The first Jews arrived in Britain with William the Conqueror who, seeking to be paid taxes in coin, not kind, valued their commercial skills and capital. Because usury, lending money for interest, was a sin in the eyes of the Church, they became money lenders.
Over the next century, the Jews, despite heavy taxation, became enormously wealthy. Since they were instrumental in financing the State Treasury, they often enjoyed the protection of the Crown. Britain’s populace, however, blamed them for financial oppression. After forcing them into their role, the Church too demonized them. Records show that in 1144, Christians accused the Jews of blood libel, murdering a young boy, William of Norwich, to use his blood in religious ritual. Although charges were dropped through the interference of the Crown, similar ones were to rise again and again throughout British history.
By the reign of Henry II, however, small Jewish enclaves were flourishing in London, Winchester, Canterbury, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere. This spirit of tolerance vanished with the rise of Richard the Lionhearted, however.
When Richard refused Jews admission to his coronation in 1189, his subjects, believing that he had ordered the destruction of the entire community, rampaged through the streets of London. Although peace was soon restored, when Richard joined the Third Crusades the following year, anti-Semitic rioting erupted in towns throughout the realm. Thousands of Jews in Bury St. Edmunds, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and London were robbed, beaten, forcibly baptized, hung, or burned to death.
In 1190, York’s small Jewish community, as they were wont, fled to the royal castle for protection. When help did not arrive, most killed themselves or perished in flames rather than face forced conversion. The mob massacred the few who survived.
From then on, British Jews were increasingly taxed, accused of blood libel, and persecuted. In the early 1200s, when the Crown acquired alternate sources of revenue, many were not only expelled from their homes, but also required to wear identifying badges and erase their debtors’ obligations.
In 1275, they were forbidden to practice usury altogether. Although they were granted trade and farming rights instead, as Jews, they remained ineligible to join guilds or own land. Fifteen years later, when they could no longer support themselves nor contribute to the economy, Edward I formally expelled all Jews from Britain.
Despite the Edict of Expulsion, a small number of Jews did apparently return clandestinely over the following centuries. These included Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had embraced Christianity, Tudor Court musicians, and during the reign of Charles I, Jewish merchants disguised as Spaniards.
Jews did not officially return to Britain, however, until 1655, under Oliver Cromwell.
Sephardic Jews from Holland, originally from Spain and Portugal, established the first synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the City of London upon arrival. As their community swelled with impoverished compatriots and refugees from renewed Inquisitional activity, additional Sephardic synagogues, like the Bevis Marks in London’s East Endfollowed. Though many were well-to-do international traders and brokers, they were restrained by lack of British citizenship. Their hopes rose with the passage of the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, but were dashed when widespread protests resulted in its repeal. In reaction, many abandoned their heritage in favor of conversion and full assimilation.
In the meantime, a small stream of German and Polish Ashkenazi (European) immigrants, fleeing harsh economic restrictions in their homelands and seeking religious freedom, also arrived. Some settled in their ports of entry, like Plymouth and Southampton, becoming small shopkeepers. Others hawked pencils, watches, and other trinkets, fanning out to nearby towns. Jewish communities eventually arose in their wake, in inland towns like Bradford and Coventry.
The vast majority of Ashkenazi immigrants, however, crowded into London’s East End. As they grew in number, their European Hebrew pronunciation, prayer forms, and language, Yiddish, eventually supplanted the area’s original Sephardic character.
Like Jews everywhere, these newcomers established close-knit communities, seeking familiar faces, food, language, and customs from their places of origin. To fulfill their religious obligations, they soon established cemeteries, synagogues, religious schools, ritual bath houses, and sources of kosher food. They also supported traditional communal societies that fed their hungry, provided dowries for needy brides, cared for widows and orphans, visited the sick, and buried their poor.
Though most Ashkenazi Jews had left their homeland seeking greater economic opportunity, few brought marketable skills. So whether they settled in London, Liverpool, or Glasgow, most laboured at marginal occupations that required little investment and minimal knowledge of English.
Streets thronged with peddlers shrilly hawking rags, used clothing, shoe buckles, watch chains, rings, snuff boxes, buttons — anything that might turn a profit, while housewives and barrow boys dinged (bargained) over oranges and lemons. Tailors recycled frayed jackets into serviceable children’s wear and cobblers stitched up shoes good as new. Their poverty, exacerbated by overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and disease, was so acute that some Jewish East Enders, it is said, even resorted to unsavory practices to make ends meet.
