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This article originally appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of Shemot (volume 1 number 3, pages 29 to 31), and is reproduced with kind permission of the author, Professor Aubrey Newman. It was formatted by David Shulman for inclusion in these web pages.


Prof. Aubrey Newman

This lecture was delivered by Professor Aubrey Newman, Professor of History at Leicester University, England, and President of the Jewish Historical Society of England, at the Annual General Meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain on 23 May 1993 (Summer, 1993).

Let me first of all explain a little about the Shelter and the records which we are using in order to illustrate the help they can give to genealogical research, as well as some of the other records which can through further light upon the information which those Shelter records contain. The Shelter was originally founded on an informal basis in the early 1880s by Simon Cohen, a baker, often known familiarly as Simcha Becker, but it was closed down as a result of complaint that it was too insanitary.

There were clearly other arguments at work, both expressed and kept in the background but within a matter of months leading members of the community. drawn from both the so-called Anglo-Jewish establishment and more recent immigrants, made themselves responsible for the reopening in 1885 of the Shelter on a more regular and more effective basis.

Thereafter the Shelter issued a series of Annual Reports, and these Reports, together with the statistics they contain, are a very valuable source of information about the ways in which the Shelter operated as well as the various patterns of migration. Incidentally, our collection of Annual Reports is far from complete, and if anyone knows of any of these Reports for any year before 1914, I would be very glad to be informed of this.

Our second very major source is the registers of the Shelter. There are some 18 volumes covering the period May 19 1896 to August 4 l9l4; there are some gaps and there are some duplicate volumes. It is, however to note for future reference that the first entry, number one, is May29 l896; that significance will appear a little later on.

The registers do continue after August 4 1914, but for some fairly obvious reasons we end our work at present with the outbreak of the First World War. These registers follow a basic pattern; they are obviously of the greatest importance, but there are problems about their use. We do not know precisely how new entrants were registered, nor indeed do we know where those who were registered slept. I would think that many of those who took down the names, etc. did so phonetically and so there are many problems about marrying the names over a period of time. Each entry was supposed to be given a number but sometimes the numbers are omitted all together, some of the series are missed out, and some of the numbers are even repeated!

There is a third source and this is the Minutes of the Executive and the Council. Again, some of them are missing, but they give valuable insight into the ways in which the Shelter developed, as well as some valuable clues about the motivations of the Shelter and the Shelter authorities.

If these are the official records associated with the Shelter there are others equally valuable. There is the volume which I was handed some 25 years ago with the comment that it came apparently from someone in Liverpool, and was one of three similar volumes, and represented registers of persons leaving Liverpool. In fact it was clearly a record of notes made by the Superintendent meeting the boats coming into London; some headed to UK destinations never went to tie Shelter at all, but most, no matter their destination, were found in the Shelter Registers.

I was never shown the other two volumes and must confess that before having to return this one I had it photocopied. I have never been able to find the other two and indeed my source for this volume can no longer remember even having lent it to me, let alone where it came from. In fact I have had it compared with comparable entries in the Shelter, and there is a close correspondence between the two. How it ever escaped from the Shelter archives and where the other volumes might be remains a mystery.

A further source, which can be found amongst the official records in the Public Record Office, are the Shipping Manifests. Few people have used them. Because they demand a familiarity with the way British Government works. While there are apparently no records of immigrant ships coming into the UK from the various ports of the Continent, all ships leaving the UK for non-European ports or arriving in the UK from non-European ports had, after 1895, to deposit lists of all their passengers with the Board of Trade.

These lists gave the names, ages, occupations and sex of all passengers making the distinction between various categories of British subjects and foreigners. They are filed under the UK ports involved, but they take some searching in order to find them.

There are obviously other records as well, many of which are as yet still not available to me largely because I do not know properly about them. Some years ago I was told of a list of would-be candidates for naturalisation in the Cape Colony between1905 and1906. I was able to secure a copy of this, about 1,200 names being on it. It was put on to the computer at Leicester and matched with what we already had ‑ some 10,000 names.

Altogether there were some30 potential matches One of your own members came to Leicester to discuss what we had. On looking at the Naturalisation lists he found several relations about whom he had known nothing. I hope to be going to South Africa later this year, and I may well be able to make checks on what sorts of material would be available for this kind of work.

The vast majority of transmigrants did not pass through London but used the Hull/Grimsby to Liverpool route. These migrants obviously intended to go to America, and would very clearly not appear in the Shelter Records. So all those who write to me with details of those who went through Liverpool and ask whether their names appear in the Shelter Records are very unlikely to have anything for their pains.

