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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Contributions to Civic and Political Life
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)


The contribution of Portsmouth Jewry to local civic affairs commences properly in the nineteenth century, coinciding with the slow movement towards Jewish political and civic emancipation. The political conditions prevailing towards the end of the previous century, however, throw revealing light upon the status of Jews among other local ‘dissenters' at that time. The struggles between the Carter and Linzee families of Portsmouth have been well documented and they reflected a challenge to the move towards centralised political control when the Admiralty, imbued with the growth in importance of Portsmouth dockyard, felt it had a natural right to nominate members of parliament for the town. The Admiralty had the support of local Aldermen Linzee and Varlo who came under strong pressure first from John Carter the Elder (1715-1794) and then his two sons John Carter Junior (knighted in 1773 during a visit to Portsmouth of George III) and William Carter. The Carters and their supporters were primarily traders by occupation and dissenters by religion, ‘Presbyterians moving towards Unitarian’, who strongly opposed the Test and Corporations Acts which restricted all public offices to members of the Church of England. [44] Dissenters and Jews were equally disqualified by the Test Acts but the Carters reigned locally because the law ruled that ‘if an unqualified person held office for six months he could not be challenged’. Moreover, prosecution could only be brought after a complaint laid before a justice of the peace. [45] Until ‘rotten boroughs’ were abolished by the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 whoever could nominate Aldermen could control parliamentary representation. William Carter, sometimes referred to as ‘the Premier’, coming under pressure from his traditional adversaries, threatened to increase his burgess support by the making of new burgesses. The nine names he proposed to a meeting of the Corporation in 1773 were all those of local Jews. [46] When doubts were raised as to whether these nominees could take the Test, the Recorder, a supporter of Carter, indicated that this was ‘only a matter of form’. The nine never, in fact became burgesses, Reuben Hart becoming the first and only Jewish burgess of Portsmouth in September 1834.

The Carter incident laid bare the bones of contention over the rights of dissenters and non-residents of the borough to become burgesses. The nine Jews were resident in the town but were not ratepayers. Their nomination by William Carter may be taken as an indication of their standing in the town and the earliest recognition of the part that could be played by Jews within the civic structure of Portsmouth. The common interest and purposes of non-conformists and Jews persisted well into the nineteenth century when they formed a ‘large number of the Liberal Party’ during Gladstone’s time.

Despite their endeavours to demonstrate their loyalty as citizens of the realm worthy of emancipation local Jews were constantly receiving rebuffs under the laws of the land. The Jewish Naturalisation Bill of 1753, known as the Jew Bill, was never enacted, being withdrawn under pressure from both the Church and the merchants of London in the year of its approval by both Houses of Parliament. Jews born abroad, as so many were at that time, were -obliged to remain ‘foreigners’48 The ‘alienation’ of the Jewish community in Portsmouth may be understood by their endeavours to be treated equally with non-Jews during the French Wars. Roth mentions that although Jews had been allowed to enrol in the Volunteer Corps at Gosport, ‘at Portsmouth the mayor at first refused their services’. He also suggested that the coat of arms displayed in the synagogue, reputed to be the only one of its kind in British Jewry, probably originated as a local testimony of Jewish loyalty at that time rather than in recognition of some royal patronage as local legend would have it. [49] With other aliens, Jews had to appear in person at the Guildhall to produce their ‘several licences’ in order to avoid removal from the coastal area or deportation under the provision of the Aliens Act of 1793. The period was one where the leaders of French and Prussian Jewish communities were strongly campaigning for their citizenship rights and receiving sympathetic consideration from Napoleon whose meetings with the French Sanhedrin were widely reported. A number of caricatures from the period portrayed Jews as supporters of Napoleon, and Cruickshank’s Easier to Say than Do, in 1803, showed Napoleon scraping England off the map with the assistance of a Dutchman, a Spaniard and a Jew. [50] Anglo-Jewish leaders rejected the scheme of the Napoleonic Jewish emancipation insisting that, for all their disabilities, Jews were much better off in England than on the continent.

