Assimilation and Integration: The Experiences of the Jews of Leeds 1851 to 1861

This week’s article is written by Sophia Lambert, a BA History student at Leeds Beckett University. Sophia utilised the books and resources in the Local and Family History department as part of her research on the Jews of Leeds between 1840-1920.

The official date given to mark the establishment of the Leeds Jewish communities is 1840, which was when the first synagogue was opened on Back Rockingham Street. What is less well known is that from the mid-seventeenth century, Jews began to settle in Leeds. They predominantly came from Germany, including the optical instrument manufacturer, Gabriel Davis, who later became one of the founding members of the Leeds Jewish communities. Many of the Jews who settled in Leeds during this period were German woollen merchants attracted by the town’s thriving woollen industry. But why refer to the Jews of Leeds as communities and not a community?

2nd April 1908. View past the new Shul looking towards clothing factory on Brunswick Row, which fronted onto North Street. The Leylands area had a high concentration of Jewish immigrants living there. This synagogue was erected to provide for the needs of the community. It was the Beth Hamedrash Hagodel Synagogue. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

The Jews of Leeds were not a united community but were instead several diverse communities made up of people from different nationalities and social classes. My dissertation explored the varied experiences these communities had of integration and assimilation from 1840 to 1920, which I explored through three themes: settlement patterns, Jewish women’s philanthropic work, and Jewish cemeteries. When I talk about how the Jews assimilated, I refer to how the Jews became absorbed into the local community and British society, making them less visibly identifiable. However, integration means that the Jews were involved in the Leeds Jewish communities, and they were also a part of wider British society. My research focused on how the Jews of Leeds tried to hold onto different aspects of their identity, including their nationality, culture, and religion. I also looked at their involvement in Leeds’ charities and civic institutions.   

The first section of chapter one of my dissertation discussed the demographics and settlement patterns of the Jews of Leeds between 1851 and 1861. The resources held by the Local and Family History Library were an instrumental part of my research for these topics including, Aaron Kent’s book, Identity, Migration and Belonging: The Jewish Community of Leeds, 1890-1920. This book offered a detailed insight into the changes in the identities of the Jews of Leeds and the structure of the town’s Jewish communities. Ernest Krausz’s book, Leeds Jewry, was also very useful for finding out about the early history of the Jews of Leeds.

Approximately 100 Jews were living in Leeds in 1851. I took a representative sample of of a total of 76 men and 46 women from the 1851 and 1861 Census returns that I accessed via Ancestry.com for free from home as part of my library membership. Many of the Jews who settled in Leeds during the 1850s were predominantly single, young male traders and hawkers from Russia and Poland. Jewish women formed the minority of settlers in Leeds in 1851. The majority of the women came from Russia to marry men who had already arrived in Leeds; only seven women in the sample were middle-aged and were predominantly born in the South of England.

My research revealed that in 1851, several families and individuals lived in the Leylands around Templar Street. The Leylands was situated in between Lady Lane and the junction of Regent Street and Sheepscar South Street. In this area of the town, over ten Jews lived in lodging houses in St John’s Square, which was just off Lady Lane. Those who lived in St John’s Square were predominantly unmarried Jewish men who had recently arrived in Britain from Germany, Russia, and Poland. For example, Simon Tannenberg was one of the five unmarried Polish hawkers living at a lodging house in 8 St John’s Square. By living together in the Leylands, the Jews could form support networks to help each other find work and strengthen their cultural, national, and religious identity. The Census returns that I used in this representative sample indicated that it was not uncommon for people who had the same job or shared the same nationality to live with one another or nearby.

1891 Photograph taken in July 1891, St Johns Square, which was situated off Lady Lane, the entrance in was from Lydia Street. The houses were in poor condition, a later photo from 1909 shows numbers 10, 11 ready for demolition. These are the two houses on the right. (c) Thoresby Society, http://www.leodis.net

Initially, some of the newly arrived Jews integrated better than others. However, the communities lacked a united leadership to organise the new arrivals and encourage them to integrate because the main Jewish institutions including, the Leeds Jewish Board of Guardians, were not established until the 1870s. The challenges of encouraging the new arrivals to integrate became more apparent later with the rising tide of Eastern European Jews who arrived later in the nineteenth century.

The Leeds Jewish communities contained a small lower middle class group of Jews, mainly skilled professionals. Some of these individuals had been living in Leeds for over twenty years by the 1850s. Alongside some of the traders and hawkers, they later formed the established Leeds Jewish communities. Some Jews settled near those who lived in the Leylands; others lived on Belgrave Street and Merrion Street, near where the Merrion Centre now stands.

1970s. View of numbers 13 to 15 Belgrave Street. On the left number 13 is a two storey property which was once occupied by the caretaker of The Great Synagogue, next door, to the right, at number 15 Belgrave Street. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

Several small business owners and their families lived in the town centre on the Lower Head Row in 1851, including Marcus Hickman, who lived with his wife, Sarah, and their children. Marcus, a Polish shopkeeper, had lived in Leeds since the 1830s. My research also revealed that other Polish Jewish families lived on the same street and in the surrounding area.

