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Jewish Historical Romance: A look at the Navy

As you have read in my previous posts, I began piecing together a story that involved Captain Wentworth and his good friend—and ship’s physician—Jonathan Isaacs. Naturally, this sliver of an idea resulted in hours and hours of research. I knew nothing about the Navy, nothing about officers, and nothing about the Jewish factor that I wanted to thread into this particular tapestry of a story. Now, before I write another word: Tell me you don’t see the similarities between the naval officers of Argentina’s Regency era and those of Austen fame.

Need I say more?

Apparently, I do! My story unfolds in Exeter, where the Isaac family lived in close proximity to Barton Cottage. That, of course, is a fictional location; nonetheless, one well known to fans of Sense and Sensibility. In any event, the head of the Isaacs family was a country doctor, but I wanted Jonathan to be a physician in service to the Crown. This is where the questions began. Were there Jews in Exeter during the Regency era? Were they allowed to serve in the Navy? Did they have any connection to that world at all?  It was then that I discovered a veritable treasure trove!

Exeter synagogue

Jewish Communities and Records- The Jews of South-West  England (Jewishgen.org) provides this information and more! It soon became clear to me that there was Jewish life in Exeter, Plymouth, Falmouth and Penzance, as well as several other towns throughout Devon in the years dating from 1750 to 1900. There is evidence from earlier still, but the records I focused on were those of the Regency and Victorian eras (where the details were irrefutable). And in stark contrast to what Dickens and Heyer portray in their works, the Jewish community of South-West England was comprised of a small, yet respectable, upper middle class.

7 families kept one servant indicating that they may have been in the £150 – £300 per annum income bracket; two families each with two servants may have earned about £500 per annum; and the one family with three servants was possibly in the £750 per annum income group.

By 1796, five Jews had shops in the fashionable shopping area of Exeter sufficiently well established as to warrant inclusion in the Exeter Pocket Journal, a local newspaper. There were two silversmiths, an engraver who sold a variety of goods, a pawnbroker, and a stationer. And in addition to these and other trades, there were naval agents.

To say that conditions were harsh in the Royal Navy throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would be an understatement, but the ever-present hope of prize money made the cruel life somewhat bearable. Think of how Captain Wentworth’s life changed course when he was awarded his prize money!  Officers had bankers to look after their interests. The seamen, however, turned to local tradesmen of naval towns for assistance. They were the link to the naval authorities in London. This system, at first, was unofficial and based on mutual trust. I present Abraham Joseph, an Exeter tradesmen, as a fine example. He earned such trust, as his obituary in the Flying Post (1794) indicates:

As an agent for seamen, his practice was well worthy of the imitation of every person in that business, as several orphans and indigent widows can testify.

At some point in 1809, legislation was enacted which required all seamen to register with a licensed navy agent. In order to obtain a license, the tradesman had to post a bond with two sureties, under penalty of £200. Sometimes, a would-be navy agent was a man of high social standing; nevertheless, everyone had to swear that they were worth more than £5,000 in order to qualify. The first list of 174 licensed navy agents included 66 Jews. It was said that Jewish tradesmen were held in high esteem and the proof was in their rapid growth in that particular community. Between 1807 and 1814, navy agents as a whole increased sevenfold throughout England. The number of Jewish agents increased thirtyfold!

The British fleet was manned by nearly 35,000 seamen by this time. Jewish shopkeepers throughout the port towns specialized in doing trade with the ships. They were allowed to go on board with goods that appealed to the “simple seamen,” such as “old watches and seals, watch chains, rings, fancy shoes, scarlet and blue silk handkerchiefs, clay pipes, and fresh food of every description.” Honest traders with good references were most welcome. In 1813, Joseph Joseph presented the following royal command which granted him access to the crewmen at port:

I do hereby certify that Joseph Joseph of Plymouth has at different times supplied the Crews of His Majesty’s Ships when under my Command with Clothing to my entire satisfaction, and I do hereby recommend him to the Admirals, Captains, and Officers of His Majesty’s Navy, to be permitted to transact any Business that may be done on board the respective Ships under their Command.

St. James’s Palace ~ December 2, 1812

How do I top a letter of recommendation from St James’s Palace? With this:

Members of both congregations at Exeter and Plymouth would, on occasion, travel up to Dartmoor prison to practice acts of chesed, or lovingkindness. By the end of 1814, there were 2,340 American prisoners of war being held at Dartmoor, and a number of them were Jewish soldiers and sailors. Commodore Uriah P. Levy, was among them. Notably, this officer created the law which abolished the act of flogging in the United States Navy. Captain Levi Charles Harby was another Jewish sailor being held captive. During his imprisonment, a Jewish baker from Plymouth would make the daily trip to sell his baked goods. One day, he offered a loaf of bread to Captain Harby. The officer refused it. The baker, however, insisted. Inside the loaf, he had hidden a newspaper clipping that told of an important battle at New Orleans. This encouraged the captain to escape, apparently with the help of the baker! The story went on to report that Captain Harby was able to find his way back to his men. He continued to serve his country with great success and it was in no small part, thanks to the baker mench from South-West England.

Seeing that we— here in the U.S. —are celebrating our freedom today, I’d say that little tidbit is quite fitting! Happy Independence Day!

With love,