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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > History > Local History > The Jewish connection!

Jewish memorial in cemetery

Bradford's Jewish legacy!

The Jewish connection!

Did you know there are more monuments to Jewish endeavour in Bradford than there are in Leeds, and that Bradford's Jews helped to found the state of Israel? Katie Binns says Bradford would have been a different place without its Jewish community.

At first glance the Jewish connection and Bradford seems a strange topic. That’s no surprise since the number of Jews residing in Bradford has always been numerically small. However, their contribution to the commerce and culture of the city has been out of proportion to their numbers. It seems they were passionately concerned in the building of Bradford. Many left at some point to enhance the general quality of life in Britain. They were also concerned for their own community and the welfare of Anglo-Jewry. Some were even directly involved in the laying of the foundations of the Jewish State of Israel.

Jews came to Bradford in the 1820s and 1830s from Germany and Denmark. Others came later in the 1880s and 1890s from Russia and Poland when Czar Alexander II was assassinated resulting in wide scale anti-Jewish riots. As we shall see there are more historic monuments to Jewish endeavour around us in Bradford than in Leeds.

Stonework around synagogue window

Bradford synagogue

Not fiercely religious...

By 1863 Bradford had its first Jewish mayor in Charles Semon and by April 1873 the Jewish Association of Bradford had been formed. But why did it take fifty years to form a Jewish association in Bradford?

Jewish religious life in the city seemed to be in decline, circumcision was rare and the Jewish Chronicle of August 11th 1865 claimed: "They do not want to pass for Jews although every child in Bradford knows them to be Jews". The Jewish Chronicle also noted that there were over 100 children in the Jewish community but no facilities for their Jewish education. The Chief Rabbi visited Bradford and attempted to form a Jewish association with very little success. At this time the Jewish population numbered 300 people, a sizeable community without services or a synagogue. Part of the reason for the lack of any formal religious group was that some residents might have joined synagogues in Leeds and Manchester. However, Humbert Wolfe, a Jewish descendent, claims that "England was their home…Without knowing it they developed an intense patriotism". Most took no part in Jewish affairs.

Natural born leaders...

The Jewish merchants who came from central Europe - with its oppression and anti-Semitism - were pleasantly surprised to find in Bradford both economic and political freedom. They used this freedom to take an active and often leading part in the civic life of the town. In 1880 Bradford had a population of 200,000 but the middle and upper class ruling elite of mill owners, industrialists and entrepreneurs would have been comparatively small. The Jewish merchants who comprised over 100 families were able to make a great mark on the city.

Charles Semon's grave

Bradford's first Jewish mayor, Charles Semon

For example, Jacob Behrens (1806-1889) was very influential in the life of Bradford. He was the first foreign merchant to export wool goods from Bradford. When he arrived in the town he lodged at the Sun Inn at he bottom of Ivegate but left his lodging because he was told "he could not stay as he took nothing to drink". The business he founded grew into a multi-million pound empire and when he died in 1889 it included branches in London, Glasgow, Calcutta and Shanghai. He was involved in the foundation of Bradford Chamber of Commerce in 1851. For his work in connection with commercial treaties between England and France Queen Victoria knighted him in October 1882. He wrote in his memoirs: "Who would have thought it possible that now just fifty years after I stepped ashore on English soil at Hull, a foreigner and a Jew, I should be deemed worthy of the offer of a knighthood by the Queen’s government?"  A modest man indeed!

Charles Semon (1814-1877) was Bradford’s first foreign born and Jewish mayor. He was Justice of the Peace for Bradford and Yorkshire and Deputy Lieutenant of the West Riding. Many local charities benefited from his generosity.

Jacob Unna (1800-1881) from Hamburg was a leading figure in Bradford and Jewish life. He was a man of great business expertise. He was a founder member of the Chamber of Commerce and one of the promoters of the Bradford District Bank. He also promoted the establishment of the Bradford Eye and Ear Hospital. His obituary in the Bradford Observer reads: "It was largely due to the energy, the keen insight into foreign requirements, and the general business capacity of German gentlemen like Mr Unna that Bradford owed the development of the textile trade which resulted in its assuming such a position of importance in the commercial history of the world…In private life he was the embodiment of undemonstrative goodness…"

Special mention should go to Jacob Moser (1839-1922), considered to be the most influential in the Jewish and Zionist spheres. Originally from Denmark, he had a strong Jewish upbringing and was one of the founders of the Bradford synagogue. Moser was at the heart of the movement, joining it at the end of the 19th century. He was a member of the Zionist Central Council, the Anglo-Palestinian Corporation, the Jewish National Fund – in 1907 he contributed 50,000 francs towards the establishment of the first Hebrew High School in Jaffa. He visited what is now Israel in 1908 and 1910, donating large sums to various building projects in the land. Leeds' Jewish community, much larger and poorer than Bradford’s, also received funds from Moser.

Yet Moser never neglected the needs of his beloved Bradford. He was one of the founders of the Bradford Charity Organisation Society and the City Guild of Help. He served on the board of the British Royal Infirmary from 1883 and contributed £5,000 to the local fund for the building of a new institution. He provided £10,000 in 1898 as a benevolent fund for the aged and infirm of the city; he also supported the Children’s Hospital, donated 12,000 books to Bradford Central Library and was involved in Bradford Technical College, the Workers Educational Association and the Bradford Scientific Association. As if this was not enough, to keep himself busy he joined Bradford Council as an Independent member for Manningham ward in 1896, also served Heaton from 1901-04 and in 1909 was elected unopposed as Councillor for Little Horton. In 1910 he was both Lord Mayor of the City and Chief Magistrate. His obituary suggests he gave away some £750,000 in his lifetime to charities for all races and creeds, a phenomenal amount at this time!

Dr Friedrich Eurich discovered a cure for anthrax, or wool-sorter’s disease as it was then called. His research, which put his own life in danger, led to a scheme whereby all dangerous wool was directed to one port (Liverpool) to be disinfected, a measure which undoubtedly reduced the number of anthrax cases. He was famous for his Saturday morning surgery "free of charge" at Bradford Royal Infirmary.

Other Jewish families contributing to Victorian Bradford included the Sichels, the Rothensteins, the Wolfes and the Halles.

What remains today?

There are about 500 Jews in Bradford but most of the children and grand children of the early merchant princes are not to be found. The two synagogues are still maintained. Scholemoor Cemetery still has its Jewish burial ground.

Jewish burial area, Scholemoor Cemetery

Jewish burial area in Scholemoor Cemetery

Moser Avenue and Moser Crescent near Idle Road and streets named after Semon and German towns such as Blenheim Mount are part of the Jewish legacy too.

Bradford Chamber of Commerce, Bradford College, the Bradford Royal Infirmary and Bradford Central Library are just a few of the services that we use today that enjoyed the financial support and promotional ploys of Mr Moser and Co. How different Bradford would have been without their contribution!

[This is the second story in a series in which Katie Binns looks at the history of some of the communities who make Bradford the city is is today.]

last updated: 01/04/2008 at 10:50
created: 13/04/2006

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