Sir Otto Jaffe: Lord Mayor, linen merchant and philanthropist

Motorists travelling along Belfast’s Victoria Street will be familiar with a pastel yellow structure located at the entrance to Victoria Square. The iron fountain, cast by Sun Foundry in Glasgow, was commissioned in 1874 by Otto Jaffe in memory of his father, Daniel Joseph Jaffe.[1] This blog post examines the Jaffe family’s contribution to civic and mercantile life in Belfast, alongside their role in developing local institutions for the city’s Jewish community.

Victoria Street & Jaffe Fountain, 1910. Source: Robert John Welch Collection, National Museums Northern Ireland.

Otto Jaffe was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1846. He first arrived in Belfast at twelve years of age and attended ‘Mr Tate’s School in Holywood’ before completing his education in Switzerland.[2] The Jaffe’s interest in the textile industry brought the family to Belfast, by then known as ‘Linenopolis’, in 1851. Daniel Jaffe financed the construction of a linen warehouse ‘in Italian Renaissance style’ at the corner of Linenhall Street and Donegall Square South.[3] This ornate building, completed in 1862, still exists and currently functions as Ten Square Hotel. Daniel Jaffe also funded the city’s first purpose-built synagogue in 1864 which was located at 71 Great Victoria Street.[4]

Following extended periods working in Europe and the USA, Otto Jaffe returned to Belfast on a permanent basis in 1877 to manage the family linen business.[5] Otto married Paula Hertz, a native of Brunswick, Germany, in 1879. Jaffe quickly became immersed in civic life in Belfast and was noted as ‘a man of philanthropic spirit’.[6] By 1879 he was vice-chairman of the ‘Town Relief Fund’ and by the mid-1880s claimed board membership of the Royal Belfast Hospital, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Royal Belfast Academical Institution – among many other organisations.[7]

The Jaffe Memorial Fountain as it looks today. Photographer: William Murphy. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/27143141443

The civic elite in which Otto Jaffe mixed also dominated municipal politics. Jaffe aligned himself to Irish Unionism in the 1880s and became a naturalised British citizen in 1888. By 1890 Jaffe was a Justice of the Peace and considering his own election bid. Jaffe was subsequently elected as councillor for the St Anne’s Ward in the 1892 local elections.[8] During his time as a councillor he ‘was an active member of the committee which got the Public Libraries Act extended to Belfast, leading to the first free library being established’.[9] His political influence expanded rapidly during the 1890s and culminated in his nomination as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899. After completing his one-year term, which he ‘discharged with much credit’, Jaffe was knighted in Dublin Castle by the Lord Lieutenant.[10] Sir Jaffe was appointed High Sheriff of Belfast in 1901 and served a second term as Lord Mayor in 1904-5.[11]

Like his father, Daniel, Otto made a significant contribution to the local Jewish community. By the 1890s the congregation of the city’s first synagogue on Great Victoria Street had increased from fifty-five to over one thousand and was too small to accommodate the community’s needs.[12] In 1904 Jaffe contributed £4,000 towards the construction of a new synagogue in Annesley Street.[13] Otto Jaffe attended the opening ceremony in August 1904 wearing his mayoral regalia.[14] Sir Otto and Lady Jaffe also funded the Jaffe National Memorial School on Cliftonville Road which opened in 1907. The school provided Jewish religious tuition and was described as a ‘practically a Godsend to the city of Belfast’ where ‘no distinction was made with regard to the religion of the children attending it’.[15] The school was amalgamated and renamed Cliftonville Primary School in the 1950s.[16]

By 1914 Sir Otto occupied a seemingly secure position as one of Belfast’s leading civic figures. During the summer of 1914 Sir Otto and Lady Jaffe were on holiday ‘at Oberhof in Bavaria’ but quickly made for Folkestone after war was declared in August. Jaffe, who acted as German Consul in Belfast, immediately resigned from the post and deposited ‘all papers and documents … to the American Consul’.[17] The war, however, stirred anti-German sentiments – fuelled by the media and state propaganda – which gradually eroded Jaffe’s ability to remain in public life. Anti-German sentiment reached a zenith in May 1915 following a U-boat attack on the Cunard liner Lusitania off the west coast of Ireland. The ship sank within eighteen minutes and, of approximately 2,000 passengers on board, almost 1,200 perished. The sinking turned international opinion against Germany and crystallised anti-German sentiment in the UK. ‘Riotous and criminal attacks upon [German] homes and businesses’ occurred in many British cities over the following weeks.[18]

