folder Filed in Russia, Stories, Wales
Samaritan Sea Captain
Rescue, then false papers for fleeing ancestor
Editor access_time 11 min read

My grandfather, Soloman (Saul) Barnett was born in Britain in 1895, almost 24 years after his Jewish father, Jacob had arrived from Russia. Jacob, who was 22 at that time, brought with him his 12-year-old wife to be, Rachel and her daughter Leah, a baby in arms not yet a year old.

They arrived in England sometime in 1871. It needed a life-saving Samaritan act on the high seas to get them to safety.

They had fled Russia so Jacob, a tinker who sold cheese to local taverns, could avoid the forced conscription of young male Jews into the imperial army of Tsar Alexander II. Russia laws decreed Jews should serve for a period of 25 years or become Russian Orthodox Christians. Jacob wanted neither and became a draft dodger. But, a gang of Cossack chappers (bounty hunters) was hot on his trail…

This was the final straw for ambitious Jacob. Along with 1,000s of other persecuted Jews, he trekked to the German port of Bremen. Steamships left from there for Canada, the United States and England. Local agents for the shipping lines organised paperwork and tickets for refugees, They came from Russia and Baltic countries like Lithuania and Belarus that were under the yoke of the Tsar.

Main Jewish Quarter just a short walk away

It seems likely that Jacob, Rachel and baby Leah travelled on the MS Adler with its important link to London’s St Katharine’s Dock, from which the main Jewish quarter is just a short walk away.

Family folklore has my great, great grandfather swimming in the sea to escape Russian Cossack bounty hunters. He was spotted by a passing tramp steamer, rescued and worked his passage to England. For his safety, it was decided he should take the name of the Adler’s captain. The captain even produced a retrospective birth certificate to indicate Jacob had been born onboard the Adler. At that time sea captains were issued with blank certificates to register births and deaths of passengers. An impressive-looking official stamp carrying the inscription of Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria authenticated the certificate. It was as good as a passport.

The captain recorded his first “onboard birth” in the ship’s log and completed birth certificate. He inserted the name John Jacob Barnett and his own place of residence, which was Wrexham, North Wales. And so, says one family legend, my great grandfather was “born” – at sea, at the age of 22.

There is another, even more, dramatic version, published as a full-page feature article in the Sunday Express in 1980. It has Jacob plunging into the freezing Baltic Sea, hotly pursued by Cossacks recruiting for the Russian Imperial Army. Jacob swims far from the shore and is rescued by a passing steamship. The ship’s captain produces a British birth certificate for Jacob, who then uses it as his “passport” to return to Russia and bring back Rachel and baby Leah to England.

Because of the mid-passage “name change,” it is proving difficult to establish the precise details of the escape from Russia. With his family safely arrived in London, Jacob decides that they should go to live in “the place where I was born” – North Wales. The last stage of the journey is proven by Jacob’s completion of the family’s first national census. In 1881, he’s the head of the household, born in Russia. Then, he lists Rachel and little Leah, both born in Russia.

Wrexham in North Wales was to be the focus for immigrant Jews for nearly three decades after the arrival of Jacob, Rachel and baby Leah. There was already a well-worn route into the newly industrialised valleys of Wales for immigrant Jews seeking a better life than that on offer in Russian and Eastern Europe. Britain’s coal and industrial boom offered unlimited work opportunities for the fit and able among the refugees.

Like other Jews arriving in Wales at that time, my great grandfather had commercial and people skills related to the employment restrictions placed on Jews in Russia. Many Russian immigrants became hawkers, as did my great grandfather. They travelled up and down the valleys to sell everyday goods to housewives. These included things like cotton thread and needles that were difficult to buy. They also went to country markets.

Rachel, a teenage mother who cared for baby Leah in whatever rented accommodation they could find, must have struggled to learn English and local ways. She seems to have retained her Yiddish and some Russian traits. The family had survived the traumatic dash for freedom from Russia and would have found Welsh life safer and healthier.

Within 10 years of landing in Britain, the Barnett family had a four-room house on the straggling main street running through Buckley, near Mold in Flintshire. In 1883, my great grandfather married Rachel, by now aged 24 at the main Jewish synagogue in East London. Subsequently, Jacob and Rachel produced seven other children.

At some point, my great grandfather dropped the name Jacob, preferring the English, John or sometimes a Welsh version  – David John. Rachel brought up little Leah and her seven siblings successfully. Welsh English was their first language. Yiddish was used within the family.

“Thee leaves England at Chester and enters Wales. Eight miles on and thee comes to Buckley.”

Instructions written by a Buckley man to a prospective visitor from “furrin parts”

The Barnett children enjoyed a quiet, sheltered life in the village that depended on coal mining and brick making for its progress and growing prosperity. Rosanna was born in 1895 and Jacob two years later, both registered as home births. Within two years there was Sarah and the following year came Rebecca. Then, at intervals of two years, Abraham, Solomon, (my granddad) Doris and Lazarus arrived. They were recorded for the first time in the 1911 census.

