Meanwhile, a hundred years earlier…

Autumn or winter was a good time to arrive in the Cape.  A nor-wester may have eased the ship into Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Harbour, giving the pregnant Sarah Edelman and her sons, Harris, five, and Joseph, not yet two, a gentle introduction to the local climate and their first view of the town and its mountain backdrop.  The weather wouldn’t have been far off a Liverpudlian summer, another pleasant discovery after six years in England.  Of course, if they’d arrived a few months earlier, they’d have steamed into the teeth of the ‘Cape Doctor’, the south-east wind that decks Table Mountain’s with its summer ‘tablecloth’ and is capable of knocking the unsteady off their feet.  I grew up with this wind, for me the single defining element of a Cape summer.  It both cleansed and irritated, but mostly it did the latter.  The south-easter rattled windows, laughing at bits of tissue paper wedged between panes and leadlights; it banged shutters, hooted down chimney stacks, terrorised pets and penetrated ear plugs.  I hated it.

The family’s travels weren’t over yet.  There was still a trip to Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo where, hopefully, Harris Edelman had set up house and was making enough of a living to support his wife and growing family.

Air travel was something of a distant future, another 22 years until the Wright brothers would make the first powered flight at Kittyhawk on December 17, 1903, and several more decades before the introduction of air passenger services in South Africa.  Transport infrastructure was rudimentary; until the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1871, the length of rail from Cape Town did not extend past the shadow cast by the nearby Jonkershoek mountains.  From 1872, major investment in rail brought the Cape Colony’s main ports – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London – closer to the diamond fields, but none of these lines went anywhere near Oudtshoorn.  For someone wanting a rail experience from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn in 1881, this was possible to a point.  That point was the tiny outpost of Prince Albert Road, 350 kilometres north-east of Cape Town in the Great Karoo, from where the rest of the journey had to be made by road.

Between Prince Albert Road and Oudtshoorn is one of the finest examples of an exposed fold mountain chain in the world, the Swartberg mountains, which also forms the border between the Great and Little Karoos.  A hundred years later I would cross this pass by car.  When we reached the summit, the engine started to overheat, making for an obligatory stop.  We waited for the engine to cool, taking in the arid beauty of the Great Karoo we’d left behind and the neat farmlands – and civilisation – of the Little Karoo in front of us.  We breathed some of the cleanest air on earth in a silence barely punctuated by an occasional breeze.  For all its pristine qualities, however, this was no place in which to get stuck.

A pass over the mountains would only be completed in 1888, leaving the traveller in 1881 with no option but to circumvent the Swartberg, a distance that would be halved with the opening up of the pass.  For 340 kilometres, our rail fan would have had to skirt the northern base of the Swartberg, finding passage through a series of ‘poorts’ – the word ‘poort’ means ‘narrow pass through mountains’ – on roads that were often subject to flooding and rockfalls.

If one didn’t want to switch travel mode, it was possible to make the journey entirely by road from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn.  Horse and cart, or coach, were the modus operandi of the day, requiring frequent stops for a change of horses and refreshments, maybe even an overnight stay or two.  There were mountain passes to cross and roads that were unsealed.  In parts, these roads were little more than dirt tracks; winter rain could turn them into bogs.

I like to think that Harris Edelman spared his pregnant wife and children the rigours of an overland trek.  That he would have arranged for them to stay on board the steamship that had borne them to Cape Town and would be continuing up the east coast to despatch passengers and mail.  If this gave Sarah and her sons little time to acquaint themselves with Cape Town, that would keep for another time.

Between 1857 and 1977, ships of the Union and Castle Lines transported mail and passengers between Britain and various ports in South Africa, including Mossel Bay, the closest port to Oudtshoorn.  For information on the ‘mail run’, I’ve turned to CJ Harris’ and Brian Ingpen’s absorbing account, Mailships of the Union Castle Line.  I found this and several other literary ‘pink diamonds’ in Cape Town’s Long Street, a road lined by Victorian buildings and populated by bars, restaurants and coffee shops.  One of the most joyful things about delving into ancestors’ pasts is the amount of ‘contextual evidence’ one discovers along the way, much of it out of print and available from second-hand bookshops only.  The search for such material creates the impetus for travel which, in turn, generates its own journeys of renewal, discovery and pure enjoyment.

In 1881, the ships of the Union and Castle Lines were no more than a couple of thousand tons and some of them still retained sail as an additional form of propulsion to steam.  A typical example was the ‘African’, built in 1873; she was a 96 metre long steamer with foresails, capable of 12 knots and able to accommodate 100 passengers in first class, 50 in second and 50 in third.  The ‘Dunrobin Castle’, built in 1876, was 104 metres long, capable of 10 knots and could accommodate 100 first class passengers, 50 in second class and ‘100 emigrants’.  The need to classify emigrants separately and their class of accommodation, is not explained.

From Cape Town, the vessel bearing Sarah and her sons would have steamed out of the Victoria and Albert Basin, giving the five year-old Harris his last view of the settlement and its mountain backdrop for a while.  The ship’s path of travel would have taken it around the western Cape Peninsula and south to Cape Point, tracking south-east past a number of tiny coastal settlements to Danger Point and thence south to Cape Agulhas.  If they had passed this area on a clear night, they may have seen the beam from the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, the most southerly on the African continent, winking at them.

This stretch of coast has been unsparing of vessel and life, its winter storms and mammoth rogue waves having claimed more than 100 ships and the lives of thousands, often emigrants.  The RMS Teuton, a mail steamer of the Union Company bound for Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), struck an object and sank near Cape Agulhas on the night of 30 August 1881.  According to an eyewitness, the ship

‘went down like a streak of lightning…I would have not believed it possible that a vessel could go down so quickly…I am almost certain that the boat with the women and children in it was fastened by rope to the vessel or did not clear the vortex.’

This eyewitness, a Mr Kromm, could not swim and survived by jumping from the poop deck as the ship was going down.  After being dragged below the surface of the water by the suction of the sinking ship, he managed to grab hold of a piece of wreckage and was later hauled on board one of the life boats.  Of the more than 200 persons on board, only 34 survived.

The port town of Mossel Bay – or the Bay of Mussels, named for the abundance of marine molluscs in its intertidal zone – became a key link in shipping primary produce from the interior to major markets in South Africa and the rest of the world.  By the 1880’s the full force of the ostrich feather boom catapulted Oudtshoorn onto the world stage and elevated the role of Mossel Bay to new heights.  The gross value of the feather trade had increased from around £87,000 in 1870 to more than £1 million in 1882 and, by the late nineteenth century, Mossel Bay had become a major port for exporting ostrich feathers, handling more than 800,000 kilograms of feathers every year.  1881 was a good time to be arriving in this part of the world.

If the value of the feather trade was powering ahead, land transport remained basic.  Derrick Lewis writes of his ancestors’ journey from Mossel Bay to Oudtshoorn in 1885: ‘Lena and her (eight) children travelled from Mossel Bay by horse and cart over the Robertson (sic) Pass to Oudtshoorn.’  He doesn’t say how long the trip took or whether the family needed more than one horse and cart to get them and their possessions across the mountains, but even today the Robinson Pass ranks higher for ‘tourist experience’ than it does against standards of ‘safety’ and ‘expeditious travel’.

The pass was opened in 1869.  Its base is about 40 kilometres north of Mossel Bay and the angle of ascent is steeper on this side, with the road climbing steadily through sweeping curves marked by memorials to people who have lost their lives in accidents along the way.  The pass is often shrouded in mist and the upper reaches can be wet.  Twenty-first century travellers who filmed the experience suggest that ‘if you are fortunate (my emphasis) enough to drive the pass after or even during rain, you will see a lot of water tumbling out of the mountain about 500 meters before the summit.’  Lewis doesn’t describe the weather on his ancestors’ 1885 trip so they may have struck the pass at a dry time.  Even if they did, the road was unsealed and, on a horse-drawn cart, every bump and jolt would have been felt.  Once over the summit, the road descends at an easier gradient through a series of S-bends before levelling off into the farmland district of the Little Karoo.  From what I can establish, the views are spectacular, but I’ll have to experience that first-hand for myself one day.

How much did Harris Edelman tell his wife about the South African odyssey she was about to undertake?  Nothing, I suspect.  The trip was something to be accepted and dealt with, like living in a house without sanitation or being made a widow at the age of 21.  Sometimes I think we know – or want to know – too much about what lies ahead.  The information revolution has given us a powerful tool, but at the same time, it has taken away our innocence, made us more cautious and less spontaneous, and robbed us of the ability to live in and enjoy the present; at times, it even misleads us.  Travel is a good example; we spend hours talking to industry experts and others who have ‘been there’, planning itineraries, mining websites, browsing forums, watching You Tube clips and flicking through Trip Advisor reviews.  We want to know exactly what the accommodation, the beach, the restaurant, the food, the excursions – the experience – will be like.

The toddler, Joseph, would have taken few memories of the journey through a life that would end a few years later.  The five-year-old Harris would have been more impressionable; this would have been one of the few sea voyages, perhaps the only one, he made during his life and the experience is likely to have marked him, as events of magnitude, either on a public or personal level, do.  My father would recall how he remembered the outbreak of the Great War, which occurred when he was two.  At a similar age, my parents left me with an aunt while they travelled abroad for three months; after they returned, I would check on them nightly to make sure they were still alive.

And then there was Oudtshoorn.  About as far removed from Liverpool as one could get.






Across the Atlantic

I have always found the concept of latitude easier to approach than longitude.  Perhaps this is because Cape Town – where I grew up – has a latitude of 34 degrees south.  Sydney’s latitude – where I live now – is the same.  There has been a certain reinforcing familiarity in that coincidence.

A map of the world shows a far smaller land mass in the Southern Hemisphere compared to its northern equivalent.  The land mass south of the Equator includes Australia, most of South America, most of Indonesia, the southern third of Africa, Antarctica, and a host of island nations and colonial outposts in the South Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Southern Oceans.  Some of this land mass is almost uninhabitable, such as Antarctica and the centre of Australia.

The Northern Hemisphere’s greater land mass – estimates put it at double that of the Southern Hemisphere – comes with a disproportionately greater population.  Around 90% of the world’s population lives north of the Equator, helped along by countries such as China and India, whose populations of 1.36 billion and 1.24 billion respectively account for 36% of the world’s total numbers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that only two summer Olympic Games have been held in the Southern Hemisphere, both of them in Australia.  The first was in Melbourne in 1956 and the second in Sydney in 2000.  The Southern Hemisphere will pull off a hat trick of Summer Games when Rio de Janeiro holds the event in 2016.  There is no such luck for the Winter Games; none has ever been held in the Southern Hemisphere and none is on the horizon.

Given my parents’ interest in travel and my father’s fondness for London, it was not a matter of “if”, but “when” I would point north.

My first crossing of the Equator was in June 1964.  The route of our South African Airways Boeing 707 flight took us from Johannesburg to Lisbon[1], with stops at Luanda – where I tasted my first Fanta drink – and Las Palmas.  The flight lasted about 14 hours including stops.  I don’t recall our cruising altitude, but it was sufficiently high above the clouds for them – to my 11-year-old eyes anyway – to look like lumps of snow dumped on the Atlantic.

Two factors dictated the number and location of landing stops.  The first was the shorter range of the Boeing 707 compared to modern-day jets.  The second was South Africa’s apartheid policies.  Most African countries north of the Limpopo River – the border between South Africa and Rhodesia – had refused landing rights to South African Airways which meant that its planes had to fly around the bulge of Africa.

