The Jews of Southport

From the chronicler of the Jewish communities of Preston, Bolton and Blackburn, comes a new – and fascinating – history of the Jews of Southport, ‘Philanthropy, Consensus and Broiges: Managing a Jewish community’ by historian John Cowell. Here he talks to Hidden Treasures about writing the book and the archives that he used.

I had done a book on the Preston Jewish Community, based mainly on people’s memories, with little access to archives apart from local directories in Preston’s Harris Library. Then I worked with local historian Hilary Thomas on the Bolton community, for which we had even less in the way of archives, but an excellent Archives Department in the centre of Bolton, and another book was produced.

For Southport, the archives in question turned out to include the personal archive of Michael Braham, a senior member – and former Chairman – of Southport Hebrew Congregation, who has researched the history of the community over many years and has collected virtually everything on the Southport Jewish community since he was a teenager – including correspondence from Arnside Road shul, newspaper articles, documents produced by Southport Hebrew Congregation, photographs of events – and more. And the Orthodox Congregation itself hasn’t been good at throwing away its records, partly because it has been in its own purpose-built synagogue since the mid-1920s. That stability has helped – one thing that happens when people move (even official bodies such as coroners and town councils), is that they take the opportunity to “clear the decks”, as if they were sinking ships. (Which, of course, they sometimes have been!) The Reform Congregation, founded after World War 2, has spent much of its nearly eighty years on the same site, first in the former Friends’ Meeting House, then in the next-door extension. Unlike the older Southport Hebrew Congregation, it has one or two members who were youngsters when it started up.

Liverpool Record Office also has some Southport Jewish archives, but a great deal more on Liverpool’s long-lived Jewish community, so there was a danger, going to Liverpool Record Office, that I would notice, not only that they are a superb outfit, who really look after their users, but also have this fascinating collection that provides information on who were members of certain synagogues in certain years – not all years, alas, and not all synagogues, but many years, and many of the congregations. And tons of records from charities, schools, sports clubs, individuals, and cultural and professional groups. So I was soon being sidetracked onto these Liverpool delights, and the result is I may leave behind, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, quite a lot of useful work on the Liverpool community. I hope so – and I shall try to delay the departure! Crosby Library, the central library for local history in Sefton, also has relevant resources, including local directories, and local newspapers, back to the 1840s in one case. (And at one time, you could see the Crosby and Waterloo synagogue from the library).

The short story of the Southport community is that in 1893 there were at least two great events: the first Hebrew Congregation was founded in the holiday resort of Southport, Lancashire, near Liverpool. (In London the Jewish Historical Society of England was founded, a few months later) Southport wasn’t the utterly English place you might think, at this point: there were some Sephardic Jews, and a few Ashkenazim, but also Armenians, Germans, French, Italians and Swiss people – and even an African-born lad in the home of an African trader. Southport didn’t become a centre for Jewish migration all alone, but was helped along by railway lines to Liverpool and Manchester, with visitors coming from those cities early, and people migrating from them, with a view to commuting, in the days when cars weren’t common.

The congregation formed in 1893 still exists; in the same year a former chapel was brought into service as the first synagogue in the town – a simple building on a quiet road, to which congregants could easily walk from most parts of the town. The Sephardim were prominent in the first few years, and there were many of them over the years, until recent times. Growth of the community was brisk leading to World War 1, then a new synagogue was needed in the mid 1920s. An impressive synagogue, built in the 1920s, still stands in Arnside Road, now rather empty; by World War 2, it had waiting lists for seats, as people from Liverpool, Manchester and other cities flocked to this safe part of the country. Soon this problem led to extra services for the High Holydays in a Baptist Chapel on Scarisbrick New Road – and in other places. The arrival of many of the evacuees (sometime referred to as “vaccies”) rapidly increased the size of the Cheder, and an uneasy relationship with one Senior Warden (not ousted soon enough, probably) led to the setting up of an Evacuees Congregation, which lasted a couple of years. Some of those who had formed it stayed, joined the Southport Hebrew Congregation, and were influential for decades afterwards.

After World War 2, the Reform Congregation was established, and continues to operate. Good causes were supported by the members of both Congregations, such as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, hospitals, the local Jewish retirement home and a Jewish Blind home, as well as a hostel for Kindertransport girls, in 1939-1940 – which was brought to an abrupt end all too soon, as a result of government wartime action.

Local Jewish social life was great for many years after 1945, when the Jewish population rose to perhaps 3,000 for a time, as part of the general life in such a genteel and prosperous town, where the community provided a variety of excellent shops, the usual drapers and furriers and dressmakers, as well as gift shops, radio and TV shops, and professions such as accountants, solicitors, dentists, opticians and doctors, not to mention bookies, hairdressers and an early coffee bar. Anti-Semitism arose in the 1940s, here as elsewhere, but was fought vigorously, at least one young member of the community displaying an ability to deploy fisticuffs when appropriate, sometimes making a quick getaway in his car.

Being allowed to read all the surviving minute books of the Orthodox Congregation, and having equal access to the records of the Reform, I’ve had an unusual opportunity to show what the Councils of these two bodies have discussed, how they dealt with crises; and when they failed, as well as when they succeeded. The different styles of ministers and Rabbis have emerged, from the lax to the authoritarian, sometimes with an element of humour. Pragmatism has often seemed to be developed to a fine art! Some chazanim were hard to manage – or even impossible, as was a wartime beadle, who “could look after himself”, whilst a successor of his was sometimes expected to be in two places at once – playing the organ AND maintaining security, and all for a nominal salary!’

In some ways it’s all a matter of stamina, when something takes seven years from beginning of the research to (self-)publication of the book. And of course there’s the relief proverbially gained when you stop banging your head on a hard object! Copies of the book aren’t available from Amazon, but buyers should see my website, with full details of how to buy a copy and the costs including post and packing to UK addresses. The website is at


Read more news stories

Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain