Bakery wars and anti-semitism in the East End

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The Levy Brothers Jewish Bakery, 31 Middlesex Street, Whitechapel: c.1900

 

We are now (perhaps sadly) used to the reality that Sunday is no more special than any other day. In the 1990s the Sunday trading laws were relaxed allowing even large stores to open (albeit with some restrictions on their hours). Bank Holidays are only holidays if you don’t work in retail and we have very few (if any) days in the year when everything shuts.

In the nineteenth century things were different, although businesses and those that worked in them worked extremely long hours and in much poorer conditions. Workers’ rights were much less well protected than they are today (although these are been systematically eroded in the name of competitive global capitalism).

The key difference was that trading on a Sunday was against the law. Sunday was the Lord’s day and on the sabbath you did no work. Instead it was a day to rest, to be with the family, and, of course, a day to go to church.

Not everyone kept Sunday as the sabbath however. The seventh day in the Old Testament is Saturday, and this was the Jewish holy day, not Sunday. So, for Jews, working on a Friday night and Saturday was against their religion. Unfortunately for them English law followed the tenets of Christianity not Judaism.

In February 1891 this affected several traders in East London directly, and landed them in the Thames Police Court.

Morris Kosminsky, a Jewish baker who lived (ironically) at 35 Christian Street off the Commercial Road, was summoned under the 16th section of the Bread Act (1822). This forbade the making or baking of bread on the sabbath. Bread could be sold but only between 9 and 1 and there were tight restrictions preventing the delivering of bread to premises other than the baker’s own shop.

Kominsky had been seen delivering bread contrary to the terms of the act and the prosecution was brought by a representative of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Co-opertaive Union (BCCU).

The representation told the magistrate that the law was there to protect bakers from being required to work more than six days a week. But it was pointed out that Jewish bakers always shut up shop on Saturdays (their ‘Lord’s day’) and it was unfair that they could not be allowed to continue baking on Sundays, since they were not contravening the spirit of the law. ‘Our law said a Jew should not open on a Sunday’, said Mr Blanchard Wontner, who appeared as counsel for Kominsky and the other men, while ‘his religion said he should not open on a Saturday’.

Blanchard argued that this was a vindictive prosecution brought privately by the BCCU who were, he added, ‘probably composed of Christian bakers’. He suggested that the justice issue a small fine to deter future unnecessary prosecutions under the act.

Kominsky pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency. He was followed by Ascher Levy of Cable Street who had made rolls on a Sunday, A Freedman (who admitted being a baker trading on Sundays) and Mark Rosenbaum of Umberston Street likewise guilty of not obeying the Bread Laws.

If they hoped that the blatant unfairness of the law would guide the justice’s decision they were to be disappointed. Mr Mead told them they had clearly broken the law, regardless of whether it was there for commercial, moral or any other purpose and he was going to make an example of them.

He fined them each 10s (the full penalty) and awarded 5s costs in each case to the prosectors.

There was plenty of anti-semitism about the 1890s and I rather suspect that Mr Mead was happy to side with his co-religionists and fellow Anglo-Saxons against the ‘alien’ presence in East London.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 11, 1897]

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