Leeds 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)

Paper first published on JCR-UK: 7 October 2016
Latest revision: 11 December 2016


Rosalind O'Brien, Bristol

(This paper draws on research done for a study of Leeds Jewry 1860-1970, carried out
in the Social Science Research Council's Research Unit on Ethnic Relations at Bristol.
This study is shortly to be submitted as a thesis. July 1975)

(See also Introductory Data on Leeds)

(For the Community's earlier history, see "Leeds" in Cecil Roth's "The Rise of Provincial Jewry", 1950)

Reasons contributing to the rise of Leeds Jewry

Before 1840 there were negligible numbers of Jews living in Leeds. A member of the present-day Jewry reported that in about 1841 her great grandfather had been asked to move from Bradford to Leeds by the Leeds Jews so they could form a minyan. By 1877 there seem to have been about 500 Jewish families living in the city (Krausz, 1964:5). Thereafter, the rate of increase rose steeply, to reach 10,000 twenty years later in 1897, and 25,000 by 1907. (Lipman, 1954: 102 and 160).

Leeds was, for many Jewish immigrants, only a staging post on the long journey from Eastern Europe to North America. Having crossed from a Baltic port to Hull, the refugees would make their way across England to Liverpool to board a ship for America. In 1889 the Select Committee on Emigration and Immigration calculated that as many as 40% of the Jews in Leeds were in fact transient and did not intend to settle.

Chain migration played an important part in Jewish settlement in Leeds: many religious congregations named after particular towns in Eastern Europe which sprang up in Leeds give evidence of this pattern of emigration, and countless respondents reported that their grandfathers came to Leeds because they had friends or relatives already settled there. Owners of tailoring workshops sent back to their home towns for recruits; for instance Herman Friend sent to Russia for hands for John Barran's shop with which he was involved, and newcomers arriving from Kiev knew to apply to Levi Zagofski for work in his small tailoring factory.

The fact that there was tailoring employment in Leeds was a specific attraction to many Jewish immigrants fleeing from Eastern Europe. From records kept by the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter in London between 1895 and 1908, it appeared that approximately 30% of Jews arriving 'had made garments of some sort before coming to England" (Gartner, 1973: 58). The spectacular expansion of the tailoring industry in Leeds, following the introduction of division of labour and the invention of techniques of mass production in garment cutting and making, meant that not only were there abundant employment opportunities in tailoring, but also that trade as a whole flourished in Leeds and in an expansionary period there was work in other industries, - in furniture making, boot and shoe making, and in retail and wholesale trading.

Factors affecting the integration of the Jews in Leeds

Leeds stood in great contrast to both London and Manchester in that, when mass immigration started in the 1880s, the new immigrants found no long-established, Sephardi Jewish community already settled in the town, and highly anglicised. This meant that there was not a fundamental division within Leeds Jewry from the very beginning, reinforced and compounded by merchant class, adherence to the Sephardi tradition, and greater length of settlement. In practice, those families that had arrived earlier in Leeds tended to regard themselves and be regarded by the mass of immigrants who came later as something of an elite, but the distinction between them and the mass immigration was so slender - based as it was, solely on date of arrival - that over time it could not be maintained and naturally dissolved. Thus the mass of Jewish immigrants found no strong leadership or corporate consciousness when they arrived in Leeds, - nor did they have any reference group to which to look in the process of adjustment and anglicisation. While this may have had its disadvantages, it meant that they did rot have to oppose an entrenched minority within their own ethnic group which had vested interests in retaining its privileged position, nor did they have an anglicised, community "aristocracy" trying to hurry them out of their immigrant ways through control of educational, cultural and welfare resources.

One consequence of the absence of a richer, long established group of Jews in Leeds was the nature of the stereotype attributed to the Jewish minority by the wider community. In Leeds, up until after the turn of the century, the image of the Jewish minority was unequivocally one of a working-class, immigrant group, and this can be clearly seen in the local newspapers at that period. Respondents of the present-day Jewry, unprompted, would compare their local group favourably with that of Manchester, in terms of Gentile attitudes, and put it down to the fact that in Leeds there are virtually no Jewish money-lenders. Similarly in 1906, a Leeds correspondent wrote to the Jewish Chronicle "...The happy relations existing between Jews and Christians in Leeds are to be attributed to the democratic character of the community, or to be more explicit, to the proportionately small number of money-lenders existing in our midst." (6th July 1906.)

