Family History

If the Saperias lived in a old manor house in the heart of England, with oil paintings of ancestors hanging on wood-panelled walls and an entry in the Doomsday Book, this would be an easy task. However, that is not the case. We are descended from Jews who left the Russian empire, emigrated to the UK and settled in Leeds in the late 19th century. The historical context follows.

Migration to Central Europe

Available evidence strongly suggests that our ancestors lived in the Russian empire in the 19th century, in areas that are now part of Poland and Lithuania. These were areas that had invited Jewish immigrants from Germany, Austria and Hungary in the 14th century, primarily to rebuild the economy after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. As the situation for Jews in Western Europe deteriorated during the 14th century, many moved eastward: by 1600, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews lived in 60 communities in Eastern Europe.

Becoming part of the Russian Empire

The Jews who lived in the regions annexed by Russia (the "Western Region" and the "Vistula Region" in the terms of the Russian administration) formed the middle class between the aristocracy and the landowners on the one hand, and the masses of enslaved peasants on the other. Many of them earned their livelihood from the lease of villages, flour mills, forests, inns, and taverns. Others were merchants, shopkeepers, or hawkers. The remainder were craftsmen who worked for both landowner and peasant. Some of them lived in townlets which had mostly been founded on the initiative of the landowners and served as centers for the merchants and the craftsmen, while others lived in villages or at junctions of routes.

From the beginning of its annexation of the Polish territories the Russian government adopted the attitude of viewing the Jews there as the "Jewish Problem," to be solved ultimately by their assimilation or expulsion. During the first 50 years after incorporation within the borders of the empire, the general tendency of the government was to maintain the status of the Jews as it had been under Polish rule, while adapting it to the Russian requirements. A decree of 1791 confirmed the right of residence of the Jews in the territories annexed from Poland and permitted their settlement in the uninhabited steppes of the Black Sea shore, conquered from Turkey at the close of the 18th century, and in the provinces to the east of the R. Dnieper (Chernigov and Poltava) only. Thus crystallized the Pale of Settlement, which took its final form with the annexation of Bessarabia in 1812, and the "Kingdom of Poland" in 1815, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and including 25 provinces with an area of nearly 1,000,000 sq. km. (286,000 sq. mi.). The Jews formed one ninth of the total population of the area.

< .... Click on the above image to view it full size.

If you wish to identify a particular locality, try either:

- the 1882 Comprehensive Atlas and Geography of the World (scale of 1:6,100,000)
the 1902 Century Dictionary and Cyclopaedic Atlas (scale of 1:5,128,200)

Life under Russian rule

The "Jewish Statute", promulgated in 1804, prohibited the residence of Jews in the villages, of all leasing activity in the villages, and of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the peasants. This struck at the source of livelihood of thousands of Jewish families. The legislation therefore declared that Jews would be allowed to settle as peasants on their lands or on the lands which would be allocated to them by the government. Government support was also promised to factories which would employ Jewish workers and to craftsmen. A short while after the publication of the "Jewish Statute," the expulsion of the Jews from the villages began, as did their settlement in southern Russia. It was however soon evident that agricultural settlement could not rapidly absorb the thousands of Jewish families who had been removed from their livelihoods. The expulsion order was therefore delayed, this being also due to the political and military situation in Russia during the war against Napoleon. Only in 1822 was the systematic expulsion of the Jews from the villages, especially in the provinces of Belorussia, resumed.

Events took a turn for the worse under the reign of Nicholas I (1825–55). In 1827 he ordered the conscription of Jewish youths into the army under the iniquitous Cantonists system which conscripted youths aged from 12 to 25 years into military service; those aged under 18 were sent to special military schools also attended by the children of soldiers. The military obligations of the Jews in Russia brought no alleviation of their condition in other spheres, and the expulsions of Jews from the villages continued with regularity. The Jews were also expelled from Kiev, and any new settlement of Jews in the towns and townlets within a distance of 50 versts of the country's borders was prohibited in 1843. On the other hand, the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. The settlers were exempted from military service. Many Jewish settlements were established in southern Russia and other regions of the Pale of Settlement.