The census recorded the fact, John, Rachel had produced nine children, and six of them were born over a period of only 13 years. The neighbours would have dubbed this birth rate as “steps and stairs” because this frequency was quite common. They all lived into adulthood and therefore beat the lousy survival odds of poor families in Victorian Britain. They mastered English very well. John Barnett wrote his own census entry in his 1901 census form in a firm and legible hand. Another census form showed Rachel had also become a licensed hawker. She was probably trading from the front room of their main road house in Buckley.

Aquired obvious survival skills

My grandfather, Solomon “Saul” Barnett, who was listed in local trade directories as a licensed hawker – complete with horse and cart – was ambitious and hardworking. As a youth, he was often in neighbourhood escapades. As an adult, neighbours described him as “nabbert” (nothing but trouble).

He was born in Wales, served in the Welsh Fusiliers in WW1, married in an English Bethel Chapel and was buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Subsequently, Solomon (also known within the area as Sol or Saul) Barnett became my first direct English-born ancestor on the maternal side of the family. He had acquired obvious survival skills from his Russian parents.

My granddad Saul was brought up in a Yiddish and English speaking household and from an early age helped out his father as he peddled silver jewellery and household items along the grimy streets of Buckley and nearby Leeswood.

By 1911 my grandfather was working in a nearby coal mine, according to Dr Cai Parry–Jones, Curator of Oral History at the British Library. In his landmark book, Jews of Wales: A History, published in 2017, he wrote: “Jews in other parts of Wales also worked in essentially working class occupations. Solomon Barnett of Buckley, the son of a Russian-Jewish hawker was working as a miner in Flintshire in 1911, while Russian-born Abraham Glazier was an ironworker in Shotton, Flintshire, during the same period.”

Buckley and neighbouring towns were booming at the end of the 19th century, because of what was being dug out of the ground:

  • Best quality clay for Buckley bricks, pottery and tiles that sold around the world; and
  • Cannel coal with a pithead price five times that of standard coal and twice the value per ton excavated of gold mined in Australia and California.

Better than an Eldorado gold rush

It was better than an Eldorado gold rush. Cannel coal mined, gas flared off from steaming stacks and coal tar produced. The coal was used to produce town gas. The oil content was refined into petrol for a total cost much less than that supplied from American oil fields. Cannel came from newly worked mines in the Clwydian Range, the Hope Mountains, and the Mold valley between.

Prime Minister of the day, William Gladstone visited and declared: “We have a splendid steam coal, with an immense demand for it— a demand greater than we can at present supply.

“This extraordinary treasure of the Cannel coal is, as you know. far better for the manufacture of gas than any other coal whatever. Reviews of the Mineral Specimens at the Exhibition in London indicate that the Cannel coal from Leeswood, near Mold, is considered to be the very finest ever brought before the public.”

As the Cannel coal boom continued, landowners and mine owners became very rich and mines and mining rights were sold for huge sums of money. Some of the proceeds trickled down into the wider working community. Not that all the poor would notice or benefit from it.

Some families did manage to improve their standards of living and raise their aspirations on the back of the smelly coal oil industry.

Work was dangerous, death rate high

The Barnett family had money coming from John my great grandfather, tramping the streets with his peddler’s cart. Their daughter Leah probably working as a servant in a big house up the road. But times remained tough.

My granddad, Solomon at the age of 17 was, as detailed in the book, Jews of Wales, working at one of the privately-owned local coal mines. The pay was low, work was dangerous and the death rate high, due to lax standards in what today we call “health and safety”.

There was enough money to enable my great-grandma, Rachel, to provide regular meals and a good table. That kept the family strong and healthy. She and John had produced eight children, all of whom survived. This was against the odds, given the high mortality rate in 19th century Britain.

“Ensure your baby’s feed milk comes from the same cow”

Official motherhood advice

It is estimated 1 in 5 children died before their fifth birthday. Infant mortality has always been high. This was mainly due to the lack of sanitation and general hygiene especially among the poor. However, wealthier families were not immune to an early death. Consumption was the cause of death of many young people, as were cholera outbreaks. Childbirth claimed many women across the whole social scale.

In retrospect, official motherhood guidance didn’t help much: “Ensure your baby’s feed milk comes from the same cow.” This could not possibly apply to mother and child in many urban tenements.

Despite the poor survival odds, the Barnetts of Buckley thrived and stayed Jewish. This was at a time when there were few Jews in North Wales for mutual support. Some of the older children became locally employed and moved out of the family home.

But a major family scandal that shocked local communities resulted in a wholesale family move from Wales to England… Life for the Barnetts was about to change dramatically.

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