• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Landmark for Glasgow's Jewish community

IN THE beginning of this century Abraham Goldberg bought his first bale of cloth in Glasgow. He took it home and started making it up into piece-goods for sale to wholesalers -- the beginning of a multi-million pound business. Within two generations the retailer A.

Loading article content

Goldberg & Sons plc. was one of Scotland's most successful companies.

Abraham Goldberg was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. In 1908 he arrived in Scotland from Dublin, where he had married and where his first son Ephraim was born. He settled in a room and kitchen in Main Street, Gorbals. From the small beginnings on the South Side, Goldberg took premises in Candleriggs in the city centre in the early 1920s and in a little more than a decade A. Goldberg & Sons was a public company. Last year Blacks Leisure made an unsuccessful #32m takeover bid for Goldbergs, which also owns Wrygges, Schuh, and Ted Baker shops.

Nowadays nobody will notice anything specifically Jewish about the firm, the disc jockey in the Wrygges shop in Argyle Street plays the same loud pop music which is so much in vogue elsewhere, but the Goldberg story shows on a larger scale how Jews participated in Glasgow's business and industry.

From being one of the smallest Jewish communities in Britain only a century before, Glasgow Jewry grew in size to become the third largest provincial community on the eve of the Second World War. At its peak the community consisted of 15,000 persons and many of these Jews had good reason to come to Glasgow.

Abraham Goldberg had purchased his first cloth from agents, who were often themselves in the process of building family businesses and companies, sometimes Jewish too. Glasgow was still one of the main British wholesale centres, the opportunities for growth seemed unlimited, and the city was able to attract many newcomers.

Some 90 years ago thousands of Jews came to Britain, fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe and looking for a better life, and many were lured to Glasgow, because of its opportunities and the possibility to embark here on a transatlantic voyage to America, the intended destination. Some started in manufacturing and trading, while most immigrants found employment as hawkers or pedlars or in the tailoring business. A few did very well -- Max and Edith Morrison from Estonia opened a gown business, David Cohen from Lithuania established D. and H. Cohen in Bedford Lane, known for their school caps, and similarly Sir Isaac Wolfson's Great Universal Stores was started in a Gorbals tenement.

Some Glaswegians will remember their Jewish neighbours in the Gorbals, as John Burrows did in the story of the life and times of boxer Benny Lynch:

''. . . if you were up early on a Saturday morning and were first to call at the Jews' houses you could light their housefires . . . and in their hearths a penny would always be placed for the firelighter . . . the Jews were easy to spot and at 3 Abbotsford Place it seemed everyone was Jewish . . . but you never knocked on the door of David Jacobs . . . for he was the Rabbi and he would wait until sunset when their laws said the sabbath was over.''

This passage is quoted in a new book called The Second City Jewry: The Jews of Glasgow in the Age of Expansion, 1790-1919. The publication of this book, written by Dr Kenneth E. Collins, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Scotland, marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council.

In his book Dr Collins traces the presence of Jews in Glasgow back to 1790. In these early days a travelling Jewish salesman or doctor would occasionally stay in the city. There were some colourful visitors, like Philip Aron, a native of Copenhagen, who first arrived in Scotland about 1799, where he practiced as a dentist. Aron settled in about 1803 in Ireland, and travelled about until he was arrested on the charge of being a French spy during the Napoleonic wars.

The first Jew known to have settled in Glasgow was a hatter called Isaac Cohen, who has been credited with the introduction of the silk hat to Scotland. Cohen was admitted as a burgess of the city in September 1812. Others followed, and a dozen Jewish families established a synagogue in 1837 at the back of the building, reached from 114 Trongate, which had formerly been the Glasgow Post Office and was subsequently utilised as the offices of the Glasgow Herald.

By 1879 the Jewish community had grown sufficiently, although still comparatively small in numbers, to open a prestigious purpose-built synagogue in Garnethill. The consecration of this place of worship also reflected the successful integration of the Jews into Scottish society. The leading Jewish merchant at the time was the fruitbroker Michael Simons and his election to the Council of the Glasgow Corporation in 1883 marked the Jewish progress in the city.

