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The Jewish Contribution to the British Textile Industry

A. R. Rollin

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Jewish Contribution to the British Textile Industry (t BUILDERS OF BRADFORD " 1 By A. R. Rollin IHE title of the paper which I am going to read to you is "Jewish Contributions to the British Textile Industry." The sub-title is "Builders of Bradford" as it deals almost exclusively with the development of the Bradford Textile Industry. You will hear the expression "piece goods" or "pieces" which to people not connected with the Textile business may sound somewhat strange. For their benefit I should like to explain that a "piece" in the Bradford area is generally a length of worsted cloth about sixty yards long and fifty-four to sixty inches wide, doubled up edge to edge lengthways and then rolled or cuttled for convenient handling and packing. I should like also to explain briefly the meaning of "shorts" and "damages" as used in this paper. When the pieces arrive from the mill at the merchant's or shipper's warehouse each piece is remeasured and "perched" or examined for faulty places or damages. When the account for goods supplied is paid to the cloth-manufacturer, deductions are made for any short measure or damage. Some shippers were rather too exacting in their examinations. With these preliminary remarks we can now proceed to the subject matter. The City of Bradford in Yorkshire is known throughout the world as the centre of the wool textile industry. Its greatest development as such took place in the second half of last century, when numbers of immigrants, for the most part German Jews, settled there and engaged in an intensive and extensive export trade of textile goods manufactured in Bradford and the surrounding district. The pioneer and principal of all these immigrant merchants was Sir Jacob Behrens who came to Yorkshire in 1832 from Hamburg where his family was established in the textile business. In 1934 when the firm of Sir Jacob Behrens and Sons Ltd., celebrated its centenary, the Bradford newspapers printed special supplements giving the story of the growth of the firm which is closely bound up with the growth of Bradford as a wool textile centre. Here is an extract from the Yorkshire Observer Centenary Supplement of December 6th, 1934. Spice of Adventure. There is another and perhaps still more fascinating side to the romance of the foundation of the textile industry. This was the spice of adventure introduced by the men who afterwards became the merchant princes of Bradford. They were men who mostly came from Germany and the states of Central Europe. Their great forte was not a technical one. They knew very little about the manufacturing side of the industry, but they allied their powers as salesmen to the prowess of their Yorkshire colleagues as craftsmen and between the two of them Bradford captured the markets of the world. These newcomers to Bradford soon built large many-storied warehouses where tens of thousands of textile pieces were delivered every week from the ever-increasing number of Bradford mills. The district where those warehouses were located (mainly in Peckover Street and Vicar Lane area) came to be known locally as "little Germany." There the pieces were examined, remeasured and packed in accordance with the require? ments of different markets and eventually shipped to all parts of the globe. It was 1 Paper read before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 12th April, 1948. 45</page><page sequence="2">46 THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY customary for some large shippers to take the whole output of a number of small manufacturers and the latter used to congregate each Friday morning outside the ware? house to await the arrival of the carriage and pair bringing the wealthy merchant from whom they received their weekly cheque for wages. There was sometimes a mild murmuring of dissatisfaction and jealousy against the foreigner, and with Yorkshire humour the merchants' horses were nicknamed "shorts" and "damages" in allusion to deductions for short measure and damaged parts. On the whole, however, the Bradford people were, and still are, extremely grateful to those German and other Central European Jewish immigrants of last century who not only enriched themseles but bestowed great benefits upon the city and the country of their adoption. Margaret Low in her book "The Story of Bradford" referring to the period between 1860 and 1872 (p.244) writes : The amount of woollen and worsted goods sent abroad more than doubled in value in those years, and in 1872 reached the high figure of ?40,000,000. It was during this period that large fortunes were made in the Bradford trade, and the prosperity also spread downwards and led to rises in wages and more regular employment. A doctor speaks of the improvement in health which has taken place among the children since the period of good trade and higher wages has set in. He also says that many parents were sending their children