Opening a Bookman
Louis Bookman, formerly Louis Buchalter, the Lithuanian-born, Irish international footballer and cricketer is a figure of huge sporting significance not only in Irish, but in world sporting history. He is likely the first Jewish footballer to play top-flight football in England, for Bradford City and West Bromwich Albion. He was also part of the Irish team that won the British Home Nations Championship for the first time in the 1913-14 season, and represented Ireland with distinction at cricket, including being part of an Irish team that defeated the West Indies.
Bookman had success as a young player with Adelaide, a local, mostly Jewish team from Dublin City’s southside, before moving north to the powerhouse that was Belfast Celtic in 1911 before eventually making the move to England. However, in my research it appears that there may have been another Jewish footballer lining out for Belfast Celtic more than a decade earlier. This same player seems to have also previously played at the highest level in Scotland. While I’m continuing in my attempts to find greater detail on his life and career, this is my early summary of the life and career of Joseph Abrahams, surely one of the first Jewish, top level footballers?
Grasping the Thistle
Joseph Abrahams was born January 28th 1876 in Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of Nathan Abrahams and his wife Annie (sometimes recorded as Fanny) née Solomon. His parents had been emigrants from Suwalki in the Russian Empire, a city in what is now modern-day Poland. The timing of their move to Britain would coincide with the beginning of large-scale immigration of Jewish citizens of the Russian Empire. Britain was seen as offering a chance for a better life and potentially an escape from rising anti-Semitism which developed into anti-Jewish pogroms in the 1880s. Joseph’s father Nathan was a tailor, and Joseph was the third of their ten children. His two older siblings (Kate and Samuel) had been born in England, most likely in London, while his younger siblings were all born in Glasgow. At the time of the 1881 and 1891 censuses the Abrahams family were living first on Norfolk Street, then in the later census on Robertson Street, both locations were very close to the River Clyde and the job opportunities that the river presented such as shipbuilding as well as large textile factories and warehouses.
As well as his father being a master tailor who had four people in his employment, Joseph’s older sister Kate was also a “tailoress”, while he and his brother Samuel trained to be machinists, with Joseph starting his apprenticeship in his early teens.
Joseph makes his first appearance as a footballer of note in May of 1897, when he would have been about 21 years of age. He was one of the players for Glasgow Perthshire F.C. who won the Glasgow Evening News Charity final cup with a 2-1 win over Ashfield. The game was played in Celtic Park and the Scottish Referee newspaper reported that “Abrahams was a great success on the right wing, where he was admirably backed up by Willie Spence. This young player once he gains confidence will be a great help to the Kelburn club.”
By September of that year the same newspaper was announcing the signing of Joseph Abrahams by Partick Thistle. This was to be the club’s first season in the top division of Scottish football. Founded in 1876 in the area of Partick, north Glasgow, they had won the Scottish Second Division in the 1896-97 season and been elected to promotion to the highest tier of football in the country where they would battle it out with Rangers, Hibernian, Hearts and eventual champions Celtic. Partick Thistle would ultimately finish eighth in the ten-team league, and Joe Abrahams had made a decent start, playing in at least six matches in the early months of the season.
In October 1897, just over a month after signing there was a comment in Scottish Referee that Abrahams, who had mostly been playing at outside right, was to be dropped for the game against St. Mirren. The report noted that “Partick Thistle are giving little Abrahams a rest to-morrow, but only because it is thought the metal opposed to him is too heavy.” From this we can surmise that Abrahams wasn’t the biggest of players and that perhaps the St. Mirren defenders were known for their size and robust play.
Joe Abrahams did return to the team for subsequent matches after that game, his final match for the Thistle seems to have been in November 1897 when they beat St. Bernard’s (a club from Edinburgh rather than a group of large dogs) 5-3 in front of a crowd of 2,000. However, despite this victory just days later it was announced in Scottish Referee that “Abrahams has not come up to expectations in the last few games” and that he had been dropped from the starting XI and was next listed as playing for the Thistle reserve side.
