On 18th May 2023, History of Deganwy Group members gathered to hear a talk by Professor Nathan Abrams. Nathan has an impressive and varied CV: he is Professor in Film at Bangor University and the lead director for the Centre for Film, Television and Screen Studies. He co-convenes the British Jewish Contemporary Cultures network; he lectures, writes and broadcasts widely in English and Welsh on Transatlantic popular and intellectual culture, history and film; he is the author of many notable books and articles, and is currently co-writing a biography of Stanley Kubrick. He is also interested in issues of sustainability and the environment, especially the problem of and solution to single-use plastic pollution – specifically single-use masks and energy drink bottles. Somehow, Nathan manages to squeeze in an array of sporting and social activities amongst his academic work.
The first mention of Jews in connection with North Wales occurs shortly after 1066 as they crossed the Channel with William the Conqueror, for whom they acted as financiers and middlemen. There is evidence of small-scale Jewish settlement in a cluster of N.W. Wales towns, generally corresponding with Edward I’s iron ring of castles c.200 years later: Conwy, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Harlech and also Newborough, whose inhabitants had been moved there to make way for the port and castle at Beaumaris. There is likely to be a connection between the castle-building and the presence of Jews – presumably financial, though further research is needed. In this era, Jews were required to wear an identifying badge on their clothing: usually light-coloured strips representing the 2 tablets of Moses. This dehumanising and divisive decree was revived under the Nazis, when Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David.
By 1290, the Jews had been expelled from N. Wales, mainly because Edward I had by then fleeced them of everything except their property, which was confiscated after their banishment. The Christian ban on usury was lifted, so Jews were no longer needed to provide finance. Following this, apart from occasional individuals, there were no Jews in England or Wales for over 350 years; it was only under Oliver Cromwell that they were informally re-admitted.
During the 1840s-1850s immigration increased due to upheaval in Europe, reaching a peak in the late 19th century. Many Jews fled the Russian Empire to escape pogroms, conscription into the Czar’s army, and the poor standard of living. The UK was prospering due to the Industrial Revolution, and travel by steamship and rail was relatively cheap. Immigrants generally arrived on the east coast and travelled towards the west; workers tended to have a similar skill-set (manual and entrepreneurial) so often moved on in search of better opportunities.
The Wartski family followed a typical route – they came from Poland to Bangor via Liverpool, then to Llandudno and later London. Morris Wartski’s first shop was in Bangor, but he moved to Llandudno for the better air as his son was ill. His 3 Llandudno shops – all on Mostyn St – sold clocks, jewellery, drapery, haberdashery and other goods. The mosaic tiling with the Wartski name can still be seen outside what is now Goldsmiths.
Morris’s daughter Harriet met Londoner Emanuel Snowman, and their marriage in 1909 prompted the establishment of the first Llandudno synagogue. Emanuel had grand ideas, and opened a Wartski shop on London’s Regent St; the firm is thriving and now has premises on St James’s St. Over the years it has enjoyed royal patronage and the custom of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis and Ian Fleming. Emanuel and Harriet’s son, Kenneth Snowman, features in the James Bond novel Property of a Lady, as the plot revolves around Fabergé eggs – though his role was edited out in the film version, Octopussy. Wartskis had acquired many treasures, including works by Carl Fabergé, from the Soviet government in the late 1920s-early 1930s. This globally renowned firm still has connections with N. Wales, being known as ‘Wartskis of Llandudno’ and currently generously repairing Bangor’s ceremonial mace.
Other Jewish shops in Llandudno included the Oriental Stores owned by the Gubay family, who, unusually for this area, were from Baghdad. The Krupp – later Croop – family owned the Progressive Furnishing Company, and H. Blairman & Sons sold ‘shiny tat’ to tourists on the pier. From about 1908 onwards, adverts for kosher guest houses catering for Jewish requirements began to appear in the Jewish Chronicle.
The pattern of settlement in N. Wales can be seen by the dates of the establishment of synagogues, indicating that there were enough Jews in the following towns at that time to rent a building:
Wrexham – c.1893
Bangor – 1894
Rhyl – 1897
Llandudno – 1909
Colwyn Bay – 1940
The first synagogue in Llandudno was above what is now Listers on Mostyn St – the building was rented and was originally a Masonic Hall, hence the windows featuring 5-pointed stars rather than Judaic 6-pointed ones. There are newspaper reports of crowds fascinated by Jewish customs lining the street outside during its use. During WW2, the Ebenezer Church on Madoc St was used as a synagogue as the Jewish community had grown with visiting servicemen, evacuees and government departments moving to the area. Later, a house on Church Walks was purchased, which is still in use as N. Wales’s only surviving synagogue, and is also a Chabad-Lubavitch Retreat Centre. This pattern of renting or converting buildings is seen across N. Wales, where communities were too small to facilitate a purpose-built place of worship.
Other notable local Jewish connections include the programme hosted at Gwrych Castle from 1939-1941, which prepared Jewish Kindertransport youth for life in Israel; 1950s Wimbledon winner Angela Buxton, who was ‘discovered’ whilst playing tennis at school at Gloddaeth Hall; and the recent development of a Jewish cemetery at Llanrhos. The well-known family firm Pollecoffs also had many shops in N. Wales, including pop-up shops on the Llŷn Peninsula selling china.
Although the local resident community of Jews has dwindled, large groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families are a frequent sight in Llandudno in summer, enjoying the safe and welcoming environment of the N. Wales coast.
Many people remember the families Nathan spoke about and there was a lively discussion after the talk, including anecdotes and speculation about the reasons for the affinity between the congregations of synagogues and Welsh chapels, and the architectural similarity of the buildings. Nathan pointed out that many chapels have Hebrew names and that the name of our meeting place, Peniel Chapel, means ‘the face of God’ and was the name of the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Bible.
There are no surviving records from any of the Jewish communities in North Wales, and any items which you may have at home however mundane (e.g. receipts or packaging from the shops mentioned in Nathan’s talk) will be welcomed by archives and/or museums – please contact either Nathan (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Conwy Archives.
Many thanks to Nathan for his entertaining and enlightening talk, which shone a spotlight on important members of our local community, and also enriched our understanding of aspects of our earlier history.
For further information, you can:
– read The Jews of Wales – A History, written by Nathan’s PhD student Cai Parry Jones
– visit the exhibition at Llandudno Museum, which will hopefully be made permanent
– follow a self-guided walk by printing off the map available at the bottom of the page on this website:
– paper versions of the self-guided walk can be obtained from Nathan or the Llandudno Museum
– for an even fuller experience, download the VoiceMap from here:
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