to school instead of to the mill, as they no longer needed their help. The several hundred German and other Central European Jewish immigrants who came to Bradford were an educated and cultured element. In religion they were the adherents of the Jewish Reform movement and founded in Bradford one of the first Jewish Reform communities in England. They brought over from Germany in 1873 a young Jewish Reform minister, Joseph Strauss, who served them for fifty years until his death in 1922. They built and opened the Reform Synagogue in Bowland Street, Manningham, which still stands today, but is very little used. A plaque affixed to a wall in the Synagogue records that it was opened on 6th April, 1880, by Jacob Arnold Unna, who, incidentally, was with Sir Jacob Behrens one of the founders, and on the first Council of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce in 1851. Culturally most of those Jews were influenced by the progressive 'Young Germany' movement of which the poets Heine and B?rne were prominent representatives. Among those in Bradford were the parents of the artist, Sir William Rothenstein, and of the poet and author, Humbert Wolfe, whose artistic and literary talents were encouraged in the enlightened atmosphere of their homes. Those Jewish merchant princes have left a reputation as good employers and the hundreds of Yorkshiremen who worked for them as clerks, warehousemen, packers, carriers, etc., were treated with great consideration. Sir William Rothenstein who was born in Bradford in 1872 relates in his book "Men and Memories" that his father Moritz Rothenstein was the first of the great textile shippers who trained a number of his Yorkshire employees to become foreign travellers by teaching them foreign languages and the art of salesmanship. Those Jewish merchants who came from the oppressive atmosphere of Germany and Central Europe found economic and political freedom in England and their adopted town and country benefited greatly from their general activity. For not only were they principal factors in expanding the Bradford textile industry, but they also took an active and often leading part in the civic life of the community and gave generously of their time and money in building up the various educational, charitable and cultural institutions of that town. They were the main sponsors of the Bradford Festival Choral</page><page sequence="3">THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY 47 Society and the Bradford Subscription Concerts which greatly raised the music loving standard of the town, where even today Celebrity Concerts beyond the capacity of other provincial towns with much larger populations are successfully given. At the beginning of the present century the influence of those merchant-princes began to decline and now very few of the great export houses founded by them are still in existence. During the first thirty years of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce (founded in 1851) over a quarter of the two hundred odd subscribers were foreign merchants. In the Report of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce for 1943 there are the names of 1,109 subscribers of whom only about 30 are Jewish or of Jewish descent. It is not the purpose of this article to explain the reason for the decline of the influence of those merchant-princes, but the growth and expansion of Bradford as the world's wool textile centre continued on the solid foundation laid by them. Many of the origin? ally small struggling manufacturers who depended on those merchants for their weekly wage bill, grew and developed into large concerns with their own shipping depart? ments and hundreds of Yorkshiremen trained in "Little Germany" travelled the globe to spread the produce and fame of their country and of Bradford. During the short-lived textile boom period after the first World War, Bradford was reputed to have had more millionaires per square mile than any other town in the world and those millionaires were practically all Yorkshiremen. The first and second generation of the English-born descendants of the Bradford immigrant-merchants of last century, have completely integrated themselves, like the Rothensteins, by intermarriage and otherwise, into the life of the native English com? munity, and for some time now the Bradford German Jewish Reform Congregation has considerably diminished in size and influence. But Bradford remembers with admiration and gratitude the great contribution those Jewish immigrants made to the progress of the town, and when I spent some time there in connection with my research on this subject, I was readily given every assistance by the officials of the different institutions and libraries. For the purpose of showing the reader some details of the life and work of the Jewish immigrants to Bradford during the last century, I will give brief biographies of four of the outstanding personalities covering the whole period of their activity in that city. Jacob Behrens was born at Pyrmont, Germany, in 1806. The family moved to Hamburg in 1815 