Sunday, 2 January 2011

Setting a fire on the Sabbath

Singers Hill Synagogue
Photo by Pete Millington
A few weeks ago I attended an event at the Girlguiding head quarters, Tefoil House, which is in Brownsea Drive off Blucher Street near Holloway Head in Birmingham city centre.

A couple of things interest me about this little area of back streets tucked away at the foot of Lee Bank behind the new Mailbox development, which was formerly the main sorting office for the Post Office.

Firstly, many of my ancesters lived in this area in Victorian times when the neighbourhood was made up of working class court yards of back-to-back houses. My great grandmother's family, the Adderleys, lived in Ellis Street, whilst my great grandfather Terence Millington lived in William Street, Thorpe Street and later on in his life in Bishopsgate Street.

Another thing which interests me about this area is that there is an orthodox synagogue close by, Singers Hill Synagogue, which has been in the area since 1856. My ancestors, the Adderleys, the Millingtons and the O'Hagans, who included in their numbers both Anglicans and Catholics, would therefore have lived close to the synagogue for many decades.

On the morning I was in the area it was a Saturday which is of course the Sabbath, the Jewish equivalent of Sunday for Christians and I noticed many people heading towards the synagogue for morning service (Shabbat). However, I noticed that many of the car parks were empty and was subsequently told by a lady at my event that this is because orthodox Jews must walk to the synagogue. In days gone by most Jews lived within walking distance of the synagogue so this was not a problem, but these days many people drive a car but park some distance away from the synagogue so they can still observe the rule in principle.

The lady I spoke to, a retired RE teacher as it happens, was extremely knowledgable about Judaism and told me that orthodox Jews do not participate in any activity on the Sabbath which constitutes work. This can include things like having contact with money or even lighting a fire.

This information struck a chord with my family history research and explains something I have often wondered about.

I have been told that my grandfather William Millington showed great potential as a scholar and had an aptitude for chemistry, but because his widowed father Terence was a poor man who lived his life in public houses, William was never encouraged to pursue further educational opportunities.

The story I have been told is that young William used to "light fires" for a local Jewish family. The family approached my great-grandfather Terence and offered to support William to study chemistry but Terence, perhaps out of pride, gave them a blunt refusal and instead William was sent to work in the Birmingham Mint. At the age of 15 he joined the army to fight in the Great War, was discharged for being underage and re-enlisted in 1917. William married my grandmother Florence, was posted to India for 2 or 3 years and on leaving the army in about 1922 he spent the next 47 years working in smoky, dirty foundries until his death from lung cancer in 1969.

What I had often wondered was why anyone would specifically employ a young person to come into a family home to light a fire.

Interestingly my grandfather was very adept at lighting fires and in fact it was an art he once showed me when I was a child, using the old newspaper against the fireplace trick which creates suction up the chimney and gets the flame blazing quickly. When I had a bed-sit in Edgbaston many years ago, which only had open fireplaces for heating, I was glad of my granddad's old newspaper trick to keep me warm with minimum effort (the real art is getting the flame going without setting fire to the room or the chimney!)

But now I know why the Jewish family employed my grandfather to light their fires... it must have been on the Sabbath.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to Geneabloggers!

    This reminded me of an entry I found when transcribing the Presbyterian burial register for Ottery St Mary, Devon: 2 May 1797 William Wilsdon was torn to pieces by a wheel in the Factory works (to shew unto some strangers) being impiously set a going on the Lord's Day...