Due to the timing of my birth and the introduction of international jet transport, I had been spared the ignominy of a ”line crossing ceremony”.


My mother[2] and siblings – or at least my sister – had not been so fortunate.


State Library of Queensland

On their trip to England and Europe in 1954, my parents, sister and brother had travelled on the Winchester Castle – tonnage 20,109 – between Cape Town and Southampton.  The journey took 14 days and their first class tickets had cost 419 pounds and 10 shillings for all four of them.

17 years earlier, my father had returned to South Africa from England on the Athlone Castle – tonnage 25,564 –  travelling in ‘cabin class’, an intermediate form of accommodation.  The journey had taken the same length of time.

Both ships were part of the Union Castle fleet.  This company arose from the merger of the Union Line and the Castle Mail Packet Company 1899, both of which had benefitted from mail contracts issued by the Colonial Government over many years.

If the Union Castle fleet was famous for carrying large of volumes of passengers between South Africa and England during the twentieth century, then these ships were as well-known also as the ‘mail boats’.

Between 3 April and 11 September, 1881, Harris Saltman, his mother, Sarah, and half-brother, Joseph, would have boarded a steamship in England bound for Cape Town, South Africa.   Their port of embarkation may have been Plymouth or Southampton and the journey would have taken anything up to 42 days.

If they had travelled on either of the Union or Castle Lines, they could have boarded one of several vessels.  Unfortunately, few records survive of ships that made the crossing during this period and where they do, only three ships – the Duart Castle, Kinfauns Castle and the RMS Durban – would have been capable of having transported my ancestors to Cape Town.  Their names are not on the manifests of these ships.

I shall have to imagine what their voyage must have been like.

[1]               London was the final stop on this route although we got off in Lisbon.

[2]             My father made the crossing in the 1930’s.

The missing years fall away

If the younger Joseph Edelman had been born in Oudtshoorn in 1887, then I could now reasonably assume that my grandfather – aged 11 – was  also living there at that time.

I had hoped that the estate file for Barney – bachelor, resident of Pietersburg, hotel employee and brother to Joseph – would at least consolidate evidence of my grandfather’s early connection with South Africa.


And it did.

Barney’s parents are clearly identified as Harris and Sarah Edelman.  I could now account for seven of their nine children: Barney, John Albert, Reuben, Maximilian, Isidore and, of course, the two Josephs.

The death notice is signed by his brother, Max who, it would seem, had at some point after 1911 returned from Edinburgh to make a life in South Africa.

The death notice also suggests that Barney is the Mr Edelman who lived in the Northern Transvaal town of Soekmekaar.  Why Barney – “the sole Jewish inhabitant of a nearby place (Soekmekaar)” according to a local rabbi – chose to end his days in this undistinguished place, is something one can only wonder about.

Almost twenty years after his death, an attack on the local police station would lift this town out of obscurity.  While no-one was killed, the three men who committed this offence were given the death penalty in 1980.  A sentence that two years later would be commuted to life imprisonment.

Like the younger Joseph, Barney was born in Oudtshoorn.  Having regard to his age – 80 years and six months – he is likely to have been born in September, 1881.


The abridged death certificate confirms this: Barney, the second son of Harris and Sarah Edelman, was born on 11 September 1881.

Exactly 120 years later, four acts of terrorism in New York City and Washington D.C. would rock the global community to its core.

Barney’s date and place of birth suggest that Harris Edelman may have left England for South Africa later than I’d previously thought, that is, sometime during the first quarter of 1881 rather than two to three years before.

More importantly, this event suggests a very strong likelihood that my grandfather – a boy of five at the time – was living in South Africa as early as September 1881.

Thus sometime between 3 April 1881 – the date of the English Census – and 11 September, 1881, Sarah Edelman and her two older sons, Harris Saltman and Joseph Edelman, would have left Liverpool for a new life in South Africa.

