Jewish Immigration: A History of the Jewish Community in Britain

appeared in Family History Monthly •  January 2010

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.