Tuesday, 26 February 2019

The Jewish prize-fighter
who beat an Irish ‘squire’
fits on many family trees

Daniel Mendoza the prize-fighter … his connections with the Comerford sisters is more direct than any supposed Irish ancestry

Patrick Comerford

My posting this morning on the Comerford family of music hall artists and actors and their descent some of the most interesting Sephardic families of Seville, Venice, Amsterdam and the East End of London was a reminder how we are all inter-related and how identity is so often something that we select in a ‘pick-and-mix’ manner from the variety of identities available to any family on these islands.

In his book Jewish Dublin: Portraits of Life by the Liffey (2007), the late Alan Benson cited Louis Hyman in The Jews of Ireland to claim that the famous 18th century boxer Daniel Mendoza was ‘descended … from an impoverished Irish Jewish family of ten children, forced by circumstances to emigrate to England.’

But as I looked through the Sephardi ancestors of the Sipple sisters Aggie and Rosina who married the Comerford brothers Albert (Bert Brandford) and Harry (Harry Ford) and their family tree, I realised these two Comerford actors and stage stars were descended from the same family as Daniel Mendoza.

The Mendoza family can be traced back, not to Ireland, but to David de Mendoza (1650-1730), a Marrano or a member of a Jewish family that had converted publicly to Christianity at the Inquisition but continued to practice Judaism privately. David Mendoza and his wife Abigail David de la Penha Castro (1665-1751) moved with their children from Seville to Amsterdam, where they were free to resume the public practice of their Jewish faith and rituals.

Their grandson, Aaron Daniel de Mendoza (1709-1751), and his wife Bienvenida Abraham Tubi (1709-1765), were married in Bevis Marks or Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in London in 1730. They were the parents of Abigail Nunes Martinez (1744-1810), the grandmother of Sarah (A’Cohen) Asher, who in turn was the grandmother of the sisters Aggie and Rosina Comerford.

But Abigail Nunes Martinez was also the sister of Abraham Aaron Mendoza (1732-1805), whose son Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) was the famous prize-fighter and the boxing champion of England in 1792-1795.

Daniel Mendoza was born in London, the son of Abraham Aaron Mendoza (1732-1805) and his wife Esther Lopez Crespo, although Wikipedia mistakenly names his parents as Moses and Judith Mendoza. In any case, this Moses was a brother of both Abigail Nunes Martinez and Abraham Aaron Mendoza, so we are talking about the same generation in the same family.

Daniel Mendoza was the first Jewish prize-fighter to become a champion. One of his epic bouts in July 1789 pushed the Storming of the Bastille off the front pages.

The real connection with Ireland comes that year, when Daniel and a younger brother came to Dublin to give boxing exhibitions at the newly-opened Astley Theatre at the corner of Bride Street and Peter Street.

Two years later, Mendoza was booked to fight the ‘Squire’ Fitzgerald in Dublin, who claimed he was going to thrash this Jewish ‘trickster’ and that ‘one Irishman is the equivalent of any number of Jews.’

Asher Benson writes that at first Mendoza kept his cool. But as the antisemitic barbs intensified his temper frayed and amid tumultuous applause ‘he well and truly clobbered the squire.’

Asher Benson is generous in giving Fitzgerald his due, for after the bout he said, ‘If in the heat of the moment I used any expression that was insulting, I apologise to you.’

Mendoza was deeply touched by the warmth of his reception in Ireland and later expressed his appreciation of the friendliness shown by all he met.

Mendoza helped transform the popular English stereotype of a Jew from a weak, defenceless person into someone deserving of respect. He is said to have been the first Jew King George III ever spoke to.

Mendoza died in 1836 at the age of 73, leaving his wife Esther and 11 children in poverty and with no money.

The actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980) claimed he was the great-great-grandson of Daniel Mendoza, and he pursued this claim in several films, hanging portraits of Mendoza in the background and making Inspector Clouseau an admirer of Mendoza.

Peter Sellers was born Richard Henry Sellers, the son of William Sellers and Agnes Doreen ‘Peg’ Marks (1892-1967). Peg claimed her mother, Benevenida (‘Welcome’) Mendoza (1854-1932), was a daughter of Isaac Mendoza, one of the 11 impoverished children of Daniel Mendoza.

In fact, Benevenida was a daughter of Israel (Mordechai) Mendoza (1811-1897), who was a son of Mordechai (Moses) Mendoza (1774-1851), who in turn was a son of Moses ‘Aaron’ Mendoza (1742-1779). This is the Moses Mendoza who was an uncle of the prize-fighter and who is named by Wikipedia as his father.

So, to claim Peter Sellers is a descendant of Daniel Mendoza the prize-fighter is like making the same claim for the sisters Aggie and Rosina Comerford.

But then, we are all related by no more than six degrees of separation, I suppose. We can all rejoice in the diversity we share, thanks to a time when borders were open and refugees fleeing religious persecution were welcomed with open arms on these islands.

