The secret Jewish history of Wales’ high streets is hidden in plain sight
Nathan Abrams, Professor in Film, Bangor University
Bangor’s High Street is changing as traditional businesses close down and lie empty or are replaced by restaurants and student accommodation. But this change belies a deep and significant history of immigration to Bangor, the memories of which are being lost behind the boarded-up windows and changing shopfronts.
The City of Bangor and surrounding areas have had a rich Jewish history. Jews moved to Bangor in larger numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were escaping persecution in Eastern Europe but also wished to better themselves in Britain where there were exciting new economic opportunities.
Jews transformed high streets across Britain and this was the case in Wales, too. In Bangor where I live, the High Street at some point hosted such national retailers as Dixons, Tesco’s, Burton’s and Blue. All these firms were at one point owned and/or run by Jews.
All that survives of that Jewish entrepreneurial heritage in Bangor today is Top Man, Top Shop, H. Samuel, Marks and Spencer’s and Bon Marche. While Tesco’s remains in the city it has moved out of the High Street.
Bangor had its own homegrown Jewish businesses as well. Possibly the first was the Hyman Brothers’ watchmaking business in 1820 where WHSmith’s stands today. In 1851, John Aronson opened a fine jewellery shop (now HSBC). There was also a purveyor of kosher meat – Joseph Owen at 211 High Street (Headmasters today) — which was so good it was even exported to London.
Bangor’s first delicatessen was opened by Jews and stood at 62 High Street, and various diamond cutting factories set up by Jews fleeing the Nazis who settled in Bangor or were evacuated here during World War II – three in total.
But the most well-known faces of Bangor’s Jewish entrepreneurs were the Wartskis and the Pollecoffs. While the Wartskis sold jewellery (21 High Street) and drapery (196-200 High Street) respectively, Pollecoff (where Peacocks is today) sold clothing and other items. Many of Bangor’s older residents remember working in and patronising these shops.
Isidore Wartski even bought The Castle Hotel opposite his shop and soon that section of the High Street became known as Wartski’s Square. Wartski, had a transformative effect on the city, becoming its mayor, and helping to build new housing developments and dropping the tolls on the Menai Bridge.
As the case of Isidore Wartski shows, these Jewish immigrants swiftly acculturated into Bangor life. They integrated extremely well into the commercial, civic and cultural life of the wider community. They prospered and entered the comfortable middle class.
As their businesses flourished, they became widely recognized and centrally involved in the daily life of the city. They even learning Welsh and participated in local Eisteddfodau. Their influence extended to politics and local charitable organizations, contributing greatly to the general life of the city.
Jews have done much to help shape Bangor’s High Street (like they did across Wales). They provided the entrepreneurial energy, ambition, financial acumen, willingness to take risks and vision essential in building modern businesses.
Their legacy lives on in the number of well-known British businesses and brands that bear their names and while they may no longer be in Jewish hands that Jewish history remains.
But unfortunately, as the Jewish community has declined and dissolved, and our high street has been transformed, not many people know of this history. It’s right there in front of our eyes but hidden in plain sight.
This is why an exhibition, map and app uncovering Bangor’s Jewish history will be launched this month. Titled A Jewish History of Bangor, the exhibition and map celebrate the presence of Jews in Bangor from medieval times to the Second World War (and beyond).
The launch will take place at the ‘Bangor Arts Initiative’ Gallery in the Deiniol Shopping Centre, Bangor High Street, from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday 17th March. All are welcome and it’s free.