As already mentioned, the mass of Jewish immigrants arriving in Leeds found little institutional structure or corporate organisation among the resident Jews: it was the newcomers who set up, among other things, a Talmud Torah, Friendly Societies, Jewish trade unions, a burial society, and a workers' co-operative. There was little attempt to represent the minority to the wider community, - there was no organ that acted as a spokesman for the entire group, or that had a "mandate" from the Jewish population to act on its behalf or take responsibility for its actions. There was no institutional or ritual representation of the totality of the Jewry in Leeds. Thus, although there was no major, fundamental division of the Jewish minority into two separate sections, neither was there a high degree of unity or of integration. Rather than regarding Leeds Jews as forming one community, it seems more appropriate to see them as making up a number of more or less closely linked groups, or sections. A Jewish Chronicle journalist, writing in 1906, made the following comment: "The casual investigator into the conditions of the Leeds Jewish community cannot fail to be struck by the lamentable lack of co-operation that exists among the various sections." (29th June 1906.)

These sections within Leeds Jewry were made up of individuals belonging to the same synagogue, or having the same national origin, or holding the same political belief, and a Jewish person seemed to identify with this section or sub-group rather than with his entire local ethnic group, for the latter had no unitary, all- embracing structure, - no unified institutional framework. The entire Jewish population of the locality was never mobilised as a corporate entity, nor articulated as a cohesive body. The main groupings within the Jewish minority at the turn of the century derived from national origin (simplified in Leeds to a dichotomy between Litvaks and Pollaks), from degree of orthodoxy (ranging from ultra-orthodoxy to radical left-wing atheism), from economic situation (there was intense conflict between Jewish sweaters and Jewish workers in the tailoring industry, for instance), or from politics (even among the socialists, reformists opposed revolutionaries). Perhaps these divisions within Leeds Jewry diminished the tendency of minority members to regard themselves, or to be regarded, as a homogeneous group and therefore facilitated their integration into the local community.

Certainly in the field of trade unionism this effect can be seen to have operated. Those Jewish workers caught up in the evils of the sweating system were anxious to demonstrate their solidarity with the general English working classes and to dissociate themselves from the sweat-shop owners, the masters, who were largely Jewish. It has been argued that the Jewish trade unionists, by their success in labour organisation, did succeed in modifying Gentile anti-alien prejudice in Leeds prior to the passing of the Aliens Act in 1905 (Buckman, 1968 : 322 passim), In so far as Jewish individuals were acting in response to stimuli from the employment situation, rather than allowing ethnic considerations to override their economic interests, so they found themselves in some contexts identifying more strongly with their Gentile colleagues than with their co-religionists to whom they were in economic opposition. Thus, identification was with a section of Leeds Jewry, not with its totality.

In fields other than trade unionism, the Jews were also politically active in Leeds and this readiness to participate in local affairs probably contributed significantly to their integration into the non-Jewish society of Leeds. In 1899 the first Jew to be made a magistrate was one Paul Hirsch. This man was a very successful businessman and moved in Gentile circles with some ease and frequency. Although at one time the President of the Great Synagogue, by the end of his life he had moved so far out of the Jewish community that he was buried in a Gentile cemetery. The first Jew to win a seat on the Leeds City Council did not do so until after Queen Victoria's death, in 1904; and the first Jew on the Board of Guardians was not elected until 1912. There were no instances of Jewish Lord Mayors and Members of Parliament in Leeds until many. years later. However, the ordinary Jewish people took an active part in politics, and many political groups sprang up within their ranks, including vociferous socialist and anarchist organisations. In 1906 the Jewish Chronicle noted that in Leeds "the Jews hold the balance of electoral power in the Central and Brunswick Wards, and they always take a very keen interest in local and general elections". (29th June 1906.) Gerald Balfour was in fact defeated by the Jewish vote when he stood for Parliament in Leeds, because of his support for anti-alien restrictions. That the Jewish population was by no means united in political adherence is shown by the fact that Gerald Balfour's candidacy was strongly supported by one section of Leeds Jews, whose spokesman was the influential Dr. Julius Friend.

