Scottish 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: 4 September 2016
Latest revision: 24 September 2017

Papers on Scotland

GLASGOW (Part 2)
by Tova Benski
This is part of a study which has been financed by the Social Science Research Council, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Faculty of Arts of Glasgow University, whose support is gratefully acknowledged

(Byhoveringyour mousecursorover the superscript footnote number in the text,
the wording of the footnote will appear in a pop-up box.)

(See also Introductory Paper on Glasgow)

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

Glasgow Jewry is a long established community and its origins take us back to the early years of the nineteenth century.

The earliest record of a Jewish settler in Glasgow known so far relates to Isaac Cohen who was admitted a Freeman of the City in 1812. He was a hatter, believed to have come from Manchester and "to have introduced the silk hat to Scotland". In 1817, an advertisement in the Glasgow Chronicle is found in which P. Levy describes himself as "the only fur manufacturer in Scotland". McFeat's Directory of 1819 has a reference to M. H. Schwabe and Gobert - merchants, and the 1822 Directory has e reference to Michael J. and H. Michael - Agents, auctioneers and furniture warehouse. The 1828 Directory has a reference to Joseph Levi - a quill merchant; 1831 - Davis Davis is described as "optical and mathematical instrument maker", who was probably the first Jewish person engaged in a professional occupation in Glasgow. In subsequent years more and more names appeared in the directories, such as 1832 - D. and J. Davis - jewellers; 1838 - Philip Asher - stationer and general agent; Mrs. P. Asher - furrier; Lekman Lesser - general merchant; Simon Prince - quill merchant; G. T. Ascher - "French fancy goods merchant", and so on.1 As can be clearly seen, the first nucleus of the present community was strongly trade orientated within the lines of what are considered to be the traditional Jewish occupations.

The only Census of Glasgow Jewry ever to be carried out by the authorities was in 1831. It was reported by James Clelland, the superintendent of the Works Council. He stated, "A Jews synagogue was opened in this city in September 1823. Mr. Moses Lesenheim is their priest, Hebrew teacher, and killer2."3 He found 47 Jewish persons - 28 males and 19 females, 11 born in Prussia and Poland, 12 in Germany, 3 in Holland, 5 in London, 10 in Sheerness and 6 in Glasgow. The main area of settlement was around the city centre, and the synagogue - which consisted of two rooms - was at 43 High Street, near Glasgow Cross.4 In 1830, the small community proceeded to acquire 125 square yards for burial purposes in what is now known as the Necropolis.5 This purchase was seen as a sign of acceptance and approval of the small Jewish community.

Until the 1870s the small Jewish congregation worshipped in a succession of synagogues around the city centre, mostly in one synagogue at a time, except for two periods of communal disagreement.6 However, during the 1870s, as a result of oppressive measures in Russia, many Jews fled to the West and Glasgow experienced a rapid numerical increase thereafter. This increase was strongly felt in, the small Jewish community, then worshipping in 240 George Street, in a synagogue which accommodated only 200 males and 60 ladies.7 A special meeting was called in 1875 to discuss the problem of seating capacity of the synagogue, and it was decided to purchase a new site and build a bigger synagogue. The new synagogue, with 445 seats, was consecrated in 1879 at the corner of Hill Street and Garnet Street. This synagogue, in the West End, became the centre of social and educational acthrity, and the congregation flourished and gained the respect of the non-Jewish Glaswegians.

With further persecutions in Russia and Poland, the Jewish community gained in size. However, the immigrants did not settle in the West End, alongside the older established community, but built their homes on the southern bank of the River Clyde. This coincided with a trend of business interests towards the south in the general community, and a small congregation of Jews grew in the vicinity of the Gorbals. New places of worship and Hebrew classes mushroomed in the 1880s in the Gorbals. These were broadly speaking branch synagogues of the Garnethill parent congregation which was known then as the Glasgow Hebrew Congregation. In 1899 a new south side congregation held services in Oxford Street, later to be known as the Chevra Kadisha Synagogue, and in 1898, a few minyans amalgamated and proceeded to purchase a site in South Portland Street. The new synagogue, consecrated in 1901, was later known as The Great Synagogue.8 This was another landmark in the history of the Jewish community.

