Letter from Edward O’Farrell to the Controller, Foreign Trade Department, 29 February 1916 (National Archives of Ireland)

by Louise Tobin

During 1915 and 1916, the Great War and the Easter Rising impacted Ireland’s businesses and economy. One letter in the Letters of 1916 project highlights the problems faced by Irish businesses during these turbulent times. The letter in question is from Sir Edward O’Farrell, the assistant under-secretary for Ireland, to the Controller of the British Foreign Trade Department in London. O’Farrell encloses a report by a sergeant at ‘G’ Division, the detective branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, which deals with the illegal importation of glass from Belgium by a Mr. H. Wigoder in Feb. 1916.

Dublin police report on the illegal importation of glass from Belgium by a Mr. H. Wigoder in Feb. 1916 | Image: National Archives of Ireland
Dublin police report on the illegal importation of glass from Belgium by a Mr. H. Wigoder in Feb. 1916 | Image: National Archives of Ireland

I have seen Mr H. Wigoder, 75 Talbot Street, in reference to his importing goods from Belgium, without the necessary permit. He states a traveller of the firm in Belgium called on him in August last, that he then gave an order for glass for pictures etc, at the same time arranging that the money was not to be sent from this country in payment until the end of the war and that he has a guarantee from the National Bank, College Green, Dublin, to this effect but that he was unaware that a permit was required for getting the glass into this country until he was informed by the Shippers, Palgrave and Murphy.

He is very sorry for causing any trouble and will not offend again in this manner.

There can be no doubt as to Mr Wigoder’s loyalty to this country. He came to Great Britain when an infant and his father who came from Russia was a naturalised British subject.

The H. Wigoder under investigation is Harry Wigoder and the same Harry Wigoder is mentioned in Ray Rivlin’s book Jewish Ireland: A Social History. Rivlin describes how,

Harry Wigoder was twenty when he opened a shop in 1901. He advertised it by paying boys 1s per thousand to put ‘fancy coloured bills’ through letterboxes. Wigoder’s shop at 75 Talbot Street sold wallpaper, Catholic prayer books, statues, framed holy pictures and paint. Two years later his father opened his own Wigoder shop in rented premises at 27 Capel Street; it was twenty-five years before he could afford to buy the property. The two shops always operated independently, and expansion into other branches occurred only later under new ownership; but the family name remains a part of Irish trading history. More than 100 years later, Wigoder shops are still supplying paint and wallpaper to households all over Ireland.

Harry Wigoder and his family appear in the 1901 Irish census. Harris, as he is named in his entry, is living with his parents, Meyer and Tamare, seven siblings, two cousins and a servant in a house on New Street in Dublin city centre. While Harry was born in Russia, four of his younger siblings were born in Dublin. In 1901, his occupation is listed as ‘Traveller’ but by 1911, when the family had moved to a house in Rathmines, his occupation matches his father’s: ‘Framemaker’ (unusually, he was also only aged six years). Ó’Gráda’s study of the 1911 census revealed that 64.4% of Jewish people in Dublin worked in the commercial sector, 20.1% worked in an artisan occupation, 7% were listed as other, 5.5% worked in clerical w/collar jobs, 2.4% were employed as professionals and 0.6% were unskilled. Ó’Gráda’s dataset consisted of 329 Jewish households in Dublin with a total of 2,112 people or two thirds of the Jewish community living in Dublin. Overall, 2,902 people in Dublin entered their religion as Jewish in the 1911 census.

Census 1911 | Image: National Archives of Ireland
Census 1911 | Image: National Archives of Ireland

The trend for importing and exporting goods throughout Europe fluctuated drastically during the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. Dunn and Mutti talk about how, if we take ‘a long historical perspective, we can observe recurrent swings in commercial policy from protection toward free trade and then back towards protection’. A growth in free trade was noticeable throughout Europe during the years preceding the Great War. Dunn and Mutti state that ‘the Corn Laws (which placed restrictions on grain imports) were repealed in 1846, and by 1850 virtually all British tariffs and other restrictions on imports had been swept away. Other countries followed this example and some parts of Europe enjoyed free trade. However, the trend of restricting free trading began to wane after 1870 when European countries began to call for protection. Dunn and Mutti state that, ‘This swing toward protection was accompanied by a competitive scramble for colonies’.

The police report featured in this post highlights the problems that resulted from these trade restrictions. Ignoring the proper system for international trading led to a police investigation and background check, as can be seen in the section of the report which says, ‘There can be no doubt as to Mr Wigoder’s loyalty to this country. He came to Great Britain when an infant and his father who came from Russia was a naturalised British subject’. The background check indicates that there was suspicion surrounding people who were not originally from Ireland. Tensions were high and there was a real fear of German spies in the country. The case of Carl Lody highlights these fears. Lody was a German spy who was tracked down and arrested in Cobh, County Cork, and executed by firing squad in the Tower of London on 6 November 1914. Posters (such as the one pictured below) were put up and perpetuated these fears among the general public. An example of the sort of paranoia that could invade even rural Ireland can be seen in the case of Paul George Wentzel who was arrested in County Down in August 1911 under the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Locals had grown increasingly suspicious of a German native living alone in Ireland while Europe was on the verge of war.

Image: BBC Knowledge and Learning
Image: BBC Knowledge and Learning

In his book Galway and The Great War William Henry looks into this matter in a chapter titled, ‘Fuel to the Fire: Suspicions & Rumours’. Henry discusses how strangers in Galway were naturally looked at with suspicion. He writes, ‘Rumours of a German invasion were also circulating, particularly along the west coast and people felt threatened by such gossip. Reports of people suspected of spying were appearing in the newspapers regularly, adding “fuel to the fire”.’ While these reports proved to be unfounded, people were still worried that at some stage they would become a reality.

In the midst of this paranoia, Harry Wigoder was perhaps lucky that he was considered to have a reputable background and was not considered to be a risk by the authorities.

Louise was a student on the M.Phil in Digital Humanities and Culture in Trinity College Dublin 2013/14. She graduated from UCD with a Masters in Library and Information Studies in December 2013. She studied English and History during her undergraduate BA (Hons.) in St Patricks College, Drumcondra. Louise interned in the National Archives of Ireland as part of the M.Phil, where she worked with the Soldiers Wills database. She has previously worked in information management in insurance companies, accounting firms and clinical trial companies.  

This post was originally published on Louise’s student blog.

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Crutchley, Peter. “German Spy Paranoia’s Irish Invasion.” BBC News. N.p., 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-26082799>.

Dunn, Robert M., and John H. Mutti. International Economics. London: Routledge, 2004. Google Books. Web 25 Mar. 2014. <http://books.google.ie/books?id=zlN- AgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage& q&f=false>.

Henry, William. “Fuel to the Fire: Suspicions & Rumours.” Galway and the Great War. Cork: Mercier, 2006. 83-89. Print.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Dublin Jewish demography a century ago.” Economic and Social Review, 37 .2 (2006): 123-147.

Rivlin, Ray. Jewish Ireland: A Social History (Google ebook). Dublin: History Ireland, 2011. Google Books. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. <http://books.google.ie/books?id=GPQ7AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source= gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

“World War One: Carl Lody – Edinburgh’s WW1 Spy.” BBC News. N.p., 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-26190499>.