South Wales 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

Paper first published on JCR-UK: 22 March 2016
Latest revision: 20 July 2017

Conference Papers on Individual
South Wales Communities
(Communities in parenthasis refer to papers that contain only very brief data.)


map of South Wales Jewish Communities



by Geoffrey Alderman
reproduced here with his kind consent

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

The Jewish communities which developed in South Wales in the second half of the nineteenth century based themselves upon the growth of the coal, iron and tin- plate industries of that region. They were as much products of industrial South Wales as the mining and metallurgical industries, and the difficulties which confronted them can and ought to be seen, in part at least, as a by-product of problems attendant upon rapid industrialisation. The history of these communities down to the First World War does, in fact, provide a graphic illustration of the role which Jewish communities traditionally play as scapegoats for economic ills and industrial unrest.

Historically, the earliest Jewish community to develop in South Wales after the Readmission was that of Swansea; according to the Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, German Jews settled in Swansea in the 1730s, though there is evidence that they were Lithuanian Jews intending to go to America.1. In 1740 David Michael, a founder member of the community, built a wooden synagogue behind his house in Wind Street, near the docks; it could hold about 40 people. This structure served until 1789, when a new building, also of wood, was erected on The Strand nearby. This was replaced in 1818 by a larger structure, with a capacity of 60-70, in Waterloo Street, and this in turn gave way, in 1859, to the Goat Street synagogue, the one which German bombs destroyed in 1940.2. When the Goat Street synagogue was opened, Swansea Jewry could not have numbered more than about 50 souls.3. Within the next 40 years, the size of the community increased six-fold.4. By far the greater part of this increase came from immigrant Jews from eastern Europe. And just as, in London, the immigrants shunned the cold formalism of the cathedral-like synagogues already established there, so in Swansea they founded their own Beth Hamedrash, in Prince of Wales Road, in 1906. Indeed, until the end of the Second World War, Swansea Jewry was divided into two religious groupings, And though, as the years wore on, the difference became more apparent than real, in the beginning it had a definite meaning. Goat Street was the spiritual home of the Jewish 'establishment`; 'Prince of Wales Road was the abode of the immigrants, Yiddish-speaking, poor (at least to begin with), but probably more orthodox. The established Jews, though without doubt the descendants of peddlars, were themselves by now shopkeepers and tradesmen; the newcomers tramped the valleys of west Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, learning the language of the native Welsh, doing business with the rapidly-developing mining communities, and very occasionally (as at Ammanford) deciding to live among them. Often they did not establish separate synagogues, but met for prayer in a room provided by one of their number. The Port Talbot community was organised at the turn of the century by Raphael Levi, a Lithuanian immigrant, at Aberavon, but a synagogue was not erected till after the First World War.5. At Ammanford a synagogue was never built. Of these very small communities in south-central and south-west Wales, to which Swansea ranked as a large Jewish centre, almost no trace (except descendants) now survives.

The one exception is Llanelli. There is no record of Jews in Llanelli prior to the 1880s. The nucleus of the community was provided by Isaac Benjamin Jeffreys, who arrived in 1887, and his two brothers, Lewis and Morris: they were all glaziers. Later arrivals were credit drapers and pawnbrokers; the first pawnbroker's shop in Llanelli was opened by a .Jew in 1897. Religious services were held in the home of Harris Rubinstein, for the synagogue in Queen Victoria Road was net opened until 1909.6. By any standards the community was minute: 70 Jews, according to the Jewish Year Book of 1914, in a gentile population of over 25,000.