A. Immigration and Population Figures

In 1831 Clelland found only 47 Jews in the city. By 1858 there must have been over 300 Jews in the city, as we learn from the seating. capacity of the synagogue in 240 George Street, which was 260. However, with the first wave of immigration during the 1870s, A. Levy estimates the size of the community in 1879 to be "less than 1,000".9 Others have estimated it to be "upwards 700", 10 and yet another commentator saw the figure of "about 2,000"11 as an accurate account of the size of the Jewish community at that same period.

By the turn of the century, with further persecution in Russia, the community was growing rapidly. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, many hoping to go to America, were often stranded with no money to continue their journey.12 There are no records as to the number of arrivals, and the estimates for that period are grossly exaggerated. However, by 1896 the Jewish population in Glasgow was estimated to be around 6,000, and in 1902, around 6,500.13

B. The Development of Jewish Organised Life

Historically, three processes can be distinguished in the formation of the early Jewish organisational structure in Glasgow.

The most common process of the formation of a large number of organisations has been, as in most other communities,14 through spontaneous associations which later crystallised into well organised groups. This is the general pattern of the emergence of the synagogue.

The second process is of organisations arising out of meetings or committees which were formed either due to a contemporary problem, or to deal with ad hoc problems, and continued to function, constantly re-defining their purposes. This is the pattern characteristic of the formation of the Jewish Board of Guardians (now known as the Jewish Welfare Board), the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council and a large number of charitable and relief organisations.

A third process relates to organisations arising out of the gathering of individuals with a set of common values, purposefully coming together and agreeing to create an organised group for the realisation of their goals. This is generally the characteristic pattern of the formation of the literary and discussion groups.

1. The Formation of Synagogues and Religious Organisations

The historical background of Jewish migration has given rise to a considerable number of synagogues and smaller places of worship. The first place of communal worship - at 45 High Street, opened in 1823 - was only the first in a series of successive moves. Until the consecration of Garnethill synagogue, the congregation worshipped in four different premises15 in succession, except for two periods of dispute. The first split occurred in the early 1830s when, due to what is described as disagreement of the way the services were conducted, a small sect, headed by Jonas Michael, conducted services at home. It seems however,.that this split can be better described as a struggle for leadership, especially when the size of the community at that time is taken into account. Clelland found only 28 Jewish males in 1831, and J. Michael with his sons mustered 8 males for minyan within the community and was therefore a force to be considered "where at times it must have been difficult to secure ten confirmed males necessary for public worship".16

No sooner had the two rival camps reunited when a second dispute tore the small community in 1842. At that time the congregation was worshipping at Candleriggs, and by a majority vote decided to move to more suitable accommodation at 204 George Street. This decision was met by an unexpected opposition on the part of a small minority. They claimed that the Andersonian Institute, where the premises of the new synagogue were located, possessed a dissecting room, and that it was against the principles of Orthodox Judaism to hold religious services under the same roof as that of the dissection of human bodies.17 The result was that the majority of the congregation moved to George Street and the dissenting minority remained to worship at Candleriggs. This conflict had peaked in 1843, when the problem of the burial rights of the dissenting minority arose. The whole issue was brought before the Sheriff of Glasgow who in 1845 ruled in favour of the majority group.18 The two congregations, however, reunited about 1850. There is some evidence of another split, in 1870,19 when a few seatholders decided to split from the congregation and formed themselves into the "Glasgow New Hebrew Congregation". They even applied to the Chief Rabbi in London for recognition. This, however, was not granted, and the two factions reunited in 1871 when the Chief Rabbi visited Glasgow. It is not clear what triggered off this split, however it is possible that the reasons lay simply with the lack of space in the synagogue at that time at 240 George Street.

