Assimilation and Prejudice

Definition of Assimilation – the process of becoming a part, or making someone become a part, of a group, country, society, etc. Source: Cambridge University Dictionary.

“The Aliens Act 1905 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.[2] The Act for the first time introduced immigration controls and registration, and gave the Home Secretary overall responsibility for immigration and nationality matters.[2]

While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through, one of its main objectives was to control Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.[3]Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe saw a significant increase after 1880[4] which served as some basis for the creation of the Aliens Act 1905. Although it remained in force, the 1905 Act was effectively subsumed by the Aliens Restriction Act 1914, which introduced far more restrictive provisions. It was eventually repealed by the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919.”

In the 19th century, the Russian Empire was the home of around five million Jewish people. Antisemitism in the Russian Empire was rife, and anti-Jewish pogroms were a common occurrence. These pogroms were large scale, targetted attacks which terrorised Jewish communities. Poverty was high, and many were poor and starving. The repressive Imperial Russian government even encouraged mob attacks on Jewish settlements. Legislation forbade Jewish citizens from relocating to other parts of Eastern Russia unless criteria were met.

One of these criteria required conversion from Judaism. Though some remained in Russia and sought political change, many emigrated to other nations. A Channel 4 article states Britain became the new home for around 150,000 Jewish individuals and families seeking a better life. These immigrants were mostly poor, semi-skilled or unskilled workers. 

The Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were not free from hostilities, despite moving hundreds of miles. Sections of the British public were hostile towards these immigrants, with marches and rallies occurring. It is widely thought the Aliens Act of 1905 was passed in response to the rise in Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

This Act introduced immigration controls and meant foreign nationals moving to Britain were required to register their entry. Potential immigrants were required to arrive at designated ports of arrival, where they could be denied if they were regarded ‘undesirable.’

The Aliens Restrictions Act of 1914 built upon its predecessor and was passed on 5 August 1914. This was just one day after war was declared on Germany. This act was aimed at German nationals, or individuals from other enemy states, living in the UK. However, all foreign nationals living in the UK were affected by this law. 

This Act meant there were designated areas in the country which ‘enemy aliens’ were forbidden from entering. There were also travel restrictions imposed on foreign nationals.

Brighton, in Sussex in the UK was one of the areas in which ‘enemy aliens’ were forbidden unless they had a permit. The Brighton Herald published an article, dismissing claims the area had been flooded with ‘a large number of aliens.’ The tone of this article communicates a disdain for aliens, proposing it is ‘absurd’ that Brighton is overrun with undesirables. This demonstrates the public attitudes towards the wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. 

Newspaper article sourced from Brighton & Hove Museums Digital Asset Bank, ID no 75558

As the war continued, a wave of patriotism swept Britain. German sounding names were regarded with suspicion, with fears of spies smuggling information to the enemy. This included many Jewish families, whose foreign sounding names attracted negative attention. 

Antisemitic tropes surfaced to fuel hatred. Hoare highlights ‘As a need for a huge number of uniforms, tents and equipment resulted in a boom for Jewish traders, the old trope that Jews were profiteering from Britain’s misery could not be suppressed.’

These laws and hostilities from the public made life difficult for immigrants trying to establish a life in Britain. As a response, many sought to assimilate into British culture to demonstrate their loyalty to the country and sometimes downplay their Jewishness. 

Assimilation

Joshua and Beryl Cansino’s story contains elements of assimilation. Joshua’s father was from Casablanca, but his mother was born in Gibraltar, and the couple married in Manchester (her parents were from Chorlton).  The family then established themselves in Morocco where their eight children were born and were recognised as part of the British community. 

The family moved to England where Joshua ‘mastered’ English and received a university education. Joshua was reported to have an ‘unfaltering love for his country’ and appears to have supported an electoral candidate, Joynson-Hicks, whom some saw as hostile to Jewish interests. Joshua’s name is sometimes misspelled or anglicized in newspaper reports, in the 1939 register and on the IWM website (since corrected), e.g. ‘Harold’ for ‘Haim’, ‘Cansing’ or ‘Consino’ for Cansino.