Jews were attracted to Swansea, Llanelli and Ammanford because the growth of the metal and mining industries in the second half of the nineteenth century had created new entrepreneurial opportunities in a rapidly expanding population. The same is true of west Monmouth and east Glamorgan. Jewish peddlars and tradesmen were naturally attracted to the Welsh mining centres. The Merthyr Tydvil community was founded in 1848; the Aberdare community dates from at least the 1860s, and that at Pontypridd can be traced back to 18677. The developing industrial areas situated in the Western Valleys of Monmouthshire formed a particular area of Jewish settlement. A synagogue was not opened at Newport till 1869, but the community there was then already ten years old.8. Similarly, the synagogue at Tredegar was founded in 1870 to serve a community which had been established several years before.9. Russian refugees who went to South Wales at first attached themselves to these already-established communities, but soon spread outwards to Abertillery, Bargoed, Ebbw Vale, Rhymney, and the surrounding localities as far north as Brynmawr in Breconshire.

For these Jews of Monmouthshire and East Glamorgan, Cardiff fulfilled a role similar to that of Swansea in relation to their co-religionists in the west. Although there are instances of Jews having lived in Cardiff in the eighteenth century, a community was not established there until the 1840s: the land for the Jewish cemetery in Cardiff was presented by the Marquis of Bute in 1841. A permanent synagogue was soon established in a room in Trinity Street, near the market; then it moved to larger premises in Bute Street. In 1858 a synagogue was opened in East Terrace to serve a community then numbering perhaps 150 persons. At the same time the community acquired its first Minister - Nathan Jacobs.

The Cardiff Jewish community, as it developed during the Victorian period, was a business one par excellence: watchmakers, jewellers, 'slop'-sellers, tailors, pawnbrokers and general dealers.10. It was prosperous. tightly-knit and exclusive. Discipline of members, as revealed in the Congregation Minute Books, was rigorous. In August 1880 it was decided that a policeman should be present at East Terrace during the forthcoming high-holydays 'to prevent non-subscribers entering the Synagogue.11. Discontent with the high-handed, over-bearing attitude of the anglicised communal leaders eventually led to open revolt. One source of trouble was arrears of payments of subscriptions and seat-rentals; another was criticism of the spiritual leadership. In 1878 the Minister, the Rev. I. Lewis, had been given six months' notice to quit 'unless he conducts the service with more devotion'; in 1885 Mr. M. Lewis was appointed shochet and mohel at 70 per annum, and two years later the Rev. J.H. Landau was appointed Minister and teacher at 100 per annum.12. These appointments did not, however, meet with universal approval. A group of 'seceders' had established their own chevra in Edward Place some time between 1889 and 1890, and had enticed to their side a shochet, the Rev. J.B. Rittenberg. The delegate Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, was prevailed upon to withdraw his endorsement of Rittenberg's shechita and to tell the seceders that animals slaughtered by him were trefa. But reinforced by the adherence of recently-arrived immigrants, the seceders were not to be put off so lightly. In March 1889 they made a formal approach to Adler to appoint for them a chazan and shochet. He interviewed representatives from both sides, but was unwilling to press the seceders to withdraw. 'Your decision', Mr. I. Samuel, of East Terrace, wrote to him, 'can have but this effect, that instead of Cardiff having as now one good Congregation with an English minister and teacher, a school open and free to all poor children, it must revert to its former state of affairs, when a foreign Shochet will be the Jewish representative and the rising generation will be deprived of Jewish education.13. But Adler would not apply further pressure. The Edward Place synagogue came into being, and in 1897 acquired its own marriage secretary.14.

Although the breach between the two Cardiff communities was now complete, the East Terrace synagogue remained the more prestigious of the two: it was the synagogue of Cardiff's Jewish establishment. When Colonel A.E.W. Goldsmid came to Cardiff in 1894 as Colonel-in-Command, 41st. Regimental District, he naturally joined East Terrace, and was the prime mover in the project to build the new synagogue in Cathedral Road, opened by F.D. Mocatta and consecrated by Chief Rabbi Adler on 11 May 1897.15. Goldsmid's presence in the Welsh capital gave Cardiff Jewry some national prominence. The founder of the Jewish Lads' Brigade, he had become a devoted Zionist, was founder of the British Zionist Federation, and took part in the El Arish Expedition of 1903. When Herzl visited Cardiff, it was primarily to interview Colonel Goldsmid. He died, like Herzl, in 1904.16.

