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It's a Small World

by Harold Pollins

Originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 140, Summer 1996

Apologies for the cliché but it is appropriate. I was doing some research on the history of the Jews in Oxford, intended to supplement the late David Lewis’s work. Much of what I did was an examination of the Census returns for Oxfordshire, those for 1841 to 1891 being available, picking out the Jewish names - David had done much basic searching and I was filling in the gaps. One of those who lived in Oxford for many years was Abraham Davis, a jeweller; he was in every Census from 1841 to 1881 and died in 1888. He had two wives, the first being Maria, and David suggested, from her name, that she might not be Jewish.

By a somewhat convoluted route I found - although it was not my discovery - that Maria Davis was in fact Jewish, her maiden name being Harris, the daughter of Abraham Harris. I was put in touch with Jonathan Harris, a descendant of Abraham ‘s brother, Solomon Harris. We exchanged correspondence in which the name of Barney Barnato was mentioned. That struck a chord, and not just because he was a well-known, perhaps notorious, character in the history of South Africa (although born in the East End of London). A member of my wife Lena’s family produced a family tree some years ago and Barnato is on it. Actually, the tree is not completely accurate: it gets his wife’s name wrong, and Jonathan put me right. The important thing, though, is that Barney Barnato’s mother Leah was a daughter of the same Solomon Harris (the uncle of Maria Davis of Oxford).

I did not have Lena’s family tree to hand at first, but Jonathan told me that another daughter of Solomon Harris, Rose, had married a Godfrey Phillips and they had fourteen children. He had plenty of information about the Phillips family, including the fact that one of the children, Catherine (Kate), had married Isaac Isaacs and one of their children, Hetty, had married Joseph Israel, who had a son, Harry, who had a daughter, Lena, who had married a Pollins. ‘Any relation?’, he asked.

I replied immediately. ‘It’s me!’, along with a correction. Harry is Lena’s brother. I was, it seems, quite legitimately on someone’s computer. We have the ketuba of Kate Phillips and Isaac Isaacs, who were married in the Great Synagogue in London in 1884. I recovered Lena’s family tree; I had remembered that on it were the fourteen Phillips children born between the 1850s and 1870s. Another London family, the Isaacs, with ten children were on the chart. Four of them had married four of the Phillips children. There they all were, on the chart, the name Godfrey occurring very frequently among the descendants of both families; six cousins at one time bearing that name. Others were named Rose or were given one of the names of the fourteen Phillips children.

More important, at the top of the family tree was Solomon Harris, the father of Rose. I suppose I must have noticed his name before but had not taken it in. A quick calculation demonstrated that Lena and Jonathan, descendants of Solomon, are fourth cousins once removed.

So it is a small world. We have lived in Oxford since 1964 but we can claim to have a connection with one of the earliest, nineteenth-century, Oxford Jewish residents. It is a notable extra for someone like me, whose paternal ancestors arrived in Britain in 1888, perhaps at about the same time that Abraham Davis died, two months before my father was born.

Many thanks to Jonathan Harris and to Dr Anthony Joseph who put me in touch with Jonathan.

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