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Solomon Moses Mitchel
a Transient in Oxford

by Harold Pollins

Originally published in Oxford Menorah Magazine, issue 208, September 2013, pages 27-28


I was doing some research on the history of the modern Oxford Jewish community, part of which was to compile a list of Jews who had lived in Oxford. The main task ended in 1939 as the numbers during the Second World War became too large. I relied to a large extent on the Census, 1841-1911, supplemented by such sources as the Jewish Chronicle.

One name caused me trouble. David Lewis, in his history of the Jews of Oxford, refers to a general meeting of the congregation in December 1892, which decided to take a lease on the property which was to become and remain the site of the synagogue. He lists the names of the residents and undergraduates who attended the meeting; one of the names was that of Mr. S. Mitchell, a new one to me, and I wished to find out more about him. Since this was very near the 1891 Census I tried to find such a man in Oxford at that Census. I could not find him; nor was he living elsewhere.

However, I was able to identify him from some news items in the Jewish Chronicle. In October 1894 the Chatan Torah at the East London Synagogue was Mr. S. Mitchel and it described him as ‘formerly of Oxford’. This was clearly the man despite the different spelling of his name.  He must have been proud of his Oxford connection as at least two notices of births to his wife say also ‘formerly of Oxford’ (JC 26 February 1897) and ‘late of Oxford’ (JC 8 June 1900).

Eventually I found him to be Solomon Mitchel, in a death notice of his brother Abraham in 1910. This gave some information about the family, including the parents’ names – Michael and Menucha Mitchel. In the 1891 Census I found the family with 4 sons (but no Solomon). The family was living at 17 Buxton Street, off Brick Lane, and this was the address of Solomon Moses Mitchel on his marriage certificate of July 1891, the ceremony taking place at the Great Synagogue. At the 1891 Census the father, Michael Mitchell[sic], was a Teacher of Hebrew, although a few months later, at Solomon’s wedding, as Mitchel Mitchel, he was described as a Dealer and, at later Censuses, more specifically as a Sponge Traveller(1901) or Sponge Dealer: Pedlar (1911). Similarly, at his wedding, Solomon was a Sponge Merchant.

I obtained a copy of Solomon’s 1899 naturalisation file, from The National Archives at Kew. He was born at Birze, Kovno [sc. Birzai], on 5 July 1867, his parents being Michael and Minoucher Mitchel. He claimed to have lived in Britain for 17 years (ie from 1882) and specifically in Oxford from 1883 to 1893, and afterwards in London.  

This information created a problem as in the Census of 1891 the family had all been born in Russia, including the youngest, aged 4, ie born about 1887. They must have emigrated after that date. If Solomon had arrived in 1882, as he claimed, was he a ‘pioneer’ emigrant, subsequently followed by the rest of the family? Moreover, there is a problem about his sojourn in Oxford. He said that he had lived there from 1883. There exist in the Bodleian Library the minutes of the general meetings of the Oxford Hebrew Congregation, 1885-1900.  A great friend, Bill Clennell, a retired librarian of the Bodleian, kindly looked them up for me. Mitchel (usually spelled Mitchell) appears at many meetings, but the earliest was in 1887, four years after his claimed arrival in Oxford. Moreover, it was not until 1890 that he asked to be elected a member of the congregation, and this was approved at 2 shillings per week towards the shochet and an annual seat rent of 21 shillings.

Despite this, in 1891, he was married in London.  Solomon’s wife, Leah Finberg, was the daughter of another Sponge Dealer, who had immigrated in the 1860s and all of whose children were born in London.  I take it that the trade interest had brought the couple together.

The couple, although married in London, took up or resumed residence in Oxford,  and a son, Israel, was born at 6 Paradise Square, St.  Ebbe, on 10 May 1893, the father, Solomon, still described as a Sponge Merchant. However the boy died soon afterwards and this may have been a factor in the family moving back to London.  Paradise Square had been the location of the first Oxford synagogue, of the late 1840s.

The Mitchels’ oldest surviving child, Betsy (sometimes Bessie) was born in London in the summer of 1894 and, as mentioned, the father was sufficiently well-known to have been appointed Chatan Torah in the autumn of that year when he was aged about 27.  Incidentally, his Chatan Bereshith was Sunny Finberg, perhaps a relation of Solomon’s wife especially as he was also a Sponge Merchant.

Solomon and Leah lived most of their life in the East End and in Hackney. He was active in synagogue matters, being a member of the Board of Management of the East London Synagogue and of the Council of the United Synagogue. In 1914 he was President of the Bethnal Green Great Synagogue, and 5 years later was a Warden of the South Hackney Synagogue.

His wife, Leah, died in Hackney in 1932, aged 64. Solomon also died in that borough in 1951, aged 84.                   

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