By the turn of the century, Cardiff was the undisputed capital of South Wales Jewry. It had a Jewish population of about 1,500, two synagogues (and for a time between 1901 and 1904, an immigrant-inspired Beth Hamedresh as well), a Board of Shechita and, in 1905, a Jewish Naturalisation and Political Association. It also boasted a Board of Gaurdians, founded in 1900, which in that year alone relieved 230 cases, one-third of whom were alleged to be 'professional beggars'. The board soon ran into financial difficulties and by 1904 had been wound up.17. At the other end of the social scale, well to-do Cardiff Jews were making the familiar moves west and east to newer residential areas, to Grangetown, Riverside, City Road and Newport Road. Louis Samuel, who died in 1906, provided the city with its first Jewish J.P., and Lionel Fine, born in Rhymney in 1865, was appointed a J.P. in 1904. The community, at least as far as its leadership was concerned, appears to have been as integrated as any section of Anglo-Jewry at that time.

Around Cardiff, meanwhile, to the north and west, a dozen or more Jewish communities had established themselves. Foremost among these were Merthyr, with a literary & Social Society, a Naturalisation Society, and a branch of the Chovovei Zion and Newport, which had its own Board of Guardians.18.. At the turn of the century the Rev. Michaelson, Minister at Newport, was paying weekly visits to Tredegar and Brynmawr.19. But each of these latter communities had its own shochet who presumably officiated at services in the synagogues which each possessed.20. Other Jewish centers in East Glamorgan and West Monmouth did not (with the exception of Abadare) possess an excluive shochet, but all had synagogues (usually converted houses or rooms) with a cheder attached. Fed by periodic influxes of Russian refugees, South Wales Jewry spread itself into every major town and many minor villages and hamlets. Yomim Noraim services were held at Barry Dock for the first time in 1904.21. The synagogue at Ebbw Vale was not formally opened till 1911, when its congregation numbered about 80 persons.

In numerical terms all these communities were minute. In 1914 the 135 Jews of Brynmawr represented 2.6 per cent of the town's population. Tredegar Jewry, 160-strong, amounted to approximately three-quarters of one per cent of Tredegar's inhabitants; in Abertillery there were 100 Jews, less than half of one per cent of the population, with Merthyr's 300 Jews representing roughly the same proportions while at Newport there were 250 Jews, just over a third of one per cent of the inhabitants. Swansea's 1,000 Jews amounted to just over one per cent of Swansea's population. Even the largest number of Jews in South Wales, the 2,000-strong Cardiff community, comprised only slightly more than one per cent of Cardiff's total population. The Jewish populations of the newer areas of settlement in Glamorgan and Monmouth were too small even for the Jewish Year Book to bother to mention separately. It is very doubtful whether, on the eve of the First World War, South Wales Jewry amounted to 5,000 souls: the total may well have been nearer 4,500.

That such small, well-ordered communities could have become the objects of antisemitic outbursts which, if they were not as long-lasting as those suffered by London Jewry at the time, were certainly more violent, seems at first glance difficult to believe. Yet between the 'Jew Bill' riots of 1753 and the fascist-inspired outbreaks of the 1930s, the attacks upon South Wales Jewry in 1911 stand out as the only example of organised mass antisemitic violence in Great Britain. I have examined in detail elsewhere these anti-Jewish riots, which took place in August 1911 in the Western Valleys of Monmouth.22. Here, at the risk of repeating some of my findings, I wish to place these riots in a somewhat broader context.