Since the Jews had not made use of the opportunity which had been given to them in 1804 to study in the general schools, the government decided to establish a network of special schools for them. The maintenance of these schools would be provided for by a special tax (the "candle tax") which would be imposed on them. In 1844 a decree ordering the establishment of these schools, whose teachers would be both Christians and Jews, was issued. In secret instructions which accompanied the decree it was declared that "the purpose of the education of the Jews is to bring them nearer to the Christians and to uproot their harmful beliefs which are influenced by the Talmud." The next stage of the program of Nicholas I was the division of the Jews of his country into two groups: "useful" and "non-useful." Among the "useful" ranked the wealthy merchants, craftsmen, and agriculturalists. All the other Jews, the small tradesmen and the poorer classes, constituted the "non-useful" and were threatened with general conscription into the army, where they would be trained in crafts or agriculture.

The reign of Alexander II (1855–81) is connected with great reforms in the Russian regime, the most important of which was the emancipation of the peasants in 1861 from their servitude to the landowners. Toward the Jews, Alexander II adopted a milder policy with the same objective as that of his predecessor of achieving the assimilation of the Jews to Russian society. He repealed the severest of his father's decrees and granted the right of residence throughout Russia to selected groups of "useful" Jews, which included wealthy merchants (1859), university graduates (1861), certified craftsmen (1865), as well as medical staff of every category (medical orderlies and midwives). The Jewish communities outside the Pale of Settlement rapidly expanded, especially those of St. Petersburg and Moscow whose influence on the way of life of Russian Jewry became important. In 1874 general draft to the army was introduced in Russia. Thousands of young Jews were now called upon to serve in the army of the czar for four years. Important alleviations were granted to those having a Russian secondary-school education. This encouraged the stream of Jews toward the Russian schools. The general atmosphere the new laws engendered was of no less importance than the laws themselves. The administration relaxed its pressure on the Jews and there was a feeling among them that the government was slowly but surely proceeding toward the emancipation of the Jews. Jews began to take part in the intellectual and cultural life of Russia in journalism, literature, law, the theater, and the arts; the number of professionals was then very small in Russia, and Jews soon became prominent among their ranks in quantity and quality. Some Jews distinguished themselves, such as the composer Anton Rubinstein (baptized in childhood), the sculptor Mark Antokolski, and the painter Isaac Levitan.

This appearance of Jews in economic, political, and cultural life immediately aroused a sharp reaction in Russian society. The leading opponents of the Jews included several of the country's most prominent intellectuals, such as the authors Ivan Aksakov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. The attitude of the liberal and revolutionary elements in Russia toward the Jews was also lukewarm. The Jews were accused of maintaining "a state within a state" and of "exploiting" the Russian masses; even the blood libel was renewed by agitators (as that of Kutais in 1878). However, the principal argument of the hatemongers was that the Jews were an alien element invading the areas of Russian life, gaining control of economic and cultural positions, and a most destructive influence. Many newspapers, led by the influential Novoye Vremya, engaged in anti-Jewish agitation. The anti-Jewish movement gained in strength especially after the Balkan War (1877–78), when a wave of Slavophile nationalism swept through Russian society.

One of the factors which influenced the position of the Jews was their high natural increase, due to the high birthrate and the relatively low mortality among children. The number of Jews in Russia, which in 1850 had been estimated at 2,350,000, rose to over 5,000,000 at the close of the 19th century, notwithstanding a considerable emigration abroad. Governmental commissions appointed to deal with the "Jewish Problem" received instructions to seek methods for the reduction of the number of Jews in the country.