If it had taken me a while to find Barney, then the wait had been worth it.  The circumstances of his life had helped reduce the missing years in my grandfather’s movements between England and South Africa to a matter of months. Or 131 days, to be precise.

It had taken me over 15 years to reach that point.

I felt satisfied.

The two Josephs

A chance remark by a fellow blogger has completely overturned an assumption I’d previously regarded as rock solid.

This assumption was that Joseph Edelman, Harris and Sarah’s first son born in England, was the same as the Joe, solicitor and newspaper editor living in a South African country town in the early part of the twentieth century.

The remark that turned this assumption on its head was this:

“… the 1912 South African Who’s Who has the following entry: Edelman, Joseph, solicitor; b. 1887, Oudtshoorn, 3rd son of H.Edelman.”

If it is unlikely enough that parents would give two of their children the same name, then it is even more unlikely that an Ashkenazi family would do this.  This is because protocol dictates that newborns take the name of a deceased relative.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn from the appearance of a second Joseph is that the first must have died sometime after 1882/1883 – the assumed birth date for John Albert – and that the younger Joseph took his name from the deceased child.

In the hope of validating this new assumption, I turned to the younger Joseph’s estate file.

South African estate files are a treasure trove of information for the amateur genealogist.  In addition to the deceased person’s name, they can tell you the birth place and nationality of the deceased, the name of his or her parents, the age of the deceased in years and months, occupation, place of residence at time of death, and much more.

I’d had Joseph’s estate file in my possession for over 12 months.  I’d read it more than once, but had failed to absorb some of its key messages.

A 030

Joseph’s parentage confirms that he is another half-brother to my grandfather.  His occupational status – attorney and journalist – aligns with the person described thus in the SA Rootsbank database which, in turn, established a relationship to another brother, Barney.

His place of birth is shown as Oudtshoorn, spelt without a “t” here.  He was 70 at the time of his death in Krugersdorp on 19 April, 1957.  This places his date of birth at 1887 which, together with his place of birth, is consistent with the entry in the 1912 South African Who’s Who.

This Joseph is clearly not the same as the Joseph born in Liverpool, England, in 1879.

I’d like to have closed the case on the younger Joseph there.  But two entries in Rootsbank made me pause.

The first lists a date of death for Joseph Edelman as 19 April 1957, clearly establishing him as the son of Harris and Sarah Edelman.  The second lists a date of death for Joe Edelman as 4 March 1962.  Was there possibly a third Joseph?

Most likely not.

I recalled that Barney Edelman had also died in 1962.

First Names Barney
Hebrew Names Dov (Barney)
Died Date 1962-03-04
Hebrew Date of Death 29 Adar A
Notes All those who knew him
Region in SA Northern
Listing Pietersburg cemetery

And sure enough, the Rootsbank entry for Barney’s death gives the date as 4 March 1962.

It is too coincidental to regard both brothers as having died on the same day; this has more likely arisen out of a keying error.

Significantly, there is no estate file for a Joseph Edelman who also died in 1962.

But there is one for Barney Edelman.

The side-tracking pays dividends

Grace Edelman gradually faded into the recesses of my past.  Any opportunity that I may have had to learn more about her father evaporated as she moved from this world into the next.

If I wanted to know more about JA, I would have to be satisfied with whatever the official records of his life could tell me.

The first clue turns up in 1910. IMG_6628

A Mr and Mrs Edleman, together with a R and J Edleman and a Master Edleman, arrive in London on 17 September on the Otranto, the voyage having started in Brisbane, Australia.  The Edlemans have embarked at Port Said, Egypt.  All but Master Edleman are listed as merchants.  Could this be Harris and Sarah, and their sons Reuben and JA?  It’s tempting to think so, but it’s not certain.

