ISRAEL ZANGWILL (1864-1926) by Dr P Kirby

Early life

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was a famous author, poet, Zionist, supporter of suffragettes. He was known as ‘The Dickens of the Ghetto’ and the ‘Cockney Jew’. During his life his books, magazine articles, talks and support for women’s rights and emancipation were well known in Britain and the USA.

His parents were Moses Zangwill and Ellen Hannah Marks. In his article… Joseph Levitich knew Lewis Zangwill son of Moses who spoke about his parent’s early life.

In his biography ‘Israel Zangwill’ (1957) Joseph Leftwich described how Zangwill’s mother and her cousin, who later became the mother of Joseph Cowen, arrived in England as young girls. They came from their township of Ravinisek, Poland between Warsaw and Brest Litovsk. They had relatives in London, an aunt who became Dr Eder’s grandmother, and relatives in Plymouth.

There was a family discussion as to which of the two girls should stay in London and who should go to Plymouth. It was Zangwill’s future mother Ellen Hannah Marks who remained in London. Moses Zangwill was about eight and one of the forced conscripted soldiers serving in the Russian army. The story suggests that he was imprisoned for refusing to eat pork but released by an officer who took pity on him. Moses arrived in England knowing no one but was seen at the docks by the Jewish minister Rev, Shapiro who treated his as a son . Shapiro knew the Solomon’s Dr Eder’s grandparents and Moses Zangwill stayed in the household. His Zangwill name was Hebrew meaning ‘ginger’. He came from Zemiatchy later known as Latvia. In 1939 some of the Zangwill family were living in a town called Preili.

Moses and Ellen Hannah Marks were married in the Great Synagogue London in 1861.

Moses Zangwill is recorded in the 1861 Census living with his wife and children at Broad Plain Bristol. He was aged 37, a glazier born Poland and a British Subject suggesting naturalisation. His wife Ellen was born Poland. His daughter Leah was the eldest child born Plymouth age 9 and Israel age 7 born London. In the 1881 Census he was a dealer and pedlar in sponges living at 19 Catherine Wheel Alley St.Botolph, London. His wife was recorded as born Russia and Israel age 17 a Pupil teacher Undergraduate. The 1891 Census shows the family at 24 Oxford Road, Willesden Middlesex. Moses was aged 60 a Retired Sponge Dealer born Russia. Israel (recorded as Rall) was single aged 29 Journalist. His siblings Sarah, Mark, Lewis, and Dinah were all single and living with their parents.

The UK Naturalisation Certificate 25 October, 1895 records Moses Zangwill 24 Oxford Road, Kilburn, London subject of Russia born Riebeniesic, Province of Little Russia. Parents Israel and Sarah subjects of Russia. Moses had no occupation, married and no children under age.

His children were:

Leah, Lewis aka Louis, Mark, Israel, Dinah

The Jewish Chronicle 1908 (14 August) recorded a brief obituary on Moses Zangwill confirming that he had moved to Jerusalem ‘when nearing his sixtieth birthday’. He was pious and charitable but ill health made him a frequent inmate of the Bikur Cholim hospital where he died. He asked that a ‘Moses Zangwill’ bed should be founded in the hospital in his memory which his children should provide. A family account says that his wife wanted to stay with her children so did not join him. He was supposed to have sent her a Get due to the separation. A later Jewish Chronicle obituary for Ellen Zangwill in 1919 stated that she her father was a farmer and miller who died and left her an orphan at an early age. She came to England and ‘lived with her aunt, the mother of Dr Eder’. She married Moses at the Great Synagogue by the Chief Rabbi Dr Nathan Adler and is buried Willesden Cemetery.

Births and Deaths

Ellen died 1919 age 74, Leah age 73, 1936, Louis 1938, age 69, Mark 1945, age 76 (Free BMD Index records).

