Early History of the Jews of Stockton-on-Tees
Originally published in Shemot, magazine of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain,
(By holding the cursor over the superscript footnote number in the text,
Stockton-on-Tees was one of a number of Jewish communities in north-east England that came into existence in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but it was unique in two ways. While the new communities were associated with the immigration of eastern European Jews in that era, the first Jewish families in the town were British-born. And, later, in 1906, when the synagogue was opened, it did so, unusually, debt-free (most provincial communities were saddled for many years with the financial burden of their synagogue’s construction). Here I discuss that history up to the formation of the synagogue.
A preliminary point is that Stockton, in County Durham, was located very close (some 4 miles distant) to Middlesbrough in Yorkshire and the latter was in the Stockton registration district. The Hebrew congregations of both towns often worked together, but the history of Stockton Jewry can be studied separately. The first evidence of Jews living in Stockton was in the 1860s. Five Jewish children were born there in that decade as well as another doubtful one. The father of three of them was Canterbury-born Isaac H. Hart, an outfitter, who had three children born in Sunderland before settling in Stockton where the earliest of the three, Mary Ann in 1862, was the first Jewish child born in the town. The other British-born settler was Joseph Lyon, a boot and shoe maker, born in Liverpool, whose first child, Flora, was born in Stockton in 1869. In the following year Lyon was summoned for assaulting a man who was distributing bills (‘flyers’?) and was struck by Lyon when passing the latter’s shop. His defence in court was that he was greatly annoyed by boys distributing the bills in front of the shop. Lyon’s foreman was unable to identify the plaintiff and the verdict was that the defendant pay 10s and costs.1
These two men, Joseph Lyon and J.(sic) H. Hart, were the first to be mentioned in the Jewish Chronicle. That was in 1872 when their contributions to the building of the Middlesbrough synagogue and schools were noticed, on two occasions Hart being the conduit through which contributions were made by non-Jews.2 They remained in Stockton for a period; in the case of Joseph Lyon the last of his eight Stockton-born children was Stanley Yates Lyon, born 1885, before the family left for Hackney where they appeared in the 1891 census.3 Joseph died in 1895 aged 67.
The connection of the Hart family with Stockton was longer. Louisa, Isaac’s wife, was in Stockton in 1900 when she died and one child, Henry Hyman Hart, remained in Stockton after he married in 1901. However, despite their longevity neither man appeared to be active in the Stockton Jewish community. Neither did the head of the third Jewish family of the 1860s, Henry Shepherd, a Polish-born glazier, whose son was born in the town in 1869. The family disappears after the 1871 Census.
The fourth family of the 1860s, headed by Gershon Groskop, is more problematic. There were many Groskops in Britain, who appear to be mostly non-Jewish. The Stockton one had a particularly Jewish forename (but it was changed to George in the 1881 census), was born in Russian Poland, and was initially a traveller, a Jewish immigrant trade. However, he married a non-Jew so would probably not have been part of a Jewish community.
Jewish communal activity began in the 1870s when apparently there was some form of congregation. It lasted for a century; when the synagogue was to be sold in 1972 the Jewish Chronicle reported, ‘An organised community was founded in the early 1870s’.4 This is confirmed by a statement in the obituary of Jacob Marks, who died in Birmingham in 1920 after 42 years service there. It says that he had previously served as chazan and shochet in Middlesbrough and Stockton. The first reference I have found of him in Stockton is in a local newspaper of 1875. The item is headed ‘‘SLAUGHTER OF THE FIRST BULLOCK FOR THE USE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE IN STOCKTON’. It stated that on Wednesday the first bullock for the use of the Jews in Stockton was slaughtered by Rev. J. Marks, the newly-appointed Rabbi, assisted by Mr L. Crutch and Mr Fryer, in whose premises it was performed – Mr Fryer being selected by the congregation to supply the bullock and also to sell the hindquarters etc.5 [Fryer was a butcher.]
Jacob Marks’s 42 years in Birmingham began about 1878 just about the time he was leaving Stockton where he had two children, Hiram Julius in 1876 and Cicely Sarah in 1878. It is noteworthy that the 1875 newspaper report refers to ‘the congregation’ yet there is no record of one being formed. He was followed by Samuel Gordon who was described in the 1881 census as ‘Hebrew minister’.6 He is described in a Stockton court case of 1883 as ‘a scripture-reader to the Jewish community in the town’. The description continued that he was ‘the officially-approved slaughterer of every beast which is eaten by local 'sons of Israel', and was also a vendor of Dutch clocks and old clothes.7 This means he was the shochet and probably the chazan, characteristic occupations of Jewish ‘ministers’ of the period.
