Sir Jacob Behrens was in born in Bad Pyrmont near Hamburg on 13th November 1806. He came to England in the late 1820′s, first arriving in Hull, but settling in Manchester, then coming to Bradford in 1838.
Even if he was not the first settler, Jacob Behrens was very influential in the life of Bradford. In his memoirs, he says his parents were “emancipated from the ceremonial and narrowness of strict Judaism”. His two brothers Louis and Rudolph were involved in Jewish life in Manchester yet Behren’s involvement in Jewish life was tangential. On a visit to a Synagogue in later life Jacob found the proceedings “neither impressive nor inspiring. Was it my estrangement or was it the incompetence of the Rabbi? .. .there was, at least not a spark of enthusiasm nor a ring of intelligence in his address…All forms of service conducted on lines strictly laid down and according to dogma find no response in me” .
Behrens was the first foreign merchant to export woollen goods from Bradford. When he arrived in the town he lodged at the Sun Inn at the bottom of Ivegate, but left his lodging because he was told “he could not stay as he took nothing to drink.”
The business Behrens founded grew into a multi-million pound empire and when he died in 1889 London, Glasgow, Calcutta and Shanghai were among the branches. Behrens was involved with Jacob Unna in the foundation of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce in 1851. The Chamber sent Behrens as their spokesman to join Richard Cobden who was negotiating- a commercial treaty with the French Government. When, in 1877, John Bright came to unveil Cobden’s statue in the Wool Exchange, Jacob Behrens took the chair at the dinner.
Behrens was knighted in October 1882 by Queen Victoria for his work in connection with commercial treaties between England and France. He wrote in his memoirs “who would have thought it possible that now just fifty years after I stepped ashore on English soil at Hull a foreigner and a Jew I should be deemed worthy of the offer of a knighthood by the Queen’s Government.”
He was also instrumental in establishing the Technical College in Great Horton Road in 1882. He preferred to be active in charity works rather than local politics. An obituary in The Jewish Chronicle of 26th April 1889 sums up thus: “In Bradford he was known as a gentleman of culture and a philanthropist.”
Jacob Behrens died in Torquay on 22nd April 1889, a grand old man of 83. He left a legacy behind him which continues to this day. The business Sir Jacob Behrens & Sons, Limited is still going in Manchester. His descendants are far and wide and include a Northampton based Catholic Father.