where they were established as textile merchants, and found a growing demand for English cloth. In 1832 Jacob Behrens came to Leeds to buy cloth from a local manufacturer, but could not get him to finish or pack it in the manner he required. Behrens therefore opened his own warehouse in 1834, in Somers Street, Leeds, installed rolling and packing machinery, and by extraordinary hard work and enterprise soon built up a big export business. In 1838 he moved his warehouse to Bradford, and this event can be regarded as the beginning of the great development of that town to its present position. Let me again quote "The Story of Bradford," by Margaret Low (p. 195) on this subject:? Between 1830 and 1840 many important changes were made in the Bradford worsted trade. In its earlier days most of the pieces were bought by Leeds merchants before they were dyed, and all the necessary finishing, selling and delivery of their goods was done in Leeds. But after 1830 one or two German merchants seeing that by far the greater quantity of worsted goods was made in Bradford removed their places of business here. These men naturally concerned themselves mainly with the foreign trade ?.. This removal of the merchant trade from Leeds to Bradford had two results. It was the first step in the direction of making F</page><page sequence="4">48 THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY Bradford what it is to-day, namely the chief centre of the wool industry not only in England but in the world, and in addition it led to the setting up of several new dye works in Bradford as naturally the merchants now wanted to be saved the expense of sending their goods away to Leeds to be dyed and finished. The House of Behrens grew and expanded and opened branches in Manchester, London, Glasgow, Calcutta and Shanghai. Jacob Behrens was a man of abounding energy, immense capacity for work and strong public spirit. It was on his initiative that the Bradford Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1851, and according to the Journal of that Institution for September, 1929, Jacob Behrens was the life and soul of the Chamber during the first thirty years of its existence during which Bradford became famous. For nearly forty years he was Chairman of its Tariff Committee and did everything to smooth and expand the way of international trade. He was often consulted by the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office for his expert knowledge of tariffs, trade statistics and commercial treaties, and was in close touch with John Bright, Cobden and W. E. Forster, the great Liberal statesmen and free traders of the Victorian reign. The historians of Bradford express themselves in particular grateful to Jacob Behrens for his work in connection with the commercial treaty with France of 1861 when he spent several weeks in Paris to press for the favourable terms for the admission to France of British textiles with the great resulting benefit to Bradford mentioned earlier. He is rightly considered one of the main "Builders of Bradford." Apart from business interests Behrens took a great part in the cultural and charitable progress of his adopted town. He was a founder or staunch supporter of the Bradford Royal Eye and Ear Hospital, of the local Charity Organisation Society, of the Subscription Concerts and of the Bradford Philosophical Society. He also took a great interest in education, having helped to found the Bradford Technical College and to transform the old Bradford Grammar School into the fine institution it is at present. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1882 for the great services he had rendered. He died in Torquay in 1889, mourned by Bradford as one of its foremost citizens. The House of Behrens still carries on its business to-day under the style of Sir Jacob Behrens and Sons in the spacious premises in Forster Square to which it moved in 1862. The present head of the firm is Sir Jacob's grandson, Mr. Edgar C. Behrens, who carries on the tradition of his illustrious grandfather. He is active on the Council of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, whose president he was in 1937, 1938 and 1939. He also serves on the boards of several charitable and educational institutions. In Mr. Edgar Behren's private office hangs an illuminated address, presented to the family on Sir Jacob's death by the City's most prominent citizens, recording his devoted service. Another illuminated address hanging in the office is signed by the numerous members of the staff of the firm on the occasion of its centenary in 1934, the celebration of which was a great local event and on which occasion the Bradford newspapers published special supplements on the story and fame of Sir Jacob Behrens. Mr. Edgar Behrens told me that his firm has never dismissed a worker or put one on short time. As to the conditions of the employees?the firm has never had the slightest trouble or even misunderstanding with the trade unions. Sir Jacob believed in treating his employees well and tins tradition is maintained. The