The consecration of Garnethill synagogue in 1879 "constituted a distinct step towards the provision of adequate worshipping places in the city and was a frank recognition of the growing demands of the community".20 It is described as being "Romanesque" in architecture, and, as Chaim Bermant suggests, "the size and solidity of Garnethill synagogue suggests that it (the congregation) must have had men of considerable means among its congregants".21 The cost of the building including the cost of the site was about 14,000.22 Garnethill was known as the "Englisher Shul", as it had English speaking clergy and the sermons were conducted in English.

The beginning of the South Side congregation can be seen in 1880,23 with the establishment of the first minyan in the Gorbals, which was the first wave of small minyanim. These were mainly Landsmanshaft types of minyanim with the Minsker minyan, Pickeler minyan, Odessa minyan, and so on. However, since the majority of the immigrants came from Lithuania, another basis, which is probably peculiar to Glasgow, has arisen - minyans which centred upon one's occupation. Thus we can see the Tailors' minyan, which was attended by the workers in the tailoring sweatshops, and the Travellers' minyan, which was attended by the travelling salesmen. Henceforth, there are some conflicting reports of amalgamations and splits which seem to have occurred in the South Side.24 From the various reports it seems that in 1887, the Garnethill congregation, then known as the Glasgow Hebrew Congregation, received a petition to take over the South Side minyans, and in 1885 the Auxiliary synagogue became a branch of the main congregation. However, in 1898, the United Synagogue of Glasgow came into existence. The two communities became independent. The body consisted of the Garnethill congregation, the South Side congregation - an offshoot of the two main minyans, then worshipping in the Standard Halls in Main Street - and in 1899 the Oxford Street congregation, formed that year, had also joined the United synagogue. This body continued functioning till 1906,25 and incorporated the South Portland Synagogue, the first synagogue built on the South Side (1901) later to be known as the Great Synagogue.

2. Charitable and Welfare Organisations

A traditional task of every Jewish community is looking after its poor and sick. Thus, a large number of charitable and welfare groups sprang up towards the end of the 19th century. Virtually all of these were set up by the established West End community in an attempt to better the position of their immigrant co-religionists. Thus we can see the establishment of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society in 1879, the Glasgow Hebrew Benevolent Loan Society, established in 1888, and the Clothing Guild, established in 1893 "to give blankets and clothing to the poor".26  Most prominent amongst these, however, is the Jewish Board of Guardians, now known as the Jewish Welfare Board, the origins of which lie in the Jewish Philanthropic Society known to have existed before 1858.27 The fact that towards the end of the century the Jewish Board of Guardians also set up a Loan Fund is an evidence to the advanced conception of charity in the community. It also reveals that the outlook was not to the short term effects of relief alone, but to the long term result of these free interest loans which would enable the immigrants to become independent of further charitable institutions.

3. Jewish and Religious Education

The earliest record of Jewish Education can be said to appear in Clelland's report, with reference to Moses Lesenheim as "Hebrew Teacher". Later reports show 8 pupils in the Hebrew school adjacent to the 240 George Street synagogue in 1862.28 By 1874 there were 22 pupils in that same Hebrew school,29 by 1875 the number of children at the Hebrew school was 38,30 and with the wave of immigration into Glasgow, the Jewish Year Book reports 220 children in the various chedarim in 1896. Until the 1920s however, there was no attempt at establishing a Jewish day school.

4. Zionist Organisations

The beginning of the Zionist movement in Glasgow can be seen as early as 1891 when the Rev. Z. A. Maccobey addressed two meetings in Glasgow with a view to establishing a Glasgow branch of the "Society for Colonising Palestine by Jewish Emigrants".31 There is no record of this branch, and it was only towards the end of the century that Zionism began to attract notice in Glasgow.