Equally, although many of those who went through London did go through the Shelter, there are very many who for one reason or another do not appear in the Register; so that even were we already able to check all the names of all those who did appear in the Registers as extant, the chances would be very high that we would not find them. When therefore my students start to analyse these records, and their own contribution to these records, they have to be very careful about remembering these limitations.

Another feature of these records can be the odd snippet of information which they can contain: comments on individuals sent back from their intended destinations, persons who suffer misfortunes on route, others who try to use their links with the Shelter for their own financial betterment. There are also superintendents who misappropriated the money deposited with the Shelter for sale keeping, information of importance for the eventual history of the Shelter but not throwing very much light upon the patterns of migration or even upon the use of the records for purposes of genealogy.

What do these papers reveal and what use are they for the genealogist? You must at this stage allow me to divert a little and say something about what we have been discovering about the Shelter and its records, as well as how we have been working on the Registers. When we started working on them, we came with preconceived notions that the registers would illustrate the move of Jews from Eastern Europe to North America.

We decided that, in order to get the records on to the computer, the students would first of all have to transcribe them, and that only when their transcriptions had been corrected, would they be allowed to put the results on to the computer. This is very labour intensive but since they could not possibly have access to the original registers that would see them destroyed by over intensive use this was the only possible way of proceeding.

Then we had the question ‑ should the students concentrate on a narrowly defined period or should we spread our efforts over a longer period? We, my computing colleagues and I, decided that it would make better sense to spread them over a number of points of entry into the material, so that we could spread the result so over a longer period, taking the risk that any individual sets of records would prove to be untypical.

As you will see, that is precisely what did happen on several occasions but I still feel that it was the right decision. Anyway, the first thing we discovered was that our original preconceptions were wrong. Less than 10% of our original sample were going to the United States: of course you have to be very careful with the input. as the computer is ignorant and does not realise "USA." is the same at ''USA" or "U.S.A."

Even now, when we are able to instruct our computer to accept all variations of spelling USA or the various individual ports of entry, less than 20% are going to North America. Instead we found that over 40% were en route to Africa, and that proportion is still about the same when we have about 12,000 names on the data base. When we tried the other way round, whence did the Jews come who were going to Africa? Not surprisingly to us, we found that over 90% were Litvak: when we came to analyse that even more deeply we found that the most popular place of origin was Kovno. Out of 10,000 names altogether 3,000 came from Kovno, and the next places mentioned most often were Warsaw and Vilna, with some 300 each. Clearly there was something most peculiar to the links between Kovno and the Shelter. I said that there was a real danger of finding an untypical group of names.

I have two instances of that. The very first student who worked on these registers came up with a group of 150 who had come from Romania, the famous fussgevers, who had walked from Romania to Western Europe and who were seeking to go to Winnipeg in Canada. I discovered that there had been a small migration of Romanian Jews to Winnipeg some 20 years earlier, and this group now sought to join them. There was another instance of how important it was to know something about general history: two students approached me and asked me what had happened to Kovno in 1899 to make it suddenly more attractive to Jews in South Africa to return there in 1900. I looked at them: they clearly did not know of the Boer War and of the impact that it had on Jews and their life in South Africa.

Our next query arose over the ships that are mentioned in the Shelter Register. All the ships are that are mentioned in the Registers as going to South Africa with Shelter inmates are either Castle Line or Union Line. Eventually these companies came together into the one company, but at this stage they are distinct and to some extent in competition. They were not the only companies with ships sailing to the Cape: nonetheless none of these other companies is mentioned either in the Registers or in the Minutes of either Executive or General Committees.

When I looked at the list of these two companies' ships, I discovered that the Companies had indulged in a massive building programme in the late 1880s and early 1890s, commissioning ships with substantial accommodation for third class or even steerage class passengers, and that these two companies had been successful in securing the Royal Mail contracts between the UK and the Cape, and that the ships had to sail several times a week, with or without cargo and passengers.

Clearly they had been built for a particular trade, and it would seem that the trade for which they might have been intended was for the migration of Cornish tin-miners. It was at this stage that the bottom had fallen out of the Cornish tin mining industry, and there was not very much difference between the techniques in Cornish tin mining and in South African gold mining. The trade dried up, and clearly the companies had to find something to take their place. Here there is a gap and we have to achieve n enormous leap of the imagination. The first gap lies is the series of Annual Reports.

