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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Occupation and Population Change
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)


However significant the local Jewish population may have been in the life of Portsmouth, its size has never been substantial. At the time of the ‘split’ of 1776 most of the 14 members recorded in the ‘old’ congregation had originated from Germany.64 There were 17 members in the ‘new congregation. With a further 15 members being added shortly after the split there were at least 46 adult males identifiable at a time when the total population of Portsmouth and Portsea was estimated at around 10,000 people.65 The rates records of 1785 suggested that there were only four ratepaying Jews in Portsmouth and 22 in Portsea, so it must be presumed that the remainder were either in lodgings or were ratepayers elsewhere, probably London. By 1798, of six Jewish traders registered in Portsmouth, one was a lodging house keeper, three were silversmiths, and there was a watchmaker, and a slopseller. Of the 24 Jewish traders in Portsea at that date, 13 were salesmen, five were watchmakers, two were silversmiths, two were pawnbrokers, and there was an engraver and a slopseller. These 30 registered merchants were engaged in providing important services both to the navy and the growing commercial activity of the town which was an important naval base for the ongoing wars with France. By the end of the Napoleonic wars there were 41 Jewish naval agents registered in the town, clustcrcd around the dockside area and constituting a significant element in the supplying of warships and their crews. In spite of their civic and political disabilities, Jews had become inalienable partners in those transactions associated with the commercial aspects of warfare.

Following the twenty year long French wars, there was a sharp decline in trade and consequently a severe shrinking in Portsmouth’s Jewish population. The economic depression brought considerable hardship and a variety of social responses from militant trade unionism, and the chartist movement, to agitation for political reform and the beginning of wide scale emigration to the colonies. In Portsea 600 people were in the local poorhouse and there were 3,276 paupers being relieved outside, fully a tenth of the town’s total population.67 It is understandable that Jewish traders, constituting as they did a fairly mobile stratum, would look to the growing opportunities in the developing manufacturing towns of the north and the attraction of the metropolis.

When the Revd I. Phillips was appointed minister to the congregation in 1866, there were only 48 members recorded in the synagogue’s books.68 Revd Phillips had replaced Revd A. F. Ornstein, on whose retirement it was reported that ‘the 100 present comprised nearly the whole of the congregation, plus fifty children from the classes69

If the ebbing Jewish population in the first half of the century was due to England’s changing economic and political fortunes, the inflow during the second half of the century was the outcome of persecution and pogroms in Europe. By the 1880s the congregation had considerably expanded and in 19t)2 it was reported that the number of Jewish families had doubled since 1873, establishing a pattern of some 200 families that became the norm for the present century. This appears to have been the peak period of Jewish population size, with decline in the average size of family largely contributing to the reduction in the actual numbers of the community.

Congregational activity reflects the changes in population structure. At one meeting at the end of World War I, a ‘record attendance of 119 members’ was noted and the total congregational membership of adult males only fluctuated slightly from 195 in 1932 to 218 in 1945 and to 187 in 1957. In 1982 the membership list increased to 252, following a rule change which allowed women to assume membership in their own right. The number of households remained fairly steady around the 200 level but there were obvious fluctuations in the support given to congregational affairs. In 1870 only six people attended a meeting to elect the honorary officers. At two ‘monster’ meetings called in 1884 to consider the purchase of a new Sepher Torah, first seven and then six members attended. During the first half of the twentieth century an enlarged congregation ensured more active interest in the synagogue but after World War II interest again waned. At the 1947 annual general meeting laments were being voiced over poor synagogue attendances and again, in 1954, lack of support in the ‘general affairs of the synagogue’ was being deplored with the annual accounts remaining unapproved because of failure to achieve a quorum.7t~ The senior offices of warden and treasurer were often uncontested and somettmes unfilled.

