A history of Preston’s Jewish community

An out of print book by John Cowell, a retired librarian, provides a fascinating history of Preston’s Jewish community from the first appearance of Jews in the town’s records at the beginning of the nineteenth century until the closure of their Avenham synagogue at the end of the last century. The book titled Furriers, Glaziers, Doctors and Others – a history of the Preston Jewish community, is now in the Preston History Library. The text is searchable and it can be downloaded for reading off line.

The immense amount of research that went into the production of the book can be judged by the fact that it contains hundreds of biographies of the Jewish residents of Preston. But it is not just the detail that is impressive, it is especially the way John Cowell weaves the stories of individual families into his narrative to bring the community alive.

The earliest Jewish person known to have been living in Preston was Solomon Gross ‘a linguist and teacher at Miss Bairstow’s School’, who appears in the 1802 guild rolls. Miss Bairstow was probably one of two daughters, Anne and Lucy, of cotton manufacturer John Bairstow. In 1819, Lucy Bairstow married Abraham Levy, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. Lucy herself became a member of a society seeking to convert Jews to Christianity. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, sermons were annually preached in Preston in support of the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews.

Synagogue in Avenham Place Preston
The synagogue in Avenham Place , Preston 1985. Photograph by Beth Hayes (Preston Historical Society: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/6789906272/)

A milestone for the community was the opening of the synagogue in Avenham Place in 1932 (pictured), in what had been a private house with an acre of grounds. It was their own place; previous premises had been rented. The purchase of the property would seem to have encouraged Jewish families to move to the district, with Bairstow Street, Latham Street, Avenham Road, Great Avenham Street, Frenchwood Street, Cross Street and Avenham Colonnade featuring among the addresses of the congregation in the following years.

The 1930s brought fascism to Preston and in November 1936 several public buildings, including the Royal Infirmary, the Public Hall and the Conservative Club in Guildhall Street were daubed with antisemitic messages, including ‘Moseley for Britain’ and ‘Moseley our leader’. The Preston representative of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists, a Captain Wright, of Longton, attempted to distance his organisation from the action.

The Jewish community was taking no chances: one member, Harry Swalbe, recalled being stationed outside his mother’s shop in Church Street to prevent the fascists smashing the windows. Soon the community was boycotting German goods.

After the war, one of the problems the community faced was obtaining kosher meat. For a while a butcher on Avenham Lane, near Frenchwood Street, had a separate kosher counter, but as the number of customers declined as more moved to the suburbs, supply became difficult. A butcher from Manchester delivered on Wednesday, but, in those pre-M6 days, he often didn’t make it if the weather was bad.

At this time, there was strong Jewish support for the Labour Party in Preston. The MP Richard Crossman, a future member of Harold Wilson’s cabinet, stayed with the Marcuses on Garstang Road when attending a conference in Morecambe. While staying there he met with several members of the community, including Neville Gaffin, a sub-editor on the Lancashire Evening Post. He also visited the home of Rudolf Fleischmann, also in Garstang Road. Rudolf had escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1939, and was working for the Labour Party and the Fabian Society.

About this time, Percy Goldberg, who ran The Gift Shop in the Miller Arcade with his wife, Flossie, was appointed a magistrate. Mr Cowell recorded the memories of a Mrs Smith who worked for the Goldbergs:

It was known, she said, as Little Rome, because the Goldbergs employed only Roman Catholic staff. Mrs Smith had started work in the shop at the age of fourteen, and thoroughly enjoyed her job, though the Goldbergs were very strict. Percy was always referred to by staff as “Mr G.”, Mrs Smith assumed because he didn’t want gentile customers to realise he was Jewish from his surname.

Another businessman in the town was Leonard (Jack) Kalina, born in Liverpool in 1930, who opened the Schooner Coffee Bar in Fleet Street in the 1960s and ran it for nine years, before moving to Blackpool to take over the management of the Lemon Tree night club at Squires Gate.

In 1954, Dr Abraham Korn, who had been a GP in Preston since the 1930s, with a surgery on Stephenson Terrace, stood as a Labour candidate and defeated his Conservative opponent by a majority of nearly 600, a sweeping victory in local politics.

Another Jewish candidate, Rita Lytton, took her seat on the council as a Conservative in 1960, went on to become mayor in 1970 and an alderman before resigning because of ill-health in 1976. Her husband, Dr Monty Lytton, became captain of Preston Golf Club in 1960, at a time when Jews were denied membership at many clubs, including all the Southport ones, according to one of Mr Cowell’s informants.

The community, according to Mr Cowell’s informants, experienced little antisemitism after the war:

Dr Kurt Simon detected no sign of antisemitism, and commented that the most likely question to someone who was Jewish in Preston was likely to be, “Are you a Jewish Protestant or a Jewish Catholic?” – that religious division being the most important one in a town where some employers preferred workers from one, and some from the other, Christian tribe.

So many members of the congregation were doctors in the town that at the synagogue when somebody became faint while fasting it became usual for a member of the congregation to call out, to general laughter, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’

The 1980s saw the end of the community in Preston, with numbers dwindling to such an extent that a congregation could not be supported. This rendered it necessary to sell the Avenham Place synagogue, which was put on the market for £35,000. It was bought by the town’s Hindus and converted into a temple.

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