The next great wave of Jewish immigration to Britain began in the 1860s, with Polish Jews fleeing political unrest, and Russian Jews fleeing increasing taxation, 25-year compulsory military conscription, and harsh occupational restrictions. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which, falsely blamed on the Jews, sparked three years of widespread anti-Semitic pogroms, after the subsequent passage of May Laws which restricted Jewish settlement, emigration became truly massive.
Although the vast majority of refugees were trans-migrants bound for other shores, some 100,000 remained in Britain. Over a single decade, the number of Jews in Britaintrebled. Most settled within the two square miles of London’s overcrowded East End, transforming it, at the time, into one of the largest Jewish urban centers in Europe.
Other Jewish centers, including Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool also swelled with fleeing immigrants. While many found work as unskilled labourers, others became tailors, upholsterers, shoemakers, glaziers, or furniture craftsmen. Some ran pawnshops. A good number served their communities as religious teachers, kosher slaughterers and butchers, chicken pluckers, and bakers. Jewish women, in addition to running their households and lodging houses, often worked beside their husbands as cutters, pressers, or seamstresses. Others manned market stalls or grocery shops. Everything, of course, was conducted in Yiddish.
Between 1903 and 1906, a second, bloodier wave of pogroms raged through Bessarabia and the Ukraine, bringing scores more to Britain’s shores. Once safe, they too sought to recreate the culture they had left behind, speaking Yiddish, reading Yiddish newspapers, and forming hundreds of informal neighborhood prayer groups and social clubs.
Many settled in Manchester, drawn both by its economic opportunities and its well-established Jewish community. The city’s German Jews, however, better off, better educated, and already Anglicised, feared that the greenhorns’ overtly “Jewish” behavior would fuel British anti-Semitism. Though encouraged to learn English and adapt to British ways, these newcomers initially supported traditional religious and communal societies. In time, however, their Old World institutions, evolved into more socially acceptable Jewish Ladies’ Visiting Societies , the Jewish Men’s Clubs, and the Jewish Lads Brigade. To battle their terrible working conditions and poor pay, many here and in other industrial centers also joined Jewish and British trade unions or became active in socialist political parties.
As time went by, British Jewry began to thrive. Streets bustled with hatters, tailors, cobblers, cigarette makers, pen and quill makers, watchmakers, engravers, and tradesman, and more. Street sellers moved into shop fronts, fruit and vegetable barrow boys opened produce stands, shopkeepers became wholesalers, cabinet makers opened their own workshops, and pawnbrokers became jewelers. Eventually, the terrible overcrowding eased. East End Jews, for example, as soon as they were economically able, moved out, first to nearby urban neighborhoods like Whitechapel and Stepney, then to suburban, residential areas like Stamford Hill, Golders Green, Hendon, and Cricklewood. Once removed from synagogues, religious schools, and availability of kosher food, many fully assimilated into British society.
By the time Jewish immigration ground to a halt during World War I, most British Jews were concentrated in three major cities, London, Manchester, and Leeds, where they were employed in retail trade, workshops, or factories. Others chose self-employment, working as hairdressers or taxi drivers. Those with access to university education pursued professions in medicine, law, and economics.
Following World War One, continuing political unrest in Poland, Austria, and Russia, brought more Jewish refugees to British shores. But Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 heralded the next great wave of immigration. When far-reaching anti-Semitic measures were passed that systematically barred Austrian and German Jews from Aryan social and economic life, many from those and neighboring countries sought asylum in Britain. To enter however, Jews required either a job in the offing or a sponsor. Under the circumstances, even highly educated people like doctors and lawyers accepted menial positions. Still, only 50,000 Jewish adults were granted British visas, a drop in the bucket.
Most of these German-speaking refugees were thoroughly assimilated into Western culture. So while British Jewish initially feared public hostility at their arrival, they acclimated seamlessly into British life, often creating or transplanting businesses like fashion and fur trades and pharmaceutical production to their new homeland.
Jewish life on the Continent, however, continued to deteriorate. Immediately after Kristallnacht , when German paramilitaries and Hitler Youth rampaged across Germany, burning synagogues, attacking Jewish shops, and arresting thousands, British Parliament voted to allow 10,000 unaccompanied children, mostly Jewish, to enter the country, through Kindertransport, the Refugee Children’s Movement While doors were fast closing to the Jews of Europe, the British people opened not only their hearts, but also their homes to these youngsters. Most kinder would never see their parents again. Though many relocated to British Mandate Palestine after World War Two, thousands of others remained in Britain.
Today, the largest Jewish communities are in and about London, Manchester, and Leeds, with smaller ones in Gateshead, Glasgow, and Liverpool. They represent all degrees of observance, support hundreds of synagogues and enjoy a thriving cultural life.
appeared in Family History Monthly • January 2010