There have been important changes, too, in the demographic structure of the seemingly stable Jewish community. With the ebb and flow of members accompanying wars, and refugee movements now a feature of past history, the paucity of new members constitutes a real threat to the community’s future. Of the present 200 households only 87 represent married couples; 97 are composed of single members of whom only five are older children of existing members. Sixteen members reside outside the town. Without a net inflow of new members the structure of the community depends upon a natural rate of increase. The signs are not e ncouraging. Registers of births, deaths and marriage shed light on the situation. Recorded Jewish births between 1850 and 1920 were :1851—60 = 32; 1861— 70 = 73; 1871—80 = 81; 1881—90 118; 1891—1900 = 140; 1901—10 = 149; 1911—20 = 79. Those born at the peak of the birth rate and still surviving, are now the senior citizens of the community, accounting substantially for the ‘remnant’ families which largely make up the ‘single’ household population. The burial records indicate that whereas there was a natural increase during the late nineteenth century, by the end of World War I this had turned into a natural decrease. Recorded Jewish deaths were: 1841—50 39; 1851—60 34; 1861—70 64; 1871—80 = 74; 1881—90 = 66; 1891—1 900 = 59; 1900—10 92; 1911— 20 = 90. It can be seen that by 1920 there was an excess of deaths over births.

The marriage rates are of interest as they indicate the potential fertility rate for the ensuing generation. They are: 1841—50 17 marriages; 1851—60 = 10; 186 1—70 = 15; 1871—80 = 10; 1881—90 = 16; 1891—1900 = 20; 1901—10 35; 1911—20 = 31; 1921—30 = 46; 1931—40 = 26; 1941—50 = 20; 1951—60 = 33; 1961—70 = 20; 1971—80 = 5.  Many of these marriages have not been accompanied by residence in the locality and the decline to the present low number is indicative of a steady outflow of young Jews from the city. Although there are still some 40 children attending the Hebrew classes (about threequarters of the 1937 number) the pull of educational, career and marriage prospects outside the city is likely to result in a declining and ageing Jewish population.

The marriage records provide another valuable source of information by giving the occupations of spouses and their parents, and a changing occupational profile emerges. Taking the occupations of fathers of those marrying, in the fifteen year period up to 1860 the most significant occupational group was that of merchants — navy agents — dealers (nine), followed by watchmaker — jeweller — silversmith (four), and included an inn keeper, a glazier, an auctioneer, and a ‘gentleman’. Between 1862 and 1882 merchants and silversmith — jewellers were equally balanced five each, and there were three tailors, an auctioneer and a feather manufacturer. Following the large influx of European refugees at the end of the nineteenth century, the pattern of occupations changed. It the period 1883—1903 there were eleven merchants, ten in tailoring and outfitting, four jewellers. three ‘gentlemen’, three manufacturers, a publican, a confectioner, two shoemakers, and a commission agent. Tailoring came to the fore during the following twenty years (thirty one tailors) followed by an expanding merchantry (twenty). There were three furriers, five manufacturers, three involved in the tobacco trade, two bootmakers, an engine driver, a financier, a naval photographer, a farmer, a medical practitioner and a clerk. That pattern was generally maintained until after the First World War with twice as many in tailoring as in merchantry. The pattern of recruitment to the burgeoning tailoring and outfitting trade can be recalled by some of the older members of the present community. New arrivals from Europe would gather on the pavement in London’s Whitechapel, and prospective employers from Portsmouth seeking skilled workers would travel up to London and return with new employees. In Portsmouth, as elsewhere, many an eventual entrepreneur commenced commercial activity in this country sleeping under the counter in a local tailor shop.

A similar pattern of occupations is demonstrated by those marrying during the period reviewed, although a generational gap opens up as the century progresses. Tailoring was the dominant occupation of spouses until 1946, although a small stratum of professionals was by then emerging. By 1946 professionals constituted the second largest group embracing medicine, physiology, accountancy and natural science. After that time professionals became the largest group with a sharp falling away of tailors. There was a wide dispersal across the spectrum of commercial activity. Of the professionals, doctors, solicitors and accountants undoubtedly find it easier to become established in the city and they provide an important area of family continuity. Another is where local businesses have been taken over by children providing continuity of ownership stretching back to the beginning of the century.

