THE MACHER OF MANCHESTER:
SIR SIDNEY HAMBURGER

BY BILL WILLIAMS

Reproduced by kind permission of the magazine Leela. See also Sir Sidney's place in Manchester's Zionist history, and his own recent comments on the subject.

The passing of Sir Sidney Hamburger on Thursday, 7 June 2001 marked more than the loss of a Jewish communal leader regarded with universal affection and respect. It marked also the end of an era in the history of Manchester Jewry that began in the 1890s with the emergence of Nathan Laski as the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the Jews of Manchester. Sir Sidney may be seen, perhaps, as the last representative of a dynasty of leaders who, by their diplomatic skills, personal charisma and wide tolerance provided the community with internal solidarity, effective agencies of welfare and education and, above all, a peaceful, protective and mutually supportive relationship with the city.

Born in Salford in 1914, Sir Sidney belonged to a family of Russian immigrants who, before their arrival in Manchester, had already become entrepreneurs in a small way. In Manchester, they rapidly came to belong to a lower middle class of aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs committed to communal work, Zionism, the furtherance of strict religious Orthodoxy and Gladstonian Liberalism. By the early 1930s, such families, including the Hamburgers, had begun to move northwards from the older Jewish Quarter into the suburbs of Crumpsall and Prestwich. It was from their ranks that between the 1890s and the 1960s, an elite of communal machers – men such as Laski and Abraham Moss – was largely drawn.

Typically, such machers combined fierce loyalty to the Jewish community with an equally intense commitment to the welfare of the city, serving effectively as mediators between the two.

On leaving a local (non-Jewish) elementary school in the late 1920s, Sidney single-mindedly pursued clear commercial, communal and political ambitions. Following his father into the trade in light-fittings, he rapidly built up a thriving business on his own account. As a teenager, he became active in the Zionism mission to the new Jewish suburbs of north Manchester. In the city, his sympathy with the plight of the Salford poor drew him into the ranks of the local Labour Party.

Following army service as an officer in the Pay Corps, all three ambitions were brought to fruition. He used his demobilisation payment to help finance the purchase of a small factory in Salford that in due course developed into the multi-million Searchlight Electrics. In 1946, he was elected in the Labour interest to Salford City Council. Within the community, he supported Abraham Moss, who took the young man under his wing, in the creation of the King David Schools.

Sir Sidney may be seen as the major architect of the post-war city and community. As Chairman of the Planning Committee, Leader of the Labour Group and, finally, Mayor, he was largely responsible for the creation of a modern Salford on the ashes of a deprived, neglected and dilapidated city. In the community, he pioneered the adoption of modern welfare ideals to the needs of Jewish families, an achievement culminating in the creation in 1971 of Heathlands Village, one of the finest homes for the elderly in the land. Simultaneously, he used his position as President of the Zionist Central Council to keep the community firmly anchored to the Zionist ideal, particularly during the crises in Israel during 1967 and 1973.

Following a successful presidency of the Manchester and District Jewish Representative Council, he became generally acknowledged as the community’s ‘leader’, as its prime mediator with the local authorities and the government, as its fund raiser in chief and as the personification of those qualities – respectability, integrity and civic mindedness – that ensured the community’s peaceful co-existence with society at large. Combing traditional Orthodox belief and practice with a wide tolerance of every religious segment of Manchester Jewry he was able to hold the community together to the benefit of both its internal welfare and external relations.

On the reorganisation of the National Health Service in 1970, he was appointed Chairman of the North Western Regional Health Authority, a position he used to attract adequate government support to the neglected services in the northwest. It was on his relinquishing of this post in 1981 that he received a knighthood, which he always saw as symbolising the major contribution of Manchester Jewry to the city.

Sir Sidney was a man of tireless energy in the pursuit of ideals that he saw as rooted in his firm religious beliefs. For him Judaism was a religion that commanded service to humanity. His own service was both unique and many-sided. At the end of his life, he was still taking on new roles, not least the presidency of a movement to establish a Shoah Centre in Manchester.

Nor did this public life ever overshadow his commitment to family and friends, or to those many individuals who sought his advice and support. He was at the heart of a wide social network that included the families of his three well-beloved sons, and that was built around his long and happy marriage to Gertrude, Lady Hamburger. His warmth and friendship were open to all, as this obituarist is in a strong position to know. He will now be remembered by all, with admiration, respect and, perhaps, also some nostalgia for the community held together under his tutelage by mutual tolerance.