For the Jewish Chronicle, September 6 2018
I’m sitting in the reading room of the National Archives at Kew, waiting for a file. And suddenly I think that perhaps no-one has looked at this file for just over 100 years. Wow. I am really excited.
I’ve been to the National Archives numerous times, but never as a member of the public, always as a reporter.
But one week, on a reporting job, I decided to look for my grandfather’s naturalisation certificate, to learn a little — well, anything, really — about how my family came to this country.
I’ve never been able to go back further than my grandparents, about whose background I knew very little, other than family stories. And in my family, they were just that: stories with no external corroboration, mispronunciation of place names, no proper proof.
My grandfather died when I was two and no amount of questioning of my mother, aunts and uncles, got me anywhere. But I always think of him around Rosh Hashanah because of one thing I do know: that his death, just before the festival, left the entire family in limbo, unable to sit shivah until after the chag.
So when I discovered, online, that my grandfather’s naturalisation certificate was in the National Archives, I determined to have a look on my next visit.
This was the past coming to meet me with a bang, and I was either going to find out that all the family stories were utter rubbish, or there would be some validation.
And there, on the opening page of the file of flimsy papers, was my grandfather’s name, and a solemn declaration to the Home Secretary by the local chief constable: “I beg to report, having made inquiries concerning Harris Frieze of 152 Cheetham Hill Road, Manchester, and find he is a respectable man”.
In 1914, when my grandfather applied for his naturalisation certificate, to be called “respectable” was the acme of aspiration. The family, like so many other Jewish immigrants, had had to contend, I suppose, with the fall-out from the 1905 Aliens Act and its concomitant antisemitism. “Respectable” was a high compliment, and meant that the applicant was fitting in to local society.
Grandpa got his certificate in May 1914, months before the First World War — though war was not yet on the horizon. He paid £2 for the privilege.
The file contains affidavits from two non-Jewish business friends, who say they had known him for 15 years and were ready to vouch for him.
The file then goes on to say a bit about him, although it is rather confusing. It says: “The applicant states he was born in June 1881. He admits he has guessed a date — viz., 12th April —and has not a record or place and date of birth”.
But then, having read that my grandfather didn’t know where he was born, I found: “Place of birth is Berdietch, Guberny, Kieff, Russia, and he is a Russian subject.” Guberny, I later learn, means governate or administrative province, and Kieff is obviously Kiev. My mother had once said she thought he was born in Berdichev.
The file records where his parents live and then lists the names and birthdates of the first five of my aunts and uncles — my grandparents eventually had eight children. Apparently, all the children were naturalised at the same time.
Then there is a bit of personal history and this is where it gets even more confusing. One page says: “Applicant believes his parents brought him to Manchester in 1887 when he was 12.” This doesn’t make sense if he was born in 1881 — but there is no-one to ask.
It adds: “He did not go to school but was immediately sent to a local tailor’s shop to learn the trade.” Then Harris opened “a master tailor’s shop at 1a Withy Grove” — in central Manchester. I love that, fresh from learning the trade, he declared himself a “master tailor”.
But he gave up tailoring to become a grocer. Then he gave up grocery and returned to tailoring. Grandpa appears to have bounced between grocery and tailoring, on and off — the report says that between 1907 and 1913 he was running a grocery shop.
By the time he applied for naturalisation in 1914, when he would have been about 33, he had moved to Cheetham Hill Road, in the heartland of Manchester Jewry, where he “carried on his business in a big double-fronted shop in a fairly large way. His rent was £44 a year and he was assisted by his father, wife and two daughters.”
My grandfather eventually must have decided that his heart was in tailoring because he went on to open a successful raincoat factory — it was Manchester, after all, home of the domestic downpour. He named it Reindeer Raincoats, with the catchy slogan on the label, “Don’t forget the rain, dear”. I later learned that he didn’t just pick “reindeer” out of the blue: he used his Hebrew name, Zvi, which means “deer”.
Then the file says: “The applicant [who “speaks, reads and writes English fluently”] says he desires to gain British naturalisation because ‘I wish to take an interest in politics and the City’”.
I found this thrilling, that an unschooled Russian Jew could voice such an ambition. Vaguely, I recall stories about his interest in politics, and at least one of my uncles joined a political party and ran for the local council, so something stuck.
As is usual with these things, there are now more questions than answers, and unlike Who Do You Think You Are, I did not discover that my grandfather was a Russian prince or a Torah scholar.
But I did find out that he was a respectable man. And that’s a pretty good epitaph.