The natural population growth resulted in increased competition in the traditionally Jewish occupations. The numbers of small shopkeepers, peddlers, and brokers rose steadily. Many joined the craftsmen's class, a step which in those days was considered a fall in social status. A Jewish proletariat began to develop; it included workshop and factory-workers, daily workers, male and female domestics, and porters. At the same time there also emerged a small but influential class of wealthy Jews who succeeded in adapting to the requirements of the Russian Empire and established contacts with government circles. The wealth and the status of this small class was however unable to alleviate the suffering of the destitute masses. Emigration became the only outlet. Until the 1870s the migration was mainly an internal one, from Lithuania and Belorussia in the direction of southern Russia. While in 1847 only 2.5% of Russian Jews lived in the southern provinces, the proportion had increased to 13.8% in 1897. Important new communities appeared in this region: Odessa, Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd), Kremenchug, etc.

Escaping famine and persecution

A crop failure and resulting widespread famine in Lithuania at the end of the 1870s encouraged the first wave of emigration toward Western Europe. Though it may not have seemed so at the time, those who left were the fortunate ones, for very shortly afterwards the situation of Jews in Russia dramatically worsened.

In March 1881, revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. Confusion reigned throughout the country. The revolutionaries called on the people to rebel. The regime was compelled to protect itself, and the Russian government found a scapegoat: the notion was encouraged that the Jews were responsible for the misfortunes of the nation. Anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) broke out in a number of towns and townlets of southern Russia including Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd) and Kiev. These disorders consisted of looting, while there were few acts of murder or rape. Similar pogroms were repeated in 1882 (Balta, etc.); in 1883 (Yekaterinoslav, now Dnepropetrovsk, Krivoi Rog, Novo-Moskovsk, etc.); and in 1884 (Nizhni-Novgorod, now Gorki). The new czar, Alexander III (1881–94), and his cabinet underlined these trends in their policy toward the Jews. Provincial commissions were appointed in the wake of the pogroms to investigate their causes. In the main these commissions stated that "Jewish exploitation" had caused the pogroms. Based on this finding, the "Temporary Laws" were published in May 1882. These prohibited the Jews from living in villages and restricted the limits of their residence to the towns. The number of Jewish students in the secondary and higher schools was limited by law in 1886 to 10% in the Pale of Settlement and to 3–5% outside it.

Jews left steadily from 1881 onwards, either due to the pogroms, the restrictions on residence or to seek education abroad. Those who remained were very shortly pressured to leave. Pobedonostsev, the head of the "Holy Synod" (the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church), formulated the objectives of the government when he expressed the hope that "one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country."

This policy was also continued under Nicholas II (1894–1918). In reaction to the growth of the revolutionary movement, in which the radicalized Jewish youth took an increasing part, the government gave free rein to the anti-Semitic press and agitation. During Passover, in 1903, a pogrom broke out in Kishinev in which many Jews lost their lives. From then on pogroms became a part of government policy. They gained in violence in 1904 (in Zhitomir) and reached their climax in October 1905, immediately after the czar had been compelled to proclaim the granting of a constitution to his people. In these pogroms the police and the army openly supported the rioters and protected them against the Jewish self-defense. Pogroms accompanied by bloodshed in which the army actively participated occurred in Bialystok (June 1906) and Siedlce (September 1906). The establishment of the Imperial Duma brought no change to the situation of the Jews. There was indeed a limited Jewish representation in the Duma (12 delegates in the first Duma of 1906 and two to four delegates in the second, third, and fourth Dumas), but this representation was faced by a powerful Rightist party—the Union of the Russian People—and related parties, whose principal weapon in the political struggle against the liberal and radical elements was a savage anti-Semitism which overtly called for the elimination of the Jews from Russia.

Greater details may be found in this site:

Life in Leeds

Those leaving the Russian Empire sailed from the ports on the Baltic coast, primarily Libau [now: Liepaja, Latvia], Königsberg [now: Kaliningrad] and Szczecin [Stettin, Poland]. Most dreamt of going to America, but those who could not afford the fare over the Atlantic Ocean took the short voyage to Denmark or Sweden, or further on to England, where either they would work hard trying to save money enough for the next part of the journey or subsequently choose to settle down and make their life. For the majority of Russian emigrants whose planned destination was England it was often the case that they had the name and address of a friend or relative who would assist them on their arrival. A report on Leeds in 1888, by the (UK) Select Committee on Immigration stated, "During the last twenty years there has been a steady influx of Polish-Russian Jews. The greater part come from the province of Kovno, and on starting, are often acquainted with but one word of English, 'LEEDS'." Jews were attracted to this city by the rapidly expanding clothing industry where both wages and working conditions proved superior to those in London or Manchester.