It is unclear whether Joshua’s wife, Beryl, was Jewish, as the names of her family were entirely anglicized as far back as her grandparents’ generation (her paternal grandfather was a farm steward in Berkshire).  However, on the couple’s marriage a Jewish forename is recorded for Beryl, which is not included in the census returns.  This may suggest that Beryl was Jewish, or that she converted on marriage.  When she gave birth to her daughter, Beryl was in Manchester, near her in-laws, and she named the daughter after her sister-in-law, which may indicate that Beryl was seen as part of the family.  The Jewish Chronicle makes several references to her husband and daughter, but not to Beryl. 

Supporting the War Effort

Some hoped that displaying support for Britain in the war would ease prejudice and hostilities towards Jewish communities. In 1914, military service was on a volunteer basis. Jewish leaders encouraged enlistment, and by the end of the war over 50,000 Jewish soldiers had fought in the British Army.

Jewish immigrants from Russia faced a particularly tough decision. Serving with the British Army would make them allies with Russia, the country who persecuted them with violent pogroms. Alternatively, if it appeared that Jewish men were not serving their country, suspicion would be cast over the loyalties of Jewish communities. 

Military service was not limited to serving on the front line. Leonard Messel was of Germanic descent, which meant he was debarred from service during the war. Leonard was highly experienced in the army and was part of the 4th (reserve) battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment before the First World War broke out. Due to his extensive military knowledge and experience, Leonard was permitted to be involved in the British war effort by training soldiers.

He took pride in his work and regularly wrote letters to the soldiers he trained when they went to serve on the front, and he even offered financial support to some families of soldiers. Leonard was fiercely loyal to the soldiers he trained, though this must have been difficult for him as he had close family living in Germany at the time. He had cousins fighting in the German Army, yet he dedicated himself to supporting the British Army. 

Leonard Messel on horseback. Photo: National Trust, Nymans

Women showed their support for the war by volunteering as nurses and supporting hospitals. Florence Oppenheimer is an example of a Jewish nurse working during the First World War. Women also contributed by innovating. Hertha Ayrton invented the ‘Ayrton Fan’ which was also known as a flapper. This tool was used in the trenches to dispel poison and foul gas. From 1916 onwards, 104,000 of these devices were supplied to troops. 

Image sourced from www.iwm.org.uk

These efforts demonstrated Jewish people in Britain were loyal to the nation, making considerable contributions to the war.

Affecting the Public Space

A way to assimilate into the local culture is to become involved and make contributions to society. This can be seen as Jewish people became increasingly present in British politics, culture and communities. Present day Brighton has been visibly shaped by local Jewish families who became an active part of society.

Many street names are connected to the Jewish residents in the area. Palmeira Square, Montefiore Road, Middle Street and even the Pier can all be traced back to Jewish residents who sought to make a difference their local community. These positive contributions highlight the benefits Jewish residents are bringing to the local area and should reduce prejudice and hostility towards local Jewish communities. 

Image source history.buses.co.uk

Lewis Cohen initially trained as an estate agent but longed for a career in politics so he could fight injustice. He became a Labour Councillor in 1930 and Mayor of Brighton Borough Council in 1956. He specialised in housing and worked to support a local housing association. He encouraged the modern development of Brighton, with many building projects occurring which have shaped the landscape of Brighton today.

In 1965, Cohen proposed the initiation of the Brighton Festival and was ‘instrumental in bringing the plans to fruition.’ The festival was launched the following year and has become a key event in Brighton each year since. 

Brighton and other areas in Sussex have been shaped by the contributions of Jewish individuals hoping to make their mark on their community.

Taking on a civic role

Mr & Mrs Marks – Mayor & Mayoress.  Barnett Marks was an alderman and served on many council committees in Hove, East Sussex.

Daniel Mayer on Bexhill, East Sussex was Mayor four times and a Justice of the peace.  Francis Montefiore was High Sheriff of Kent and then Sussex (his father was also high sheriff).

Being active in British politics

The Zangwills & Ayrtons (pro-suffrage), Leonard Woolf (peace policy), Cansinos (Conservative), plus those listed above, plus Lady Eva Mond’s father & husband.  Zangwills founded a specifically Jewish suffrage organisation but worked closely with non-Jewish organisations to advance their shared cause (e.g. they spoke at WSPU events).

Being part of British Imperial project

Gerald Isaacs was the son of the Viceroy of India, Jacob de Meza trained for the Indian Police Force, the Sassoon family had trading relationships with India, and Barnato’s wealth came from diamond-mining in South Africa.

Being recognised through civil and military awards

There were Knighthoods for Sir John Howard, Alfred Mond, Francis Montefiore was a Baronet, D’Avigdor Goldsmid. There were Military honours too.