It would seem that there was some sort of congregation, perhaps an informal one, and one needs to add that in 1879 ‘the Jewish Ladies of Middlesbrough and Stockton have established a Benevolent Society’.8 But this does not mean all was harmony among the community. In 1878, three men - Morris Myer, pawnbroker of Stockton, 'Mr Cohen of Stockton' [i.e. I. M. Cohen], and Jacob Marks - were summoned for the non-payment of 'pew rent' by the Middlesbrough Hebrew Congregation. On Myer's behalf it was stated he only took the seat in order to get the meat killed by the Jewish slaughterer. Jacob Marks said that as an officer of the congregation he was entitled to a free seat. But it was shown that for a greater part of the time that he occupied the seat he did not hold the office of slaughterer. All three lost their cases.9 These three men belonged to the Stockton community and perhaps this meant that in the early stage they worshipped in the Middlesbrough synagogue. Or it could be an error in the reporting, and the Stockton congregation was meant
A second example was in April 1881, when a Jewess named Hannah Gobbett (actually Gabbitt) appeared at Stockton Police Court in answer to a summons charging her with a breach of the bye-laws. It seems that a Hebrew glazier named Joel Block was ‘putting in a square’ at a house in Park-field when the defendant (whose husband is also a glazier) happened to catch sight of him. She issued a ‘volley of fiery epithets’ and a crowd collected. When brought before the bench she said that Block had insulted her in the market. After hearing a vast amount of mostly unintelligible mumbling by Block and Gobbitt the case was dismissed.10
However, arrangements were made for a cemetery. The wording of the report in the Jewish Chronicle is interesting. In February 1884 it noted that in December 1883 Mr I. M. Cohen, as the oldest member of ‘the Jewish congregation of Stockton-on-Tees’, addressed a letter to the Burial Board of the town applying for a grant of land and separate space in the cemetery for the burial of Jews, on payment of the same fees as by others. This was agreed provided it was fenced off.11 This was the second reference to a congregation in Stockton, made just a few months before a meeting of Jewish residents at the Victoria Coffee Palace, in the autumn of 1884. The stated purpose was to form a congregation and it led to the creation of a formal congregation which had a long life. A report of the meeting announced that while there were poor families, and only about 10 persons were in a position to contribute to a synagogue, the money required for a synagogue had been promised in the room. This was to pay for a ‘comfortable’ place in Skinner Street, which would be fitted up by Mr Sanderson, contractor, for a synagogue. The report noted that only a short time before those same few members contributed £60-70 for railing around ground set aside by the Corporation for a Jewish burial ground. Clearly there were some members with means.
Whatever the earlier arrangements of the 1870s (for example, who appointed the shochet and who determined the prices he could charge? – Was there a board of management with named officers?) now there was a proper structure, so at least there was an organisation. At the 1884 meeting a board was elected : President Mr I. Cohen, Treasurer and Certified Hon Sec Mr A. Michelson, Committee M. Myers, I. Alston, and M. Jacobs. Moreover, Mr Solomons(sic), at present temporary shochet in Middlesbrough, was elected as chazan, shochet and Hebrew teacher. There were 25-30 children able to go to school but who got no religious instruction.12 The work on the synagogue was done quickly and it was opened for divine service on 19 September 1884. The service was conducted by Rev B. J. Salomons and Isaac Alston.13
The five men who were the officers and committee elected in 1884 were all new to Stockton. The first to arrive was Morris Myers, a pawnbroker, who had been in Scotland where a daughter was born in 1870. The first child born in Stockton was a son, born in 1875. Morris Jacobs, a clothes dealer, born about 1817 in Russia, was in Stockton for the 1881 census. Isaac Cohen, a general dealer, was in Russia in 1881 when a daughter was born then came straight to Stockton where another daughter was born. The remaining two men, Asher Michelson and Isaac Alston, both lived in neighbouring Middlesbrough. Michelson was a pawnbroker and clothier and moved to Stockton late in the 1880s, where a daughter was born in 1888. He was to become an important figure in the community. He remained in the town and died there in 1918 aged 73. Several of his children were married, in Stockton and elsewhere, by his eldest son, Rev Benjamin Nathan Michelson BA.