Sir Otto and Lady Paula Jaffe. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Otto_Jaffe_and_Lady_Jaffe_portraits.jpg

Otto Jaffe’s status as a naturalised British citizen and elected Unionist politician did not shield him from widespread anti-German sentiment. Unfounded allegations that Jaffe was spying for Germany prompted him to publish a letter in the Belfast News-Letter on the 17th May 1915. Sir Otto forcefully refuted the ‘painful suggestion’ that his sympathies lay ‘with Germany in the present struggle’. ‘I have always acted’, he continued, ‘as a loyal British subject residing and carrying on business in Belfast’ and denounced the ‘horrible and detestable’ actions of Imperial Germany. Jaffe also noted that his relations, including his own son, Arthur, ‘hold a commission in His Majesty’s Army’.[19] His nephew, Lieutenant H.S. Oppe of the Yorkshire Regiment, was later killed in action at the Dardanelles.[20] A supportive editorial piece in the Belfast News-Letter reminded its readers that ‘he still possesses and deserves the confidence of his fellow citizens’.[21] The issue even reached the House of Lords, where Lord St. Davids argued for the ‘accept[ance] as an Englishman a naturalised German who has sent his own son to fight in the ranks alongside our sons’.[22]

Sir Otto and Lady Paula left Belfast for England in 1916. Their large family home, ‘Kinedar’ in East Belfast, was sold in 1922 which signalled their permanent relocation.[23] Other Belfast assets were reportedly auctioned at ‘less than a quarter of their value’.[24] The Jaffes spent their remaining years living between London and Eastbourne, Sussex. It remains unclear if they ever returned to Northern Ireland. Sir Otto died in April 1929 and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium.[25] Lady Jaffe passed away four months later.[26] Their sense of civic responsibility and charitable instincts brought many improvements to Victorian Belfast which were conveniently forgotten amid anti-German hysteria during the First World War. Both remained loyal to their Jewish faith. Sir Otto, wrote Belfast’s Rabbi Schacter in 1929, ‘leaves an undying memory in the Jewish community, through his monumental and never to be forgotten deeds’.[27] Annesley Street synagogue and the Jaffe memorial fountain serve as important reminders of Belfast’s first – and only – Jewish Lord Mayor.

Footnotes:

[1] https://memorialdrinkingfountains.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/jaffe-fountain/

[2] Belfast News-Letter, 30 April 1929.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, 9 November 1929.

[4] Belfast News-Letter, 30 April 1929.

[5] https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/twice-elected-lord-mayor-sir-otto-jaffe-was-great-belfast-philanthropist-980328

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 24 February 1900.

[7] Belfast News-Letter, 23 January 1879.

[8] Belfast News-Letter, 20 November 1894.

[9]http://www.blankgenealogy.com/histories/Biographies/Jaffe/Sir%20Otto%20Jaffe%20Bio%20City%20Matters%20Nov%202009%2028.pdf

[10] Belfast News-Letter, 1 February 1900.

[12] https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/twice-elected-lord-mayor-sir-otto-jaffe-was-great-belfast-philanthropist-980328

[13] http://www.blankgenealogy.com/histories/Biographies/Jaffe/Otto%20Jaffe%20Bio%20by%20Emma%20Dunn.pdf

[14] https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/twice-elected-lord-mayor-sir-otto-jaffe-was-great-belfast-philanthropist-980328

[15] Belfast News-Letter, 24 December 1927.

[16] https://www.cliftonvilleps.co.uk/school-history/

[17] Belfast News-Letter, 6 August 1914.

[18] Michael Reeve, “The Darkest Town in England”: Patriotism and Anti-German sentiment in Hull, 1914–19’ in International Journal of Regional and Local History, vol 12, no. 1 (2017).

[19] Belfast News-Letter, 17 May 1915.

[20] Belfast News-Letter, 25 November 1915.

[21] Belfast News-Letter, 17 May 1915.

[22] House of Lords debate on ‘Aliens and Naturalisation’, 18 May 1915.

[23] Belfast News-Letter, 6 January 1922.

[24]http://www.blankgenealogy.com/histories/Biographies/Jaffe/Sir%20Otto%20Jaffe%20Bio%20City%20Matters%20Nov%202009%2028.pdf

[25] Belfast News-Letter, 3 May 1929.

[26] Irish Independent, 19 August 1929.

[27] Belfast News-Letter, 30 April 1929.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1904

Location: Annesley Street