London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Although my present inquiry relates to London life in London streets, it is necessary that I should briefly treat of the Jews generally, as an integral, but distinct and peculiar part of street-life.
That this ancient people were engaged in what may be called street-traffic in the earlier ages of our history, as well as in the importation of spices, furs, fine leather, armour, drugs, and general merchandise, there can be no doubt; nevertheless concerning this part of the subject there are but the most meagre accounts.
Jews were settled in England as early as , and during the sway of the Saxon kings. They increased in number after the era of the Conquest; but it was not until the rapacity to which they were exposed in the reign of Stephen had in a great measure exhausted itself, and until the measures of Henry II. had given encouragement to commerce, and some degree of security to property in cities or congregated communities, that the Jews in England became numerous and wealthy. They then became active and enter- prising attendants at fairs, where the greater portion of the internal trade of the kingdom was carried on, and especially the traffic in the more valuable commodities, such as plate, jewels, armour, cloths, wines, spices, horses, cattle, &c. The agents of the great prelates and barons, and even of the ruling princes, purchased what they required at these fairs. St. Giles's fair, held at St. Giles's hill, not far from Winchester, continued days. The fair was, as it were, a temporary city. There were streets of tents in every direction, in which the traders offered and displayed their wares. During the continuance of the fair, business was strictly prohibited in Winchester, Southampton, and in every place within miles of St. Giles's hill. Among the tent-owners at such fairs were the Jews.
At this period the Jews may be considered as of the bodies of "merchant-strangers," as they were called, settled in England for purposes of commerce. Among the other bodies of these
|"strangers" were the German "merchants of the steel-yard," the Lombards, the Caursini of Rome, the "merchants of the staple," and others. These were all corporations, and thriving corporations (when unmolested), and the Jews had also their Jewerie, or Judaisme, not for a "corporation" merely, but also for the requirements of their faith and worship, and for their living together. The London Jewerie was established in a place of which no vestige of its establishment now remains beyond the name—the . Here was erected the synagogue of the Jews in England, which was defaced or demolished, Maitland states, by the citizens, after they had slain Jews (other accounts represent that number as greatly exaggerated). This took place in , during of the many disturbances in the uneasy reign of Henry III.|
All this time the Jews amassed wealth by trade and usury, in spite of their being plundered and maltreated by the princes and other potentates— every has heard of King John's having a Jew's teeth drawn—and in spite of their being reviled by the priests and hated by the people. The sovereigns generally encouraged "merchantstrangers." When the city of London, in , petitioned Edward I. for "the expulsion of all merchant-strangers," that monarch answered, with all a monarch's peculiar regard for "great" men and "great" men only, "No! the merchant-strangers are useful and beneficial to the great men of the kingdom, and I will not expel them." But though the King encouraged, the people detested, foreign traders, though not with the same intensity as they detested and contemned the Jews, for in detestation a strong religious feeling was an element. Of this dislike to the merchant-strangers, very many instances might be cited, but I need give only . In , nearly a century after the banishment of the Jews, a Genoese merchant, a man of great wealth, petitioned Richard II. for permission to deposit goods for safe keeping in Southampton Castle, promising to introduce so large a share of the commerce of the East into England, that pepper should be a pound. "Yet the Londoners," writes Walsingham, but in the quaint monkish Latin of the day, "enemies to the prosperity of their country, hired assassins, who murdered the merchant in the street. After this, what stranger will trust his person among a people so faithless and so cruel? who will not dread our treachery, and abhor our name?"
In , by a decree of Edward I., the Jews were banished out of England. The causes assigned for this summary act, were "their extortions, their debasing and diminishing the coin, and for other crimes." I need not enter into the merits or demerits of the Jews of that age, but it is certain that any ridiculous charge, any which it was impossible could be true, was an excuse for the plundering of them at the hands of the rich, and the persecution of them at the hands of the people. At the period of this banishment, their number is represented by the contemporaneous historians to have been about , a number most probably exaggerated, as perhaps all statements of the numbers of a people are when no statistical knowledge has been acquired. During this period of their abode in England, the Jews were protected as the villeins or bondsmen of the king, a protection disregarded by the commonalty, and only giving to the executive government greater facilities of extortion and oppression.
In an Amsterdam Jew, Rabbi Manasseh Ben-Israel, whose name is still highly esteemed among his countrymen, addressed Cromwell on the behalf of the Jews that they should be re-admitted into England with the sanction, and under the protection, of the law. Despite the absence of such sanction, they had resided and of course traded in this country, but in small numbers, and trading often in indirect and sometimes in contraband ways. Chaucer, writing in the days of Richard II., reigns after their expulsion, speaks of Jews as living in England. It is reputed that, in the reigns of Elizabeth and the James, they supplied, at great profit, the materials required by the alchymists for their experiments in the transmutation of metals. In Elizabeth's reign, too, Jewish physicians were highly esteemed in England. The Queen at time confided the care of her health to Rodrigo Lopez, a Hebrew, who, however, was convicted of an attempt to poison his royal mistress. Francis I., of France, carried his opinion of Jewish medical skill to a great height; he refused on occasion, during an illness, to be attended by the most eminent of the Israelitish physicians, because the learned man had just before been converted to Christianity. The most Christian king, therefore, applied to his ally, the Turkish sultan, Solyman II., who sent him "a true hardened Jew," by whose directions Francis drank asses' milk and recovered.