A more definite link comes in 1914. IMG_6626

JA, his wife and two children arrive in London on the Omrah, which has begun its journey in Brisbane.  They embark at Port Said.  JA is cited as an employee of the Egyptian government and the family’s place of residence, for at least a year prior, is Egypt.  JA’s age is given as 37, which puts his date of birth at 1877 or 1878.  This does not seem correct, as Harris and Sarah Edleman did not marry until 1878 and their first child was born in December 1879.

On 27 March, 1915, Anna and the two children are on the move again, travelling on the Persia from London to Bombay.IMG_6552

They disembark at Port Said and their country of intended permanent future residence is stated as Egypt.  Their country of last permanent residence is identified simply as “Foreign countries”.

JA is not listed on the manifest so one assumes that he remained in England, possibly on account of military duties.

Maybe Anna had wanted, during a time of war, to be closer to her family in Egypt.  Whatever her reasons, the family must have returned to live in England either during or after the War.

On 13 February 1919, JA and his family sail on the Kenilworth Castle from Liverpool to Cape Town, South Africa. IMG_6555

JA’s title is given as Lt (lieutenant) implying that he had seen war service.  The family’s country of last permanent residence is stated as England and their intended country of future permanent residence as Abyssinia, an independent country that would later become part of Ethiopia.  Abyssinia is probably best known for Mussolini’s invasion in 1935 that deposed Haile Selassie from the Abyssinian throne and united Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somaliland under the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel.

JA’s occupation is given as “manager” and his age as 37.  This gives his date of birth as 1882 or 1883, which is a more realistic estimate.

JA was a British citizen, but there is no record of his birth in the United Kingdom.  The only reasonable explanation is that he was born in South Africa.

If this is true then, by association, my grandfather was also living in South Africa circa 1882 as well.  My eight year gap had potentially shrunk to one or two years.

If my distraction with the life of JA had helped me close the gap, then it had also saved me unwanted labour of another sort: I now had no need to delve into American records!

I continue to be side-tracked by the Edleman family

I had now added John Albert – or JA as I shall call him for convenience – to my database of Edleman offspring.

JA’s quarters at the Grand Union Hotel in 1911 do not appear to have been those of a pauper.

This brick hotel with its mansard roof and quoin corner blocks, plus the trademark New York fire escapes to the front facade – a  relatively new feature of fire safety at the time – presents an imposing figure and, dare I say, one that would likely have attracted well-to-do patrons.

Built in 1872, the Grand Union Hotel was situated at Park Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets.  The recently completed Grand Central Terminal is partly visible on the left.[1]

The photo of the hotel was taken in 1914, shortly before it was demolished to make way for the Lexington Avenue subway line.[2]  By then, of course, JA and his family would have moved on.

Saul Marks had suggested that I could trace JA’s line in the US further through reference to a range of sources.

Interesting as I imagined this would have been, the Edlemans’ American pathway after 1911 seemed less important to my central aim of giving some context to the missing years of my grandfather’s life, than trying to find out more about JA’s earlier existence and, by association, my grandfather’s circumstances.

A logical starting point was to establish JA’s date and place of birth.

That wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I would have liked.  There is no record of his birth in England nor of any having been registered at a British Consulate abroad.

I was reasonably confident that JA had been born sometime between 1881 and 1889.  He was younger than his brother Joseph who – at the 1881 Census had only my grandfather as a sibling – and most likely older than another brother, Reuben, who was born circa 1889.

Something about the birthplace of Anna, Grace and John Edleman Junior had aroused my curiosity: all three had been born in Cairo, Egypt.  This presupposed that JA had, prior to 1911, spent time in Egypt.

A record of marriage would prove how far back that period might have extended.IMG_6545

Registration of their marriage at the British Consul in Cairo confirmed a link to Egypt back to 1906.[3]

I would soon discover that JA and his family had a far closer relationship with this country than with the US.

And that by pursuing this particular relationship further, it would lead me to what I was looking for.

[3]              Calculated from the age of their daughter, Grace, who was five years old in 1911.

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.

An absence explained?

