Manchester’s Jewish History with Historian Ed Glinert

By February 25, 2020 Interviews-Manchester
Stock Photo of the Millenium Bridge at Salford Quays in Manchester, England at twilight blue hour.

The city’s most prolific urban historian, Ed Glinert, takes us for a walk on the city’s wild side, and discusses Manchester’s Jewish History.

Historian of Manchester's Jewish history, Ed Glinert

Manchester-bred urban historian Ed Glinert

East London born, Manchester bred, Ed has a difficult relationship with the city he has been unable to extricate himself from since he arrived as a student four decades ago: “Manchester isn’t an easy place to love. It’s a vibrant, lively, noisy city, but it’s badly run, the council keep on knocking down the interesting buildings and ruining the heritage. But the history is fantastic, which is why I take people on tours and write books about it.”

In 2009, Ed replied to an advert to become a city tour guide, but was appalled at the sanitised version of Manchester being presented with a backwards approach: “The blue plaque committee have had a monopoly on Manchester tours for years, and when I found out how badly they were doing it, I was astonished. No research, no proper descriptions, no website. When I suggested there should be a website – this is 2009 we’re talking about, not 1949 – I was met with incredulity. They told me ‘our people don’t use the internet.’ When I passed out and woke up a month later, I couldn’t believe that anyone could say such a thing.”

This spurred Ed on to launch a commercial operation later that year, devising a website with proper descriptions of all the walks. The tours don’t shy away from difficult history and Ed takes a lot of flak about those which fail to present the city in a positive light: “People think we’re run by the council and here to wax lyrical about how marvellous Manchester is. We’re not here to tell everyone it’s the most fantastic place on earth, we’re here to explain the city.

“I think that’s because Manchester has very little confidence in itself. In London, the tourist board is happy to have guides explore the dark side of the capital. No-one would ever suggest you can’t do a Jack the Ripper tour. Here, they tell me I can’t talk about the Moors murders – but I believe you need to open up the history of Manchester. It’s been a closed shop for many years.

“After all, there’s hardly any books. You look around to find a book on the history of Manchester and there’s not one to rank alongside Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of Jerusalem. It’s quite astonishing no-one’s written a proper history.”

In the early noughties, Penguin approached him to write a street-by-street history of the city, published in 2008 as The Manchester Compendium, described by Ed as “more of a guidebook than a narrative history”. As Manchester’s leading urban history scholar, his life ambition is to put right the lack of recorded history before the city’s heritage fades from memory, cataloguing a definitive Manchester encyclopaedia, from The Aaben to the Zion Institute and everything in between. Ed feels he is the only person capable of such a daunting feat, but commissions have as yet been unforthcoming.

New Manchester Walks offers an extensive programme of historical tours in and around the city – from the Gothic industrial icons of central Manchester to the glass towers of Salford Quays – alongside a range of popular Jewish tours: “I’ve never met a tour guide who wasn’t Jewish that could do a Jewish tour. I can do Christian tours about the cathedral and that’s easy. To understand Manchester’s Jewish history, I think you have to be.

“The first Jews to come to Manchester were poverty-stricken immigrants who saw there was money to be made in cloth as the town (as it was then) was becoming a major industrial centre at the end of the 18th century. They integrated and learned to better themselves – you could say the protestant work ethic runs the Jewish community!

“Because Manchester is the second most important English city, it has the second biggest Jewish population, it’s as simple as that. The irony is, when we talk about Manchester’s Jewish history, and Manchester as a Jewish city, we mean Bury, Salford, Trafford, Bowden, Hilton Park, Sedgley Park, The Cliff, Whitefield and Prestwich. People from ethnic backgrounds like to live around people from the same background – Jewish people are no different, so they tend to congregate around synagogues and clubs. It took 100 years for the community to become middle class and move out from working class areas. Now the image of a Jew in Manchester has gone from being a tailor to a doctor or solicitor!”

Like this pattern of migration, Manchester’s Jewish history tours move from the city centre to Cheetham Hill, stopping at unpresupposing sites to reveal littleknown histories of forgotten Jewish heritage: “Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the family’s banking dynasty came to Manchester in 1799 and lived on the corner of York Street which is now a Toni & Guy. His cloth workshop was there for 10 years.

“Another of my favourite stories takes us to The Queen’s Hotel which stood on the corner of Portland Street and sadly made way for a rather ugly looking office block. It was here Israeli statesman Chaim Weizmann met the outgoing British prime minister Arthur Balfour to convince him Jews should have a homeland. After some persuading, you ended up with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, one of the most important events in the birth of Zionism, with its
roots right here in Manchester.

“One of the stranger histories involves the Talmud Torah on Bench Street in Cheetham Hill requesting to have the alleyways either side named Talmud Street and Torah Street. The council said they could have Torah Street and put the sign on the adjacent bacon curing factory. It’s still there!”

On the subject of food, when asked for directions to a good salt beef bagel, Ed laments: “You can’t get one. I’ve tried to get proper Jewish food in Manchester for 42 years and been sorely disappointed – so if anyone can point me in the right direction! However, Gareth Redston, head of programmes at Manchester Jewish Museum assured me they will have proper Jewish food when they reopen, so I look forward to being proved wrong.”

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