In this week’s blog post, we mark Local and Community History Month by learning about life in the London Jewish community using the letter books of the Secretary of the Jewish Board of Guardians.
Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor, more commonly known as the Jewish Board of Guardians (JBG), 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 relief of poor Jewish immigrants, referred to as the ‘strange poor’, living in London. Almost 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 primary activity of the Board was the administration of poor relief. Investigating officers, working alongside the Investigating Committee (later the Fixed Allowance and Temporary Allowances Committees), were responsible for investigating each case. Relief was then provided either monetarily, through fix or temporary allowances, or through the distribution of tickets for relief supplies.
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 early 1880s to the mid-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.
The letter books of the secretary of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor form part of the collection MS 173 Archives of Jewish Care.
The letter books cover a period where increasing numbers of Eastern European Jews were settling in Great Britain, fleeing economic hardship and increasingly violent anti-Semitic persecution. This was due to the pogroms (“to wreak havoc” in Russian) occurring in the 1880s and early 1900s as a result of the Russian Empire acquiring territories with large Jewish populations from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The territories were labelled “the Pale of Settlement” by the Imperial Russian government, where Jews were permitted to live, and where the pogroms mainly took place. The majority of Jews were forbidden to move to the other parts of the Empire, unless they converted to the Russian Orthodox state religion.
The first wave of pogroms occurred in southern Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, for which some blamed the Jews, due to one of the conspirators being of Jewish origin. Local economic conditions and competing with the business of local Jews is also believed to have caused rioting, as well as Russians spreading their anti-Semitic ideas when moving in and out of major cities following Russia’s industrialisation.
According to a paper in one of the JBG letter books dating 1881, an approximate estimate of the Jewish population in England and Wales compiled by the London Committee of Deputies of the British Jews, was six thousand five hundred and forty-five, excluding the Berkeley Street congregation and the affiliated congregation at Manchester. [MS173/1/11/1/25]
Great Britain received another influx of refugees from Nazi persecution, following Hitler’s implementation of his ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem’ in the 1940s.
The letter books provide a window into the struggles of the Jewish community settling into London, and the kinds of cases that the JBG had to deal with.
When Jewish refugees fled abroad, children were often abandoned. In the letter book MS173/1/11/1/8 we follow the story of four Jewish children named Angell who were admitted to the Homerton Workhouse in 1880. The children belonged to parents Edward and Julia Angell, who married in London and had nine children altogether. The father left for America with the JBG assisting the wife and children in London. Previously, in 1868 the family were sent to America on a number of occasions. The mother left for America in 1880, leaving behind four children in the City of London Union. Other children of the family were in London but were not chargeable to the Board. The superintendant of the United Hebrew Charities of the City of New York, H. Hirsch wrote to the President of the Board of Guardians for the Relief of the Jewish Poor, Lionel L. Cohen in February 1881, stating that his organisation was against sending the family of Edward Angel to the United States. This was due to them being sent three times previously, and the father leaving them, therefore becoming a burden on the charitable institutions. In March 1881 Morris and Fanny Angell are recorded in a letter as being removed from the Central London District Schools at Hanwell and being placed with a private family as requested by the JBG. Correspondence dating March 1881 records the United Hebrew Charities of the City of New York deciding that the children of Edward Angel are to be sent from London to New York and then forwarded to Monticello, Florida, to be placed under the care of their father, who was currently residing in the town under the name of E. Engelman. In May 1881 I. S. Isaacs, honorary secretary of the United Hebrew Charities of the City of New York writes to Lionel to say that the children’s mother is living in New York but is unable to care for herself. He further states that the father is reported to be fully able to take care of his children, and it is hoped that “the wanderings of the unfortunate children will cease once they have been forwarded to their father.” [MS173/1/11/1/60-61]. On 9 June 1881 it was reported that the Angel children were sailing on the “Egyptian Monarch” to Florida.The letter books also reflect the JBG dealing with orphans with disabilities, such as one who was deaf, who was accepted into the Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum in December 1891. Another case example is that of a Jewish boy who was placed in Dr Bernardo’s Home by his mother with his sister, who had been in receipt from the JBG in December 1900. The father abandoned the family in 1896 and was subsequently imprisoned as a result.
In nineteenth-century London there were also a number of vulnerable children the JBG had to deal with. Cases included a girl in 1881 whose guardians refused to give her up. Despite the guardians caring for the girl at a great cost due to the delicacy of her health, the solicitor responsible for the case advised the JBG for the girl to be placed with a respectable family rather than into an institution, due to the manner in which she was treated by the guardians and due to her health. The girl was then obtained by her mother, who mentions her decision to travel to America with her two children, and asks her doctor to influence the Board to provide her with relief. The mother received £15 from the Board of Guardians.
As well as helping to reunite children with their parents, the JBG also helped to find and fund apprenticeships for the children under their care. For instance, a boy was matched with a tailor and clothier in February 1881 to be taught to be a sailor’s cutter and salesman.
When ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) became rife in London towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the JBG organised local dispensaries, where they would refer new TB cases resident in the area and provide visitors in proportion to the number of Jewish cases attending the dispensary for treatment. The letter books also reveal discussion on where to place tuberculous and pre-tuberculous children currently boarded out with Christian families, and the potential of them being placed in a cottage at Walton on Naze, Essex, under the care of a Jewish woman. Through their local associations the Board of Guardians arranged for the provisions of milk or cod liver oil during the school holidays and weekends. A letter dating 1913 from the JBG to the London County Council requests the number of cases that should be dealt with (which was 100) and whether the children were to be supplied on Saturdays and Sundays, of which it was decided they should. [MS173/1/11/4/701]
During World War Two Jewish communities in London also included the homeless. In the secretary’s letter books can be found correspondence dating 1940-41 revealing discussions on welfare work undertaken by the United Synagogue for people made homeless by air raids, and also the agreement for a church in St Martin-in-the-Fields to provide a portion of money from their BBC Christmas appeal towards the help of Jewish people suffering from air raids and war distress. [MS173/1/11/8/320]
Join us for our third May Local and Community History Month blog post next week, where we will focus on art and theatre in Southampton.