Lewis Olsover, the historian of north-eastern Jewry, pays particular attention to Isaac Alston. a financial agent (i.e. moneylender), saying he played an important part in Stockton’s history. It is true that Alston was on the board, and assisted in the service at the opening of the Stockton synagogue in September 1884. His wife was also involved with the Ladies’ Benevolent Society. Olsover speaks of a disagreement with the Middlesbrough authorities resulting in Alston moving to Stockton. He certainly was in business in Stockton in 1887 and perhaps he had moved there but he left for Australia the next year so that one cannot be sure of his role. In October 1888 a service was held in Middlesbrough to receive a Sepher Torah with silver and mantle which was being presented by Isaac Alston on his departure. There was a large attendance including most of the Jewish inhabitants of Stockton.14
It was appropriate that a formal congregation was formed in 1884 as the community had increased in size in the meantime. The 1881 Census listed 11 new Jewish families and two boarders as well as the ‘old’ families of Isaac H. Hart and Joseph Lyon. Clearly some of the new families had arrived in Stockton during the 1870s. One of the new households, headed by Joseph Lando, includes his daughter-in-law and her four children, the father being the absent Lewis. He appears in 1891 in Cardiff with two more Stockton-born children, in 1882 and 1884. Most of the children were below working age but one, the son of Joel Block, glazier, was also a glazier, and three of the children of Isaac H. Hart were a music teacher, an accountant, and a tailor’s apprentice, thus indicating a small movement into white-collar jobs.
The Jewish population in 1881 was now 77. That number includes two Jewish lodgers but excludes the 10 in the family of George Groskop. The occupations of the heads of the new 11 households included 3 clothes dealers (one being a second-hand clothes dealer), 3 glaziers, a general dealer, a picture framer, a pawnbroker and a retired pawnbroker, and a minister. The lodgers were a glazier and a traveller. There are references to two other Jewish families and a single man who were temporarily in Stockton. Jacob Marks, already mentioned, was in Birmingham in 1881, his occupation being recorded as ‘official inspector of meat to Hebrew congregation’. Samuel Finn, a draper, spent most of his time in South Shields but had a daughter in Stockton in 1877. Louis Samuels made a temporary appearance in this history appearing in court after being accused wrongly of theft.15
The early history of Stockton congregation was, as it were, confirmed by the appointment in 1884 of Asher Michelson as Secretary for marriages, and by the first wedding in the Skinner Street synagogue, in January 1885. This was of Joseph Stones of Darlington and Sarah Gordon of Stockton.16 Among the numerous newspaper reports of court cases were two which attracted attention. One was entitled, ‘A Stockton Jew who fell Among the Gentiles’. It concerned Joseph Lando, a dealer in old clothes. Richard Flattery was charged with robbery of a coat from Lando’s shop. Flattery and another were in the shop and one of them ran out with a pair of trousers. Lando chased and caught him. Some time later the two men came back and Flattery ran off with a coat. Lando called a policeman and apprehended him. Lando had a case before the court not long before and needed an interpreter. This time his English was better.
The second gave some information about a glazier. A young man named Frederick Richardson was before the Stockton magistrates on a charge of assaulting Isaac Levy, of breaking a quantity of glass, and of being drunk in the streets. He had accosted Levy and asked him for ‘the price of a pint’. Levy refused, and prisoner struck him, knocking him down, and ‘breaking all the glass which he was carrying in a rack upon his back’. Richardson was fined 2s 6d and costs for being drunk, ordered to pay Levy 12s for compensation for damage to glass, and 4s 6d in connection with the charge of wilful damage.17
Rev. J. Salomons did not last long, leaving for Chatham in 1885. He was succeeded by Rev Benjamin Cohen who served for many years. The new minister served an expanded population. At the 1891 Census seven households had left Stockton, leaving six, but they were replaced by as many as 15 new households plus seven single male lodgers. The occupations of the 15 heads of household and the seven lodgers were characteristic immigrant ones. They included a minister (Rev Benjamin Cohen), 2 picture framers, 2 pawnbrokers, one bill discounter, and a money broker, 5 drapers or drapers’ assistants, a glass merchant, 4 glaziers, a general dealer and 4 hawkers. Generally, those children old enough to be in employment were in the same trades as their fathers and were perhaps working for them. But the daughter of Abraham Levy, a money broker, was a music teacher.
Judging by the birth dates and birthplaces of children (where there were any), a number of the newcomers settled in Stockton on arrival, but others lived in several places before being in Stockton in 1891. These earlier residences were generally in the north of England. In 1891 the population was about 120.
In the 1880s the financial state of the synagogue was generally satisfactory, except that in October 1886 it was reported that a number of families had moved out, yet a year later the congregation was said to be increasing. Otherwise it settled down and expanded its activities. A branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association was formed as was a connection with Chovevei Zion. In 1886 Rev H. P. Levy began his role as Visiting Minister and as early as the following year there began the regular complaints of the inadequacy of the synagogue premises. In particular the internal steps were said to be dangerous, which the Chief Rabbi, on his second visit in 1892, particularly mentioned.18
By the next census of 1901 8 families had gone along with 3 single men, replaced by 7 new families and 2 single men, the total population remaining about the same. (One of the new families having 10 children.) The occupations of the newcomers were the familiar migrant ones – tailors, a commission agent, pawnbroker, draper, picture framer, and glass merchant. But among the second generation (of all families) were new occupations – commercial clerk, chemist’s assistant, and a solicitor’s articled clerk.
An indication of integration into British society was the election to the council of the Stockton Literary Institute of Abraham Bloom of Middlesbrough. In 1904 it was reported that he was re-elected unanimously for the sixth time. It was pointed out that he was the first Jew elected to the council of a non-Jewish literary society in Stockton.19 In 1890, at a meeting on 29 July, the Stockton and Middlesbrough congregations united for the purpose of organising a branch of the Zionist Association, to be entitled the Middlesbrough and Stockton Zionist Association.20
Three major features occupied the community at this time and into the early twentieth century. First, there were the regular reports of the examination of the Hebrew Classes by visiting ministers, including the Chief Rabbi. Invariably the examiners expressed satisfaction at the children’s performance. The second feature was the annual charitable balls instituted by members of the congregation. They resumed in 1893 and the local paper reported one of these at length. It was held under the patronage of the Mayor and Mayoress and was attended by some 50 couples from various places, including as far away as Newcastle and Bradford. Dancing went on from 9pm to 4am and at midnight supper was provided by the Jewish ladies of Stockton. Any surplus was to be divided between a Stockton charity and poor Jewish families in Stockton. However, the most significant event was the opening of a new synagogue. In 1893, at the congregation’s annual meeting, the president congratulated the members on having got through the High Festivals without any accident occurring in the ‘incommodious’ synagogue. They have had notice to quit and although small in number and having passed through trade crisis they should build a synagogue.21
The problem was the lack of finance. In 1906, at the laying of the foundation stone, the history was described. Mr Maurice Jacobs MA of Brighton, who represented Stockton at the Board of Deputies, laid the foundation stone on 22 March 1906 for the new synagogue, of which there was a detailed description in the last issue of the Jewish Chronicle. Mr Michelson said the synagogue started in 1884 in a temporary synagogue in Skinner Street and only when the Ephraim Levin Fund became available in 1894 and Dr Adler assigned £150 to Stockton could anything be done, and it was used for purchasing land. They had to wait eleven more years until 1905, when the F. D. Mocatta Fund provided £100 and £550 was raised. £400 was now required.22 The proposed synagogue had been described as follows. It was 76 feet deep, 26 feet wide, situated in the centre of Hartington Road. There would be a ladies gallery for 50 ladies. The ground floor would be arranged for 74 sittings. In the rear of the synagogue would be a classroom 24 feet 6 inches by 13 feet. The cost of building, without land, was expected to be a little over £800. The contractor was Mr William Doughty of Yarm-on-Tees.23 The architect was Mr T.W.T. Richardson of Stockton. At a general meeting of ladies a committee was formed for providing the necessary vestments. Mrs Michelson was President, Mrs H. Cohen was Treasurer, and Mrs A. Hartman was Honorary Secretary. About half the necessary funds and a few gifts were subscribed by the ladies present.24 The new synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi in October 1906 and was formally opened by Samuel Spitzel who provided the balance of the money to enable the synagogue to commence debt-free.25
Finally, the year 1906 also saw three other events which are worth recording as they had an impact upon the relationship of the Jewish community with the town as a whole. Joshua Goldston, the first Jew to contest a seat for the Town Council, was elected to it. He remained a member for 39 years and was Mayor in 1927 to 1929. Reuben Cohen, who was the first Jewish solicitor in the area, was apparently the agent at the 1906 General Election for Frank Rose, the Labour candidate for Stockton.26 And Reuben Cohen's wife gave birth to a son, Clifford, who not only was awarded the Military Cross in the Second World War but ended up a judge.
References and Notes (↵returns to main text)
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