In spite of their loyalty coming under suspicion, and notwithstanding their political disabilities, Jews and non-Jews associated on the social level. A local newspaper reported on a religious service being performed in 1815 by members of the Jewish congregation before ‘many distinguished visitors including Sir George and Lady Grey and Sir George and Lady Bingham’[51] A similar performance in the following year was given before ‘the first persons of consequence in this neighbourhood’ [52] The local press carried frequent reports on various members of the Jewish community, documenting their marriages, deaths and even bahmitzvahs, special attention being given to one, George Phillips, who even at the tender age of thirteen years could ‘translate from five languages other than Hebrew’

Given their political insecurity and religious connections with European communities, the affirmations of political neutrality given by Anglo-Jewish writers during the French wars may be better understood. However, Endelman’s broader indictment of Jewish indifferences to Jewish emancipation in England during the period 1829-1858 must find exception in Portsmouth. [54] The emergence of Jews in the political life of the town coincides with the aftermath of the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act when industrial and commercial interests overcame the traditional dominance of the landed gentry. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 conferred voting rights on all ratepayers but although dissenters could then be elected to local corporations, Jews were still debarred. A letter to the local press quaintly urged ‘local liberal minded people to propose an Israelite as one of the town councillors of the borough’, using the occasion to extol the virtues of local Jewry. [55] In 1836 a public meeting chaired by the mayor, Edward Carter, forwarded a petition to Parliament ‘for the removal of Civic Disabilities which affect British born Jews’. All proposers of the resolution were non-Jewish and they were publicly thanked by Emanuel Emanuel and B. W. Levi speaking on behalf of the Jewish community. The Carter family were consistent champions of the rights of Jews for three-quarters of a century and they were no doubt influential in the ultimate successful sponsorship of Jewish town councillors. If Corporation politicians in Portsmouth were active on behalf of Jewish representation, the same could not be said of the parliamentary representative, for in 1837 Portsmouth Jews were unsuccessful in their attempts to prevail upon Francis Thornhill Baring, the local MP, to support a proposal to include Jews within the scope of the proposed Relief Bill for Quakers and Moravians [56]

The period was nevertheless marked by a persistent campaign on behalf of Jewish rights, much initiative coming from meetings of the congregation which were subsequently successful in gaining broader civic support for their endeavors. The British government in the 1830s adopted a quite ambivalent pose towards the position of Jews, a stance to be re-enacted whenever the questions of Jewish immigration and settlement came to the fore. Although unwilling to grant Jews in England basic civil rights, the government of the day was prepared to intervene against Jewish persecution abroad. In 1838 the local Jewish congregation was on the one hand thanking the local Corporation for its continuing support for Jewish political representation in England and, on the other, sending appreciation to Lord Palmerston for intervening on behalf of oppressed Jews in Rhodes and Damascus. A succession of petitions was dispatched by the Corporation to Parliament during the following ten years and, at the end of 1847, both Houses of Parliament were petitioned in favour of Lord John Russell’s measure to allow ‘Her Majesty’s subjects of Jewish faith to hold seats in Parliament’.  A motion from the Corporation as late as 1852 emphasised the need to change the form of oath to be taken on admission of persons elected to serve in parliament, with Viscount Monck, Portsmouth’s new member of parliament, agreeing to present the petition.

The eventual removal of religious disabilities by the Act of 1846 ‘to relieve Her Majesty’s subjects from certain penalties and disabilities in regard to religious opinions’ followed by the lifting of political disability in 1858, did not eliminate all disqualifications against full Jewish participation in the public life of the country. Jews were still denied entry to Oxford and Cambridge universities, the only other universities at that time being in London and Durham, and further local petitions in favour of the Universities Tests Abolition Bill preceded the Act of 1871 which removed the final restrictions and opened all universities to those of whatever religious persuasion:

While the quest for national recognition was being pursued, local Jews were receiving more tangible support in their endeavours to serve the local civic community. In 1837 David Levey was invited by the burgesses of St Thomas’ s ward to represent them. [60] He declined to stand at that time although he was elected by the ward nine years later. Among the posts held by David Levey was that of Guardian for the Parish of Portsmouth in 1851, a year when the Portsmouth workhouse was one of the largest in England accommodating 1,250 inmates at a time when the whole town population stood at 60,000. It was Emanuel Emanuel who, in 1841, first accepted the challenge of possible disqualification by becoming the first Jew to be elected to the Portsmouth Council. His election marked the beginning of a span of almost continuous Jewish involvement in the town’s civic affairs. Apart from D. Levey and E. Emanuel, both of whom became Aldermen after long spells on the council, other Jews to serve the Corporation were John Edwards, first elected in 1848, Moses Solomon whose election in 1849 placed three Jewish representatives among the fourteen councilors elected in that year, Michael Henry Emanuel, first elected in 1867 and made alderman in 1880, Maurice Emanuel, elected 1875, Solomon Hart elected in 1877 but who died suddenly soon after, Abraham Leon Emanuel, first elected 1883, and Henry Edwards, son of John Edwards, elected in 1894. Other Jews served Portsmouth in different roles. Aaron Wolf was elected to the Board of Guardians, Isadore Simpson and P. I. Hyams became overseers of the poor, and Mrs H. M. Emanuel was appointed lady manager of the local School Board. The name Emanuel stands high on the list of Portsmouth’s civic dignitories and merits closer attention.

Emanuel Emanuel JP was elected councilor in 1841 when he refused to take the oath on ‘the faith of a Christian’ and became liable to a fine of 500 for every vote he subsequently gave, but as ‘there was no one in Portsmouth mean enough to proceed against this valiant Jew’ [61] ’ his position remained unchallenged in spite of the Test Acts. Emanuel Emanuel was made Alderman in 1863 and became the first Jewish mayor of Portsmouth in 1886.

Among the town reforms attributed to him were the termination of the ‘infamous’ Free Mart Fair, the construction of the Esplanade and the leveling of the Common, and securing the People’s Park later to be known as Victoria Park. [62] Emanuel Emanuel enjoyed a reputation as silversmith to Queen Victoria and his firm supplied plate to Her Majesty’s navy. A man of obvious strong principles, Emanuel Emanuel did not shrink from combining his Jewish and secular roles. In 1873 he objected to the impropriety of prayers and hymns being introduced into the town’s School Board schools, citing the latent antisemitism of some of the verses eg Lord I ascribe it to thy grace, and not to chance as others do, That I was born of Christian race, and not a heathen or a Jew’. He was a constant benefactor to the synagogue and when he died on 29th December 1888 a memorial fountain was erected in his memory in Canoe Lake Gardens.

Abraham Leon Emanuel JP, unrelated to Emanuel Emanuel, was first elected to the town council in 1883. Having already been made Alderman, he became Portsmouth’s second Jewish mayor in 1894. celebrating the occasion with a teaparty for a thousand of the town s elderly poor. [63] It was A. L. Emanuel who introduced the special services to be held in the synagogue to welcome the visiting Corporation in celebrating the inauguration of the mayor. Respect for him was such that during the terminal illness of his wife Julia, the Commanders in Chief of both arms of the Services gave instructions that no guns were to be fired from either garrison or ships in the port. When he died childless in 1909. having served a second term as mayor in 1901, he left provision for marriage dowries to be paid to poor young lovers. Jew or Gentile’ and for the continuation of annual presentations of watches to the best boys and girls in local schools. He bequeathed the ‘Emanuel Plate’ to the Corporation.

The Emanuel families dominated the Anglo-Jewish scene in Portsmouth for almost the entire nineteenth century, but by its end many of the established and Anglicised Jewish families had left Portsmouth or died out. There was a significant influx of European Jews at the turn of the century and it took a generation of new Jewish settlement in Portsmouth before Jews again emerged to prominence in the city’s public life. So complete was this population displacement, that at the present time only one Jewish family can trace its Portsmouth ancestry back much further than the 1890s.