The political consciousness, and maybe more generally the anglicisation, of the Jewish immigrants in Leeds was greatly stimulated by the labour movement in the tailoring industry. Because industrial relations and conditions of employment in tailoring were matters of such importance to so many Jews in Leeds, the trade union concerned, - the Jewish Tailors', Machinists' and Pressers' Union - had a very strong influence on the local Jewish community as a whole, and on the shaping of its development in the political sphere and other areas of adjustment to British culture and society. Its club constituted one of the main social centres for the Jewish minority, and in the eyes of many Leeds people (both Gentile and Jew) the Jewish tailors' trade union seems to have gone further towards constituting a body representative of Leeds Jewry as a whole, than any other institution or organisation.

Despite the adverse publicity that the Jewish immigrants in the tailoring industry attracted around the time that the Board of Trade published its Report on the Sweating System in Leeds, in 1888, nevertheless the overall contribution that the immigrants made to the expansion of the Leeds clothing trade and, thereby, to the whole economy of the city cannot be ignored. Occupationally, the Jews were highly concentrated within a narrow range of employment, and it was not only in skilled jobs that the newcomers faced discriminatory exclusion. Respondents interviewed during the course of this study reported grandfathers who, before immigration, had worked in breweries, mines, and railways being unable to obtain work in these occupations in Leeds on account of being Jewish.

The concentration of Jews in tailoring in Leeds means that in certain sectors of the clothing industry and in certain institutions, Jews predominated, (and still do to this day). Gentile tailors, outnumbered by Jewish colleagues at work, learnt to speak Yiddish: non-Jews picked up Jewish habits of expression, humour, gesture and food preferences. As one present-day respondent put it "Nowhere are Gentiles as much like Jews as in Leeds". Although there was doubtlessly a certain degree of acculturation by the majority to the ways of the Jewish minority, by far the greater cultural adaption, was of course in the opposite direction, - an adoption of majority traits and patterns by the minority-group members.

Analytically, acculturation might be broken down into several different processes. The minority may adopt majority traits because they are the cultural patterns of the dominant majority (patterns concerned with social interaction and leisure-time pursuits are commonly of this kind) or it may adopt a similar response to some facet of the total social structure as that adopted by the majority (the greatly lowered birthrate of the Jews after settling in Leeds might be an example here). The immigrant minority might respond to the social structure of the receiving society in a different way to the majority, and yet this must still be regarded as acculturation (the way in which the Jews made such good use of the state-provided education in Leeds exemplifies this process); finally, the minority group might evolve new cultural patterns that have their antecedents neither in the pre-immigration Jewish culture, nor in the Leeds Gentile culture, but represent a case of genuine culture generation. (Voluntary-association activity, especially among the womenfolk of the present day Jewry in Leeds might qualify for inclusion here. Charitable, cultural, and social ends are served simultaneously by the fund-raising functions which are an integral part of most of the voluntary associations, and which are peculiar to the Jewish minority in their form.)

Acculturation entails the loss or modification of cultural traits, at the same time as the adoption of new patterns. In Leeds, the area of religious practice was one in which there was a conspicuous abandonment of pre-immigration patterns. The change to a more secular way of life on leaving the shtetl or ghetto meant, among other things, that full time commitment to religious study ceased to be regarded any longer as an ideal for adult males. A "yeshiva bocher" soon ceased to be an ideal or 'preferred' son-in-law in Leeds, and fathers of marriageable girls started looking rather for young men who might succeed economically. Among all the life-histories of early Jewish immigrants to Leeds, collected from their descendants in the course of this study, not one case of an English-born son becoming a "yeshiva bocher" was reported. This surely represents a serious modification of value and behaviour patterns that had formerly been followed in Eastern Europe.

The ease or difficulty with which a local immigrant minority adapts to the ways of its new host society must have some bearing on the success with which that minority is integrated into the local community. In so far as Leeds Jewry embraced values and ideals that were highly regarded by the Gentile society also, then they were "successful", and became upwardly socially mobile. Education was a sphere in which the Jews made very good use of the resources available to everyone and thereby improved their potential to succeed in the occupational and social fields. The Board schools in the Leylands - the district in which the Jewish minority was concentrated residentially - became almost totally Jewish over time, and became nationally renowned for high attendance rates and for outstanding scholastic achievement. As the Jewish enrolment rose at these neighbourhood schools there was complaint from the non-Jewish parents: in the log of the Darley Street School the headmaster noted, in the Spring of 1888, that "many of the Gentile parents were displeased because their children had holiday the week before Easter on account of Jewish Passover". But the staff of these schools and the education authorities were highly impressed by their immigrant pupils and the rapidity with which they learnt English and the 'earnestness with which they pursued their studies. "Since 1897, Gower Street School, which is exclusively attended by Jewish children...holds the record for attendance...with the almost miraculous percentage of 99.47." (Jewish Chronicle, 29th June 1906.) Not only were the pupils apt, but their parents were very keen for them to do well at school. In marked contrast to the Gentile parents from the same or similar class and district, the Jewish parents gave their children every encouragement to continue with their education and go on to secondary school; it was largely this factor that contributed to the disproportionate number of Jewish children who annually took up the Junior City Scholarships to go to secondary school, for the primary school headmaster was bound to ask the permission of the parents before entering pupils for the scholarship examination. By 1909, Jewish children were taking over 25% of the 150 scholarships awarded each year (Jewish Chronicle, 9th July 1909), in spite of their ethnic group constituting only a fraction of that percentage of the total population of Leeds at that time. [In 1904 the total Leeds population was approximately 437,000 and the Jewry's 25,000=5.7%.]

