A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

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One of the delights of the Police Court reportage is the additional information it gives me about the way society operated in the Victorian period. Because Police Court magistrates were called upon to deal with such a large amount of ‘civil’ business we get a real insight into how people lived and worked.

One of the things that interested me when I was writing about immigration to the East End in the 1880s was the patterns of work for Jewish businessmen and their employees. Because Jewish law forbids the faithful from working after sunset on Fridays and all day Saturday I wondered if they closed their shops and factories or employed gentile (non Jewish) workers to keep them running. Moreover since the laws forbade Sunday trading did this seriously impact Jewish businesses which would have had to shut?

I was also interested to know whether Jews would be able to work for non-jewish businesses given the restrictions their religion placed on them. This matters because accusations of ghettoisation often stem from fears that migrant groups stick together and don’t integrate. However, its quite hard to integrate if you were unable to find work that allows you to have time off to practice your religion.

Isaac Rishfield was a cap maker. He ran a workshop on Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London close to the large Jewish community in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In July 1884 Rishfield was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court charged with ‘having contravened the Factory and Workshops Act’.

Prosecuting, Mr Lakeman told the court that under law Jewish businesses were entitled to employ people to work for them on Sundays, for half a day. This mirrored the time lost on Saturdays when workers tended only to work from early morning to the afternoon.

Very many Jewish owners took advantage of this legal loophole, Lakeman explained, and some, like Rishfield, were exceeding the regulations by employing too many. This, he continued, gave them an unfair advantage over gentile businesses in the area and complaints were made. The cap maker had employed ‘one Gentile on the Saturday and two Jewesses on the Sunday, which he was not entitled to do’.

Rishfield didn’t dispute the facts and pleaded guilty to the charge. He said he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong but ignorance is no defence in law so he was fined 20for each breach with 10s costs. In total he was fined the equivalent of £300 in today’s money. We know that Jewish households in the East End employed non-Jewish women as casual servants and now I’ve confirmed that this extended to other areas of the world of work and business.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1884]

2 thoughts on “A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

  1. Isaac Rishfield was born in Warsaw Poland in 1850. His wife Mary Simon was born in Skyri ? Poland and they married in London in early 1871 when he was 21 and she.20. I cannot find any reference to them in the 1881 Census but they reappear in the 1891 Census by which time they had 4 sons and 3 daughters and a servant a local girl Fanny Brooks. The last reference I can find for him has him living in Lewisham ( moved upmarket ? ) in 1906. I have only done a very cursory look in the records for him. It appears officialdom sometimes spelt his name Richfield and Rickfield .

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