Damascus-upon-Irwell: The unique tale of Syrian traders in Manchester

Syrian traders
9 min read
10 December, 2021
Arabs in the UK series: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Syrian traders created a unique multi-confessional community in Manchester. The New Arab delves deeper into the history of the community to find out more about their story.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in the history of ethnic communities in the United Kingdom, with several books, articles, and documentaries made about the experience of Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities who arrived in Britain particularly after the end of the Second World War. 

However, very little has been produced about the history of the Arab community in the UK. In 2019, a report prepared for the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) concluded that the Arab community was “under-researched and largely invisible”.

Arabs began immigrating to the UK in large numbers in the 1970s and according to the 2011 census, just over 230,000 Arabs were living in the UK – although this may be an underestimate because it is based on write-in responses. However, the Arab presence in the UK dates back to long before the 1970s.

Arabs in UK 1970s
25th August 1976: A group of Arab men relaxing in a busy Kensington street, London (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Traders from the Arab world established a presence in Manchester at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the rise of the Lancashire cotton industry and the way they were received by and interacted with the local population provides a fascinating insight into attitudes of the time.

In his 1992 study, The Millet of Manchester, Fred Halliday notes that by 1798, four Arab trading houses had been established in Manchester, with the number of trading houses rising to several dozen by the end of the nineteenth century.

"By 1798, four Arab trading houses had been established in Manchester, with the number of trading houses rising to several dozen by the end of the nineteenth century"

The Arabs who arrived in Manchester were mostly Moroccans from Fes and ‘Syrians’ – the modern-day boundaries between Syria and Lebanon had not yet been drawn. Halliday notes that both these merchant groups preserved their language, customs and religion, forming two distinct communities that interacted with the wider community in different ways.

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The draw of cotton

Map from Syria and Lebanon to Manchester in the UK

Lists of foreign merchants operating in Manchester were drawn up annually until 1870, which Halliday notes can be found in Scholes’ Manchester Foreign Merchant.

Syria and Lebanon were part of the Ottoman Empire and these traders are listed as “Turkish” by Scholes. Morocco however was independent in the 19th century so its traders were listed separately.

The first “Turkish” trading house was set up in 1833 by a merchant who Scholes records as “Abdoullah Yadlibi”. Halliday writes that “the main body” of the Syrian community – at the time Lebanese were also commonly referred to as Syrians – in Manchester was formed in 1860.

In the 1850s, an Ottoman consul named Idlibi – who appears to be the same Abdoullah Yadlibi listed by Scholes – was appointed in Manchester.

The Syrian community in Manchester was mostly made up of Christians and Jews, according to Halliday, who says that “very few” Muslims came to Britain from Syria and Lebanon in the 19th century.

Syria 1900s
Experts purchasing silk cocoons, for export to France, Antioch, Syria, 1900s. Stereoscopic slide (detail). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

United by the Arabic language

Nevertheless, in 2017, Zeina Al-Debs, a Syrian living in Manchester, discovered that her great-grandfather’s brother, Mohammed Yassin Halaby – a textile trader originally from Damascus – was the first Muslim ever to be buried in Manchester in 1902.  

Zeina’s discovery was popularised by the Rethink Rebuild Society of Manchester, a Syrian community group.

In the book Jews among Muslims: Communities in the Precolonial Middle East, editor Walter P. Zenner notes that many Syrian traders came from Aleppo: “Aleppines of all religions, including Muslim shipping merchants, opened offices in Manchester, England with the object of selling British textiles in the Levant”.

"Arabic was the common tongue of those [Syrian and Lebanese] immigrants and in the Didsbury area of Manchester it was common to hear Arabic being spoken in the streets… on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon even after the Second World War”

According to Halliday, Syrian Jews who arrived in Manchester generally preserved their Arabic language and customs in the nineteenth century. While Jews were also coming to Manchester from Eastern Europe at the time, the two communities did not mix and Halliday says that relations between Syrian Jews and East European Jews were generally unfriendly.

Syrian Jews were far more likely to mix with Christians and Muslims from their home country in Manchester. As Halliday says, “Arabic was the common tongue of those [Syrian and Lebanese] immigrants and in the Didsbury area of Manchester it was common to hear Arabic being spoken in the streets… on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon even after the Second World War.”

The traders and their families preserved customs such as drinking coffee, playing backgammon and listening to Arabic music.