Again and again, during the collection of life-histories in the course of this research, the pattern was repeated: children of impoverished tailors were somehow supported through secondary and even university education, so that they then became professionals in the legal, medical, dental or teaching fields, generally. Few of these early Jewish graduates obtained non-vocational degrees.

Another area in which it might be assumed that a certain degree of development may have contributed to the success with which the Jewish minority was integrated into the fabric of the local Leeds community, is the area of minority organisation. To the extent that minority organisations provided the immigrant with means of self-help and mutual aid, with a psychologically satisfying framework of support, control and identification, and with a corporate basis from which to negotiate with the majority society, then the institutional structure of the ethnic group can be seen as promoting that group's integration and co-aptation. Developed beyond a certain degree, of course, all these three functions of minority organisation would hinder assimilation and tend to cause a pluralist type of situation to grow up, but up to a certain level there seems little doubt that an organised minority group is better equipped to adapt and adjust to the majority society than is a group with no internal institutional structure.

The chief organisation that the Jewish minority established for looking after the welfare of its own was the Leeds Jewish Board of Guardians, which was founded in 1878. Its funds derived from collections made among individuals, and from money granted to it by synagogues. Because of the lack of a wealthy section of the Jewish minority, the Board of Guardians was in effect taking from the poor to give to the poorer, and it was always very short of funds, - although this shortage may have been somewhat exacerbated by lack of co-operation among the different sections of the Leeds Jewish population. In 1894 its annual .expenditure was around 500, while by 1908 this had risen to almost 1,000. (Saipe, 1956 : 29.) The philosophy of the Board was to help people help themselves, and loans and grants were given in great numbers to enable immigrants to set themselves up in business, or to continue their journey to North America. Every effort was made to keep Jewish people from going to the work-house, and in relation to the size and poverty of the Jewish group, very few Jews received Poor Law Relief in Leeds:- in 1891 only 11, 1894 - 120, and in 1906 - 147. (Buckman, 1968 : 447.)

In 1899, another institution of great significance to Leeds Jewry was set up, and that was the Leeds Jewish workers' Burial and Trading Society. This was a co- operative whose aims were to provide members with burial for themselves, their wives and children with no additional payment, and to supply members with Kosher meat at the cheapest possible price.

A further institution of self-help and mutual aid that was highly developed in Leeds Jewry was the Friendly Society. The earliest was founded in 1852, and by the end of the Victorian era there were numbers of these associations in Leeds. Members made weekly contributions, then drew benefits at times of sickness, bereavement and (in some cases) unemployment. Some lodges were dividing societies or "tontines", and the accumulated funds were disbursed at the Jewish New Year and Passover. Some of these Friendly Societies were associated with trade unions: V.D. Lipman notes two in Leeds in 1901. (Lipman, 1954 : 120.)

Many other associations concerned with welfare sprang up in the last years of the nineteenth century among the Jews of Leeds, and Kransz writes that "apart from the Jewish Board of Guardians, at least ten charity organisations were founded". (Krausz, 1964 : 11.)

The main function of these charitable associations was undoubtedly the relief of hardship, but they also had a secondary and very important function of providing their members with a framework within which to do voluntary work, to interact with other Jews, to identify with the ethnic group and generally to feel that they 'belonged'. Other institutions had these social and ethnic goals as their ostensible and main aim. The Leeds Jewish Institute, founded in 1896, falls into this category of organisation. Less obviously, but arguably, the Talmud Torah and the proliferation of "chevrot" or small congregations could also be included here, as their function was to promote religio-ethnic identification. The Talmud Torah was founded in the late 1870's, and in 1888 a Leeds Hebrew School was inaugurated which operated in the evenings on the premises of the Board School in Gower Street. The number of synagogues and chevrot increased in Leeds throughout the reign of Queen Victoria, and in 1901 stood at around ten.

