NEWPORT’S JEWISH COMMUNITY
Newport has always had a small but significant Jewish community who have enriched the city’s life over the past 150 years.
The explosion of the mining industry in the 19th century led to major economic growth and a vast increase in immigration to Wales. The Jews were one group who emigrated to South Wales in large numbers during this period, leading to the founding of new Jewish communities, particularly in the heavily industrialised areas.
Until recently the Newport Hebrew Congregation practised at a synagogue in St Marks Crescent but since 2001 the building was sold on and is in private use. According to the Jewish Year Book the Newport Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1871 but along with other Jewish communities across the UK numbers are dwindling and the age demographic is increasing. The population has been tracked as follows –
1934 – 250 (The Jewish Year Book 1935)
1945 – 180 (The Jewish Year Book 1946)
1990 – 110 (The Jewish Year Book 1991)
2004 – 39 (The Jewish Year Book 2005)
The earliest reference I can find to the Jewish community in Newport is in the Jewish Chronicle, 15 June 1849 , a donation to Swansea Hebrew Congregation from Samuel Polak, Newport Mon of £2.2.0.
On 15 April 1859 the Chronicle notes “The Members of the small Congregation (of Newport), having lately established a New Synagogue, and have also obtained a piece of land for the purpose of a Burial Ground, but as their means are also insufficient to complete their undertakings they earnestly appeal to the religious feelings of their brethren in faith for aid in their pious work. Contributions will be thankfully received by Mr. A. Isaacs, President of the Newport Congregation, and at the Jewish Chronicle offices, which will be acknowledged in the Chronicle’.
The Monmouthshire Merlin notes that Police were taking action against Jewish shopkeepers and others who appeared to be working on a Sunday. In a news article in April 1864 headed ‘Christian Sabbath’ it notes “Isaac Lyons the photographist of Commercial Road was summoned for exercising his worldly calling on the Lord’s Day. Dougle Campbell said he was boatswain on board the ship ‘Grenock’. On Sunday last he took a child to the shop of the defendant to have its likeness taken. The shop was open and the defendant took the required photograph. Witness offered payment but the defendant told him he could settle when the picture was ready. Defendant admitted that he had taken the likeness but stated that it was not customary to open his shop on the Sabbath Day. Chief Superintendent Hextole said that he had sent an officer round the town last summer cautioning photographers not to open their shops on Sunday. Mr. Evans said that although the defendant was a Jew he must obey the laws of this Country. The feelings of Christians must not be outraged by Jews exercising their worldly calling on the Sabbath day. Fined five shillings and costs, or seven days imprisonment.”
By 27 January 1865 the Jewish Chronicle notes schisms in the Hebrew Congregation of Newport that have dogged it are at an end “Our readers will remember that unfortunate differences have agitated and divided the Hebrew congregation at Newport for a considerable time. Communications have from time to time appeared in our own columns on the subject. It is gratifying to announce that these difficulties are at an end. The opening of a new synagogue in Llanarth Street, on the first day of the year, by the Rev. Louis Harfeld, the new minister, was the happy occasion of reconciliation. The rev. gentleman, who has only just entered upon his duties, and who has fortunately succeeded in “pouring oil on the troubled waters,” addressed the congregation in an eloquent and erudite discourse, taking his text from the 24th Psalm. The rev. gentleman entered fully into the subject before him, and amplified his discourse by frequent references to the original text. ’
By 4 June 1869 the same publication notes the call for a new synagogue “The congregation has been established ‘for a great number of years’, and divine service has been conducted in a temporary room since its establishment. The congregation has grown so rapidly that the synagogue, whose lease expires in a few months, is totally inadequate. Although numerically large the congregation’s expenses are defrayed by 7 paying members who have subscribed £200 for the new synagogue. The only plot of ground suitable has been obtained with much difficulty and as a contiguous spot is being used for building it is necessary o commence at once. The lowest estimate for the synagogue and a house for the Reader &c is £700. Contributions to A. Isaacs, President, 36 Commercial Road, and A. Druiff, Treasurer, 41 Llanarth Street. [repeated almost weekly until stone laying in May 1870, then advert changed but continued]”
Lord Tredegar recognising the burial rights of Jews presented a small area of St Woolos cemetary during this time so that they could bury their dead in their own tradition.
The foundation stone of a new synagogue was laid on 3 May 1870 on a spot between Lewis Street and Francis Street, Pillgwenlly. The Chronicle notes “Ceremony performed by Mr Rittenberg, Jacob Druiff and Abraham Isaacs. Last-named laid the stone and was presented with an inscribed silver trowel. The building will have a centre and two wings. In the centre an entrance through a T-shaped lobby, with stairs to a ladies’ gallery, over the west end of the synagogue. The synagogue proper forms the right wing, 37 feet long and 22 feet wide. Accommodation for about 100 on ground floor and 10 [sic] in ladies‘ gallery. Interior lit by 4 round-headed windows in each of the sides and a group of 4 smaller ones of similar character in the end. They are to be filled by embossed and tinted glass. The sanctuary will be to the east and will form a raised platform with an ornamental canopy over, having at the back a recess for Scrolls of the Law. The left wing will be the minister’s house. The style of the building will be round-arched Italian of simple character, built of black rock with Bodmer brick moulded dressings. The whole will cost £800. Architect B. Lawrence, Builder J. W. Chack.”
The new synagogue was opened for divine worship on 22 March 1871. The Chronicle reports “Crowded attendance with many Christians present. Performed by Rev Dr Hermann Adler, minister of Bayswater Synagogue. Service was read by Rev H. D. Mars, Minister of the Great Synagogue, Manchester, assisted by Revs Cohen, Goldreich and Jacobs. The ladies of the congregation have presented handsome curtains for the Ark. Mrs Simon Hyam of London presented an embroidered canopy and a cover for the Reading Desk. ” After the consecration. A banquet was held at the Victoria Hotel, presided over, in the absence of the Mayor, by Mr J.B. Batchelor and vice-chairman Alderman Lewis. Many Jews and Christians present. ‘After the cloth had been removed’ there were the loyal and other toasts.
