I notice in the Jewish Chronicle dated 16th November 1934, that you are endeavouring to write a history of the early Jewish community of Middlesbrough, and are appealing for data in connection with it. I have much pleasure in being able to supply with authentic first-hand information regarding the First Jewish citizen of Middlesbrough, and some of his associates.
I was born in Hull in 1859. I removed in company with. my late parents and also grandfather and grandmother to Middlesbrough in 1864. At this time there were no other Jews in the City.
My father, Isaac Altson, - a descendant of the ancient family of Altschul, originating in the 16th century, Prague see Vol. 1 page 477, of the Jewish Encyclopedia - My father established a watchmaking and jewellery business in Sussex Street near the railway crossing in 1865, at which time this street was the most popular business centre. My grandfather, Morris Levy, who also had a jewellery shop, near the Knaggs Head Hotel, and they were both strictly observant Jews, closing their places of business on Shabbos , and also the two days on each Festival. They procured their Kosher meat supply with no little difficulty, from West Hartlepool, and In the height of summer, this difficulty became acute.
For some years, there were not sufficient numbers to form a Minyan, but gradually, as the first few Jews began to arrive either from Poland or Russia, we were able to form a Minyan, the services being held either at my grandfather or father's home. Each of these gentlemen possessed a Sefer Torah.. My grandfather brought his from Poland. A year or two later, my father engaged rooms, which were fitted up in two divisions for males and females. One of these rooms was no more than a loft, which was over a carpenter and joiner's establishment, and had to be approached by a flight of steps. I was the first boy Barmitzvah in this temporary Synagogue in 1872, before the present Synagogue was built.
My father G.R.H.S. was an exceptional Hebrew scholar and Talmudist and for some time he conducted the entire service. Between 1864 and.1872 the number of Jewish families in M’bro increased to between 15 and 20, and at the instigation of my father it was decided to build a Synagogue and my father negotiated the purchase of land on which the present building stands. Isaac Altson was elected the first President of the Congregation before the Synagogue was built and he held that position for many years. He was also the first Jewish Town Councillor to be elected in about 1874, I think. As you can well understand, I am not absolutely certain regarding many dates and events that transpired after our first removing to M’bro, but you can easily make enquiries from the Town Clerk regarding the exact date of my father's election.
As well as my memory serves me, I will endeavour to supply you with the names of the Jews who arrived in M’bro a few years after my peoples’ arrival. The names are as follows: Mr L Smith, a successful hawker who built a number of dwellings in Marton Road; Mr Nathan, a clothier in East Street; Mrs Samuel, who carried on an ironmongery and crockery business also in East Street (This lady's brother later became Lord Bearstead); Mr Getz, a glazier dealing in sheet glass and paints; Mr I Wilks; Mr Kaufman; Mr. Laski, the grandfather of what has now turned out to be a brilliant family of Manchester; Mr Hush; Mr Nelson; Mr Bernstein; Mr Ascher Michaelson, father of the Rev Mr Michaelson. Mr Michaelson was in my father's employ at one time; Mr Hyman Benjamin, a relative of Mr Wilks; Mr. Smollan, whose daughter is now Mrs Hyams who lives at “Memel”, Southfield Road, M’bro. I would suggest that you interview this lady, as she may be able to supply some further information. Her parents arrived some years after 1864; Mr L Levy; Mr. Jacobs, a scholarly friend of my father, who, I understand, died a few years ago; Mr Aaronson; Mr Rosenzweig, a tailor; Mr Leventhall; Mr Friedlander; Mr Berger. I think I am correct in saying that the Rev Mr Furst was the first qualified minister who went to Edinbrough after my departure in 1878.