Peter Sellers made Inspector Clouseau an admirer of Daniel Mendoza

A Comerford theatrical family
with roots in the Sephardic
families of Venice and Seville

Bert Brantford and Harry Ford … two Comerford brothers who regularly shared music hall and stage billings with their stage names

Patrick Comerford

An interesting Comerford family in London was associated with the theatre music halls and movies at the end of the 19th century and for much of the first half of the 20th century.

Two Comerford brothers, Bert and Harry, married two Sipple sisters, Aggie and Rosina, and almost created a theatrical move dynasty.

Albert (Bert) Alfred G Comerford was a composer who used the stage name Bert Brantford. He was born in London on 23 December 1879. He played a significant supporting role for his brother, composing many of his songs. Bert’s wife, Agnes Violet (Aggie) Sipple, was an actor who used the stage name Agnes Brantford. She was known for her roles in a number of films, including Everything is Rhythm (1936), A Will and a Way (1922) and The Last Post (1929).

Bert’s brother, Harry Comerford, used the stage name Harry Ford. He married Aggie’s sister, Rosina Sipple. The Sipple sisters’ mother, Betsy (Asher), was a vocalist and musician.

Bert Comerford and Aggie Brantford were was the parents of two actors who also used the stage name Brantford: Michael Richard Henry Comerford (1912-1984), who starred as ‘Mickey Brantford’, and Agnes Violet Rebecca Comerford (1915-2008), who as a child actor with the name ‘Aggie Brantford’ had roles in Second to None (1927) and Carry On! (1927)

But the family is also interesting because the Sipple sisters who married the Comerford brothers are descended from some of the most interesting Sephardi Jewish families in Europe. Many of their immediate ancestors were married in the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and they could trace their ancestry directly to leading Sephardi families who lived in Amsterdam, Livorno, Venice and Seville, including Spanish Marrano families who had been forced to convert to Christianity in Seville during the Inquisition but had maintained their Jewish faith and practices in their private family and domestic life.

The Sipple family:

John James Sipple (1831-1873) married Rosemary (‘Rosina’) Mary Anne Hambrook (ca 1834-1895). In the 1891 census, Rosina Sipple was living at 10 Seldon Street, West Derby, Liverpool. She was born ca 1834/1835 in Rotherhithe. She was a widow, aged 56. She died 18 May 1895.

Their children included:

1, John James Sipple (1853-1905), comedian, actor, born Blackfriars, London, in 1853, of whom next.
2, Henry Sipple, aged 28 in 1891, born in Whitechapel, described in the census as ‘imbecile,’ and living with his widowed mother in West Derby, Liverpool.
3, Agnes Ann (Sipple) Nolan, who used the stage name Agnes Hazel. She seems to have married her first husband Edward Scott in Sunderland in 1884 and to have had a son Herbert Scott, who was born in Newcastle ca 1886 and who was living with his grandmother, aged 5, in 1891. Agnes moved to Australia and was living in Melbourne at the time of her mother’s death in 1895. There she married the comedian and music hall star Michael Nolan, who died in January 1910. Their children included a son and daughter:
1a, Herbert (Bert) Nolan.
2a, Agnes (Aggie) Nolan.

The eldest son in this family was:

John James Sipple (1853-1905), comedian, actor, born in Blackfriars in 1853. He was aged 38 in 1891. In 1876, he married Elizabeth (Bessie or Betsy) Asher. Bessie was born in Whitechapel, London, ca 1858, the daughter of David Asher (1812-1866) of Birmingham and London, and his wife Sarah Cohen (1814-1895); see below. Betsy was aged 32 in 1891, a vocalist and musician, and they were living with his widowed mother in West Derby, Liverpool in 1891. John James Sipple died in 1905.

They were the parents of five children:

1, William Sipple, born in Birmingham ca 1879/1880, living with his parents and grandmother in West Derby, Liverpool 1891, aged 11.
2, Rosina Sarah (Sipple) Comerford (1881- ), born 1881 in Liverpool, aged 10 in 1891. She married Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955), the brother of Agnes Sipple’s husband, Albert AG Comerford. He used the stage name Harry Ford. (See below).
3, George Ayton Sipple (1883-1957), born in Scotland in 1883, died 25 October 1957.
4, Agnes Violet (Aggie) Sipple (1884-1965), born 30 October 1884 in Dundee, aged 7 in 1891, and living with her parents and grandmother in Liverpool. She married Albert (Bert) Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), the brother of Rosina Sipple’s husband, Harry William John Comerford. She died on 15 July 1965 in Brighton. (See below).
5, Michael Joseph Sipple (1891-1940), later Michael Joseph Sipple-Asher. He was born in South Shields, Durham, in 1891, and was aged 2 months at the 1891 census, when he was living with his parents and grandmother in Liverpool. He married Florence Kate … They lived at 91 Tamworth Lane, Mitcham, Surrey. Michael, Kate and their daughter Michelle died together when their home in Mitcham was hit by a bomb on 5 November 1940.