Judging from immigration and birth records, the Saperias made straight for Leeds (probably arriving via the sea port of Hull), where many settled permanently though some left for the USA after the turn of the century. The first Saperia family to move to Leeds seems to be that of Pincus (Phineas) and Fanny Saperia, who arrived late in 1871 or in 1872. Their family tree is our 'Branch 2'. The birth records for the UK show that other Saperias swiftly followed them. There were three Saperia births in Leeds in the 1870's, and a further three biths of Saperia variants (surnames such as Saparie and Saperie, almost certainly mis-spellings); in the 1880's there were five more Saperia births in Leeds and 9 births of Saperia variants. In the 1890's, 25 Saperias were born in Leeds; in addition, two Saperias were born in Edinburgh and one in London. 'Only' 20 births of Saperia variants were recorded in the UK in the 1890's, all but three of which were outside of Leeds.


The material contained in this section relies heavily on archive material held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service, in particular the Alan Kassell collection. Alan Kassell was a producer for BBC North, who gathered the information for a television programme on the Jews of Leeds. Thanks are due to Brett Harrison of the West Yorkshire Archive Service for his assistance, and to Murray Freedman for checking & correcting the text.

The SS Smolensk

Although there are records of individual Jews in  Leeds from the 18th century onwards, it is generally considered that an organised community was only established in 1840 when the first Jewish cemetery was opened and a regular minyan was meeting in Bridge Street. Census studies have shown that from a total of 56 souls in 1841, the Jewish communityof Leeds had grown to 8,000 by 1891, as Russian Jews arrived by the boatload, fleeing famine, conscription into the Russian Army, and endemic persecution that had been intensified in the wake of the assassination of the Tsar in 1881.

Here is a sample story, from a Mr Louis Teeman: "My father left his town, Mariempol, Russia (now in Lithuania, the birthplace of most of the Jews who came to Leeds), to escape conscription. They were taking boys aged 15 and16 -  he was reaching that age and they had to get him away - for the period of army service was as long as 25 years.  He and many others crossed the frontier into Prussia at night and made their way to Hamburg. They took the boat to England. The journey was several days - they slept on deck in all sorts of terrible weather as they didn't have the money to go below - and eventually they reached Hull. At Hull, they were assembled and interrogated. He went on to Leeds, he had been told to as there were Jewish slipper makers there and he might find a job - Leeds was the only word of English he knew. If he found a job then he would make enough money to send for his parents. When the train drew into Leeds, the porters shouted 'Leeds, Leeds!' and of course the doors were thrown open, and the passengers' bundles of belongings were seized by a man with a handcart. His name was Jimmy Gilmour and he was a fighting Irishman who when drunk used to fight lamp posts with his bare fists. He would pile all these bundles on the hand cart and take them along Boar Lane to point out the sights.  Jimmy was very proud of his knowledge of Yiddish which he'd picked up in the Leylands.  It was a Sunday and the churchgoers would eye this group of men following a handcart, dressed in Russian peaked caps, long thigh boots and long overcoats to their ankles, very bedraggled after the journey. All of them were unhappy, miserable, homesick; they would reach Kirkgate and pass the open market and then they were in the Leylands. At last they recognized something - the smells of fried fish, chicken feathers burning - and Jimmy Gilmour would shout out loud in Yiddish 'mir zanen do' (we are here)! And the doors and windows would fly open, men, women and children would rush out and scan the faces to see if they recognized relatives and friends. My father got a job as a slipper maker, which was his trade. They couldn't find him accommodation so, like many others, he slept under his bench, beneath the treadle machines. People typically lived in tiny houses, many of the rooms were no more than 12 or 14 feet square. They crowded in as many people as possible. They not only let out rooms, they let corners of rooms and in some rooms there were four couples each with a blanket spread over the corner ".  


