A history of Preston’s Jewish community

An out of print book by John Cowell 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 is titled Furriers, Glaziers, Doctors and Others – a history of the Preston Jewish community and appeared in print in its final form in 2015. That edition has been digitised and is now on line here, 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.

John Cowell - historian

John Cowell is a retired librarian. Born in Blackpool, he attended the local grammar school, then read Classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His other books include histories of the Bolton and Southport Jewish communities, and he is currently working on a history of the Liverpool Jewish community. He is vice-chairman of the Liverpool branch of the Jewish Historical Society.
Find more here: https://southportjewishhistory.co.uk/

The following synopsis simply gives a taste of what is to be found in the book, there is much, much more to discover.

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. Mr Cowell comments, ‘Perhaps the strangest thing about the announcement of this set of annual sermons in Preston is the suggestion that any Jewish citizens were similar to the natives in a British colony – just waiting to be relieved of their ignorance of Christianity.’

The Jewish congregation held its first services at a house in Lawson Street, by 1897 the congregation was meeting in the Temperance Hall on North Road, and soon after a synagogue may have been established in Edmund Street, off Church Street. Before long, the congregation was worshipping at a synagogue in Avenham Street and had acquired a minister. In 1910 a Jewish burial ground was established in the Preston Cemetery.

In those early days, the traders and shopkeepers in the community faced a dilemma: if they observed the sabbath, they would have to close for business on Saturday, their busiest day of the week. Also, the town’s Jewish doctors, of which there were many, held Saturday morning surgeries. So, in Preston sabbath was not observed.

The streets favoured by Jewish families in the early twentieth century included Christ Church Street, Gorst Street, Hudson Street, Avenham Place, Frenchwood Street Knowsley Street and Bairstow Street. One of the families living in Hudson Street were the Moores, headed by Solomon Morre, who founded Moore’s Outfitters in Friargate.

Synagogue in Avenham Place Preston
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, 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. Such proximity would enable them to walk to the synagogue on Friday evenings, an important consideration for orthodox Jews.

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:

Actually there are in Preston a number of ex-members and sympathisers but we cannot be held responsible for their zeal if in fact it is their zeal that has caused them to go about painting the town. Knowing the Fascists of Preston as I do, I can honestly say that this painting …. has been done without our official consent. Our party would not countenance such an act.

Mr Cowell takes the view that Captain Wright was being economical with the truth. And 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.

Just before the war, some Jewish families were moving to the suburbs, to Fulwood and Penwortham. Adolf Goodman moved from his home in Lancaster Road to Blackpool Road at Lea. His chauffeuse took him to work in his Chrysler. Others, such as Percy Goldberg, who owned The Gift House in the Miller Arcade, stayed in the Avenham district. Percy lived in Bairstow Street.

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. He went on to serve as a councillor for more than ten years. 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.

John Cowell’s website: https://southportjewishhistory.co.uk/