By the time of the 1881 Census, the Edleman family along with my grandfather had moved to 17 Gildart Street, a distance of less than 120 feet (37 metres) from their previous address at 63 Blandford Street.

More than 100 years later, Sarah’s great-granddaughter would move house from one end of a suburban Sydney street to the other – a distance of 350 metres – causing a few smiles among the removalists.

Returning to nineteenth century Liverpool, the tell-tale court layout and notes on the above map confirm that the family exchanged one back to back dwelling for another.  According to Harvey Kaplan, rented apartments were “passed around” as families expanded and contracted, so the Gildart Street premises may have been larger than those at Blandford Street. IMG_3051

And the above Latter Day Saints transcript of the 1881 English Census gives a hint as to why.  It shows that eight persons were living at 17 Gildart Street: Sarah and her two young children, her father, sister and young child, and two boarders.

The riddle of Sarah’s missing husband, however, remained.  Where was Harris Edleman at the time of the 1881 Census?

Another blogger has suggested that around 10% of population is missing from British Census counts.  I don’t doubt that this is true and for some time felt that this must have been Harris’ fate.

However, evidence I recently uncovered via the Latter Day Saints Community Trees database tells a different story.


According to Saul Marks, who has separately been undertaking research for me on the Edleman family’s life in England and South Africa, the notes to the entry above are taken from the inscription on Harris’ gravestone in Edinburgh.

They confirm that between 1878 and 1911, his primary address was in South Africa.

We know that he was in Liverpool in December 1878 on the occasion of his  marriage to my great-grandmother.  He must also have spent some time in the company of his new wife in the early part of 1879 in order for her to have fallen pregnant.

But after that, I feel that Harris Edleman most likely returned to South Africa.

He was not necessarily present at the time of his first son’s birth in December 1879.  There is only one mark on Joseph Edleman’s birth certificate and it is Sarah’s.  This contrasts with my grandfather’s birth certificate on which his father’s signature is inscribed.

By the time of the 1881 English Census, he would have been in South Africa.

Between early 1879 and 1881, Harris Edleman appears to have been a most itinerant husband, father and step father.

Football and other memories

On 28 June 1914, a young Bosnian Serb aged seventeen changed the course of history forever.  Gavrilo Princip was a member of the Black Hand Society, a nationalist movement that supported the union of Balkan states.  His act of assassinating the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, while on a visit to Sarajevo was the catalyst for starting World War 1.  Exactly one month later, the first shots of combat were fired.

I remember this event with clarity as it was one of those many facts chiselled into memory by my school history teacher.

My father claimed to have recalled the outbreak of World War 1.  The family was living in Johannesburg at the time and no doubt this news would have travelled quickly to a colony of the Crown.  I did a quick calculation and realised that he would have been twenty-one months old.

My earliest memory is of being at my brother’s barmitzvah, a Jewish boy’s ritual coming of age.  In the company of my nanny, Mabel, I watched from an upper tier of Cape Town’s Great Synagogue as the small figure below performed his set piece.  I was a little more than two years old at the time.

At what age does long-term memory kick in?  Depending on who you believe, this can be anywhere from 17-21 months, at two years, after two years or not before the age of three and a half.

Our early memories tend to be of events that have significance for us personally; things that make a lasting impression on us, be they good or bad, happy or sad.  They do not necessarily have to have far-reaching or life changing implications, although sometimes they do.

Assuming some patrilineal tendency to recall events from an early age, I expect that Harris would have remembered the occasion of his mother’s second marriage, an event that occurred when he was four months short of his third birthday.

But would this have been his earliest memory?

Sport runs deep in our family.  My father played competition level water polo at university and my mother was a swim coach whose stable included a handful of national champions.  My older siblings were national swim champions in their day, and I have had some success in both the pool and the ocean.

Sport wasn’t confined to active participation; there were memberships at two turf clubs – for some reason betting on horse racing was deemed acceptable in gambling intolerant South Africa – and season tickets at the local rugby and football grounds.