In the Third Report migration to America is the largest individual item in the detailed statistics. But by the time of the Tenth Report the numbers going to America remain unchanged but now migration to South Africa has appeared as the greatest activity of the Shelter. The Minutes also indicate that cheques from Castle and Union Lines play a considerable part in the regular cash flow of the Shelter. I mentioned that the first extant volume begins on May 29 1896; I had originally thought that this indicated that earlier volumes had been lost. But when I realised that normally the numbering within each volume began again with the number one on November 1 within each year, but that the first number on May 29 1896 was itself number one, it would seem clear that what we have is the beginning of a new technique of dealing with inmates.

There is a clue to this, in that at the AGM in Spring 1896 there was strong pressure for the Shelter to provide some more effective indication of who was passing through the Shelter. It would seem that the introduction of the Register was to provide such a check, and also, I think, to ensure that a proper charge was made for the costs incurred by the Shelter. There are some indications in the Register after, for example, a party of 15 had passed through, that the Castle line was to be charged for the 15. That would suggest also that the Shelter itself had begun to change its role, and was no longer merely a charitable organisation, that it was beginning to play a considerable part in regulating the entire process of transmigration.

It is also clear that the two companies were heavily dependent on their Shelter clients. I have examined two manifests from ships in the 1890s and nearly two thirds were aliens from Russia; not surprisingly, virtually all of these names were to be found also in the Shelter Registers. The question which does remain is why was Kovno so predominant in the Shelter Registers? It was not that no one else went to South Africa: the naturalisation list I mentioned earlier shows a substantial number from elsewhere.

I have not yet had an opportunity of identifying and checking other ships going to South Africa, but it would be interesting to see how they coped. But as I say, there seems some special link with Kovno. Was it that Donald Currie kept a special office in Kovno? What sort of image was there in Lithuania of life in South Africa? Did Currie stimulate migration to Africa or was the desire already there?

I must confess that there is a great deal of humour in the thought that Currie was artificially stimulating a passion among Jews to migrate to Africa in order to keep his company alive; Currie as the Shtadlan of South African Jewry is a rather amusing thought. Yet I do have a report on Kovno prepared by the Jewish Colonisation Association in September 1906 which shows that there was at that time very high activity of movement out.


In the year 1906 (up to October 12) the Vilna governor had issued 4,116 passport two-thirds of which were for emigration. The agents find the means generally to inscribe several names on each passport. It is probable that six persons are entered on each passport giving a figure of 18.000 emigrants. If are added those who leave from other areas or leave without a passport, it follows that the Vilna government will have allowed out at least 20,000 emigrants.


The emigration of Jewish inhabitants within the governing province of Kovno as well as its chief town of Kovno constitutes as strongly marked phenomenon. As a result of the proximity of the German frontier, a large part of the emigrants take the road to Germany, but there are also others who take the road to Libau. At least two boats per week departed from Libau, each conveying about 350 migrants. Many boats came to England, as a step towards America.

As time went on, the part played by the Shelter changed markedly. Clearly there was either a lessening of the need for the Shelter among Jews leaving Eastern Europe or else the demand fell away; perhaps it was now too expensive. At all events, when the migration traffic developed to South America, the Shelter approached the Royal Mail Shipping Company with an offer to look after its transmigrant passengers offering to make sure that none could escape.

Again. when there was a large movement of peasants from the Balkans going to North America, the Shelter could be found giving hospitality and help ‑ for a fee. Of course, Hermann Landau always insisted that the Shelter existed for all in need of its services.

I asked earlier, what do these papers reveal, and what use are they for the genealogist? Obviously if anyone can find individual names on the computer, as I know several have done so on the Register itself, there is no problem. The Register will give additional details about occupation, marital status, place of birth, age, and where they were headed. And that could very often give tie opportunity for further information still. At least it fills in some of the gaps.

Shipping manifests will give the same sort of information, but what is useless is wading through all these masses of documents in the hope that you might find something. There is only one way in which they can be of help ‑ if you know already that information for which you are looking is to be found at a particular place. For example, if you know the reasonably approximate date at which your relative came to London, or the boat on which they very likely left. Once all the Shelter records are on computer we can search easily enough, and I can envisage the University putting these materials to the service of the genealogists.

And if l may. l can call to your minds the old story about the genealogist receiving five pounds for doing a search and demanding 5,000 for keeping quiet about the results of his search. Do you really want the names of those appearing in the records of the Shelter as having been deported from the Cape because of immoral behaviour?

( 1993 Aubrey Newman - This article may not be further reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of Professor Aubrey Newman, History Department, Leicester University, Leicester, England).






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