Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The First Jews in Gateshead

Manchester Jewish historian Yaakov Wise has pushed back the date for the settlement of Jews in Gateshead, North East England, by twelve years from 1881 to 1869-70. Most historians of Anglo-Jewry had previously believed that the Gateshead settlement had been founded in 1881 by shopkeeper Zechariah Bernstone who ‘walked across the Redheugh bridge from Newcastle to Gateshead’ looking for a remote site to found a new orthodox Jewish community, due to his disappointment with what he considered to be the unacceptably low standards of Judaism he found in the bigger city.

However whilst researching my new illustrated history of the Jewish communities of Prestwich, Whitefield and Bury [suburbs of Manchester] I found a reference to Jews living in Gateshead as early as 1872, many years before Mr Bernstone’s arrival. In the Manchester Great Synagogue’s Prestwich Jewish cemetery’s burial register I discovered the following entry: “Gabriel Hirsch father of Mr E Gabriel of Gateshead-on-Tyne, died at 4 Melbourne Place, Strangeways 7th May 1872, buried at Prestwich 8th May 1872.”

According to most historians such an exact entry in a burial register alone proves conclusively that there were Jews living in Gateshead at that time. However to be certain, I followed this reference by visiting Gateshead Central Library and searching for the Gabriel family in the 1871 UK census and in the local town directories. An Elias Gabriel appears in the trade directories for 1870 to 1873 as a clothier with a shop and living accommodation at 35 West Street, Gateshead; a prime retail location on a main road near the town hall, courts and police station.

In the 1871 census Gabriel is described as aged 30, born in Prussia and married. His wife Fanny, 28, was also born in Prussia and their daughter Elizabeth aged four born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and son Myer aged 15 months, born in Gateshead. This means the family must have been living in Gateshead in January 1870 and most probably at the peak pre-Xmas retail sales season of November-December 1869.

Also living at the address on the night of the census were two Jewish lodgers, bachelors born in Prussia, a tailor and a farrier and a female non-Jewish servant. Incredibly, also staying in the house was Elias Gabriel’s father, Gabriel Hirsch, a widower also born in Prussia, who had presumably come from Manchester to stay for Passover – the census was taken on 3rd April 1871 and Passover that year began on the evening of 6th April.

I also found an earlier local newspaper reference to a hawker, a travelling watch and jewellery salesman, Isaac Goldmann of Sunderland working in Gateshead in June 1864. This pattern of hawkers visiting a provincial town, followed by a pioneer shopkeeper who becomes the first resident and who is then followed in turn by other Jewish traders is very common in all Diaspora communities. The significance of this find is that the history of the Jewish community is Gateshead has been extended back in time, with hawkers in the early 1860s and the first residents in late 1869 or early 1870. A Jewish businessman called Solomon Wilkes then set up a small furniture factory in Gateshead in 1875.

Whilst most local orthodox Jews previously believed Mr Bernstone was ploughing virgin territory, we now know that this was not in fact the case. Jews had already been visiting and living in the town for many years. However, Mr Bernstone still gets the credit for founding the first organised Jewish community in Gateshead. Mr Bernstone and his protégé Eliezer Adler, the first president of the official Gateshead Jewish community, founded the first regular minyan [congregation] in 1883.


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