was in 1906.
The 1901 population was 53 comprising eight families with 39 members including lodgers, and four lodgers in non-Jewish households. The incoming population amounted to 43 of the 53. The big increase was in the first decade of the twentieth century when there were 79 Jews recorded in the 1911 Census, although it is not known if all had joined the congregation.(ix) Almost all were newcomers and representatives of only two of the 1901 families remained. The major one was headed by Ellis Rosenthal, a pawnbroker and jeweller, the sole survivor of the 1891 Census; Joseph Meyer Mack, draper and clothier was by himself, his family having gone to Liverpool. But his brother, Henry Mack, draper, now married and with one child, remained in Wrexham. In addition two families, who had resided in Wrexham earlier, now returned. Joseph Glantz had been recorded in Wrexham in 1891 as a pedlar, had moved to Manchester and Chester, and was now back in Wrexham as a poultry dealer. Joseph Haft had been a jewellery traveller but was now a patient at Woburn Sands where the Jewish Sanatorium for Consumptives was situated. But his wife and family had returned to Wrexham.
Some of the second generation settled down and integrated quickly. Between 1894 and 1900 the local newspaper, Wrexham Advertiser, printed reports of school activities. The following were mentioned: Moses Epstein, prizes for Conduct and Algebra; Samuel Adler, first in 220 yard race, and success in Religious Knowledge examination; Abram (Abraham) Carasov obtained a Certificate of Merit in an examination and another for Religious Knowledge; and there were two footballers – J. Adler was in his school team and John Carasov was in a team which won the Challenge Shield of a local league. But it was not until 1935 that I. W. Reuben became the first Jew to be elected to the Town Council.(x)
Several occupations have been mentioned but the overall picture is as follows (women are in brackets):
Generally, these were characteristic Jewish immigrant occupations but a few points are worth making. Unlike in South Wales there was only one pawnbroker and there were few glaziers. The one clerk is unusual as perhaps were the seven women in paid work (apart from the tailoresses). The increase in the number of travellers is noteworthy, as one would have thought that earlier immigrants had moved out of that field; their increase in 1911 may reflect the fact that they included a number of recent arrivals. However, one particularly unusual occupation was that of Morris Volinski, who was resident in Wrexham when naturalised in 1918. As John William McKey he was a jockey and was employed by Captain Dewhurst of Newmarket.(xi)
We can get an idea of the business arrangements of at least one early settler, pursuing a traditional immigrant activity. They were described in the 1893 bankruptcy proceedings of Moses Levanssohn, a general dealer and draper. The newspaper described him as a Russian Jew, formerly resident in Wilna, who had left Russia 9 years before. At Wilna he had kept a restaurant and summer garden and supplied the military with food. When he first came to England he travelled with fancy goods and jewellery, and first set up a place of business in Wrexham in about 1886. At the start he had a shop in the market for two days a week and travelled the rest of the week. In 1888 he had a capital of £165 in cash and stock worth £35 and had shops in the market permanently. He kept two travellers, sometimes three. His brother Solomon was in his employ for about four years and he owed him £254.19s for wages and also lent Moses money. From May 1892 he carried on business at the Central Arcade, Wrexham. In 1891 he was in partnership at Rhyl as tobacco and cigar dealers with Mr Eisiski. Became aware in November 1892 that he was insolvent. Goods were invariably paid for in weekly instalments. Bad trade in the district and the closing of a works meant that people left the district or did not pay.(xii)
It is clear from the foregoing that the Jews of Wrexham were quite peripatetic. A few, it is true, apparently went straight to Wrexham on immigration. One was Benjamin Harris who had five children born in Russia, the last one being in 1904, but his first child born in Wrexham was in 1905. More typical was that of Joseph Haft. He was resident at Liverpool, then Chester, followed by Wrexham, but moved away to Manchester before his wife and family returned to Wrexham. It will be noticed that such movements were between fairly local places, all in the north of England. But this is to forget Solomon Myers who went to South Africa and the family of Max Glantz who went, without him, to Canada in 1906, followed six years later by Max.(xiii)
Although the documentation is thin and weak, the first turbulent years of the congregation can be sketched. The first synagogue was in the Old Guildhall, Hill Street which was visited by the Chief Rabbi on a pastoral visit in 1896.(xiv) Evidence of a split came with a report about the New Hebrew Congregation, which had a Hebrew School. A few months later there was a reference to the Old Hebrew Congregation. Whatever the causes of this rupture it did not last long, and they were reunited in August 1899.(xv) There remains the question of the locations of the places used as synagogues. As well as the Old Guildhall, another location was in Queen Street, which the local newspaper noted, at the end of 1899 and also of 1900, as the synagogue of the Hebrew congregation. However, in August 1900 the synagogue was described as located in Bradley Street (subsequently identified as at number 84), where the New Year services were held in the following month.(xvi) It needs to be stated that these synagogues were not purpose-built premises but usually they were rented, sometimes above a shop.