The earliest Hebrew teacher I remember was Mr Gordon from Poland. He was qualified to kill poultry and also eked out a precarious living by means of teaching Hebrew to the few Jewish children, killing poultry, and hawking sponges and washleather. As a young child, between 7 and 8 years of age, I was sent to a child's school in Albert Road, conducted by young ladies, very adjacent to a vacant field, later built on by the present Iron Exchange. These fields led to Albert Road and football was played. I later went to three boy’s schools, firstly Dr Grieves (corner of Albert and Corporation Roads), secondly Mr Sewell's in Grange Road; and lastly Mr Calvert’s in Linthorpe Road.
I personally left England in 1878 for Australia, not until, however, I had been the first Jewish volunteer to join the 21st North York Rifles. I still possess my certificate of proficiency for first and second year class firing, which I got when I received my discharge - a document which I possess and treasure.
In 1888 my parents also left England to join me, and before leaving they were presented by the executive of the Hebrew Congregation with a testimonial, a copy of which I herewith enclose. I also enclose the local Jewish paper, obituary notices on the occasion of my late father’s death (NB I treasure these documents very deeply. I would ask you to handle them with care and to return them to me at your earliest possible convenience.) Incidentally, when your work is finished, I would like to purchase a copy, and if sufficiently interesting to the other members of my family residing in Australia and Great Britain, they would also be potential buyers.
I have given you a concise account of the M’bro Jews of the past and my memory is possibly not perfect on this subject. Now let me give you some impressions of M’bro Jews of the present as I found them and my memory is perfectly clear on this subject.
I visited M’bro in 1927 (See your local paper, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 3rd September 1927). After attending Shul on the first Shobbos, I felt very surprised, to say the least of it, that there was neither a tablet nor any reference in the precincts of the Synagogue to the man who was in reality the founder of the M’bro congregation. After the service, I interviewed the present Treasurer and some members of the executive, including the Rev Mr Epstein, introduced myself, and naturally expressed surprise at this absence. I offered to defray the cost of erection of a suitably engraved Memorial Tablet, the wording of which was mutually agreed upon by the Rev Mr Epstein and myself. This was at the suggestion of your Treasurer. But before the illustrious executive could decide to accede to this momentous proposal, I was called upon at the Grand Hotel by the Treasurer, whose opening remark was that the Shul was seriously in debt, although I had given him the two guineas offered on the previous Shabbos, but owing to his insidious, tactless insinuation I felt deeply hurt, and appeared not to understand his very shallow intelligence. He replied to my request that he could do nothing in the matter, and it would take some time to call his executive together.
But he promised to let me have his decision before I left M’bro, when the executive had the opportunity to fully deliberate on this perplexing problem - I am still waiting.
To be perfectly frank, I left M’bro sad, disillusioned, and disappointed to see how the community had degenerated, compared with the pioneers. I was not altogether surprised when I learned that most of the active members were either “M.L.” or “P.B.” [Believed to be Money Lender or Pawn Broker: Ed]
As a matter of fact, I mentioned to the late Mr. A. Hyams, that a relative of mine, that provided the executive had acceded to my reasonable request, and acted as gentlemen, I had prepared to present the congregation with a substantial cheque. However, under no circumstances, would I have made this a condition.
In conclusion, it might be of interest to you to know that two of my brothers are Artists, each being Australian Gold Medallists, and winning travelling scholarships at the Melbourne Art Gallery. The elder, Mr. Abbey Altson, Australian Gold Medallist and Diploma Societe Des Artistes Francaises. He has for many years past visited India annually, commissioned by firstly His Highness the late Prince Ranjit Shinji and later by his successor to execute personal and gallery oil paintings for their gallery at the Palace, Jamnagar, Kathiawar. Both permanently reside in London. I trust the information with which I have supplied you has been sufficiently interesting.
This testimonial is presented by the members of the congregation to Isaac Altson Esq. as a token of admiration and respect for the zealous manner in which he, as a Trustee and the original founder of the Jewish community of this town, laboured for the welfare of his brethren. They herewith desire to express their appreciation of the consistency with which he acted as an observant Israelite, and the charitable, conscientious man. They wish him and his family God speed