Monday, November 28, 2005

The Methodist judge and the immigrant shul

When a Lord Chief Justice from Bury dealt with the ‘Holy Law’

Several members of the Holy Law Synagogue, Bury Old Road, Prestwich joined the audience at the Bury and District Local History Society’s November meeting to hear a new lecture by BLHS committee member and Manchester University historian Yaakov Wise. Earlier this year, whilst I was researching local Jewish burial records for the new illustrated edition of my fascinating (only if you're a local) booklet ‘A Brief History of the Jewish Community in Prestwich, Whitefield and Bury,’ I discovered the transcript of a 1927 Manchester High Court case between the Holy Law Synagogue, then still on Cheetham Hill Road in the City of Manchester (it was rebuilt in Prestwich in 1935), and Failsworth Urban District Council (now part of Oldham MBC), the local authority within whose borders lies the Holy Law’s 'Failsworth' cemetery.

The dispute was caused by the synagogue’s claim that the cemetery was exempt from the Private Street Works Act 1896 which entitled local authorities to levy a rate on properties specifically for road repairs and maintenance. The Act exempted churches and ‘graveyards attached to a church.’ As the cemetery was owned by the Holy Law Burial Board, its president Louis Fidler (father of the Conservate politician the late Ald. Michael Fidler, MP of Prestwich) and his fellow honorary officers argued that this meant the cemetery although over five miles away from the main shul building was legally ‘attached’ to the shul. The synagogue was represented by (Judge) Neville Laski, KC, elder son of Jewish community leader Nathan Laski, JP, and Manchester City Councillor Mrs Sarah Laski, who later became a Liverpool district court judge and President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews 1933-1939. He was the father of the writer and broadcaster Marghanita Laski.

Unusually for such a relatively minor matter, the case was heard by three high court judges led by Lord Hewart of Bury, the Lord Chief Justice of England, born the strict Methodist son of a Bury draper, a former unsuccessful Liberal candidate for North West Manchester, who had been supported by the constituency chairman Nathan Laski, and who as Sir Gordon Hewart had been MP for Leicester, Lloyd George’s Attorney General and a cabinet minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration. Hewart, born in 1870, had been educated at Bury and Manchester Grammar Schools before winning a classical scholarship to Oxford. He had been parliamentary correspondent of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ before reading for the bar and joining the Northern circuit in Manchester. As a senior judge, Hewart was responsible for several landmark decisions one of which enabled the football pools industry to develop. As a libel lawyer he was partly responsible for all those disclaimers at the end of films and TV programmes stating "no actual person is intended ..."

After hearing evidence from both sides, Lord Hewart and his fellow judges ruled that the word ‘attached’ in the Private Street Works Act meant ‘adjoining, in other words, physically next to…’ and that a cemetery several miles away from a synagogue was therefore not exempt from local authority rates. However, five years later the Laski family had their revenge when Neville’s younger brother the socialist politician, Professor Harold Laski of the LSE, sometime chairman of the Labour Party, was a member of a parliamentary committee investigating whether governments had too much influence over new legislation, and publicly criticised Lord Hewart’s 1929 book ‘The New Despotism’ which had alleged that ministers had begun to rule by executive orders rather than by obtaining proper parliamentary approval.

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