Through the eyes of a five year old

What forces were shaping Harris Saltman’s world in 1881?[1]

Whereas steel manufacturing was the predominant commercial activity in Sheffield during the last half of the nineteenth century, in Liverpool it was trade.

International trade between Liverpool and the Americas commenced in the mid seventeenth century, but it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that this trade consolidated around a wide range of commodities, in particular cotton.  Liverpool became the leading world market for this crop, supplying the textile mills of Manchester and Lancashire.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Liverpool was among the four greatest ports in the world, conducting one third of the export trade and one quarter of the import trade of the United Kingdom.  The city owned one third of the total shipping of the Kingdom and one seventh of the total registered shipping of the world.

The advent of the steamship was a key catalyst in the expansion of international trade.  No longer having to rely on wind for movement, cargo ships could run to a timetable with a degree of accuracy that had previously been impossible.  In addition to cargo, this period also ushered in the era of the passenger ‘liner’.  In 1840 the first of these vessels, the ‘Britannia’, inaugurated a fortnightly service to New York for the Cunard Company.

The distance between the Edleman’s Gildart Street address and the bustle of the Liverpool docklands was less than two miles.  I wonder whether Harris’ mother took him there of a weekend to watch the movement of cargo and passenger ships, much as Harris’ son would do with his children several decades later at another dock at the tip of Africa?

As commerce expanded, so too did Liverpool’s population.  By the close of the eighteenth century, the town had 80,000 people.  Less than a hundred years later, this figure would multiply more than sevenfold.

Opportunities for a better life drew migrants from England and further afield.  The Great Potato Famine of 1845-49 resulted in the migration of thousands of Irish people to Liverpool, where by mid-century they represented around one quarter of the town’s population.

The first Jewish settlers – hawkers from Eastern Europe – migrated to Liverpool in the mid-eighteenth century.  As commerce and the town expanded, more settlers arrived from Germany and Holland, as well as from other parts of Britain, shifting the centre of Anglo-Jewish population gravity from the market towns and ports of the South to the new industrial and commercial hubs of the Midlands and North.

Between 1875 and 1914, an estimated 120,000 Eastern European Jews settled in Britain.  Liverpool’s main role in this ‘mass migration’ was that of a port of embarkation along the chief route of migration by road, rail and sea stretching from Western Russia, through Berlin, Hamburg, Hull and Liverpool to the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa.  Several of these migrants did, however, remain and by 1875, Liverpool’s Jewish population numbered around 3,000.


Google Maps

Before the 1880s, Liverpool’s Jewish community settled within a radius of some two miles of the earliest synagogues in Princes Road and Hope Place.  The effect of Eastern European settlement was to create a close-knit and readily recognisable ‘Jewish Quarter’ in the cheaper housing around Brownlow Hill, Paddington, Crown Street and Islington[2] – the precinct loosely defined by the line markings on the map above.

New immigrant workers were drawn to petty trade or small-scale industries such as tailoring and cabinet-making, with which they had some prior knowledge in Eastern Europe.  Most newcomers took to a form of peddling, as did the adult members of the Edleman family and their lodgers.

These new arrivals found themselves caught between two cultures.  From Eastern Europe they brought a distinctive way of life based on the strict observance of traditional religious custom and the secular culture embodied in the Yiddish language.  On arrival in Britain, they were immediately exposed to the very different traditions of English working class neighbourhoods and, in the longer term, to all the practices, ideals and activities of a major city.  Thankfulness to England for providing a safe haven combined with practical considerations of survival – encouraged by an older-established Jewish elite which saw the immigrants’ ‘foreign culture’ as a barrier to their acceptance as well as a threat to the community’s reputation  – to set the immigrants firmly on a path to anglicization.

Immigrant children were a particularly vulnerable target for any proselytising forces.  The introduction of compulsory elementary education for all British children in the 1870’s played a significant role in this regard.

In the wake of this reform, a number of Jewish day schools were established in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.  And while it is tempting to speculate that Harris may have attended such a school – immigrant parents were keen to send their children to schools which would reinforce Jewish heritage and culture – it is just as likely that he did not.  The majority of Jewish children attended local state schools and, sometimes, church schools.

If the aim of the education system was to ‘detribalise’ newly arrived children by turning them into proper Englishmen and Englishwomen, then it succeeded.  A 1894 Board of Trade report describes how the children ‘enter the school Russians and Poles, and emerge from it almost indistinguishable from English children’.

At least Harris did not have to contend with being foreign-born, even if his mother and stepfather wore this tag.  To all intents and purposes, he would have looked and sounded like any other Liverpudlian child of his age.

But any outer semblace of being English was destined to be short-lived.

[1]              Information in this post is drawn variously from Ramsay Muir ‘A history of Liverpool’ 2nd edition, 1907;;; and

[2]               Islington was the area in which the Edleman family – and my grandfather – resided between 1878 and 1881.


2 thoughts on “Through the eyes of a five year old

  1. Fascinating post!…
    Australian also had this “assimilation” policy and my Irish Ancestors, even the first “Australian born” generation, suffered terribly. Praise be that our policy of Multiculturalism, of celebrating our differences and acknowledging our similarities, has taken over from the former.
    Thanks so much for a wonderful read 🙂

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