Victorian Jewry in South Wales was a mercantile community which established itself and grew as a result of the expansion of trade and industry there. But this industrial revolution, which seemed to offer so many opportunities for Jewish trading talents, contained within itself the seeds of subsequent misfortune. The explosive growth of the coalfields in industrial South Wales in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had attracted to Glamorgan and Monmouthshire thousands of migrants, at first from neighbouring welsh counties. but later from south-west England and from even further afield.23. Of the total population enumerated in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in the census of 1911, 35 per cent and 37 per cent respectively were returned as having been born outside the county in which they resided; over 20 per cent in both counties had been born outside Wales. At first the native Welsh were able to absorb the newcomers. But the process of assimilation was unable to keep pace with the continuing influx of migrants.24. There was a 'head-on collision' between different cultural identities.25. When this confrontation was reinforced by strong ethnic and/or religious differences, open conflict was difficult to avoid. To the native Welsh the Jews, however few in number, however well established, however worthy, however fluent in the Welsh language (as many of them were), remained foreigners and interlopers, 'a small and separate class, convenient for attack'.26. The Jews in South Wales, unlike the Irish, did not work longer hours, take lower wages, or accept inferior living standards, to the detriment of Welsh miners and factory workers. Indeed, though it is impossible to say for certain that (prior to 1914) no Jew in South Wales was a coal-miner, or a blast-furnaceman, or a tinplate-worker, it is equally impossible to deny that very few Jews living there in the late Victorian and Edwardian period belonged to the classic Marxist proletariat.27. They were poor, often very poor, but poverty alone was not sufficient to bind them to the working-class populations in whose midst they lived. And when, in the summer of 1911, the eleven-month-old Cambrian Combine strike collapsed, to be followed by the first-ever national railway strike, with its own consequent effect upon the collieries and blast furnaces, the mining communities of the Western Valleys erupted into an orgy of violence in which the Jews were the prime, and generally the sole targets.

Accusations that the Jews were taking advantage of the industrial unrest to raise rents and food prices were, on investigation, found to be false in almost every case. Nor were the rioters 'hooligans' and 'roughs'; they were miners and their wives, members of the 'respectable' working classes. Nor were the riots spontaneous; at Tredegar, where they began, 'open threats' had been made against the Jews for some time, a fact to which the Rev. Jerevitch, at Cardiff, bore witness.28.

Yet if it was the misfortune of the Jews to have come into South Wales at a time of social upheaval, and to have received its backlash, they were still more unfortunate to have entered a land seething with religious bigotry. Here the Welsh Baptists were well to the fore. The abduction and conversion of Esther Lyons, in 1868, which created such a storm of indignation in Jewish circles, and which was compared with the Mortara case, was carried out by a Cardiff Baptist Minister, Nathaniel Thomas, and his wife; the subsequent legal proceedings revealed that Esther Lyons had not been their first Jewish victim.29. There is no evidence to suggest that the Welsh Revival of 1904 was itself philo- or antisemitic; but it is known that some converted Jews were brought to Llanelli to preach as part of the revivalist effort there,30. and it may not be pure coincidence that attempts were being made at Llanelli at about the same time to ban shechita without prior stunning.31. At Pontypridd there was an 'incident' involving Jewish voters, and the Cardiff community took the precaution of forming a Jewish Vigilance Society.32. When the riots of 1911 broke out at Tredegar, they began with a mob of 200 attacking Jewish shops and singing several favourite Welsh hymn tunes.33. And when the Monmouthshire Welsh Baptist Association, meeting at Blackwood, near Bargoed, on 6 September 1911, was asked to pass a resolution expressing sympathy with the Jews, several ministers and others took exception to the motion; one delegate argued that 'Resolutions did more harm than good, and they encouraged the Jews. There were about 100 Jews at Tredegar now, and if they had many more resolutions they would have 500 there'.34. The resolution was not passed.