We next encounter Joseph Abrahams in the starting XI of Linthouse in April 1898. Linthouse were another Glasgow club from the Govan area who were playing then in the second division. Joe is recorded as getting on the scoresheet during a 7-1 victory for Linthouse over the hapless Renton and is still in the starting XI at the beginning of the following season (1898-99), however by the end of September he was dropped for a game against Dumbarton and there are no further mentions of an Abrahams in the starting teams for Linthouse who struggled that year, finishing second bottom of the second division.
Across the Irish Sea
It is almost a full year before Joe Abrahams reappears, in late September 1898 he is dropped by Linthouse and in August 1899 he appears on trial at Belfast Celtic. After impressing in training he features in the opening game against Cliftonville at the start of the Irish League season, once again Abrahams impressed in a scoreless draw, this time playing at inside-right and obviously does enough to secure a contract with Belfast Celtic.
Joe quickly became a regular in the Belfast Celtic side and within a couple of weeks he even playing an international of sorts. As Chris Bolsmann writes;
In September 1899 an association football team from Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, South Africa, arrived in the United Kingdom. The team comprised 16 black South Africans who played under the auspices of the whites-only Orange Free State Football Association and was the first ever South African football team to tour abroad.The 1899 Orange Free State football team tour of Europe: ‘Race’, imperial loyalty and sporting contest
This touring side from South Africa would play one match in Ireland against Belfast Celtic in front of “an enormous crowd of spectators”. An entertaining game would end with a 5-3 win for Belfast Celtic with Abrahams scoring Celtic’s fifth. Before the season was out Joe Abrahams would be selected to represent Antrim in a match against a selection of the best players from Co. Derry while a month later he would represent Distillery as a guest player in a high-profile friendly match against Blackburn Rovers.
In fact, Joe’s first season in Ireland (1899-00) couldn’t have gone much better, he was one of the standout players of the Celtic forward line that won the club its first ever Irish League title which helped to establish the club as one of the emerging powers in the Irish game. Abrahams played 22 matches and scored six goals across all competitions that season. By 1901 Belfast Celtic had moved to their new ground at Celtic Park, but by that stage Joe Abrahams had moved on. In fact, by the opening game of the 1900-01 season Joe Abrahams was part of the Linfield team that defeated defending champions Belfast Celtic.
This was a huge move by Joe, Celtic and Linfield were already rivals, a rivalry that would only become more intense as Celtic continued to improve over the coming years. Elements of crowd violence and sectarianism were also already present in the game, it was even something that had been remarked upon during Joe’s first game for Celtic against Cliftonville with the Belfast Newsletter describing the “behaviour of several mobs on leaving the ground was brutal and savage.”
It is during his time at Linfield that there is reference to Joe, albeit not by name, as a professional, in Neal Garnham’s Association Football in pre-partition Ireland he notes that “The Linfield club registered eight players of known religions: three were Anglicans, three were Presbyterians, one a Congregationalist and one a Jew. None was Catholic.”
When examining the 1901 Census Joseph Abraham is easy to spot, he is living, appropriately enough given his upbringing on Lanark Street (now Lanark Way) in the Woodvale area of West Belfast, he is married and has a young son, also named Joseph. Both he and Joseph Junior list their religion as “Jew” while his wife, Fanny, is listed as a member of the Church of England. Joseph’s job is not however listed as professional footballer, a very uncommon designation to find in the Irish census at the time, but rather as “Ship Yard Labourer”.
As was the case with most footballers who were paid in Ireland at the time the amount they received was not sufficient to live on and was usually topping up wages received from more regular work. Payments to players in Ireland had only been allowed since 1894, a year after the practice had been permitted in Scotland and nine years after paying players had been allowed in English football. At the time of Abrahams’ spell in Ireland the number of paid players was still very low, and what could be described as “full time professionals” was even rarer still.