Contributing to the community through public philanthropy

Fanny Barnato, Flora Sassoon, D’Avigdor Goldsmid, Sir John Howard, Francis Montefiore all featured in this capacity as did Bernhard Baron who’s charity foundation still flourishes today.

Projecting social status

A number of local Jewish family in Brighton were friendly with the British Royal Family.  There were a variety of large and well connected families living in Jewish country houses such as Worth Park in Crawley & Nymans near Haywards Heath in West Sussex. The Jewish Country Houses project explores this in further detail and our research coordinator Dr Diana Wilkins explores this in this article.

Affecting the public space

This includes the shaping and naming areas of Brighton and other parts of Sussex including buildings, homes, areas such as Palmeira Square in Hove, Montefiore Road, Middle Street Synagogue, St Ann’s Well Gardens, the Palace pier and many other locations.

Private sphere

Marriage

Gerald Isaacs wife Eva, Lady Mond, was Christian but converted to Judaism after marriage although her husband wasn’t himself Jewish. This may also have also been the case for Beryl Cansino after her marriage to Joshua Haim Cansino.

Siegfried Sassoon’s father was the first of his family to marry a non-Jewish person and Bexhill mayor Daniel Mayer’s wife was British and not necessarily Jewish.

Anglicising Names

It was not uncommon for Jewish families to alter the spelling of their names, or even opt for a different name, to make themselves less visibly Jewish. There are several examples of surnames being changed. Woolf Crook moved from Poland to London around 1870 and later relocated to Brighton with his wife and children. They were active in the local community, particularly with the Brighton Hebrew Congregation. Our research suggests the family surname was originally ‘Kruk.’ Crook and Kruk sound similar, but Crook has been anglicised so the family are less visibly foreign/Jewish. 

There are other examples of changing surnames to assimilate, e.g. ‘Plant’ for Plauter (Mrs Dudkin), adopting additional forenames such as Abraham ‘Alfred’ Dudkin and ‘William’ Dudkin, or nicknames ‘Jack’ and ‘Babe’ for Isaac and Joel Barnato, ‘Jack’ for Jacob de Meza, contractions such as ‘Abe’ & ‘Eli’. Two of Daniel Mayer’s children slightly anglicised the spelling of their forenames.

First names were also changed to become less clearly foreign or Jewish. Abraham Dudkin, originally from Russia, was a successful businessman in Brighton. He began trade as a furrier, and later expanded his business to incorporate a photographic studio. It seems Abraham sometimes went by the anglicised name of Alfred. 

1911 Census Sourced from Ancestry

There are several more examples of this phenomenon, with Jewish sounding-names being replaced with more English sounding names. This served to deflect attention from the individual, hoping to avoid antisemitic hostilities or violence.

Prejudice

Other means of assimilating included contributing to the community through philanthropy, striving to replicate the habits and customs of the British socially elite, becoming a naturalised citizen, marrying non-Jewish partners or even changing religion. 

Despite these efforts to assimilate, prejudice was still commonplace for Jewish residents in the area. The hostilities faced by Jewish residents with German heritage was particularly rife.

Anne & Ludwig Messel seated on the veranda at Nymans. Photo: National Trust, Nymans.

As previously mentioned, Leonard Messel was debarred from service in the First World War despite his extensive knowledge and expertise. The Messel Family particularly struggled to assimilate with the British gentry, despite their many efforts.

Ludwig Messel was born in Germany in 1847. He moved to England in 1868 and became a naturalised British citizen in 1878. He chose a Germanic architectural style when he renovated his home at Nymans estate. By doing this, he hoped to reflect his heritage while integrating with the local British gentry.

However, the local population were suspicious of Messel. Ludwig remodelled his house, but rumours still continued to circulate. Villagers believed Ludwig was communicating with the Germans from a high tower in his house. Hoping to quell such rumours, Ludwig removed the tower.  Despite loving his home nation of Germany, Ludwig was forced to suppress this aspect of his identity in order to assimilate in Britain. 

Enlistment poster aimed at Jewish Men – We Were There Too project

The lives of these Jewish immigrants should not be forgotten. The contributions of Jewish residents have shaped our communities today, yet sometimes get forgotten.

To learn more about the contributions of Jewish individuals in Sussex, to ensure their struggles and victories are not forgotten, view our research pages.