A History of the Southport Jewish Community
By John Cowell
Cazneau Publishing 2019 xvi+751pp ISBN 978-1-5272-4972-1) £29 inc p&p (cheque payable to author) 5 Tinsley Avenue, Southport PR8 6HT southportjewishhistory.co.uk/
Please note: LHS members can purchase this book for as little as £5 by attending a monthly meeting or by contacting the author directly at email@example.com
The fact that this magnum opus is a labour of love shines through its 768 informative pages. John Cowell is a retired librarian and until recently was chairman of the Liverpool Branch of the Jewish Historical Society. This history, by a ‘friendly outsider’ as the author calls himself, took six years to write, and his extensive research has produced an honest description of a vibrant and quarrelsome seaside community that will add to our understanding of the struggles they went through and the problems they faced.
Small Jewish businesses were starting to be noticed in Southport as early as 1849, but not until 1893 was the small Hebrew congregation able to convert a chapel belonging to the Plymouth Brethren for their religious services, after an appeal for funds in the Jewish Chronicle. The Chief Rabbi’s arrival from London to consecrate the new building signified the official acceptance of the community. The first marriage took place in the synagogue on 20 December 1893 when a general dealer, Ralph Hurwitz, married Rachel Pauline Price, daughter of a local furniture dealer. The need for a Jewish cemetery soon became apparent, and the honour of the first interment (in May 1894) went to an elderly cigar manufacturer, Joseph Hompes, who had fallen backwards out of a train drawing into the station. There was now even a popular Jewish boarding house, aptly named ‘Sorrento’, where visitors would find a friendly welcome. Hebrew classes commenced, which unfortunately caused concern when the pupils became unruly, and in 1902 the appointment of a young Christian assistant teacher and choirmaster, Philip Flower of London, was formally ratified.
The advent of the First World War seems to have been a period of great anxiety in the Southport community, while they tried to help with the local war effort and to mourn their own young men lost in battle. There were many differences among the leading lights; a special general meeting was called; there were resignations and adjournments at meetings, fully justifying the use of the word ‘broiges’ in the title—it is Yiddish for ‘major disputes’. The minutes of meetings were often very cursory, sometimes not even circulated among committee members, or were ‘accidentally’ deleted. Complaints were handled strangely, and controversial matters were hushed up. The Second World War and its aftermath was another traumatic time for the community, and the establishment of a Reform Congregation in 1948 was bound to cause dissension. The Southport Jewish community survived after its early promise, but there is no doubt that it is shrinking in numbers and two different denominations have had to come to terms with each other in order to live in peace.
Throughout the book there are individual photographs and, even more importantly for the local historian, there are thirteen appendices. These include pages from Harfield’s Commercial Directory of the Jews of the UK of 1894; census information from 1911; lists of officers of the two congregations; the rabbis and ministers; Jewish hotels and boarding houses and changes of name. Finally, the author has collated biographies of the leading lights in the community. He has meticulously examined the minutes of synagogue meetings and reports from the Jewish and national newspapers since the foundation of the Southport Jewish community. The thoroughness of his research does him much credit and we are the fortunate recipients of his findings. John Cowell is to be congratulated.
Doreen Berger is chair of the Anglo-Jewish Special Interest Group of The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain. She is author of The Jewish Victorian: Genealogical Information from the Jewish Newspapers, one volume covering 1861-70 and one 1871-80. She has written many genealogical articles, has featured in the Jewish Chronicle and for some years wrote in The Family and Local History Handbook.