Time is running out to capture Welsh Jewish history
As traditional businesses close down and lie empty, or are replaced by other shops, Wales’ high streets are changing. But boarded-up windows and changing shopfronts are in danger of erasing the last visible traces of the Jewish history here. And this has only become worse during and since the pandemic.
Time is running out not only to capture this history but to share it with the wider world which is why I’m launching an appeal to help preserve the heritage of north Wales’ rich Jewish history.
North Wales – from Holyhead to Machynlleth in the West and Wrexham and Welshpool in the East has a rich Jewish history of peddlers, shopkeepers, politicians entrepreneurs, evacuees, academics, students, and even sportsmen and women.
Jews moved here in larger numbers – although the numbers were never large — in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They arrived in Britain fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe – places like Ukraine, Poland, and Russia — but also wished to better themselves in an industrialised country where there were exciting new economic opportunities. They took advantage of the cheap steamship and railway tickets.
Arriving in England, they transmigrated to places like Liverpool and Manchester and then began peddling in the north Wales countryside, towns and villages. When they accrued enough capital, they rented shops, bought houses, settled down and started a synagogue.
Although Jews settled everywhere across north Wales, there were only congregations in Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Rhyl and Wrexham.
These Jews transformed high streets across Britain and this was the case in Wales, too. Wales’ high streets have, at some point, hosted such national retailers as Dixons, Top Man, Top Shop, Tesco’s, Burton’s, Blue, H. Samuel, KwikSave. All these firms were at one point owned and/or run by Jews.
North Wales had its own homegrown Jewish businesses as well. The Pollecofs had shops in Holyhead, Bangor and Pwllheli; the Wartskis in Bangor and Llandudno before permanently relocating to London. Other names include Blairman’s of Llandudno, as well as the Oriental Stores, Robin’s Café, and the Progressive Furniture Company.
Numerous kosher boarding shops were opened in the resort to cater for a large Jewish tourist population. In Colwyn Bay, there was the Barker family who ran a Furriers in its West End and the Marshalls’ sweet shops, newsagents, fancy goods shops.
These Jewish immigrants swiftly acculturated and integrated extremely well into the commercial, civic and cultural life of the wider community. They prospered and entered the comfortable middle class. Often, they had a transformative effect, becoming involved in philanthropy and politics.
As their businesses flourished, they became widely recognized and centrally involved in the daily life of the city. They even learned Welsh and participated in local Eisteddfodau. Their influence extended to politics and local charitable organizations, contributing greatly to the life of the region.
Jews have done much to help shape north Wales’ high streets. They provided the entrepreneurial energy, ambition, financial acumen, willingness to take risks and vision essential to building modern businesses.
Although very little of that Jewish entrepreneurial heritage survives today, its traces remain. Look around you when you next stroll down your nearest High Street – you should always pay attention because you don’t know what you might miss – and you’ll see the odd sign: Burton’s foundation stones and their distinctive art deco facades, the Wartski tiles on the entrance to the jeweller’s on Mostyn Street, Llandudno, the Cohens Chemist in Colwyn Bay, or Pollecoff’s in Pwllheli to name just a few.
But unfortunately, as the Jewish communities of North Wales have declined and dissolved, and our high streets have 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 I’m launching an appeal to help preserve and publicise that heritage. To capture the memories of local people who remember these personalities and shops but also to show them this history by creating exhibitions, maps and talks.
We have mapped Anglesey, Bangor and Llandudno* but the communities in the rest of the region remain and I am appealing to people to come forward with any information or memorabilia to help us, as well as to donate to this important project.
*Contact me if you want copies. Details of the appeal can be found here
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