descendants of Sir Jacob are naturally proud of his fame and have published a well-produced biography for circulation amongst the family with extracts from his letters and diaries containing profound philosophical and ethical pronouncements. Charles Semon was born in Danzig in 1814. He came to Bradford in the middle</page><page sequence="5">THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY 49 of last century and soon built up one of the most important textile export houses in that town. He was an energetic and public-spirited man and served Bradford in the advancement of its industry, municipal affairs, charities and education. He was an active member of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce from its foundation, served for many years on its Council, and was Vice President in 1871. It was on his initiative that the Bradford Chamber of Commerce made representations to the Government for the conclusion of the Commercial Treaty with Rumania which brought great benefit to the textile trade in Bradford. Charles Semon was the first of the foreign-born Jewish immigrants in Bradford to enter the Municipal Council, where he served with distinction for a number of years and was elected Mayor in 1874. He was made a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire. A very fine convalescent home in Ilkley on the Yorkshire moors stands as a monument to the memory of Charles Semon who erected it at considerable cost in 1874 and handed it over to the Bradford Corporation two years later with an endowment for its upkeep. He died in Switzerland in 1877 and in his will bequeathed ?35,000 for the benefit of educational institutions in Bradford. Jacob Moser was born on the 28th November, 1839, at Kappeln, Schleswig Holstein, at that time a part of Denmark. As a young man he spent some years in Hamburg and in Paris, and came to Bradford in 1863. During his first nine years there he worked for other firms such as W. Herels, Jonas Simonson and Co., and Hirsch, Pinner and Co. In 1872 he became a partner, and eventually the main figure, in the firm of Edelstein, Moser and Co., which soon developed into one of the great Bradford export houses. Jacob Moser in spite of his strenuous business activity, devoted much of his time and fortune to municipal and charitable affairs. He was made a Justice of Peace, and Alderman, and in November, 1910, was elected Lord Mayor of Bradford. In 1898 he gave ?10,000 to create a Benevolent Trust Fund for aged and infirm work? people of Bradford. He also gave thousands of pounds to the Royal Infirmary and other local charities. Jacob Moser was the only one of the great German Jewish mer? chants of Bradford who took a direct interest in Jewish affairs. At the beginning of this century he came under the influence of Dr. Umanski, of Leeds, who was an ardent Zionist. On Dr. Umanski's advice Moser founded in Leeds, the Herzl-Moser Institute, and the Herzl-Moser Hospital. For a short time he even spoke from Zionist platforms, and paid the cost of the erection of the Gymnasium at Tel Aviv. But Jewish Nationalism did not hold him completely or for long. Moser's wife, Florence, daughter of Sigmund Cohen of Manchester, devoted her energies mainly to the charitable Trust Fund which her husband had founded. As they had no children, the bulk of his fortune went to her on his death in 1922, and shortly after, on her death, to her favourite Bradford charities. The following tribute was paid by a Bradford paper to the memory of Jacob Moser. "He was a foreigner, but he made himself one of ourselves, he was of the Jewish persuasion, but his heart was big beyond all religion in the common cause of humanity." Berthold Reif is the last link in the chain of great foreign merchants of Bradford whose beneficial activity for that town extended just over a century. That chain started, as we have seen, with Sir Jacob Behrens in 1838, and ended appropriately with another colourful and highly respected, though less famed, personality?Berthold Reif, who died in December, 1937. Reif was born in the little town of Butschowitz, Czechoslovakia in 1862 and came to Bradford in 1892. The export house which he established grew and expanded with remarkable rapidity, particularly in the Far East. He possessed a</page><page sequence="6">50 THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY very great measure of that "Spice of Adventure" to which we referred earlier. The following is an extract from an appreciation which appeared in the Yorkshire Observer : Mr. Reif was an outstanding example of business genius introduced to the Bradford trade by foreign textile experts, and he carried through a gigantic enterprise in spite of all the pre-war problems. He never lost his courage and optimism, and his confidence in the commonsense and other qualities of the English people never deserted him. He had the rare gift of introducing his own delightful personality into business transactions. Few men were so respected by their business associates. I had the good fortune of knowing Reif personally and of spending some