Keswick - Lake District
Copyright Marcus Roberts (with additional material by Dr Yaakov Wise (also with special thanks to Ian Tyler for his expertise on local mining history)


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From Roman times to the present day highly skilled Jewish craftsmen have been involved in transforming precious and other metals into objets d'arte in Europe. They were proficient in all the related industries such as jewellery manufacture, watch making, locksmithing, needle making, coin minting, sword and armour making. Jewish smiths were brought to Europe as slaves after the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt. They were put to work in the mines and at the forges in Sicily, Sardinia and Spain. Subsequently, as freemen, they followed the Roman legions up through Gaul as far as Cologne. Documentary evidence of Jewish involvement in European metallurgy can be seen as early as the sixth century, when a Jew, Priscus, minted coins at Chalon-sur-Soane for the Frankish King Chilperic I (561-584). Jewish smiths from Persia (Iran) eventually moved to Silesia (Poland) and Transylvania (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania). Many other Jewish smiths fled medieval European oppression to Silesia, where they were welcomed by the Polish princes who sought to benefit from their expertise.

Jews had an input into English metallurgy before and during the period of the expulsion. Jews developed tin mining in Cornwall as early as 1198, almost a century before the expulsion in 1290. Significantly, fifteen years before the expulsion, King Edward I, in his 'Statutum de Judaismo,' forbade the Jews to lend money, but allowed them to continue to carry on crafts, commerce, and the lease property for ten year periods.

Joachim Gaunse (also known as Chaim Gans) was almost certainly a nephew or younger cousin of Dovid Gans (1541-1613), the famous Jewish astronomer, mathematician; student of the Maharal of Prague and author of Tzemach Dovid and Nechmad Ve'naim. Gaunse was brought to England by George Nedham, the Clerk of the Society of Mines Royal, to improve its operations. Maxwell Bruce Donald, the historian of the Society, relates how in 1581 the German-speaking Nedham brought Gaunse, "up to Keswick to explain and develop the brilliant new ideas he had about mineral dressing and smelting." Keswick, Cumberland was the centre of the Society of Mines Royal where German-speaking experts produced the first copper in Queen Elizabeth Tudor's reign. There are still substantial relics of the Elizabethan mining and metal industry, directly linked to Gaunse and there may well have been other Jews at work with Guanse, in and around Keswick, at the end of the Middle Ages.

Gaunse arrived at Keswick from Prague and Augsburg, and became the founding genius of the mining and smelting industries, in the Lake District, South Wales and Cornwall, and then went on become the first Jew to live on the mainland of North America, when he went on Sir Walter Raleigh's second expedition to the Americas in 1585 and settled temporarily on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

Later, after the resettlement of the Jews in England in 1656, many itinerant Ashkenazi Jewish peddlers, hawkers and traders, tramped through the remote Lakeland valleys, offering their wares in isolated villages and farms, from the early 18th century. Some early Jewish professionals; mostly dentists, opticians and doctors, would stay for longer periods in towns such as Whitehaven and Ambleside, to ply their callings, and a few of them became permanent settlers, but not in sufficient numbers to create established Jewish communities.

Jews also played a role in the pencil trade, which grew up around Keswick and the famous 'wad' or graphite mines of Borrowdale, whose product was for a time more valuable than diamonds. They were dealers in 'wad,' which literally put the lead into the pencils of their fellow Jews, engaged in the manufacture and sale of pencils across the country. In the Victorian era several Jewish firms were famous for their pencil making and manufacture.

The Second World War, saw many Jewish evacuees from the big cities in the North of England, come to stay and shelter in many of the hotels, and hostelries of the area (there was a temporary Jewish community in Keswick), including several leading industrialists. They were also joined by refugees fleeing the Holocaust, whose numbers included Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) the notable artist and founder of the Merz art movement, who settled in Ambleside as well as Holocaust survivors. Even today the Lake District has its own small Jewish population regularly visited by Lubavitch emissaries from Manchester.

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