A Haven from Persecution; for a People without a Homeland, Birmingham Provided Refuge for Thousands of Jews. Malcolm Dick Explores the City's Jewish History
Birmingham has been a home to people experiencing persecution for over two hundred years.
Eighteenth century sources document the presence of a small number of individuals with Jewish names. The 1851 census records 730 people of Jewish origin and in 1871 the number had increased to 2,360.
The late Zoe Josephs conducted extensive research into Birmingham's Jewish history. Her published investigations provide an insight into the origins, experiences and impact of the City's earliest refugee community.
Many Jews came to Birmingham to escape religious persecution in Central and Eastern Europe, though some came from elsewhere in Europe to flee from the Catholic Church.
The pogroms in tsarist Russia led to an increase in refugees in the late nineteenth century. Others came in the 1930s fleeing from Nazi Germany.
Late nineteenth century census returns show that about one half of Birmingham's Jewish residents were born in Britain. A permanent community had been established, Jews were not only newly arrived immigrants.
The first refugees lacked capital or access to education and were prevented from owning land or entering the professions. As newcomers in an alien city, they were forced to rely on their personal resources and mutual support for survival. In the eighteenth century many scratched a living by street selling and small-scale trading.
In the 'Froggery', where they lived, a damp low-lying area, swept away when New Street Station was constructed in the 19th century, they were able to create a synagogue. William Hutton, the Birmingham historian, described the community with patronising disdain in 1780.
'In the synagogue, situated in the Froggery, they still preserve the faint resemblance of the ancient worship. The whole apparatus being no more than the drooping ensigns of poverty. . . the proverbial expression 'as rich as a Jew' is not altogether verified in Birmingham, but perhaps, time is transferring it to the Quakers.'
In 1851 most Jewish immigrants were located in slums around Hurst Street with their Stibls (meeting houses) and synagogue in Wrottesley Street. Their work as glaziers, slipper makers, tailors and hawkers required little or no training or capital. At the end of the century the slipper makers and tailors developed Jewish trade unions to provide benefit funds, campaign for improved conditions and secure their observance of the Sabbath.
Not all were poor. A prosperous community was emerging focused upon the Singers Hill Synagogue consecrated in 1856. Luck, frugality and industry enabled a class of Jewish entrepreneurs to emerge, benefiting from Britain's international economic leadership and Birmingham's growing prosperity.
By 1871 nearly 100 Jewish families lived in Edgbaston. Others were moving to the Jewellery Quarter and Handsworth, becoming pawnbrokers, jewellers and merchants. There were many prominent nineteenth-century local industrialists who came from first and second-generation refugees. They included S J Levi in silver plating, Isaac Ahronsberg, a silversmith and manufacturer of spectacles and Jacob Jacobs who revived the mid-nineteenth century jewellery trade.
Jacob's most spectacular success was as chairman of the company, which created the Great Western Arcade, Birmingham's focus for fashionable shopping.
Suspicion and hostility remained. Jews were excluded from the prestigious Edgbaston Sports Clubs and traders had problems participating in local markets. There was opposition from within the Church of England which argued that removing legal restrictions upon Jews would 'ruin and demoralise the country.'
The gradual removal of discriminatory legislation in the nineteenth century enabled Jews to enter the professions and politics. Many were active in both the Liberal and Conservative parties and served on the town council and boards of guardians. …