interest? ing hours with him at his warehouse in Vicar Lane, Bradford, during my several visits in 1933 and 34. He was a striking and commanding personality, tall, well built, and very handsome. He told me with pride that although he was over seventy, he came to his office every morning at nine, and was as active as ever. Business, he explained to me, was his hobby and his main interest in life, though he was also interested in good music and education. The extent of his business transactions can be judged by a statement of his made to me quite casually in the course of our conversation that during the Japanese earthquake some ten years earlier his firm lost goods to the value of a quarter of a million pounds. One afternoon when I saw him he told me excitedly that he went to an auction sale that morning out of sheer curiosity and ended by buying two old established mills. At that time?in the early 1930s?there was a great slump in the textile trade as a repercussion of the American financial crash of 1929/30. Many mills had to go to the banks for overdrafts against debentures. If the latter were not redeemed as arranged a receiver was appointed, and many mills, the pride of three or four generations of Yorkshire grit and endeavour, were sold piecemeal or for scrap. Reif could not bring himself to see that morning those two mills, previously his suppliers, being broken up, and he bought them as going concerns. In the next few months he repeated the performance of that morning several times, and was soon the owner or controller of a number of mills. He left generally the same personnel and management to carry on the normal production which he financed, whilst himself directing the marketing at home and abroad of the goods produced. Before he died in 1937 he was Chairman or Director of a number of mills in addition to the export house of B. Reif Ltd. He had the satisfaction of knowing that what appeared at first an act of altruism developed eventually into sound business as the mills began again to pay and their old directors were on their feet again. Mr. Reif left a fortune of ?115,843. After the death duties had been paid, a good proportion of the balance was spent in gifts and bequests to employees and charities. Over forty employees received legacies of ?100 and upwards. Among many other charities the Jewish Benevolent Institute and the Leeds Herzl-Moser Hospital received ?1,000 each. He also left ?5,000 to the Burgomaster of his birth-place in Czecho-Slovakia to be applied as to half to the Jewish and half to the non-Jewish aged poor and infirm inhabi? tants. Reif was an active member of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce and a generous benefactor to hospitals and other institutions during his lifetime. His gifts included a sum of ?25,000 to the new Bradford Grammar School in whose progress he took a great interest. His wife predeceased him by some years, and he left no family. His services to Bradford are fully acknowledged by all sections of its inhabitants. I hope I have succeeded in showing how greatly the Bradford textile trade benefited from the small stream of Jewish immigrants who came to Bradford from Germany and</page><page sequence="7">THH JEWISH CONTRIBUTION TO THE BRITISH TEXTILE INDUSTRY 51 Central Europe during the middle of last century. A number of those immigrants also settled in Manchester and, together with a larger number of Levantine Sephardim merchants, helped to develop the export markets of the Lancashire cotton trade. After 1881, the year of the widespread anti-Jewish pogroms in the Tsarist Empire, large numbers of Jews emigrated from that country, mainly to America; many, however, settled in Britain. According to Mr. Cecil Roth (in his "History of the Jews in England") the Jewish population in Britain of 60,000 in 1880 was more than trebled in the next twenty five years until in 1905 the Aliens Immigration Act was enacted. Within a generation or two, these generally hard-working, tenacious and law-abiding immigrants from Eastern Europe and their children have helped to develop and in some cases actually to create important sections of the British textile industry as workers, manufacturers and dis? tributors. I will only mention the Leeds clothing trade, and Manchester waterproof clothing trade, the London mantle and costume trade, the dress, light clothing, hat and cap and millinery trades?all very important factors in the economy of this country. The Jewish workers of to-day in the garment-making trades are among the highest paid artisans in Britain and the general conditions and welfare arrangements of the factories and warehouses created, or owned or controlled by Jews, compare very favourably with other similar establishments. A detailed study of the contributions of the East European Jewish immigrants to the British textile industry and the remarkable growth of some of the businesses established by them, is of absorbing interest and still awaits the patient efforts of the research student, statistician, economist and general Jewish historian.</page></plain_text>