We can speculate that after leaving Linthouse there must have been some inducement to travel to Ireland for the trial with Belfast Celtic in August 1899, perhaps promise of the job in the shipyards, something Joe would have been familiar with from Clydeside, as well as a wage for playing football? We know that within two months of arriving in Belfast he had married Frances “Fanny” Kennon, a dressmaker from Lanark in Scotland who we must assume he had been engaged to before moving to Ireland.
Perhaps she knew Joseph through his tailor father? Or worked near him in one of the textile and garment factories in Glasgow? Fanny was the second child of five born William Kennon, a blacksmith and Sarah Kennon his English wife. They were married on October 5th 1899 in St. Anne’s, Belfast. Who knows if their families could attend from Scotland, this is perhaps unlikely as the witnesses were Charles Frederick Carson and his wife Lillie. Charles was also a shipyard worker and had perhaps become friendly with Joe through this connection after his recent move?
Less than a year later, on the sixteenth of July 1900, just months after Belfast Celtic had won their first ever title with Joe Abrahams in their team, Joseph Junior was born in the family home, which was then at 15 Crumlin Road, Belfast.
The season with Linfield was far less successful than the preceding one with Belfast Celtic. In a six-team league Linfield finished fifth and were knocked out of the Irish Cup at the semi-final stage by Dublin side Freebooters. However, Abrahams was once again selected to represent Antrim in the game against Derry, which they comfortably won 6-1. Despite this, by the beginning of 1901 there were some critical comments about Abraham and his “weak” play. During his time at Linfield he would have played with some high-profile players including a veteran Irish international Jack Peden, who had begun his career at Linfield in the 1880s before becoming one of the first high-profile Irish players to move to England, joining Newton Heath (subsequently renamed Manchester United) and later Sheffield United before returning to Belfast with Distillery and finally Linfield.
While the move from Belfast Celtic to Linfield might have been controversial, Joe Abrahams seemed not to care if he provoked a bit of a reaction. That’s why we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised when he appeared on a teamsheet for Glentoran in a charity cup game in April 1901 for Linfield’s great rivals in a match against Distillery. Glentoran lost the game and it is perhaps the only match that he played for them.
According to historians at Partick Thistle around this time Joe Abrahams left Ireland and returned to Scotland where he played briefly for Ayr who were in the Scottish second division. There are reports that the family’s ultimate destination was New York and that Joseph died there many years later in 1965. However, with the help of Michael Kielty I have found that this is not accurate, rather than New York, Joseph would ultimately end up in California. Sadly his wife Fanny would not make it that far with him.
After the birth of their son Joseph there were a further two daughters for Joseph and Fanny but tragedy struck when she died in childbirth with daughter Polly in 1909. Polly was then raised by Fanny’s sister. Joseph later married Sarah Rosenburg, with the help of a matchmaker. Sarah was born on January 31, 1886, in Kaminets, Minsk, Belarus. She had one son from a previous relationship – Charlie, whose father had died during the political unrest in Russia.
When Joseph and Sarah married they had another son together – Maurice. The family moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1912 where they became farmers and as well as taking in some tailoring work. Moving again later in life they landed at Angel Island, San Francisco Bay on board the ship RMS Makura on Christmas Day, 1925 to start another new life in the United States. Joseph, it seems then began a career as a grocer selling vegetables which he added to his previous trades as shipyard worker, machinist, farmer, tailor and footballer.
Sarah passed away in 1951 while Joseph died on May 4, 1961, in Alameda County, California, at the age of 85, and was buried in Oakland, California at “Home of Eternity Cemetery” his second wife Sarah is buried next to him. Despite being credited mostly in records and match reports as Abrahams and occasionally Abraham both of their names are spelled “Abrams” on their crypts.
What I believe is that this shows that more than a decade before Louis Bookman, there was a Jewish footballer playing top level football in Scotland and Ireland. During this time he was paid by Linfield and in all likelihood by Belfast Celtic and perhaps by Partick Thistle and Linthouse. While Bookman would ultimately have the more successful career, would play top level football in England, win important titles with Ireland and be paid as a full-time professional, I believe the career of Joseph Abrahams is worthy of note.