The second generation of Syrian immigrants could not always speak Arabic but they could understand it and Arabic classes were organised by two Syrian Jews in Manchester and offered to Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. A second-generation Syrian Jewish immigrant living in Manchester, Haim Nahmad co-wrote work on a standard written Arabic, A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language.

Looking inward in the face of hostility

The first generation of nineteenth-century Syrian/Lebanese immigrants to Manchester was mostly insular and only mixed with the wider British community to a limited degree, Halliday writes. Hostility and prejudice from the wider community often came to the surface without warning.

"Fadlo tried to send Albert and his two other sons to a preparatory school in Didsbury, where many Syrian merchants lived but he was told that they did not accept 'foreigners', so he set up his own school which was attended by European Jewish and English children as well as Arab ones"

Fadlo Hourani was one of the Lebanese merchants who settled in Manchester, later becoming Honorary Lebanese Consul in the city in 1946. His son Albert, author of the seminal work A History of the Arab Peoples, told Halliday in 1975, “They didn’t visit us and we didn’t visit them. You did business with them, and they were honest and decent people, but you had to be careful because they could turn nasty at any moment.”

Fadlo tried to send Albert and his two other sons to a preparatory school in Didsbury, where many Syrian merchants lived but he was told that they did not accept “foreigners”, so he set up his school which was attended by European Jewish and English children as well as Arab ones.

How nasty things could turn was shown in 1892, when many merchants trading with the Ottoman Empire went bankrupt following an 1891 stock market crash.

The Manchester press published a series of hostile and racist articles about Syrian and Lebanese traders, particularly Jewish ones expressing anti-Levantine and anti-Semitic sentiment at the same time:

“Most of those who have failed-and there seems to have been something like a ring of them-are a peculiar nondescript race, mostly descended from Jews expelled from Spain or Italy some two or three centuries ago. They now swarm over the various islands of the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, Syria, and Egypt, and in course of time have got the bulk of the trading into their hands,” the Manchester City News opined in 1892."

The rhetoric employed by the newspapers at this time against Syrian and Lebanese traders closely resembled modern-day right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric, with its themes of foreigners receiving imaginary special privileges at the expense of native-born British citizens. The Manchester City News railed:

“What chance is there for an Englishman to get a fair return for his outlay and exertions whilst this state of things continues? An Armenian, a Jew, an Arab, or any other unconscionable foreigner, arriving in Manchester with about £100 at his command, takes a dog-hole of an office, furnishes it with an ink-pot and an almanac, a brass plate on the door, and then he is a full-blown, highly respectable British shipper.”

Political activism as World War begins

The Syrian merchants were firmly connected to their homeland and would send money back to their families and frequently return. Halliday notes that Fadlo Hourani returned to his hometown of Marjayoun, which is now in south Lebanon, more than 24 times, financing public works projects there, including two schools, a cemetery, and a water supply scheme.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed everything for the Syrian community in Manchester. Syria and Lebanon were part of the Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary against Britain, France, and Russia. However, the sympathies of most of the Syrian community were with Britain.

"The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed everything for the Syrian community in Manchester"

The first efforts at community organisation were made at this time, with the creation of the Manchester Syrian Association (MSA), which originally focused on humanitarian relief efforts for people affected by war in Syria and Lebanon, where a horrific famine raged in the Mount Lebanon area between 1915 and 1918.

However, it later began to advocate for Syrian independence from the Ottoman Empire and in support of the British war effort. The association was made up of around 120 members, most of them Christian, with about 20 Muslims. Fadlo Hourani sent a memorandum to Foreign Secretary Sir Mark Sykes (who had earlier negotiated the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement with France) saying:

“The members of this Association, composed entirely of Christians and Moslems, are unanimously of opinion that the time has now come when Syrians living abroad should make a determined effort to help the Allies in freeing their Country from the blasting rule of the Turks, and are resolved to spare no effort in bringing about this desired end.”

After the end of the First World War, the MSA advocated for a single independent Syrian Arab state in an area that included what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, and southern Turkey, although events were of course to take a very different course.

Perspectives

By the beginning of the First World War, there were approximately 350 Syrian traders in Manchester. By the 1930s this original community had declined. Halliday says that the community “drifted apart” with second-generation Syrians becoming Anglicized and acculturated and first-generation merchants looking for economic opportunities elsewhere as the Manchester cotton trade declined.

The original Moroccan community in Manchester also mostly left the city by this point but their experience there was quite different and we will look it at in detail in part two of this series.

Amr Salahi is a staff journalist at The New Arab with a focus on Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan affairs

This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: 

Arabs in the UK