C. Social and Economic Conditions

To have a complete picture of the historical background we must now examine the social conditions of the Jewish population in Glasgow in its historical perspective. As mentioned earlier, the first settlers in the 1820s tended to settle around the city centre, gradually, as they prospered, moving towards the West End.32 It seems that these were largely middle class well-to-do merchants, who by the 1870s were well established citizens, and "gained the esteem and respect of the non-Jewish citizens".33 And with wealth came the first sign of acculturation, which was legitimised by administering sermons in the English language.

When the first waves of immigrants started reaching Glasgow, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, there were already "Ladies Societies flourishing in Garnethill ready to welcome the newcomers with hot soup, old clothes and words of comfort".34

This wave of migration, as all the subsequent ones, settled in the Gorbals on the south side of the river Clyde, which was later known as the "Jewish Ghetto". Most of these immigrants were poor and hardly spoke any English. They lived in close quarters and their arrival triggered off a large number of benevolent and charity organisations for the relief of the poor. They were said to have brought with them traditions which were different from those of the established West End community, and it would be quite accurate to state that here we witness another meeting between the East and the West.

The Garnethill community consisted of mainly East European Jews, successful businessmen thoroughly acculturated and very much Anglicised. It was organised along the lines of the Anglo-Jewish community in London, which was headed by the Chief Rabbi Dr. Adler. He "moulded the community in its characteristic frame of Jewish traditionalism with English culture",35 and introduced the collared ministerial post. The religious life in Britain at the time lacked in scientific scholarship and in depth the Talmudic learning of Lithuania. This was mainly as a result of the lack of adequate training facilities for Rabbis in Britain. The offshoot of that was the existence of ministers (note, not Rabbis) who were sent to the various provincial communities including Glasgow, which at that time consisted of the Garnethill congregation alone. It was this well organised community, of successful businessmen, well on their way to assimilation who in the 1880s faced a period of change with the arrival of the immigrants from Russia and Poland. The new arrivals settled in the Gorbals and their life was organised in the ghetto pattern familiar to them, yet foreign to the West End community. They were very strictly orthodox, and a large proportion of them were Talmidei-Chachamim, who were very highly educated and Talmudic scholars.36 They were all penniless and had no knowledge of the English language. This wave of immigration also brought a large proportion of trained and semi-trained tailors, and this was the beginning of the clothing industry in Scotland, with small sweatshops established in the Gorbals. They worked long hours, were very poor, and more often than not had to accept food and clothes from charity organisations to supplement their income, as they had very large families. The more educated, however, not prepared to work on the Sabbath, took to commercial travelling and continued their scholarly Talmudic studies at night. Thus it seems that there was not only the economic but also an intellectual struggle, which preoccupied the community of the South Side. However, it was the economic struggle which explains the extensive missionary activity in the Gorbals and the rise of the Workers Circle, which supported the Labour and Socialist movements.

The above account only serves to demonstrate how different were the immigrants from the established community. They had a mixed attitude towards the West End community. On the one hand was admiration for their economic success, and a dependency upon them for dealing with local authorities. The West End community were at home, whereas the new immigrants were foreigners. On the other hand, having a superior Talmudic education, they could not be expected to accept the authority of the Minister of Garnethill who had no Rabbinical Smicha. To them Ministerial post was a "Goyish institution". It is not surprising therefore to learn that as soon as their economic position improved, their synagogues became independent.

Thus it can be seen that by the turn of the century there were substantially two communities in Glasgow: the West End community, mainly middle class successful businessmen, leading what is very similar to what is known today as a "suburban way of life", thoroughly acculturated and not very observant, and the South Side community on the other hand, which was mainly a working class Yiddish speaking community, strictly Orthodox, and with a "Ghetto" type of life style. It was however the latter which set the tone of the present day community, about 90% of which reside now in the suburbs south of the river Clyde.

NOTES    ( returns to main text)

  1. A. Levy, The Origins of Glasgow Jewry 1812-1895, A.J. Macfarlane Ltd., Glasgow, 1949, pp. 15-18.

  2. The "killer" refers to Shochet.

  3. James Clelland, L1.D., Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the City of Glasgow and County of Lanark for the Government Census of 1831, 2nd Edition, John Smith & Sons, Glasgow, 1632, p. 78.

