Bradford Jewish History

Did Roman soldiers marching between forts in the North have enlisted Judeans, far from home amongst their ranks?

Thoughtful Theory or Flight of Fancy?

Who Were the First Jews in Bradford?

Jewish settlers arrived in Bradford in the 1820s and 30s. They were not itinerant peddlers looking for a good operating base as were Jewish settlers in other towns. They were not fiercely religious and Orthodox, as were the peddlers from Poland or Russia. On the contrary, many were already successful middle-class and educated German Jews who were products of the German Jewish Enlightenment and who saw themselves as both Germans and Jewish.

In the Journal of Dr John Simpson of Bradford 1825, who was Bradford’s equivalent to Dr Samuel Johnson of London, there is the following entry for May 4th, 1825.

‘Mr Jacobs, the jeweller called upon me today, but not being in want of anything I did not purchase. He is not one of the common travelling Jews, but is on first name terms with the first families in the county. The Earl of Harewood has been a good customer of his for several years. He comes to Bradford twice a year, but only calls on those to whom he is recommended. His articles are good and you give a good price for them in the first instance, but you may depend upon them being genuine and if they disappoint he will take them back. I bought off him about two years ago, the gold watch, chain and seal I now have. I gave thirty six guineas for the watch, eleven guineas for the chain, and two guineas and a half for the seal…’

It seems likely that Mr Jacobs came from London; if he had lived in Manchester, he would presumably have visited Bradford more than twice a year. Dr. Simpson mentions an earlier visit in 1823 (about two years earlier) and this is possibly the first reference to be found to Jews in Bradford.

Since Jacobs was not the first permanent Jewish resident of Bradford, the question of who was the first settler is a difficult one. In fact there are several contenders. The Jewish Chronicle Supplement (1 July 1955) suggests a Martin Hertz, who arrived in Bradford was the first resident. C.C. Aronsfeld, of ‘Yorkshire Life, (June 1978), gives Leo Schuster, who opened premises in 1829 on the present site of the Bradford Hilton, formerly the Norfolk Gardens Hotel. Yet Williams, the historian, claims in, ‘The Making of Manchester Jewry 1740 — 1875′ (1976) that Schuster was already converted to Unitarianism. Finally, Heilbron, who wrote in, ‘Provincial Jewry in Victorian England’; suggests that the first Jew who came to Bradford in modern times was Jacob Behrens in 1838. However the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 29th March 1881 suggests that Jacob Unna, the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Bradford Jewry. In a report on the ‘opening of The Bradford Jewish Synagogue’ the newspaper states that ‘the existence of Jews among the population of Bradford reaches more than half a century back when Bradford was not much larger than a respectable sized market town.’ The article then goes on to state, ‘The late Mr J.A. Unna was the patriarch of the race, and his arrival in the town some sixty years ago was followed by the appearance of others until the number had increased to a considerable extent’. This citation of Unna having arrived in Bradford at least sixty years prior to 1881 puts his arrival in Bradford at least in the year 1820, thus making him the first Jewish settler in Bradford.

It can be surmised further that Mr Jacobs the jewller who arrived in Bradford in 1823, was under the patronage of Jacob Unna, who may have been one of his Bradford customers. 


Perhaps Jewish Roman soldiers headed along the Roman road passing through what eventually became Bradford.

The first Jew to arrive in Bradford is something of a bone of contention. Some say it was the jeweller Mr Jacobs who came as a visitor to the city twice a year, probably from London as early as 1823. Others think the first Jew in Bradford was the wool merchant Martin Hertz, while others suggest other wool merchants, Leo Schuster and Sir Jacob Behrens. It is most likely to be Jacob Arnold Unna, who arrived as early as 1820, as recorded in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of March 29th 1881, when reporting on the opening of The Bradford Synagogue for British and Foreign Jews.

It is a nice flight of fancy or perhaps a thoughtful theory to suggest that the earliest Jews to arrive in Bradford were not during the early nineteenth century, but could have been Jewish Conscripts in the Army of Rome, passing through a sleepy hollow cut through by the a gently flowing beck, centred in the middle of the Celtic territory of Brigantium. 

One can easily picture a band of conscripted Judean warriors marching across the Brigantian Northern Territories of what is now Yorkshire and Lancashire, on their way between York and Chester (Eboracum and Deva), probably around the end of the 1st century C.E. [A.D.] after the year 79 during or after the governorship of Agricola who was in office between 78 – 84 C.E. [A.D.]

There has after all been evidence unearthed in the South West of England of there been Romano-Judean soldiers in the area of Devon and Cornwall. [1] So why is not possible to have these warriors march northwards to Yorkshire and through what was to become Bradford?

Bradford back then was a tiny little stop off point along the way, in a bowl shaped, heavily wooded hollow, with a ford crossing a gentle beck or stream.

A Roman road descended into Bradford via Westgate Hill at Drighlington from the north east, coming ultimately from the direction of Eboracum (York) and ascending out of Bradford up towards Westgate and White Abbey Road onto its final destination of Deva (Chester), over Blackstone Edge in the Pennines.

The area around the bottom of Ivegate and Sunbridge Road is the site of the original wide, ‘Broad-ford’, from whence Bradford derives its name. This site then would have been a mixture between a wooded glade and cleared meadows, where the local Romano-British farmers would have set up trading stalls or a small market to service the needs of the constant passage of Roman soldiers from around the Empire, and those traversing the road networks that had been established. Bradford was simply a place along the way, which grew into a market town and onto the woollen capital of the world, Worstedopolis and eventually the post-industrial City we know today.

These Jewish conscripts in the armies of Rome were likely to be the descendants of those citizens of Jerusalem and wider Judea. They were captured as slaves during the 1st century B.C.E. and transported to Spain, France and Germany which were then Roman colonies. From then it is suggested that as part of a wider Roman army they would have by passed Bradford as the Emperor’s Legions criss crossed Britannia and the territories occupied by its woad wearing Brigantian insurgent inhabitants.


[1] The Susser Archive The early settlement of Jews in Devon and Cornwall ,Part 1

Ancient traces of the Jews in Devon and Cornwall cited 13th February 2013