In July 1871 the Chief Rabbi, no less, visited the new synagogue and burial ground. The Chronicle states “He and Rev Dr Hermann Adler met at station by minister, Rev Mr Goldreich, President A. Isaacs, and a large number of members. Went to President’s house for dinner. Then to synagogue where an examination took place. Expressed regret at their imperfect knowledge of Hebrew. The JC correspondent comments that this is a small community burdened by heavy debt therefore it is not in their power to provide the children with a school and competent teachers. He wonders if some organisation could be arranged so that funds could be annually raised by the congregations of the UK to provide them with ’this desirable requirement’. The evening service was read by Rev Mr Goldreich then a banquet at the President’s house. In the morning the Chief Rabbi visited the burial ground and was pleased with it as well as with synagogue. Hoped they would be able to liquidate the debt remaining on the synagogue so as to be able to provide a school.”
In 1887 the Jewish community in Newport joined with other faiths to recognise the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The Argus reports “The Golden Jubilee year of 1887, on the 20th June 1887 On the morning of 20th June, 1887 the bells of St. Woolos and St. Mary’s rang out merry peals. It was a general holiday. There was High Mass at St. Mary’s when the Te Deum was sung, and at the close of the service the National Anthem was played. The Synagogue also held a special service at which the National Anthem, in Hebrew, was sung by the choir and congregation.”
In 1901 Kelly’s Directory noted the “the Jewish Synagogue in Francis Street has 150 sittings.” under the responsibility of the Rev Levy. The synagogue moved to Queens Hill Crescent in 1922 where a Hebrew School was also established (in the 1980’s it moved to St. Marks Crescent).
Jewish numbers in Newport and other major towns were swollen by an upsurge of unrest in the valley areas in 1911. A 10-month strike by coalminers had ended with their abject defeat – the areas were seething with unrest. Anti-Jewish riots swept the valley communities of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan in August 1911, leading to the temporary imposition of military rule – Winston Churchill ordered detachments of the Worcester Regiment to patrol the affected areas – and to the wholesale evacuation of Jewish families by special trains that conveyed them to the relative safety of Cardiff, Newport, Aberdare and Merthyr. These riots – a week-long orgy of attacks on Jewish property – began in Tredegar during the evening of Saturday, August 19, and spread rapidly to Ebbw Vale, Rhymney and other industrial centres of the Western Valleys. Wherever Jews could be found, the rioters struck.
The community in Newport is/was orthodox, there was never a reform congregation as in nearby Cardiff.
Modern Jewish memories of Newport – on a website called http://youandus.theus.org.uk Diane Marcus writes “
Yes, we were the only Jewish family in this small village in South Wales. Llanhilleth was a mining village of about 2,000 people about 30 miles from Cardiff where my grandfather opened a general drapers shop before I was born, which my parents took over after he died.
Although there was no shul anywhere around and absolutely no facilities foodwise, we kept strictly kosher and led a very Jewish life. My brother and I went to Newport every Sunday to attend cheder. It involved an early morning journey by bus along the narrow valley roads, passing one small mining village after another, arriving in Newport in time for the lessons to begin. This was the only contact we had with Jewish friends. After 3 hours of lessons and a nice chat, the same return journey of about 14 miles was undertaken and we were more than ready for our very late Sunday lunch upon arrival at home.”
Some recent stories featuring prominent members of the community –
Argus – Sept 2008 – NEWPORT toastmaster Harry Poloway has paid tribute to his wife Vicki, who died on Friday. Born in 1916 and originally from Leeds, Mrs Poloway was the youngest of a family of 11 children. She met her husband in Blackpool while Harry worked as an engineer in the RAF during the second world war.
She worked in her father’s tailor business until she married Mr Poloway in 1942 in Blackpool. Mrs Poloway, who like Mr Poloway was a member of Newport’s Hebrew congregation, was known for her volunteer work with the Red Cross, and often assisted Mr Poloway in his functions as a honorary member of the Variety Club. She died at the age of 92 peacefully in Chepstow Community Hospital, and a funeral was held at the Newport Hebrew Cemetery on Sunday [28th].
Jewish Chronicle – July 3 2010 The woman thought to be Britain’s oldest Jew died this week at the age of 108. May Mendleson, a resident at Cardiff’s Penylan Jewish care home for five years, was born in Glasgow and lived in London and Newport. The funeral was on Wednesday and she was buried at Newport’s Jewish cemetery next to her husband Harry, who died in 1994 at the age of 100.
She was fondly remembered by former Newport Synagogue president Abraham Davidson, who said: “She was a nice woman, but very forthright. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and always knew exactly what she wanted.” Harry Poloway, 94, was another who knew Mrs Mendleson and her husband well. “She was a true Scot, very strong-willed and didn’t mince her words,” he recalled. “But she was very generous and had a good circle of friends.”An bibliophile until her final days, Mrs Mendleson read every book on the Booker Prize shortlists.
Footnote – it may no longer be at St Marks Crescent but the Newport Hebrew Congregation is still registered on the Charities Commission website and submitted financial returns as recently as May 2012 with five trustees. On a separate address list the Synagogue is listed as 108 Risca Road. The BBC reported “Cardiff’s synagogues are looking at ways of attracting more Jewish people to the city, with 500 members, while in Newport there are just six members of the community left.”
Another Footnote – Harry Poloway died aged 100 in May 2016 and was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery. He was described as ‘proud of his faith and traditions’.