The diminished present Jewish population is now broadly distributed within the occupational structure but at no time in this century has the congregational leadership been taken by a professional. Wardenship, which requires both seniority of position and age, has been associated with business status, the traditional livelihood of the Jewish community. This has ensured a large measure of continuity in the conduct of congregational affairs with tradition sustained through constant reference to the past. The business community has also been a residential community. During the inter-war years of this century, with the synagogue situated in Queen Street and in close proximity to the dockyard and Commercial Road, most Jewish shopkeepers were established along Queen Street, stretching into Charlotte Street, and overspilling into adjoining thoroughfares. Supplies to ships’ messes and provision of uniforms and other clothing to the fleet were competitive areas where Jewish traders excelled. Most Jews lived within easy walking distance of the synagogue and were served with Jewish food and other shops within the area. It was a highly visible community firmly established within the maritime and commercial setting of the city. With the synagogue’s move to Southsea in 1936, decline in trade with the navy which was developing its own central sources of supply, and the movement from commercial to professional work, the present Jewish population no longer exists as a neighbourhood community. It is impossible to form any precise idea of how many Jews reside in Portsmouth who are dissociated from the Jewish congregation. There are undoubtedly quite a few partners of mixed marriages but those Jews who make no contact with the synagogue are not counted for Jewish demographic purposes.

The ebb and flow pattern of Jewish migration has had the curious double effect of replenishing the strength of the ongoing Jewish community, while at the same time creating a discontinuity of membership. Continuity of Jewish presence is not synonymous with continuity of Jewish families. The key figure in the only family that can trace its origins beyond the end of the last century is that of Revd Isaac Phillips. Appointed in 1866 he was destined to serve the congregation for fifty nine years, probably establishing a record for the longest serving minister in any congregation. A year after taking up his appointment in Portsmouth Revd I. Phillips married Esther. the daughter of   Jane and John Edwards. Esther had been born in 1844 and her father, who later became warden of the synagogue and was elected onto the town council in 1848, had been one of Nelson’s boy sailors. Revd Lewis Phillips, a son of Revd I. Phillips, could recall sitting on his maternal grandfather’s knee and being told of that gentleman’s involvement in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. ‘Isaac and Esther Phillips had nine surviving children and three of these maintained a connection with Portsmouth. Revd Lewis Phillips, who served the Jewish community in Pretoria, South Africa, before taking up a ministry in Liverpool returned to Portsmouth for a while after his retirement. He was honoured with the title Emeritus Minister to his father’s old congregation. A brother, Naphtali Phillips, was warden of the congregation for the last time in 1948 after a lifetime of service to the community. The only branch of the family remaining came from the marriage of Revd I. Phillips’ daughter Jane to Myer Silverman, one of their sons, Rabbi Henry Phillips Silverman becoming minister of Jamaica’s Jewish community for thirty years until his retirement in 1965. A brother and sister of Henry Phillips remain in Portsmouth, preserving the only thread of continuity that connects up the fluctuations of community life over the past two centuries.

Reviewing the history of Portsmouth Jewry it can be said that service and charity stand out as the hallmarks of Jewish presence in the city throughout the period of settlement. Inspired by Talmudic injunction, and responding to the liberality of the civic structure, the Jewish contribution to Portsmouth has been undeniable. The same motivations leading Jews to upgrade their synagogue, uphold their ancient traditions and strengthen their communal ties led them to political activity for the general improvement of the city and its amenities. This duality of commitment not only characterises the local Jewish presence but strongly reflects the overall situation of British Jewry within the civic and political life of the country. Anti-semitism which has riven other urban entities, although obtrusive at various moments of local history, has always remained marginal to the life of Portsmouth’s communities. The smallness of the Jewish congregation may have been a contributing factor, although attention has been drawn to the nonconformist civic leadership which has been a protective force against ongoing anti-semitism. The provincial nature of Portsmouth has ensured the intimacy of its Anglo-Jewish relationships, carefully nurtured by the Jewish community and much respected and sustained by the local polity. Whether Portsmouth Jewry can at all sustain the achievements of its past is another matter. Whatever the eventful destiny of the community it will not detract from an eventual two and a half centuries of active and distinguished local involvement which provides an interesting chapter in the history of Portsmouth.