It would be interesting to know what picture of the Jews was being painted by Baptist ministers in South Wales in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; at all events, it cannot have been a very favourable one. The Revival, certainly. turned many Welshmen's minds towards social problems. In this respect it had a long term effect which can be seen at work during the Cambrian stoppage of 1910-11 and which may well have contributed towards the concern with bad housing which was a marked feature of the 1911 riots. When those riots began, Jews fled from the Western Valleys in large numbers to Aberdare, Merthyr, Newport and Cardiff.35. They had been the victims of organised attacks by economically-motivated and religiously-inspired mobs; Welsh as well as English newspapers had no hesitation in calling their experience a 'pogrom'.36. They returned to the Valleys in due course, but the memories of 1911 sank deep, and at the end of the Great War many of them moved permanently to Cardiff where, incidentally, they appear to have had a noteworthy revivifying effect upon orthodox religious observance there.37.

I am painfully aware that the picture I have painted of South Wales Jewry in the Victorian and Edwardian periods is a sombre one. It is in the nature of Jewish history that its darker periods are more faithfully and more fully recorded than its happier moments. In the context of Anglo-Jewry as a whole, the Jews of South Wales were too small at that time to make a marked impact or create a decisive image. In the context of South Wales the newspapers of the period mentioned them only when their sufferings merited column-space; Tredegar was more newsworthy than Kishinev. Were it not for the events of 1911, the history of the Jews in South Wales before 1914 would be dominated by Cardiff, as that of Anglo-Jewry as a whole is dominated by London. As it is, the records tell us precious little about the daily lives of these Jewish people, their hopes and fears, their family circumstances, their economic and social status. It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them. Why, for instance, were the western communities - in Llanelli, Swansea and its environs - apparently unaffected in 1911? Why were Cardiff and Newport untouched? Had relations with the gentile communities in these areas been of a different, more amicable order, or did antisemitic rabble-rousers find it easier to do their work in small, isolated towns and villages than in the larger urban centres? And what was it about life in South Wales which managed to sustain communities which must have been among the most orthodox of the Victorian era, and which have produced a half-dozen or more rabbis and ministers of religion? Was it simply that the Jews who settled in South Wales were staunchly orthodox anyway? Or was it also, as I suspect, that the normal pressures of social and religious conformity in a small community were, in this case, reinforced by unspoken fears? Although Swansea, Cardiff and Newport Jewry were well established before the 1880s, the Jewish communities of South Wales owed their growth and development largely to immigrants arriving in the last two decades of Victoria's reign. It seems likely that these people saw in the religious fanaticism of Welsh nonconformity echoes of Russian Christianity at its worst.

(I should like to express my appreciation of the advice given to me by Dr. Kenneth Morgan, Fellow of The Queen's College, Oxford, in the preparation of this paper, for the contents of which I alone am responsible.)

Footnotes ( returns to main text)

  1. C. Roth (ed), The Standard Jewish Encyclopedia (London, 1959), p.1884; S. Wilson, 'The Romantic Story of Llanelly's Jews', Llanelly Star, 16 October 1965, p.4.

  2. Rosalie G. Lewis, 'Swansea Jewish Community: A Study in the Growth and Development' (unpublished theses, 1977) [in the possession of the Swansea Hebrew Congregation].

  3. C. Roth, The Rise of Provincial Jewry (London, 1950), pp.110-111.

  4. Jewish Year Book, 1896, p.89.

  5. I.Factor, 'The Jewish Communities of South Wales: Port Talbot', Cajex [Magazine of the Cardiff Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women], xi (December 1961), p.65.

  6. Wilson, loc.cit.: H.M. Jaffa, 'The Jewish Communities of South Wales: Llanelly' Cajex, ix (December 1959), p.71.

  7. Roth, Rise of Provincial Jewry, pp.24-5, 104; Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, p.1884; H.E. Samuel, 'A Short History of the Aberdare Jewish Community', Cajex, ix (June 1959), p.88.

  8. Ibid. pp26-7

  9. Jewish Year Book, 1910, p.212; H.H.Roskin, 'The Tredegar Community', Cajex, viii (June 1958), p.65.

  10. M.Dennis, 'The [History of the] Cardiff Jewish Community', Cajex, i (April 1951), pp.28-30; (July 1951), pp.26-30.

  11. Ibid. xv (March 1965) p.40.

  12. Ibid. xvi (September 1966) pp.16-17.

  13. Ibid. xix (September 1969), pp.14, 16; the reference to the education of the children is a little obscure, but may refer to the fact that the seceders intended to instruct through the medium of Yiddish.