I identified two middle class German Jewish families who lived in the Woodhouse area, which was quite far from the Leylands and was mainly where the upper and middle class gentiles lived. Despite living away from the Leylands, Gabriel Davis played an essential part in establishing the Leeds Jewish communities and their institutions during this period. In 1837, Davis secured the land on Geldard Road from the Earl of Cardigan for the communities’ first cemetery, the Leeds UHC Cemetery, which is still used today. From The Leylands to Leeds 17 by Diane Saunders and Philippa Lester, which is available at the Local and Family History Library, the book was helpful for finding primary sources and information on the Jews like Gabriel Davis.

Davis and many other middle class Jews who settled in Leeds became very well assimilated into British middle class society. He became involved in several local organisations, including becoming a subscriber to the Leeds Distressed and Poor Fund. He also joined the Freemason’s Lodge of Fidelity in Leeds.

The records available for local and national organisations on Ancestry.com and Murray Freedman’s book, 25 Characters in Jewish Leeds History held by the Local and Family History Library, provided the primary source material and information about some individuals in the representative sample in this part of my dissertation. I recommend searching the library catalogue as the library holds books and primary sources about a range of topics relating to the Jews of Leeds including, demography, social welfare, sport, and literature. Many of these books also cover the communities’ history during the twentieth century.

The Leeds Jewish communities were characterised by social mobility and a transient population. Because a lot of Jews did not stay for long in Leeds, this made it harder to retain the same people in the representative sample of the population for 1861. By 1861, 219 Jews lived in Leeds. My research revealed that the European Jews, who mainly were newly arrived, working class immigrants, continued to settle in the Leylands as they fled persecution in their home countries and looked for better employment opportunities. They often lived in the same streets as the Jews who came to Leeds during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the pattern continued of those who shared the same occupation living close to one another. Many newly arrived Eastern European Jews continued to look within the Leeds Jewish communities for support and strengthened their national and cultural identity rather than integrating and assimilating.

9th September 1907. Shop on corner, number 35 brick building terraced, B Cohen Wholesale & retail, tailor & dressmaker, trimming. Some men hold a measuring pole up to one of the houses watched by some children & young men. Two girls & a man are on the corner. Street is cobbled with puddles visible. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

One of the people featured in my sample was Herman Friend, who arrived in Leeds in 1852. He was a Polish Jewish tailor who lived on Templar Street and five Polish Jewish tailors who lodged with him. There were also other Polish Jewish families listed in the 1861 Census return as living on Templar Street. Friend quickly integrated well into British society and the local community in Leeds while remaining an essential part of the Jewish communities in the town. People well respected him outside of the Leeds Jewish communities. He was also the Vice-President of the Belgrave Street Synagogue.

Friend was employed as an outworker for the Liberal MP and businessman Sir John Barran and adapted the divisional labouring system to the tailoring industry. This decreased the production time for manufacturing suits in his workshop, situated on the corner of Lady Lane and Vicar Lane. The tailoring and textile industries were rapidly expanding in Leeds, partly explaining why more Jewish tailors settled in Leeds. Also, Friend brought Jews from Russia and Poland to work in his workshop.

Middle-class Jews continued to settle on Belgrave and Merrion Street and outside of the Leylands. For example, Simon Tannenberg moved to 5 Dodsworth Court, Briggate, by 1861 and established a jeweller’s firm after lodging in St John’s Square in 1851. Tannenberg was just one example of the Jews of Leeds who quickly became prosperous after moving to Britain and subsequently moved to better housing outside of the Leylands.

26th October 1954. View looking towards Trinity Street from Dodsworth Court,off Briggate.There is a lamp above the archway, and a man can be seen stood by a van underneath it. ‘J.Graham’ sign is visible.Drainpipes and windows can be seen. Ladders are piled up onto a cart. A trolley is beside them, to the right of the photograph. (c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

The Leeds Jewish communities were diverse, as Jews came from across Europe and England. They settled in different parts of the city and not just in the Leylands. Some were more willing to integrate and assimilate into British society than others, which also contributed to the diversity of these communities. The lack of a united leadership and the diversity of its population is why the Jews of Leeds formed communities and not a community.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Shaun Cohen says:

    I am surprised you make no mention of the struggle regarding Jewish workers, both men and women, to form trade unions .

  2. I lived among the Jews of Leeds during the 1930s. My mother from the turn of the century and my grand-mother from the 1870s.
    All we knew were our dear friends. Some eventually becoming relatives. Why some of the German Jews were interred during the Second World War puzzled me has the baker who taught me to bake bread disappeared during late 1939.
    Most were Polish Jews and Russian Jews that were friends of my parents that visited us regular and we lived within their community. We lived in Darley St at that time next door to our Jewish cousins. The Jewish School was at the bottom of this Street but had closed and moved elsewhere. The School was used has a Technical School for Building workers. We later moved to Lower Brunswick Street where the Synagogue had become The Salvation Army.
    Also I should check the adaption of piece work in tailoring, as my grandmother who had worked for Montague Burton when he started in a house in Whitelock Street. Invented the piece working system. John Barran’s were known for inventing the Band Saw, which enabled the cutting out of many garments at once.
    The Belgrave Synagogue later became an Anglian Church

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