Israel’s birth (GRO Birth Index M qtr.1864 East London 1c 11 mother’s maiden name Marks (the surname is spelled Zangwiell). Lewis Sept qtr. 1869 Bristol 6a 31, Dinah Dec qtr.1873 Whitechapel 1c 333. It has proved difficult to locate Leah and Mark births. The census records suggest Leah born circa 1863, Mark born circa 1868. Leah may also be Sarah age 28 born Devonport in the 1891 Census and Mark born Plymouth in the 1871, 1881 Census and Devonport 1911census.

Israel was born at 10 Ebenezer Square on 21 January, 1864. His father was recorded as a glazier. The family history suggests that Israel never bothered to get his birth certificate and adopted the date 14 February as his birth date. He gave various reasons for the discrepancy but didn’t appear concerned about the difference.


Israel attended schools in Plymouth, Bristol and London. In London he went to the Jews Free School. He was awarded a BA ( Hons).


Israel married Edith Ayrton the daughter of William and  Ayrton. William was a widower and he and his wife were not Jewish. Her father re-married. Edith was the step daughter of Phoebe Sarah Ayrton nee Marks otherwise Hertha Ayrton inventor, scientist, and mathematician, suffragette (see Cemetery Scribes ID and Blog article ‘The Beautiful Genius’. Israel and Edith had three children George, Margaret and Oliver. The family lived at Far End, East Preston, West Sussex.

The relationship between Israel, Edith, Phoebe, William and Barbara appears to have been a close one. Israel, Edith and Phoebe were closely involved with the women’s rights movement.


Israel began his writing career as a journalist and humourist

His most book ‘Children of the Ghetto’ provides a rich and personal description of the lives of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Eastern Europe who arrived often destitute and settled in East London. He was a prolific writer and communicator who wrote plays, poems, detective stories, political articles among others.

Zionist Movement and Women’s Suffrage

He spoke and wrote regularly on Jewish topics. He was a member of the ‘wanderers of Kilburn’ a group of Jewish intellectuals including Solomon Schechter, Joseph Jacobs, Solomon J Solomon and others. He met Theodore Herzi the founder of the modern Zionist movement. However, he separated from Herzl and became President of the Jewish Territorial Organisation for the Settlement of Jews within the British Empire (1905-1925).The organisation sought to establish a Jewish homeland in a location anywhere in the world depending on land availability.

He worked with Jacob Schift as part of the Galveston Plan which brought 10,000 immigrants to the USA 1907-1915.

Initially he became a supporter, speaker and writer on the Women’s Social and Political Union and Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage both in 1907.

Later on he disapproved of the militant attitudes and practices adopted by the suffragettes and in 1914 helped to develop the United Suffragists a non-militant group.

He became critical of the League of Nations although hopeful that countries could unite in peace if they chose to do so but this required more insightful thinking and practice.

Following the Balfour Declaration (1917) Zangwill advocated territorialism recognising that Arabs re settlement in Palestine could not occur peacefully. He alienated many Jews in with his comments to a large audience at Carnegie Hall and was critical of Zionist leadership and stated that ‘political Zionism was dead’

Death and Legacy

He was placed in a nursery home Midhurst, Surrey from his own home in East Preston. His health had deteriorated since he retired and he died of pneumonia.

He is buried in Hoop Lane Cemetery where he was cremated.

Blue Plaques

Blue plaques are on the front of the house at 288 Old Ford Road, Old Ford London E3 5SP erected 1965 with the name of Israel Zangwill. The second plaque has Edith and Israel’s names at Far End, East Preston, West Sussex

There are a series of portraits and photographs for Israel at the National Portrait Gallery.

During his life he had a worldwide reputation and was considered to be a great thinker, writer and strong supporter of women’s suffrage and initially Zionist movement. Over the years memories of his work have faded and the inscription on his memorial “A Man of Letters and a Fighter of Unpopular Causes” illustrates why he has been largely forgotten. He was never afraid to challenge and consider critically movements such as the women’s rights, Zionism the League of Nations among others if he felt they were moving in the wrong direction.

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