It remained a small community – in 1908 there were said to be ten Jewish families in the town – pulled together, it seems, by a charismatic minister, Rev M. Berkowitz. He was appointed towards the end of 1906 and there were positive reports of his abilities: in March 1907 the President thanked him publicly for his devotion to the community. Three months later he was appointed Marriage Secretary, although only one Jewish marriage was ever solemnised in Wrexham. That was in 1899, was not held in a synagogue but in St James’s Hall, and was conducted by a Liverpool minister.(xvii) Within a couple of years Berkowitz had gone and there was talk of uniting the two congregations of Wrexham and Chester.
Early in 1908 a meeting was held in Wrexham to discuss this unification but the proposal was negatived. The chairman of the meeting was Joseph Meyer Mack, a former picture-frame maker but now a draper. He was obviously upset by this result and wrote an indignant letter to the Jewish Chronicle which is worth reproducing in full.
SIR.- I wish to appeal to you with reference to the Chester and Wrexham congregations. As you are aware, Sir,
for many years a struggle has been going on, and at last we have managed to arrive at a settlement. In the meantime,
many members have left Wrexham, as they had no prospect of obtaining Jewish education, &c., for their children.
Such has been the case in Chester also, and it has been a great disadvantage to us. This, in my opinion, is caused
by the conduct of those at headquarters (London) who sent us a man incapable of creating a new spirit in a people
who were so much oppressed and who have learned to differ one from the other. If any prominent gentleman
would visit these small places at least twice or three times a year, he would learn what is required to effect an
improvement. The numbers would not diminish, but increase. At present Wrexham cannot keep the congregation
in going order for lack of support, as the whole matter practically rests with one family and its connections,
who constitute more than one-half of the whole body. I firmly believe that if the two communities could come
to a thorough understanding, we would be able to keep a good man to teach us the habits and customs in the
peaceful land wherein we dwell. The journey between both places only occupies about twenty minutes and
whatever each community is able to pay will be satisfactory, as we do not seek any individual interest. If
something is not done soon, both congregations will disappear. Had I been in office when Mr. Berkowitz was our
minister, he would not have left, and Wrexham and Chester would, ere now, have been united.
This letter was replied to by Manuel Blank of Chester (a travelling draper in 1901 who became Mendel Blank, a draper dealer, in 1911). He had earlier been the Honorary Secretary to Chester congregation. He wrote that the scheme that Mack proposed was unworkable. Friction would arise through a minister officiating for two congregations though only separated by a rail journey of 20 minutes. Difficulties would arise on Sabbaths and Festivals. Also religious instruction to children could only be given in the evenings. Amalgamation would give rise to greater difficulties and it was better to leave things as they were. His own congregation had no intention of amalgamating with any other congregation.(xviii)
The records are silent about this matter for the next few years. Wrexham certainly appeared to be going its own way. It had a representative at the Board of Deputies and its own Minister but in 1911 Rev Wolf Jacobs left. It is possible that his departure was connected with the news that soon afterwards it was reported that at a special Chanucah service in Chester, later in 1912, 'The attendance included a number of coreligionists from Wrexham, the Wrexham congregation now being affiliated with that of Chester'. The report continued, 'Praise is due to the Rev Mr Kalmanovitch for the manner in which he trained the children both at Chester and Wrexham, and for the great progress they have made during the short time they have been under his tuition'.(xix) The actual date when the two congregations became associated is not known, but presumably it was at some time during 1912.