Taken by the captain of the Smolensk from the bridge.

The short voyage to England from the Baltic ports cost the equivalent of 25 pence and the fare to the USA was a few pounds. The passengers were herded aboard cargo boats never designed to carry large numbers of passengers. Many were operated by the railway companies (Great Central, North Eastern) and named after Yorkshire towns. In charge of landing procedures at Hull for the Jews was Paul Julius Drasdo, a non-Jew of German extraction. His son gave the following interview: "The emigrants came across to Hull in the most deplorable conditions. The Russians and the Poles were the majority of the emigrant trade. It was pitiful to see the state they arrived in, and they were herded over here in ships that never should have been allowed to carry passengers. They slept on straw pallets which the crew threw overboard as they were steaming up the Humber River. They were very frightened people. The ship would dock at either the Albert Dock, the Riverside Quay or Victoria dock, then they would walk to the Paragon Station of the North Eastern Railway where the Emigrant Hall was. This was the reception centre they were all taken to. They would be given a meal - we had a special Kosher kitchens for all the Jewish passengers, who were segregated from the Christians. The Jewish kitchen was looked after by the local Jewish residents of Hull, who were wonderfully helpful even though they didn't know the emigrants from Adam". Mr Drasdo would vet them and group them, then trains would be organised to take the emigrants (those onward bound for the USA or Canada) to Liverpool and the immigrants (who were intending to settle in the UK) to Leeds or Manchester. <

Russian Immigrant, straight off the boat.


Paul Julius Drasdo


Expand map of the Leylands

Most of the immigrant Jews in Leeds settled in a very poor area called the Leylands.  Built in the early 19th century, it was less than a square mile packed with a maze of dark courtyards, hovels, passageways and run-down and neglected narrow streets. There were small factories, a brewery and a leather works, a school and a church, as well as tiny back-to-back houses that were home to the poorest section of the community (predominantly Irish immigrants) and petty criminals.  As the Jews moved in, the previous inhabitants gradually left, and the Leylands rapidly became the Jewish quarter and ‘ghetto’ of Leeds.  In 1888, 75% of the children attending the local board school were Jewish and, by 1902, serving the area were four board schools which had become almost 100% Jewish. The streets had assumed distinctively foreign characteristics; the names above the shops were foreign and the notices in the window were in Hebrew characters. Mr Drapkin's family moved to Leeds in 1918: "The only place we could afford to live was an area they called the Leylands. There were a number of streets but they were very, very narrow. We moved into a house that had one room downstairs, a kitchen about 9ft by 9ft, and two small bedrooms above. There were my parents and nine of us children, all under 12. The toilet was about 20 yards down the street, shared between half a dozen families, and was absolutely disgusting. There was no dustbin, you used a big hole in the wall, called a midden, that filled a bucket. In one corner of the kitchen was a Singer sewing machine, which we hired by the week for about one-and-six, at which my father worked to support us. To heat the iron, he would use the same fire my mother used for cooking. For lighting, we had a small paraffin lamp.There was no money for tea or coffee so my mother used to get cocoa. We couldn't afford cups and saucers so we used jam jars".  There was considerable resentment amongst the locals over the influx of the Jews. Few Jews could get a job outside the Leylands, and in 1909 even the Vicar of Leeds admitted that “there is hardly a Christian firm in Leeds that will employ Jews”.The first four words of English they usually met were 'No Jews need apply'.Weavers, spinners and dyers, blacksmiths and experts at various trades, were forced to take relatively humble employment in the local tailoring trade.