One final group of organisations that should be mentioned here is the Zionist ones. The earliest Zionist association in Leeds was formed in 1898, and there was also a small intellectual movement called the Hebrew Literary Society which pursued cultural and educational activities associated with Zionism. This laid the early foundations for what was to become a movement of supreme importance in the Jewish minority in Leeds, boosted as it was by the advent of Selig Brodetsky to live in the city.

Then considering institutions that provided the Jewish immigrant with a corporate basis from which to negotiate with the majority, the one that springs most readily to mind is the Amalgamated Jewish Tailors', Machinists' and Pressers' Union. This became known nationally for its successful organisation of clothing industry labour. It was founded in 1893 although it was built on earlier Jewish tailoring trade unions that had preceded it. England's first official strike of a Jewish trade union had been called in Leeds in May 1888, but there had been an unofficial strike even earlier than that, in 1885. Having begun with an initial membership of 100, six years later, in 1899, this number had risen to 1,200 and the union remained a very strong and stable one, unlike any that was achieved in the tailoring industry in the East End of London, or elsewhere. There has been much discussion of why this trade union was so successful in Leeds, and it is generally attributed - in part at least - to the fact that tailoring work-shops in Leeds tended to be larger, and orders were more regular, than in London, because Leeds sweatshops tended to fill large orders for the wholesale factories.

It has already been suggested that the activities of the Jewish tailoring trade union diminished anti-alien feeling in Leeds, and there is evidence from local newspapers that many Leeds Gentiles admired and respected the Jewish minority for the way in which it coped with so many of its welfare problems itself. The extent to which social, cultural and religious organisations helped Jewish people in their adjustment to life in. Leeds is difficult to assess, but at the cost of appearing "clannish" and exclusionist to the non-Jews, these Jewish institutions, by providing an alternative, minority, status system, might be considered to have had a positive effect on the ability of the Jewish minority member to cope successfully with the life in a new and different majority society.


Thus the fact that geographically Leeds was strategically placed on a migration route, the fact that once immigration started a chain reaction came into effect, the fact that there was tailoring work in Leeds when so many Jews had some kind of tailoring experience, and the fact that Leeds was in a state of economic expansion and development at the time of mass emigration from Eastern Europe, - all contributed to the settlement of a sizeable Jewish minority in Leeds.

The consideration of the factors affecting the integration of the Jews in Leeds was started by a discussion of the composition and degree of homogeneity of the Jewish minority. The effects of the absence of a"long-established Jewry and the lack of a minority- wide unity were also considered. It was suggested that Jewish participation in local politics contributed to the penetration of majority networks and circles by the immigrant Jews, and the role of political con- sciousness, and the contribution that the Jews made to the expanding clothing industry and Leeds' economy were also discussed.

A consideration of acculturation followed, and of the ways in which the behaviour and value patterns of the minority changed in response to the new situation facing it after immigration. The extent to which the post-immigration values of the Jewish minority contributed to the success with which it was integrated into the local community was assessed, with particular reference to education. Minority organisation among Leeds Jewry was examined at some length and was considered in terms of its supplying the immigrant with means of self-help and mutual aid, of its providing a psychologically satisfying framework for support, control and identification for the minority member, and of its establishing a corporate basis from which to negotiate with the majority society. In all these aspects the institutional structure of the Jewish minority in Leeds was found to have contributed to the adaptation evolved between the Jewish minority and the Gentile majority in Leeds.

Buckman, J. 1968     : "The Economic and Social History of Alien Immigrants to Leeds, 1880-1914." Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Strathclyde University
Gartner, L. P. 1973     : "The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914" (2nd Edition). Simon. London.
Krausz, E. 1964     : "Leeds Jewry", Heffer. The Jewish Historical Society of England. Cambridge.
Lipman, V. D. 1954     : "The Social History of the Jews in England, 1850-1950". Watts. London.
Saipe, L. 1956     : "Leeds Tercentenary Celebrations." Booklet of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council. Leeds.


Introductory Data on Leeds

A Sketch of Leeds Jewry in the 19th Century by A. S. Diamond

Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain - List of Contents

Leeds Jewish Community home page

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