Cromwell's response to the application of Manasseh Ben Israel was favourable; but the opposition of the Puritans, and more especially of Prynne, prevented any public declaration on the subject. In , however, the Jews began to arrive and establish themselves in England, but not until after the restoration of Charles II., in , could it be said that, as a body, they were settled in England. They arrived from time to time, and without any formal sanction being either granted or refused. reason alleged at the time was, that the Jews were well known to be money-lenders, and Charles and his courtiers were as well known money-borrowers!
I now come to the character and establishment of the Jews in the capacity in which I have more especially to describe them — as street-traders. There appears no reason to doubt that they commenced their principal street traffic, the collecting of old clothes, soon after their settlement in London. At any rate the cry and calling of the Jew old clothesman were so established, or years after their return, or early in the last century, that of them is delineated in Tempest's "Cries of London," published about that period. In this work the street Jew is represented as very different in his appearance to that which he presents in our
|day. Instead of merely a dingy bag, hung empty over his arm, or carried, when partially or wholly filled, on his shoulder, he is depicted as wearing, or rather carrying, cocked hats, over the other, upon his head; a muff, with a scarf or large handkerchief over it, is attached to his right hand and arm, and dress swords occupy his left hand. The apparel which he himself wears is of the full-skirted style of the day, and his long hair, or periwig, descends to his shoulders. This difference in appearance, however, between the street Jew of and of a century and a half later, is simply the effect of circumstances, and indicates no change in the character of the man. Were it now the fashion for gentlemen to wear muffs, swords, and cocked hats, the Jew would again have them in his possession.|
During the eighteenth century the popular feeling ran very high against the Jews, although to the masses they were almost strangers, except as men employed in the not-very-formidable occupation of collecting and vending -hand clothes. The old feeling against them seems to have lingered among the English people, and their own greed in many instances engendered other and lawful causes of dislike, by their resorting to unlawful and debasing pursuits. They were considered—and with that exaggeration of belief dear to any ignorant community—as an entire people of misers, usurers, extortioners, receivers of stolen goods, cheats, brothel-keepers, sheriff's-officers, clippers and sweaters of the coin of the realm, gaming-house keepers; in fine, the charges, or rather the accusations, of carrying on every disreputable trade, and none else, were "bundled at their doors." That there was too much foundation for many of these accusations, and still , no reasonable Jew can now deny; that the wholesale prejudice against them was absurd, is equally indisputable.
So strong was this popular feeling against the Israelites, that it not only influenced, and not only controlled the legislature, but it coerced the Houses of Parliament to repeal, in , an act which they had passed the previous session, and that act was merely to enable foreign Jews to be naturalized without being required to take the sacrament! It was at that time, and while the popular ferment was at its height, unsafe for a Hebrew old clothesman, however harmless a man, and however long and well known on his beat, to ply his streetcalling openly; for he was often beaten and maltreated. Mobs, riots, pillagings, and attacks upon the houses of the Jews were frequent, and of the favourite cries of the mob was certainly among the most preposterously stupid of any which ever tickled the ear and satisfied the mind of the ignorant:—
Some mob-leader, with a taste for rhyme, had in this distich cleverly blended the prejudice against the Jews with the easily excited but vague fears of a French invasion, which was in some strange way typified to the apprehensions of the vulgar as connected with slavery, popery, the compulsory wearing of wooden shoes (), and the eating of frogs! And this sort of feeling was often revenged on the street-Jew, as a man mixed up with wooden shoes! Cumberland, in the comedy of "The Jew," and some time afterwards Miss Edgeworth, in the tale of "Harrington and Ormond," and both at the request of Jews, wrote to moderate this rabid prejudice.
In what estimation the street, and, incidentally, all classes of Jews are held at the present time, will be seen in the course of my remarks; and in the narratives to be given. I may here observe, however, that among some the dominant feeling against the Jews on account of their faith still flourishes, as is shown by the following statement: —A gentleman of my acquaintance was evening, about twilight, walking down Brydgesstreet, Covent-garden, when an elderly Jew was preceding him, apparently on his return from a day's work, as an old clothesman. His bag accidentally touched the bonnet of a dashing woman of the town, who was passing, and she turned round, abused the Jew, and spat at him, saying with an oath: "You old rags humbug! can't do that!"—an allusion to a vulgar notion that Jews have been unable to do more than , since spitting on the Saviour.
The number of Jews now in England is computed at . This is the result at which the Chief Rabbi arrived a few years ago, after collecting all the statistical information at his command. Of these , more than -half, or about , reside in London. I am informed that there may now be a small increase to this population, but only small, for many Jews have emigrated—some to California. A few years ago— a circumstance mentioned in my account of the Street-Sellers of Jewellery—there were a number of Jews known as "hawkers," or "travellers," who traverse every part of England selling watches, gold and silver pencil-cases, eye-glasses, and all the more portable descriptions of jewellery, as well as thermometers, barometers, telescopes, and microscopes. This trade is now little pursued, except by the stationary dealers; and the Jews who carried it on, and who were chiefly foreign Jews, have emigrated to America. The foreign Jews who, though a fluctuating body, are always numerous in London, are included in the computation of ; of this population -thirds reside in the city, or the streets adjacent to the eastern boundaries of the city.