  14. Ibid. xx (December 1970) p.27.

  15. Ibid. ii (March 1952) p.27.

  16. C.Bermant, Troubled Eden (London, 1969), p.65; W.Laqueur, A History of Zionism (London, 1972), p.157.

  17. Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, Parliamentary Papers, 1903, ix [Cd.1742], p.596; M.Dennis, loc.cit., ii (July 1957), p.66.

  18. Jewish Year Book; L.D. Jacobs, 'Merthyr Tydfil Synagogues', Cajex, xix (December 1969), p.70.

  19. Ibid. ix (June 1959) p.27.

  20. H.H. Roskin, 'The Jewish Communities of South Wales, I The Tredegar Community', ibid., viii (June 1958), pp.65-6; 'II The Brynmawr Community', ibid., pp.61-3.

  21. Dennis, Ibid., ii (July 1952) p.65.

  22. G. Alderman, 'The Anti-Jewish Riots of August 1911 in South Wales', Welsh History Review, vi (1972), 190-200.

  23. B. Thomas, The Migration of Labour into the Glamorganshire Coalfield (1861-1911)', Economica, x (1930), 275-94

  24. Reports of the Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest, Parliamentary Papers, 1917-18, xv [Cd.8668] P.15.

  25. P.N.Jones, 'Some Aspects of Immigration into the Glamorgan Coalfield between 1881 and 1911' Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1969 (part I), pp.92-3; E.D. Lewis, The Rhondda Valleys (London, 1959), pp.236-7

  26. Jewish Chronicle, 8 September 1911, p.12, quoting Westminster Gazette. The London Committee (Board) of Deputies of British Jews, in its Report for 1911, p.52, stated its opinion that 'the attack was pre-meditated, and that the Jews were chosen as the victims...with the idea that, as many of them were foreigners, they would be an easy prey and would not find many sympathisers'.

  27. C.Roth, 'The Anglo-Jewish Community in the Context of World Jewry', in J. Gould and S. Esh (eds), Jewish Life in Modern Britain (London, 1964), p.99, states that the riots of 1911 were directed against 'Polish Jewish miners'; I have been unable to find a single instance of a 'Polish Jewish' miner in my own examination of this episode. The Jewish Year Book for 1903, p.427, recorded an attack on Jewish miners at Dowlais, 'of whom a large number have decided to migrate to Canada'; but there was no Jewish community in Dowlais, and it is possible that the attack was really against foreign workers, to whom the term Jew was applied merely by way of abuse.

  28. G. Alderman, ref. cit., ii 194-7.

  29. R.Woolfe, 'The Abduction of Esther Lyons', Cajex, ii (July 1952), pp.14-23.

  30. South Wales Daily News, 24 November 1904, p.6.

  31. Ibid., 23 September 1904, p.4. shechita was a subject of national debate at that time, following the Liverpool Shechita case (February 1904) and the hostile Report produced by an Admiralty committee five months later: see B. Homa, A Fortress in Anglo-Jewry (London, 1953), pp. 61-4.

  32. Dennis, Cajex, ii (July 1952), p.66.

  33. Jewish World, 25 August 1911, p.9; Jewish Chronicle, 25 August, p.8.

  34. Ibid., 8 September 1911, p.11; the meeting was briefly reported in the London Times, 7 September, p.6.

  35. South Wales Argus, 23 August 1911, p.3; Daily Telegraph, 24 August, p.7; 26 August, p.9.

  36. South Wales Argus, 21 August 1911, p.6; 22 August, p.2; Brecon County Times, 25 August, p.3; Times, 5 September, p.8.

  37. Dennis, Cajex, ii (0ctober 1952), p.42.


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