People from my Past: Louis Cohen the Bootmaker

My mother introduced my to genealogy way back in the 1980s and it is an interest I dip in and out of as time allows. Over the past week I have been investigating my great-grandfather, Louis Cohen (my mother’s paternal grandfather) and have been taken on a journey back to the Jewish community of Leeds (Yorkshire) in the early 20th century.

Back Nile Street Synagogue

Beth Hamidrash Hagadol synagogue, Back Nile Street, Leeds, 1908 (Leeds Photographic Archive,

Louis was born around 1876. I have not been able to find any information about his birthplace beyond the fact that it in the part of Poland which was ruled at that time by Russia. His Hebrew name was Jehuda Ariah and he was the son of Zvi Meier Cohen. He married “Fanny” Spivock, probably around 1896. Her grave shows her Hebrew name as Esther daughter of Abraham; I can’t see how Esther could have been corrupted to Fanny, so she may have had another Polish-Russian given name. While they were still in “Russia” Louis and Fanny had two children: Isaac, born around 1897, and Nellie, born on 14th January 1900. Some time between 1900 and 1907 the family emigrated to England where they settled in the city of Leeds, where there was a rapidly growing Jewish community based mainly in the Leylands area to the north of the city. Once settled in Leeds Fanny gave birth to another six sons and two daughters: Max (b.1907), my grandfather Nathan (b.1908), Sarah (b.1909), Leah (b.1910), Abraham (b.1912), Morris (b.1913), Harry (b.1915) and Joseph (b.1916). The gap in births between 1900 and 1907 suggests to me that Louis may well have moved to England alone, with Fanny and their two young children joining him once he had established himself there.

Louis Cohen Shop Regent Street (1)

Louis Cohen’s shop at 48 Regent Street, Leeds, 1926 (Leeds Photographic Archive,

The great majority of the Jews who emigrated from Russia to Leeds at this time were employed in the clothing industry, typically working in sweatshops and living in extremely crowded conditions. Louis, however, was a self-employed boot and shoe maker and repairer. In 1908 the Kelly’s Directory for Leeds shows him as a boot repairer at 6 Firth Street, which is the address shown on his son Nathan’s birth certificate in the same year. By 1911 the family were living in a four-roomed house at 33 Cromwell Street, where Louis was a boot maker working on his own account at home. By 1926 he had a boot and shoe repair shop at 48 Regent Street. He died on 4th January 1931 and was buried in the section of the Hill Top Jewish cemetery used by the Beth Hamidrash Hagodal (BHH) synagogue. His wife Fanny and son Nathan were also buried in the BHH cemeteries, which suggests that the family were members of that synagogue. Between 1908 and 1937 it was located at Bridge Street in the Leylands district, just a few minutes walk from all three of Louis’ known addresses. Unfortunately, the synagogue’s records were destroyed by a fire in the 1950s. Unfortunately the Hill Top cemeteries were undermined (literally) by old mine workings and have had to be permanently closed to the public as unsafe so it is no long possible to visit Louis’ grave.


Louis Cohen’s grave, Hill Top Cemeteries, Leeds

My mother never knew her grandfather. Her Jewish father and (nominally) Christian mother never married and she did not meet her father until she was in her teens. Louis Cohen wrote a letter to her maternal grandmother soon after my mother’s birth asking if he could see “the child”, and she had a pair of leather baby boots he made for her. He died when she was only three years old, so it is unlikely she would have remembered him even if family circumstances had been different. After Louis’ death like many of the Leeds Jewish community the family moved to the Chapeltown area. In 1939 his widow Fanny and five of her adult children (possibly six, as one entry in the 1939 Register is closed) were living at 3 Studley Terrace. The name was grander than the reality. Studley Terrace was one of a number of streets running south from Leopold Street towards the Chapeltown Cavalry Barracks. These were mainly working class, back-to-back houses which were demolished as part of the slum clearance programmes of the 1960s and 1970s. The site of Studley Terrace is now the eastern side of Leopold Grove. The Jewish community has moved on and the area is now the centre of the British African-Caribbean community in Leeds.


A Movie Meme

Pauline of Family History Across the Seas has posted a Merry Month of May Movie Meme which looked fun and I wanted to participate in. As I set this site up specifically for history (and archive) related blogging I am taking the movies over to my other “anything goes” blog, My Crazy Paving. Do visit me there to read my answers to the movie meme.

A to Z Survivor

A to Z Survivor

I am astonished that I made it through the entire A to Z series, as I am far better at good intentions than I am at following through. Here for easy reference is my A to Z of Archives:

Z is for Zoologist

George Herbert Fowler

The zoologist in question is Dr. George Herbert Fowler, who founded of the Bedfordshire Record Office (now Bedfordshire Archives) and became the pioneer of local record offices in the United Kingdom. A man of many talents – his various accomplishments included being an expert downhill skier – he retired from a position as assistant professor of zoology at University College London and settled at Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire. Throwing himself into the life of the county, he served on the  Bedfordshire County Council where he became interested in historical records and concerned that the county records should be carefully preserved. This led to him founding the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1912 and the Bedfordshire Record Office in 1913. During the First World War he worked for the Admiralty in hydrographic and naval intelligence, but continued his historical work and (in typical Fowler fashion) as a sideline served as the head of the local volunteer fire service. He transcribed and translated many of the earlier medieval documents relating to Bedfordshire, making them available through the early volumes published by the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society. He also pioneered the conservation of documents, experimenting with different techniques in his workshop. In 1923 he published The Care of County Muniments, the first manual setting out the principles of caring for local archives. He remained directly involved in the work of the Bedfordshire Record Office until his death in 1940.

