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|Jewish Histories - Working Lives|
Culture and Festivals
The first Jews to return to England under Oliver Cromwell, after the expulsion four centuries earlier, were Sephardi, refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition who had settled in Northern Europe. Most were relatively wealthy merchants. They were soon, however, to be outnumbered by Ashkenazis, Jews from Germany and Poland who, with a few important exceptions, arrived in this country with little or nothing.
Some immigrants - mostly young, single men - were drawn to seaports like Chatham, Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, and Hull. Until the start of the railways in the 1830s, most inland trade, like overseas trade, was organised around the seaports, because goods could be transported more easily around the coast, and then inland from the nearest port, than carried cross-country.
In villages and remote areas there were few shops, as we would know them today. There was therefore a lively trade to be made from hawking goods from village to village and farm to farm across the countryside. The new immigrant who based himself in a seaport could hope to be taken on by a fellow Jew operating a team of these cross-country hawkers. They would spread out across the countryside each week, returning to base on Fridays for Sabbath celebrations. On Sundays they would re-stock for the week ahead, typically loading up with light goods that they could carry over their shoulders, like jewellery, trinkets, tobacco and clothes.
With luck, the hawker might in time rise to run his own business. But it was a difficult and uncertain existence, and trading conditions often slumped. The immigrant Jew was at the bottom of the heap, and significant numbers turned to petty crime - acquiring a reputation in the 18th century that was hard to shake off long after it had become outdated, as the Fagin stereotype in Dickens' Oliver Twist demonstrates.
Find out more about criminality among the early immigrants.
By the early to mid-19th century, with the industrial revolution and railways transforming the economy, Jews were increasingly to be found in settled occupations. The lucky few, for example Francis Goldsmid who became Britain's first Jewish barrister in 1835, were beginning to penetrate the professions. Many occupations were however closed to them. Until 1830, Jews were unable to conduct retail trade in the City of London because of the requirement to swear a Christian oath, and many guild-based industries were largely closed to outsiders of any sort.
As a result, the Jewish community was obliged to specialise in light manufacturing businesses like jewellery, clothing and furniture, or dealing in imported goods like fruit and tobacco - goods which, a generation or two earlier, they had made their living by hawking. In turning from small-scale trade to manufacture, they were laying down the foundation for a major expansion in the late-19th century. When the next generation of new immigrants arrived looking for work, they very often found it in factories and sweatshops turning out these same products.
The opportunities open to the late-19th century immigrants were limited by their lack of skills and their poor English. In the new wave of migration, moreover, there were many more of them, and working conditions in the sweatshops were even tougher. The newcomers had to adjust to the strangeness of their new lives, not helped by the hostility of English employers whilst they tried to maintain Jewish religious customs.
The immigrants found work in a very narrow range of unskilled and semi-skilled occupations, particularly tailoring, furniture making, cigarette manufacture and boot, shoe, cap and hat making. Many of them had been involved in similar work in their countries of origin.
Many of these trades, especially tailoring, were carried out as sweated labour. The migrants would work, eat and sleep in the same cramped, unhygienic quarters. The working day might last 13 or 14 hours, but if work was unavailable the workers were laid off without wages.
The 'sweating' system became a byword for appalling working conditions and was investigated by government inquiries and social reformers like Beatrice Webb and Charles Booth.
In 1884 the medical journal The Lancet reported:
We visited one tailor's workshop in Hanbury Street. There was only one toilet, which flushed its contents outside the pan and across the yard. In the top room 18 people were working. In the heat of the gas and stoves, surrounded by mounds of dust, breathing an atmosphere of wool particles containing dangerous dyes, it is not surprising that tailors' health breaks down from lung diseases.
Tailoring was the commonest occupation for Jewish immigrants. The development of the cheap Singer sewing machine in the 1860s made it possible to set up a tailoring workshop almost anywhere: in back rooms, in attics, in basements.
By 1888 there were over 1,000 tailoring workshops in Whitechapel, in London's East End. Most of them employed only a handful of people, and were often family-run, with all the family members involved.
The constant arrival of new immigrants with barely any skills - 'greeners' - helped to keep wages low. New workshops were constantly opening and others closing. A workshop master would often go out of business and have to return to sweated labour himself.
In the East End workshops there were often just three or four sewing machines, a tailoring table, a table for the finishers and one for the pressers. Women worked in the sweatshops as well as men, but generally at the least skilled jobs - and at even lower rates of pay.
Tailoring was the main occupation in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, just as in London. In Leeds in 1891 72% of employed Jewish adults were in tailoring, and it was here in the years following the First World War that Sir Montague Burton built up the largest tailoring business in the world, pioneering factory techniques and ready-made clothing stores.
Cabinet making was another popular occupation, and in 1901 about 10% of British Jews were working in the furniture trade. Many small furniture firms were set up in the Curtain Road area of the East End, and timber yards and trade mills developed alongside them. Conditions here too were hard and uncertain. Accidents with fires and tools were common.
Some of the immigrants took up trades to serve their fellow Jews, keeping shops, selling goods on market stalls, baking bread, and kosher butchering.
In time, some of the tailoring and furniture workshops established by the immigrants developed into businesses that would become household names, like Montague Burton. The most famous Jewish retailer of all was probably Michael Marks, who came to Britain in 1882. Marks and his English colleague Tom Spencer founded the successful retail empire Marks and Spencer, which started as a Penny Bazaar stall in Leeds in 1884.
The terrible working conditions and poor pay encouraged many Jewish immigrants to join trades unions. From the 1870s onwards, separate Jewish trades unions were formed in tailoring, baking, cabinet making and other trades.