Copenhagen Street in the Leylands

Leeds was the centre of the most extensive cloth producing district of England, a great advantage for the manufacture of clothing. The mens’ tailoring industry, for which Leeds became renown, was started by John Barran in the 1850’s and aided by Jewish immigrant Herman Friend.  Its establishment in Leeds was the happy conjunction of mass production techniques introduced by Barran, the adaptation of divisional labour systems by Friend, the availability of female labour, the influx of many Jewish immigrant tailors and, of course, new technology in the shape of the sewing machine. A number of large factories sprung up by the eighties and nineties, but there were also many smaller workshops. These were the notorious sweat-shops, at which low wages, long hours and poor working conditions were the rule. An 1888 report by the Board of Trade on the Sweating System in Leeds gives a good picture of life in those times. The Jews of Leeds did not meekly accept their hard lot. They fought for better working conditions, they joined trade unions, some were active in the Leeds Socialist League, and they were not afraid to stand-up to the anti-Semitism and hostility of their neighbours. Whilst a few soon rose above their conditions and flourished (Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer fame and David Osinsky who founded the tailoring chain of Montague Burtons being the main examples), it took the majority a generation or two to progress in the industry (in which 70% of Jews were involved in 1891), so that by 1935 it was claimed that the majority of the 200 tailoring firms in Leeds were Jewish owned.  Meanwhile the Jews tried to ensure their children would not endure a similar existence by placing great emphasis on education. Louis Teeman had this to say:"Lovell Rd School was my school - I went there when I was 3 and left at 13 and all the 10 years were during the period of Mr Bentley's headmastership. Thomas Hawley Bentley was the best headmaster that one could possibly hope for. The whole school was Jewish and the teachers and he were absolutely super. He himself was kind and strict. He inculcated into us patriotism, love of country, cleanliness and discipline. When I left school at 13, I started work the next Sunday. I was the errand boy for a tailoring shop and I got three and six a week, working from 8 in the morning till 6 at night. There were about 20 workers crowded into the shop. The presser worked at one end at an open fire and at the other end were the button hole hands who worked 8 to 8 and were lucky if they earned a pound a week".

Government Report On Sweatshop Conditions

(6 pages but well worth reading!)


Lovell Road School


Melbourne St./Lower Brunswick St.

The poor conditions in the Leylands, in particular the lack of good sanitation, led the City Council to condemn the area and the southern part of the district was demolished in 1907. The First World War proved very difficult for the Jews of the Leylands.  Whilst many did serve in the British army (see Saperias at War), others were initially unwilling to enlist to fight on the same side as the Tsar from whose clutches they or their parents had only recently escaped.  This stirred up considerable local resentment and reinforced the already xenophobic atmosphere. There had been anti-Semitism previously; Mr Teeman had this to say: "Gangs used to burst into the Leylands from the nearby Bank and Quarry Hill districts, armed with cudgels, and the Jews would barricade their windows, hide in the cellars and pray. Their thoughts went back to the pogroms in Russia when the Cossacks used to ride through the villages with their great whips, burning, pillaging and raping, shouting 'Baisaida' (kill the Jews), and these immigrants thought 'My God, is this England?”.  In June 1917, there were two days of riots in the Leylands following rumours that Jews had molested a wounded soldier.  A mob of 3,000 rampaged through Regent Street and Gower Street causing widespread damage, for which the Council later reimbursed the community. Soon after, the Jews began to leave the Leylands, many moving to the more prosperous area of Chapeltown.  Due to the exclusion of Jews from local golf clubs, a Jewish golf club (the first in Europe) was founded . Abraham Frais and a group of keen Jewish golfers knew of a piece of land at Moortown at the outskirts of the city of Leeds which was on offer for £4,000. They persuaded a non-Jewish builder to acquire the land, a club house was built and the course was opened in 1923.  

Today, little is left of the Leylands, for by 1937 the area had been almost completely demolished. The area between Regent Street and North Street now contains offices, warehouses and car showrooms. All the old dwellings have long since gone, but what still stands are the building of the first Board school (Leylands School erected 1875) in Gower Street, which now houses an school of Chinese cooking, and the Jewish Tailors’ Pressers’ and Machinists’ Union office (from 1910) in Cross Stamford Street.  The tailoring industry, which as recently as 1960 employed some 60,000 workers, is now virtually defunct and there are at best a handful of Jewish tailors left in Leeds.


Opening of the Moor Allerton golf club