James Braham (c.1811-1873)

by Saul Marks

James Braham was, and remains, one of the most influential benefactors in the history of the Liverpool Jewish community. However, it was not the achievements of his life which earned him this accolade, but rather the contents of his will, which came to be known as the Braham Bequests.

James was born Zachariah Abrahams in Plymouth around 1811, to David Abrahams (c.1763-1840) and Rose Jacobs (1776-1842). Three of Rose’s brothers had settled in Liverpool and founded the highly respected Jackson family. James worked most of his life in London as a gold merchant and clockmaker and married his first cousin, Henrietta Jackson, at Seel Street synagogue in Liverpool in 1854

James died on 5 February 1873 at his home in Upper Norwood, Surrey, a very wealthy man. At the time, the synagogue on Princes Road was still under construction, and was subsequently completed and opened in 1874. The following year, it closed briefly for some alterations, one of which was the addition of two large black marble plaques, one either side of the main doors on the western wall, bearing the Ten Commandments in full, engraved and inscribed in gold. These were a donation by Henrietta in memory of James.

The main Braham Bequest was for the endowment of £13,000 per annum, to be divided equally between the senior and junior ministers of the Congregation, who would be termed the Braham Lecturer and Braham Reader, respectively. The condition of the award was that the ministers both be born in the UK, of British parents. Today, this is seen as a reflection of the exclusive attitude of the Congregation – and Anglo-Jewry as a whole – in the days when the vast majority of its membership was wealthy and highly assimilated. This situation contrasted starkly with the shtibls (smaller, communal houses of prayer) which grew up in the city at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, following the mass immigration of impoverished Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe and Russia.

Another quirk of the Braham Bequest was that it would not become operational until his Henrietta’s death. When it became clear, in early 1890, that Henrietta’s health was failing, the incumbent minister, Rev Joseph Polack, tendered his resignation, as he did not fulfil the criteria set down by Braham (his parents were not British), and wished to spare the Congregation the embarrassment of dismissing him. To add to the genealogical intricacies, Rev Polack’s brother later married Henrietta’s great-niece! Henrietta died on 15 February and, the following year, the first Braham Lecturer was appointed: Rev Samuel Friedeberg (later Frampton) of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1894, the first Braham Reader was appointed to join him, namely Rev John Harris of London.

In 1938, the Braham Lecturer, Rev Lewis Phillips, wished to assume the vacant position of Braham Reader in addition to his current post, following the departure of Rev Raphael Levy. It was unsure whether Rev Phillips was entitled to the entire bequest, if he could be seen to fill both posts, but a court ruling confirmed that this was acceptable, and this situation remained for the remaining nine years of his tenure. Following his departure and the struggle to find candidates for his successor as Braham Lecturer, the Congregation arranged to relax the conditions of appointment. The new terms were that successful candidates would have been resident in the UK for a minimum of ten years, and be competent enough in English to preach sermons in it. In recent times, of course, the Braham Bequest has not covered the entirety of the ministers’ salaries, and has been supplemented by the Congregation itself.

The secondary Braham Bequest was for an endowment of around £6,000 for the annual benefit of poor Jewish girls of the Hebrew school in Hope Place. Each year, the chosen girl would receive £100, which would be invested and from which she would collect an annual dividend until she married a Jewish man. She would then receive the capital sum, but the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation had to approve her choice of bridegroom! This was clearly a scheme devised by Braham not only to give relief to girls from poorer families, but also to discourage the community’s girls from marrying outside the religion. The original method of selecting a winner was to pick three girls aged between 14 and 17 at random from the school, in order to create a shortlist, and pull the winning name from a hat.

The Hebrew school moved to new premises on Childwall Road in 1957, and was renamed the King David High School. The following year, the method of selecting the winner was altered to the form of a competition, but the award was later ceased at some point after 1974. It was revived in 1995 and has been presented annually since 1999, although the capital sum is now awarded in the school year in which it is won, rather than at marriage. Although this negates the incentive for girls to marry within the religion, the sum of £100 is no longer large enough to be an incentive to influence marriage!

Today, the Congregation administers three Braham charities: the Charity of James Braham, the Henrietta Braham Fund and the Henrietta Braham Charity. Although James Braham’s name is more well-known in Liverpool than Henrietta’s, she also made an important contribution to the Jewish community. Her sister, Eliza Jackson (c.1821-1872), began building a retirement home for Jewish spinsters and widows, and Henrietta later purchased the site and funded the completion of the construction and weekly allowances for residents. The Eliza Jackson Home opened on 21 May 1877 at 30-32 North Hill Street, with rooms for six residents, without children, and it operated until 1958.

James Braham is described as an active member of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, although he served only one year on the Sub-Committee, in 1860-61, as Junior Treasurer. However, it is his legacies to the congregation and to the Hebrew school that ensure that his name is still well-known in the Liverpool Jewish community today, over 130 years after her death.


Other Sources
Hudaly, D (1974) “Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation 1780-1974″, Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, Liverpool. No ISBN.

Grave References
James Braham (c.1811-1873): A 10.02
Henrietta Braham (née Jackson, his wife; 1810-1890): A 10.03
Ellen Braham (James’ sister; 1804/5-1881): A 15.10