But it was very difficult for the unions to achieve much success. Until the outbreak of war in 1914 brought immigration to an abrupt halt, there was a constant stream of new immigrants desperate for work at any price, and the workshop owners themselves were barely above the poverty line.
Some strikes were successful, however, and there was co-operation between Jewish and non-Jewish unions. In 1889, while many workers in London were fighting for better conditions, about 6,000 Jewish tailoring workers were involved in a four-week strike, demanding a reduction in their hours to 12 per day! Again in 1912, more than 10,000 workers fought for better pay and conditions.
Jewish workers were also active in trades unions in Leeds and Manchester - like the Leeds Amalgamated Jewish Tailors' Machiners' and Pressers' Union, which was founded in 1895. In 1914 it merged with five non-denominational unions, including the Manchester Waterproof Garment Workers' Union - whose members were in fact mostly Jewish - to form the national United Garment Workers' Union.
During the First World War at least 50,000 British Jews joined the armed services, and many were to die in the trenches.
Others supported the war effort through work in munitions factories or the manufacture of uniforms and military clothing.
In 1917, an Anglo-Russian agreement required that men born in Russia, now living in Britain but not naturalised, would have either to serve in the British army, or return to Russia and serve in the Russian army. As Jews had suffered severely under the Tsarist Regime, they really did not want to serve in the Russian Army. Some 10,000 of those eligible for conscription applied for exemption, but in the fevered atmosphere in wartime Britain, non-fighting men were widely condemned, and they attracted great hostility.
In June 1917, houses and shops were looted in the Jewish quarter of Leeds.
A few thousand non-naturalised Jews were repatriated to Russia, but for most of the immigrants, the First World War reinforced a loyalty to their new homeland, and they took great pride in their war service. In the aftermath of the First World War the organisation now known as the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) was founded.
The First World War produced a remarkable generation of poets, not least Isaac Rosenberg, a Jew of Russian immigrant stock. For more information on Isaac Rosenberg, including images and transcripts of some of his poems, see the www.familyrecords.gov.uk website.
Following the First World War and the slowdown in immigration, conditions slowly improved. Many Jews were still employed in clothing and cabinet-making, but the trades themselves were changing. Ready-to-wear clothing was becoming increasingly popular, fuelling an expansion in new, larger factories. Furniture factories also grew larger and moved out of the East End. As early as 1907 the Lebus factory was employing nearly 4,000 workers at a new site in Tottenham in London.
Jewish people were beginning now to enter a wider range of occupations, and many of them became self-employed, for example as taxi drivers and hairdressers, which allowed Jewish religious practice to be observed.
Boxing remained a favoured sport among East End Jews, and some of the most prominent figures in light entertainment were Jewish, like band-leaders Joe Loss and Benny Green. Boxing was a route out of poverty for men like Ted 'Kid' Lewis (1894-1970), one time bodyguard to Oswald Mosley. The son of an East End cabinet maker, he began his fighting career at 14, and went on to win 215 out of 299 fights between 1909 and 1929, gaining the title of British middleweight and welterweight champion.
Some children of immigrants in the East End studied or worked hard to take themselves into better careers than their parents had had, and took advantage of the greater opportunities available to those born in this country and not struggling as new arrivals. Others whose parents had taken 'a step up the ladder' and moved to the suburbs could enjoy a better education than their parents, and began to move into the professions as accountants, doctors or lawyers.
The arrival of refugees from Nazi Germany in the inter-war years brought many men and women from highly educated or artistic backgrounds. Among them were the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud; the historians Geoffrey Elton and Eric Hobsbawm; the scientists Ernst Chain, Hans Krebs, Rudolf Peierls and Max Perutz; the novelists Elias Canetti and Arthur Koestler; the art historian Ernst Gombrich, and many more. Publishing houses founded by refugees include Phaidon Press, Thames and Hudson, and Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
The loss to their home countries was Britain's very significant gain. However, for those in Germany whose professions were not welcomed in Britain, including law and medicine, there was little chance of escape unless they could obtain visas for unskilled employment. Success for women was harder to achieve. Many female refugees were able to leave Germany and Austria only on 'domestic' visas, requiring them to work in domestic service for English employers.
During the Second World War, British Jews were again active in all the armed services and the war effort at home. They served in a variety of ways. In the navy Tommy Gould earned a Victoria Cross for dismantling a bomb on a submarine. Over 2,000 Jewish servicemen were killed in the service of Britain.
Many recently-arrived refugees were eager to join the fight against the Nazis. However, following the fall of France in 1940, they were often deemed 'enemy aliens' and interned in camps around the country, or deported overseas to Australia or Canada.
After public protest, most were released. Many enlisted for the British Armed Services, and were involved in the fighting in Europe, some then finding themselves in the peculiar position of returning to Germany as liberators.
Continental Britons, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe (Jewish Museum and The Association of Jewish Refugees, 2002), (Grenville, A)
Cesarani, D (ed), The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990)
Endelman, Todd M, The Jews of Britain 1656-2000 (University of California Press, 2002)
Gartner, L, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (2nd edition, 1973)
Lipman, V D, A History of the Jews in Britain since 1858 (Leicester, 1990)
Romain, Jonathon, The Jews of England (Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, 1985)
On Working Lives
Fishman, W J, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (London, 1975)
Kershen, A J, Uniting the Tailors - Trades Unionism among the Tailors of London and Leeds 1870-1933 (Frank Cass, 1995)
Massill, W, Immigrant Furniture Workers in London 1881-1939, and the Jewish contribution to the Furniture Trade (Jewish Museum, 1997)
Creators: Carol Seigel
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