It should be emphasized that this was an affiliation, not an amalgamation; the two congregations remained separate organizations but came together for such matters as a joint minister and for educational provision. Rev Kalmanovitch, for example, in 1914 entertained members of both congregations to an ‘At Home’ and he and his wife were presented with a suite of furniture by them.(xx) Yet, his successor, Rev Grayewsky, who appears in the JC several times from 1917 to 1918, appears to have worked for Wrexham alone. Thus his first entry, in February 1917, speaks of ‘the congregation; which numbered thirteen only. In October 1917 he is referred to as ‘Rev G. Grayewsky, Wrexham’. In January 1918 ‘An examination of pupils of the Religion Classes was held at the residence of Mr M Ruben(sic). Members of the congregation were delighted with the progress of the children since Rev Mr Grayewski(sic) had taken charge of the entire instruction. Thanks to Mr Grayewski and Mr and Mrs Ruben for placing the use of their houses for the Classes.’(xxi)
Yet his successor, Rev M. Franks, was referred to as minister of the Chester and Wrexham congregations and the following year the representative of Chester and Wrexham at the Board of Deputies was mentioned as was an advertisement for a shochet and teacher for the Chester and Wrexham congregation. And as late as 1933 the Central Committee for Jewish Education awarded a grant to Chester and Wrexham, as one entity.(xxii) This appears to be the last reference in the Jewish Chronicle to any form of congregational activity.
During the Second World War, there was probably an increase in the population through evacuation. Children certainly were evacuated there in the early part of the war and in December 1939 Rabbi Dr S. M. Lehrman and Mr H. Beacon of Liverpool visited Wrexham to inspect the religion classes conducted by Mr S. Coleman on behalf of the (Liverpool) Greenbank Drive Synagogue Education Committee.‘Religious services and instruction are held regularly for the Jewish evacuees. ’The headmaster of a local school gave assurance that attendance at the classes and services would be made mandatory.’ And there was a birth in Wrexham in 1943 to a couple with an address in Barnes, as SW11, whom I take to have been evacuees.(xxiii) Yet the (incomplete) Register of September 1939 recorded several families who were long-term Wrexham residents, including those of Reuben Silver (travelling draper), Hyman Black (travelling draper), William Berkovitch (Burke) (manager of a gowns producer), and Israel Turner (tailor). Three of them continued to live in Wrexham until they died, Israel Turner (died 1946, Reuben Silver (1948), and William Burke (1983).
Perhaps this wartime increase may have led to a resurgence of the community as exemplified by a report that in 1945 they celebrated Rosh Hashanah at Gladstone House, although no more is recorded of it.(xxiv)
After the Second World War the information about congregational matters peters out; in its place there are announcements of births, marriages, and deaths, as well as engagements and a bar mitzvah. These details, of new names, indicate a trickle of newcomers to the town. There are references to individuals living in Wrexham into the 21st century but at some point the Wrexham congregation ceased to exist. The last entry in the Jewish Year Book was for 1950, but it was likely to have been well before that year, its exact, final, date not yet found.
Wrexham’s Jewish community came into existence in the period when numerous local groups were set up throughout Britain and its history was similar to theirs. Why Wrexham should have been selected for a settlement is a matter of speculation. It was a market town at a time when the Welsh economy was expanding and opportunities existed. Individual families seemed to try out several towns before coming to Wrexham (and in many cases moving on). It cannot have been an encouraging town for any Jews who wished to carry out familiar Jewish rituals. There was a synagogue, although not a purpose-built one, and the location changed from time to time. Presumably there were services, but it is not known how frequent they were. There were ‘ministers’ from time to time, men who acted as shochet, chazan, and teacher, badly paid and none lasting very long. There was no kosher butcher and while the shochet could kill the animals in the approved way he was, according to Rev Abraham Snadowitch, under the control of a non-Jewish butcher who would interfere in the arrangements.(xxv) It is known that there were Hebrew and religion classes and reports on them were generally favourable despite the turnover of teachers and the problems associated with the affiliation to Chester, some 13 miles away. There is no record of a benevolent society but the community collected money for Jewish war victims in Eastern Europe and also for Palestine (after the Balfour Declaration.)
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