Watching football was possibly my father’s greatest sporting passion, kindled during his student days in England.  The Gunners had acquired a life long fan, complete with red and white scarf.

Back in South Africa, following English football was limited to coverage in the print media and the occasional radio broadcast.  We had no TV before 1975.

When London hosted the 1966 World Cup and England made it through to the final for the 12th time, we tuned into a radio broadcast that spluttered and popped like a pan of too hot oil.  One can only imagine what it must have been like to watch Geoff Hurst pot first one, then two goals in overtime, delivering England victory over Germany and its first and only World Cup title to date.

It was, of course, possible to watch football live in South Africa.  A small national league had formed which included two Cape Town teams, each with its home ground, and numbering among their players fading stars of British and European football leagues.  This is where you would have found us on winter Friday nights; my father watching the game, my mother chatting to the person next to her, and me wanting desperately to be somewhere else.

The city of Liverpool has a proud tradition as the most successful footballing city in England.  Football is its most popular sport and the city is home to two clubs, Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs.


Everton, the older of the two clubs, has its roots in the St Domingo Methodist Church Sunday School which opened in May 1870.

Eight years later the football team, using the St Domingo name, played its first match in the south-east corner of Stanley Park, establishing a commencement date of 1878 for what would soon become the Everton Football Club.   St Domingo’s Football Club quickly established a local reputation for itself and in November 1879 acquired the Everton name.

Everton’s early home ground was about a 45 minute walk from 63 Blandford Street.

I don’t know that my grandfather played sport, but I would like to think that the formation of one of Liverpool’s pre-eminent football clubs may have made a mark on his memory.

He would have been around two at the time.

The riddle of the missing street

My next task was to find Joseph’s birth certificate.  That would show me in which part of Liverpool Sarah and Harris Edellman had made their home.

IMG_3046The transcript told me that Joseph had been born either in the first quarter of 1880 or in the one immediately prior.


The birth certificate confirms Joseph’s date of birth as 3 December, 1879, making him about three years and seven months younger than my grandfather.  The family surname had been anglicised to Edleman and, in the Ashkenazi tradition of naming a new-born after a deceased relative, Joseph had taken his name from his late paternal grandfather.  As witnessed by her mark on the birth certificate, Sarah had not yet acquired any proficiency in English.

The family was living at 63 Blandford Street, Sarah’s address at the time of her marriage to Harris.  The street that seemed to have disappeared without trace…

Well…had it?

A chance web search led me to a book titled The Liverpool Underworld: Crime in the City, 1750-1900.

The book singles out Blandford Street for its “brothel that catered for old men with a taste in young girls”.  Charming.

The density of brothels featured prominently in the book.  At one stage, the surrounding area apparently housed 235 brothels and 460 sex workers, living in “tightly packed court housing”.  By 1890, the Blandford Street district had become Liverpool’s “capital of debauchery”.

In 1894, Blandford Street was renamed Kempston Street, no doubt in an attempt to erase all evidence of its colourful past.

The riddle of the disappearing street had been solved.

Mention of “tightly packed court housing” had aroused my interest.  Had my great-grandmother – and my grandfather – substituted a life in such housing in Sheffield for something similar in Liverpool?

I had no photos to rely upon.  But there were maps covering the period.

From Google Maps, I knew that 63 Blandford Street was on the northern side of the street, close to its intersection with Gildart Street.

The above extract from the 1864 Liverpool Town Plan clearly shows the existence of court housing in that part of Blandford Street which was, at that time, called Finch Street.

A 1891 Liverpool Town Plan shows no change to the land use and housing layout.  The courts are clearly visible – and marked as such – on the northern side of the street.

The housing has not survived into the twenty-first century.  What stands in its place today – a nondescript late twentieth century industrial building – provides no clues about the area’s colourful past or the lives of ordinary citizens who inhabited the area over a hundred years ago.

For that I would have to look elsewhere.