Jews in Scotland never seemed to have encountered the anti-Semitism that prevailed elsewhere. Scottish society proved tolerant towards newcomers and Isaac Cohen, for example, was accepted as a burgess in 1812 without having to take the Christian oath, which was normally required. This is not to say that no prejudices existed. Simons contested in 1883 against a Protestant clergyman who campaigned on a ''no Jews and no Jesuits'' ticket, but the fact that Simons won the seat with a substantial majority showed that the anti-Jewish attitude was not predominant.

Simons's victory led to a long career of public service, which in part was also a result of the more general Scottish tendency to mark accomplishments in society with a public office, a tendency from which more Jews would benefit.

Shortly after this election thousands of immigrants like Abraham Goldberg started to arrive in the city and their settlement, initially in overcrowded conditions in the Gorbals, caused some friction in the non-Jewish environment -- complaints were filed against Jews trading on a Sunday, Jews were occasionally regarded as bad tenants, and it was believed that some of the notorious practices in the sweatshops of the tailoring trade were due to the influx of immigrant labour.

But again these settlers grew accustomed to Scottish ways, they found their place in the city, and added their own contributions to society. Their children were able to climb the social ladder, older sons moved into fathers' businesses and the younger ones benefited from the Scottish education system. In later years many professional Jewish people would move to the southern suburbs of the city.

This process of integration was well underway in 1919. Collins describes in great detail how it was simulated by the leaders of the Garnethill congregation, like Michael Simons, despite some differences between the older settlers and the new arrivals, and how a network of Jewish institutions and organisations was founded to stimulate Jewish life in Glasgow and to help immigrants to participate in the general economy and industry.

Small Jewish businessmen could, for example, receive a loan from the Glasgow Hebrew Benevolent Loan Society to help them along. Naturally, not all the immigrants were successful and a large Jewish labour force remained in the Gorbals until the Second World War. The Jewish workers produced their own trade union leaders, of which Lord Emanuel Shinwell is probably the best known. Next to unions, Jewish friendly societies and the Jewish Board of Guardians looked after the unsuccessful.

In general the Jewish immigrants were hard-working people. Manny Shinwell remembered in later life how he was sent out as an errand boy of 12 to California, a village near Falkirk, to deliver goods and collect payment. Collins writes that the sending of children on distant messages was not without dangers and one young Jewish girl, also aged 12 years, was murdered in Whiteinch in 1922 for the #2 she had just collected.

By 1919 the leading role of the older Jewish merchants in the relations with the wider society was taken over by the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, which celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary. The council unites all the different Jewish organisations in the city. One of the relatively newcomers among these is the Scottish Jewish Archives. Three years ago it opened a centre in Garnethill Synagogue, which is still in use today, on the initiative of some who felt that the heritage of Jewish history in Scotland should be preserved. The centre collects documents, photographs, and artifacts and forms the nucleus of a future Jewish Museum in Glasgow.

The representative council was originally established to act as a go-between, but at present it effectively presides over all the different aspects of Jewish life in Glasgow. There are still numerous Jewish organisations in the city, although the numbers are dwindling because of immigration from Glasgow as the city has lost many of its opportunities of the past.

The Goldbergs stayed. Abraham's grandson, Mark Goldberg, is chairman of the firm and one of the leaders of the Jewish community. His firm, however, has decided to move. As a result of a #4.5m loss in the half-year to last September, due to the downturn in high street spending, A. Goldberg & Sons will be cut back to a smaller higher-margin fashion chain, development plans for the site of the shop in Candleriggs have been looked at, and it has been reported that Goldbergs' headquarters will move from Scotland to London. Mr Goldberg told me, however, that he has no plans to leave Glasgow: ''Some of our administrative offices, like the buying team, will move to London, but I will stay here.''

Second City Jewry is published by the Scottish Jewish Archives. The Archives Centre in Garnethill Synagogue, 127-129 Hill Street, with displays on Jewish history in Scotland, is opened to the public on every second Sunday of the month, from 2 to 4pm.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

PARCH1.580588