Archivist projects: Cataloguing the secretary’s papers of the Jewish Board of Guardians

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, takes place from sunset on the 24th to nightfall on the 26th September 2014. To mark the occasion John Rooney, an archivist in the Special Collections Division, provides a rundown of his work on the recently completed Jewish Board of Guardians cataloguing project.

“Over the past year I have been responsible for cataloguing and indexing the letter books of the secretary of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor. The Board was established in 1859 by representatives of the three main London synagogues – the Great Synagogue, the Hambro’ Synagogue, and the New Synagogue. They were charged to constitute a Board of Guardians for the relief of poor Jewish immigrants, referred to as the ‘strange poor’, living in London. However, immediately after its formation the Board began to extend both its scope and revenues, and soon became the chief source of support for poor Jews in the city. The Board helped to keep Jews away from the English poor law, with the burden of maintaining their poor falling almost entirely on the Jewish community. The Boards capacity to both raise and disburse funds grew rapidly, particularly in response to the large influx of Russian and Eastern European Jews escaping persecution from the 1880s.

A Scheme for a Board of Guardians to be formed for the Relief of the Necessitous Foreign Poor, 1859

A Scheme for a Board of Guardians to be formed for the Relief of the Necessitous Foreign Poor, 1859

The letter books of the secretary consist of eight volumes containing correspondence, reports, press cuttings, financial statements, and other papers relating to the activities of the Board from the 1880s to the 1940s. These materials reflect the transformative nature of the Board, which continually adapted its activities to meet changing conditions and needs. The Board achieved this through a range of committees and sub-committees as well as coordinated efforts with other charitable organisations and institutions. While the primary activity of the Board was the administration of monetary relief there were other ways in which the Board provided support. Loans, for example, acted as a preventative measure to help struggling tradesmen or families from falling into pauperism. Meanwhile, the provision of financial aid for emigration assisted cases in travelling to places such as the United States or Australia, or in returning to Europe. Other activities of the Board included the administration of almshouses and convalescent homes, the training of apprentices, the running of workrooms, the provision of medical relief, as well as conducting sanitary inspections of the homes of the poor.

The Board was a philanthropic endeavour and was both established and run by prominent members of the Jewish community. In addition to materials reflecting the activities of the Board’s various committees and associated institutions, there is a significant portion of materials relating to the individuals responsible for the running of the Board. This includes correspondence dealing with the appointment and resignation of both members of the Board and its committees, as well as representatives of the Board at other public bodies. Funding of the Board was also dependent on the generosity of members of the Jewish community with a significant portion of materials relating to the provision of donations and contributions, particularly in the form of legacy bequests.

The collection includes a number of case materials. The majority of these date from the 1880s to the early 1900s and primarily relate to cases of deserted children. These include cases of children being removed from workhouses and placed in the care of Jewish families or Jewish institutions, in particular the Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum in Norwood. The Board also assisted the emigration of children in cases where they could be reunited with their parents.

There are a significant number of materials relating to the Board’s provision of financial assistance for emigration. This resulted in tensions with authorities in the United States and is reflected in correspondence with the United Hebrew Charities in New York in the early 1900s. Likewise, tensions regarding the arrival of Jewish refugees into Britain are particularly evident in materials relating to the Board’s efforts to facilitate refugees from Transvaal arriving in Southampton, en route for Europe, during the Second Boer War.

Letter books of the secretary of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor

Letter books of the secretary of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor

The project involved providing item level descriptions for approximately 10,000 items. Index terms have also been provided in accordance with the NCA Rules, with UKAT and AIM25 used for the provision of standardised subject terms. Both cataloguing and indexing at an item level was essential due to the physical nature of the collection. Each of the eight volumes contains between one hundred and three hundred pages, with a large number of items attached to each page in a series of folded bundles. While the items are arranged in a general chronological order, the volumes do not contain any form of index, which has resulted in the content of the collection remaining largely obscured.

The letter books are complimented by a range of Jewish Board of Guardians materials that form part of the Archives of Jewish Care. Together these materials offer a deep insight into the activities of this pioneering Jewish charity, with its ability to adapt to the development of statutory welfare services and to meet changing social and economic conditions from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.”


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