  4. The Jewish Echo, 10.10.1969, "The Garnethill Hebrew Congregation, How it began".

  5. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 24.

  6. See pp. 5-6.

  7. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 39.

  8. The Jewish Echo, 22.3.1929, Dr. Salis Daiches, "The Jew in Scotland", lecture given to the Scottish History Society.

  9. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 47.

  10. The Jewish Echo, 10.10.69, "The Garnethill Hebrew Congregation, How it began".

  11. The Jewish Echo, 10.3.67, op cit.

  12. The original text here referred to these immigrants as being tricked by travel agents into stopping off in Britain, and to other immigrants embarking in Glasgow and Edinburgh ports (as well as the English ones) thinking they had reached America. These statement were removed (in 2017) as Prof. Aubrey Newman writes that this is no longer believed to be correct but "was a fairly common belief in the 1970s, before we had begun to go into detail on the mechanics and technical details of the migration process." 

  13. The source of 1896 estimate is The Jewish Year Book, 1896, p. 72. The source of the 1902 estimate is V. D. Lipman, Social History of the Jews in England, 1850-1950, C.A. Watts & Co. Ltd., London 1954, p. 85.

  14. E. Krausz, Leeds Jewry - Its History and Social Structure, W. Hoffer  Sons Ltd., Cambridge, 1964, p. 3

  15. The first move occurred in 1837 to the back premises of what at one time was the Glasgow Post Office and afterwards the office of the Glasgow Herald. The premises were situated at the south-west corner of Candleriggs - at the corner of Trongatc Street. In 1842, the congregation moved to 204 George Street, where they leased a few rooms in a building that previously accommodated the Andersonian Institute. In 1850, the congregation moved again to rooms in a top flat im Howard Street, and by 1858 the congregation moved again to 240 George Street where they worshipped till 1879 when the Garnethill Synagogue was consecrated. The above account is based on the various historical accounts referred to in previous footnotes, and on Rabbi Salis Daiches, "The Jew in Scotland"'in Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol. III, 1929, Edinburgh, pp. 196-209, pp. 206-207 in particular.

  16. The Jewish Echo, 10.10.69.

  17. A. Levy, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

  18. The Jewish Echo, 10.10.69.

  19. A. Levy, op. cit., pp. 42-44.

  20. The Jewish Echo, 27.1.28, Ellis Isaacs, op. cit.

  21. C. Bermant, Troubled Eden, London, 1969, p. 55.

  22. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 46.

  23. John Ord, The History of the Barony of Gorbals, Alexander Gardener, Paisley, 1919, p. 55.

  24. Accounts of these splits and amalgamations, some of these contradictory, can be found in Ellis Isaacs, Jewish Echo, 3.2.28; John Ord, 1919, op. cit., p. 117; Salis Daiches, in the Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 1929, p. 207; and A. Levy, op. cit.

  25. The Jewish Echo, 27.1.28. However, by personal reports it seems that the United Synagogue was only a formal organisation, and was formed mainly in relation to the Chief Rabbinate in London. Actually, all synagogues were financially independent, and can only loosely be said to have united.

  26. The Jewish Year Book, 1896, p. 73.

  27. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 51.

  28. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 43.

  29. The Jewish Echo, 14.2.75.

  30. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 43.

  31. A. Levy, op. cit., p. 51.

  32. The Jewish Echo, 17.2.75 - The document referred to in note 66 also lists the addresses of the office bearers, most of them in the West End, Argyle Street and Sauchiehall Street.

  33. The Jewish Echo, 27.1.28.

  34. Chaim Bermant, 'Portrait of a Community" in Jewish Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 10, October 1968, p. 12.

  35. V. D. Lipman, op. cit., p. 82.

  36. The Jewish Echo, 12.3.65.

Introductory Paper on Glasgow

Introduction to Papers on Scotland

Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain - List of Contents

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