The Woolf Family in Exeter

We now believe that Michael Woolf was born in Exeter in 1825 (according to the Mary Ann Crocombe's Bible on 31st July). He was the son of Isaac and Leah Woolf.

Michael enlisted as a private in the 3rd Light Dragoons in June 1844, a few weeks before his nineteenth birthday. There is a further enlistment record dated February 1845, supporting the story that his father originally bought him out of the army. During the 1840s he saw service in India before returning to England in the summer of 1853. The regiment was then stationed in Exeter until June 1855, and it is presumably there that he met his future wife, Mary Ann Crocombe (or Croscombe), the couple being married at St Sidwell's Church 2nd February 1854. In early 1856 the regiment was moved to Hampton Court (where his daughter Priscilla was born) at Michael volunteered to join the 6th Dragoon Guards. With this regiment Michael served again in India and then China, returning to England in 1861, being stationed at the Tower of London (where Caroline Hannah was born in 1862). In 1864 they moved to Curragh for a year, and Michael retired from the army in 1865 as a pensioner with over 21 years service. At the time of discharge he had received four badges, including one for good conduct. He was described as being 5 feet 6 7/8 inches tall with brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion.

Michael is known to have had a number of brothers and sisters, probably including:

A death certificate has been located for "Isaac Woolff a hawker aged 76" on 28th January 1850, and this is likely to be "our" Isaac. After his death, Leah moved to London to live with her daughter Rachel (then married to Isaac Moss), and later moved to Birmingham, where she died in 1865 at the age of 76.

The will of Hymen Cohen gives a possible insight into the tensions which existed in the Jewish congregation at that time. He first wrote his will in February 1846, and in it he bequeathed money to "Ezekiel and Priscilla Wolf, niece and nephew of my wife Phoebe". However, in March of the following year he wrote a codicil to the will, revoking these bequests and leaving everything to his son Aaron. We know that Ezekiel Woolf was married in March 1846 at St Helen's Church in Abingdon, and Michael had previously left the Jewish faith in order to join the army. Hymen was a staunch member of the synagogue in Exeter, so this may well have been an attempt to show that he disowned those members of his family who "defected"! Phoebe was probably the sister of Isaac Woolf - we know she was born abroad, whereas Leah (Isaac's wife) was born in Devon.

It is still not totally clear where the Woolf family came from, and when they arrived. During the eighteenth century a number of Ashkenazim Jewish families arrived in Devon and Cornwall from the areas of East Germany and Poland. This part of Europe had faced a number of upheavals during that period, and in the 1790s Poland was divided between Russia and Prussia. Although the Jewish population was not openly oppressed, their movements were severely curtailed. It is thus generally accepted that they moved to the western countries of Europe not as asylum seekers but rather as economic migrants, in an attempt to find a better life for themselves and their families. There was already an established Jewish community in the East End of London, and smaller communities in Plymouth, Exeter and other provincial towns - they would this have moved to be close to their brethren. Please click here to find a good article about the history of the Jews in Poland.

By around 1760 there was already a Woolf family living in the Penzance and Falmouth area. The name is not uncommon, and it is not known whether they are related to our family. We have not been able to trace Isaac Woolf (Michael's father) in the census, though there was a man called Marcus Woolf who was aged about 70 in the 1851 census of Plymouth, and who came from Poland. Marcus (also known as "Woolf Woolf") was a witness at the married of William Woolf (Isaac's son), which suggests that he may have been Isaac's brother.

If Isaac and Marcus were brothers, then it would appear that they were among the first members of our family to come to England. Marcus was born in about 1781 and his wife (Kitty) also claimed to come from Poland. Isaac was born in about 1791, but his wife (Leah) claimed to come from Devon. Isaac's earliest-known child (William) was born in about 1810, suggesting that he was married around 1808-1809, probably in Exeter. No record has been found of other people of that name in earlier records, apart from a "Mr Woolf" who died in the cholera epidemic of 1832, and claimed to have no relatives in England. This would strongly suggest that the two brothers, Marcus and Isaac, travelled together, possibly moving across Europe towards a German of Dutch port before sailing for London, and then subsequently heading towards Exeter where they had some known friends or relatives. It is possible that Phoebe (1768-1848), wife of Hymen Cohen (see above) was their sister and that there was also a brother called Jacob (father of Michael Woolf, b.1816, see below).

The Jewish congregation at Exeter was quite small and Jewish records at that time a very few and far between. The Jewish population in Plymouth grew from 55 to about 193 between 1800 and 1841, and the Jewish population of Exeter in 1841 was just 119. This would suggest a Jewish population in Exeter in 1800 of around 34, so it is probable that many of them knew each other before coming over from Eastern Europe. In some cases it is known where people came from - Moses Mordecai (died in Exeter in 1808) came from Mainz; David Jacob Coppel (died 1805) came from Bailin in Poland; Mr Woolf (as mentioned above, died 1832) came from Shetvinitz in Poland; Jacob Philip Cohen (died 1832) came from Lontschutz. These last three places are not readily identifiable on modern maps, so it is possible the modern-day spellings are different. The archive of Rabbi Bernard Susser is a very good source of information on early Jews in South West England.

In the 1841 census, Michael Woolf was living in Exeter with his mother (Leah) and sisters Priscilla and Rachel - Isaac has not yet been located in this census. Michael's brother Ezekiel appears to have been living in Dorset at the time along with another Michael Woolf (born about 1816) and his brother Morris (born about 1826). This Michael was married to Rachel Solomon in 1838 and they lived in Gordon Square, London. He died at 67 Regency Square Brighton, in 1892 - is it possible that he was the connection that brought George and Caroline Jepson to Brighton in 1890?

Michael Woolf's first wife, Mary Ann Crocombe, died in Exeter in 1877 and he married again the following year to Anna Andrews. The couple had five children - Rose (b.1879), William Andrews (b. 1880), Charles Henry (b. 1884), Leah Anna (b. 1886) and Alfred Edwin (b. 1889). Michael worked for a while as commercial traveller, probably in the jewellery trade, and it is probably through this that Caroline met George Andrews Jepson. In 1887 Michael was working as a salesman for and insurance company, and it is thought he may have been the organist at the local church. He died in Exeter in 1903, aged 78 years.


COPYRIGHT © Clive Henly December 2006