Dr. Fowler’s legacy lives on, not just in Bedfordshire Archives, which celebrated its centenary in 2013, but in the network of county record offices which provide a comprehensive archive service for the United Kingdom. His ideas spread, and staff trained by Dr. Fowler were involved in the foundation of other county record offices. For example, his protegé Frederick Emmison left Bedfordshire to become the first county archivist for Essex in 1938. Conservation techniques he pioneered are still in use, with some of his equipment still gracing the conservation studio at Bedford. After 104 years the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society continues to publish records relating to the local area, as do many other historical societies across the country.

And so this series of A to Z posts on archives has come full circle, arriving back at the beginning with the early days of some of the archives I mentioned in A is for Archives. If you have read this far, thank you for joining me on this journey through the archive alphabet.

Y is Yachts, Yoga and Yaktails

There is such an extraordinary variety of items in archives that it is possible to find something relating to almost any imaginable subject in our archive alone. To prove the point I looked for documents mentioning a variety of things beginning with the letter Y. I found:

  • Y is for Yacht: The logbook of the yacht “Lady Evelyn”, recording cruises to Norway in 1880, Albania and Corfu in 1881, and Ireland in 1884.
  • Y is for Yoga: A leaflet from around 1980 with information about facilities and courses at a yoga residential centre.
  • Y is for Yaktails (although not, apparently, for yak): In a codicil to his will in 1892 Thomas James Hooper left to his daughter Carrie Cotton an Indian box “with fittings and counters and Indian yaktails and chowns”. (I tried to find out what a “chown” is, but Google could not come up with an answer.)
  • Y is for Yellow Fever: A photograph of a memorial to officers and men of the Bedfordshire Regiment who died of yellow fever in the West Indies in the 1860s.
  • Y is for Yams: A photograph of a yam farm in Nigeria in the early 20th century.
  • Y is for Yoke: The will of  Stephen Rayley of Sandy, who in 1551 left to his son Walter items including a bedstead, two pairs of sheets, a coffer, a coulter (part of a plough) and a yoke with hooks and staples.

There were a few items I couldn’t find – nothing turned up when I searched for yo-yos, yurts and yoghurt.

X is for X-Series

Archive reference numbers are complex, indicating both the collection to which an item belongs and its place within in that collection. The collection code may also indicate something about the collection itself. In our archive larger collections get their own dedicated code letters, but many of the smaller ones will have a reference beginning with the letter X. This indicates that the items belonging to that collection have been deposited with the archive on long-term loan.

While many collections held by an archive will have been donated, with ownership passing to the archive, others are simply deposited for safe-keeping and accessibility while ownership remains with the creator or their successor. In some cases this is a given – hospital records, for example, are classed as public records and remain the property of the health authority, and everything deposited by Church of England parishes still belongs to the Church. Records relating to an organisation or institution that is still functioning are more likely to be deposited on loan. Family collections vary; children may be delighted to get rid of an attic sized collection of local history memorabilia hoarded by their father and happily donate it (and the problem of storing it) to the local archive, or they may want to retain ownership of their great-aunt’s diaries while depositing them for safe-keeping.

When a collection is deposited with an archive on loan, the archive is likely to accept it conditionally. Packaging and cataloguing a large collection is a time-intensive and therefore costly task, and there will often be a penalty clause requiring payment to be made as compensation for this time if the collection is withdrawn within a specified period (typically 20 or 30 years). Arrangements will need to be made for any items that the archive does not consider worth preserving – most depositors are happy for these to be disposed of, but some want them returned. Terms and conditions should always be set out in a deposit agreement so that any future confusion or disputes can be avoided. Unfortunately in the past the need to make sure a deposit agreement was in place was not always taken so seriously, and the paperwork for older collections can be vague or missing. The longer the time since a collection was deposited, the more likely it is that the legal status will be uncertain. It is also more likely that contact will have been lost with a depositor. Inevitably many collections will now be “owned” by defunct organisations or by individuals who died years (or decades) ago. Add to the vagaries of ownership of the records themselves the difficulties of establishing the ownership of copyright and at times an archivist can feel more like a lawyer!

W is for White Gloves

When TV documentaries visit an archive they often show a white gloved archivist or presenter gingerly handling documents. We are often asked by visitors why we do not use gloves to protect our archives. In the UK this has largely become a thing of the past as archives have realised the disadvantages of wearing gloves. Firstly, they actually make it more likely that a document will be damaged because they reduce dexterity. It is easier to turn pages when you can feel what you are doing directly, rather than through a layer of cotton. The other reason is that of practicality. Gloves get dirty quickly and need to be washed or the dirt will be transferred onto other documents – most archives are not likely to have facilities to launder gloves, or the budget to cover the expense of cleaning and replacing them. Hands are very much easier to wash!

Some archives do issue gloves to visitors who wish to look at photographs, which are more sensitive to the oils in skin and more likely to be damaged by handling. Others will just ask people to handle them carefully by the edges and avoid touching the image. Providing suitable supports or weights, careful supervision, and encouraging  gentle handling all help to protect documents without needing to worry about gloves.