Michael Comerford (Mickey Brantford) in the movie ‘Mr Cohen takes a Walk’

The Comerford family:

Michael Comerford, born ca 1814, in Deptford Kent, married Mary …, born ca 1816 in Westminster. They were the parents of seven children, including:

1, Henry Comerford (1851-1918), of whom next.
2, John Comerford.
3, James Comerford.
4, Michael Comerford.

Their first named son:

Henry Comerford (1851-1918) was born in Lambeth in 1851 and died in 1918. He was a stereotyper (printer). He married Rosena Emily Dunn (1856-1912), who was born in Clifton, Bristol, in 1856. They were the parents of two sons:

1, Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955), of whom next.
2, Albert (Bert) Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), of whom later.

The first named son:

Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955) was a popular music hall and variety comedian and actor under the stage name of Harry Ford

Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955) was born in Newington, Southwark, on 21 August 1874. He was a popular music hall and variety comedian and actor under the stage name of Harry Ford. He married in 1903 Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881- ), whose sister Aggie married Albert (Bert) Albert George Comerford (1879-1973), known on stage as Bert Brantford.

Harry made his first appearance on stage as a boy in 1887 at the Elephant and Castle Theatre. His first music hall performance was at the Middlesex Music Hall in a sketch called Young Fred, and he went on to became a music hall star. He sang some of the most original and amusing songs the halls had ever heard and his brother, Bert Comerford, played a significant supporting role as composer of many of those songs.

Although Harry was at his peak while the likes of Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and George Robey dominated bill-topping positions at the Tivoli, Oxford, and the Pavilion, London, he regularly took his place on these bills for several years in the late 1890s and early 1900s and held his own. Indeed, at the London Pavilion in particular, he was a recognised favourite for many years. He frequently did top bills throughout London, as well as in the major provincial cities. The Variety Theatre once described him as a true star of the Metropolis.

Harry Comerford (Harry Ford) died in Birmingham on 31 March 1955, aged 80.

His brother:

Albert (Bert) Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973) was a brother of Harry Comerford (Harry Ford), and used the stage name of Bert Brantford. He was born at 30 Henshaw Sttreet, Newington, Lambeth, London on 23 December 1879. He married Agnes Violet (Aggie) Sipple (1884-1965), sister of Rosina (Sipple) Comerford. Aggie was born on 30 October 1884 in Dundee, Scotland. She was aged 7 in 1891 and was living with her parents and grandmother in West Derby, Liverpool.

As an actor, Aggie Comerford used the stage name Agnes Brantford. She was known for her parts in Everything is Rhythm (1936), A Will and a Way (1922) and The Last Post (1929). She died on 15 July 1965 in Brighton, Sussex.

Bert Comerford died in Richmond upon Thames in June 1973; Agnes Brantford died in 1965. They were the parents of three children:

1, Albert Henry George Commerford (1907-1994), born Wandsworth.
2, Michael Richard Henry Comerford (1912-1984), ‘Mickey Brantford’.
3, Agnes Violet Rebecca Comerford (1915-2008), ‘Aggie Brantford’, who was born in Wandsworth.

Michael Richard Henry Comerford (1912-1984) was an actor and film production manager who worked with the stage name of Mickey Brantford. He was born on 26 March 1912 in Brixton, London, into this theatrical family.

He began his acting career at the age of three and as a popular child actor in the silent film era in the 1920s and 1930s. He appeared in a series of Sexton Blake shorts as the detective’s assistant, Tinker. He was known for Suspense (1930), The Stolen Necklace (1933) and Strictly Illegal (1935). He died on 18 October 1984 in Buckinghamshire.

His sister was:

Aggie Brantford (1915-2008), who was born on 14 January 1915 in Lambeth, London, as Agnes Violet Rebecca Comerford. As an actor, she was known for Second to None (1927) and Carry On! (1927). She died on 31 October 2008 in Jedburgh, Scotland.

The Aron Hakdesh or Holy Ark for the Torah scrolls in the Bevis Marks Synagogue … many of the ancestors of the Comerford (Sipple) sisters were married here in the 18th and 19th centuries (Photograph: Devor Avi/Wikipedia)

The Asher and Cohen families:

José Nunes Martines (ca 1687-1764), arrived in London sometime between 1695 and 1710, when he married Sarah de Moses Cardoza de Chavez (ca 1691-1754), daughter of Moses Nunes Cordosa and his wife Rachel de Chavez.

They were the parents of:

Abraham Joseph Nunes Martinez (1719-1781). He married in Bevis Marks Synagogue in London on 30 November 1739 Abigail (1720-1806), daughter of Abraham Isaac Rodriguez Ribeiro (1690-1751) and his wife Paloma Jacob Mizahi (ca 1700-1751).

They were the parents of:

Isaac Moses Abraham Martin Nunes Martinez (1745-1841). He was born on 6 November 1745 and died in 1841 or 1842. He married on 23 May 1764 in the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London, Abigail Aaron Mendoza (ca 1744-1810), who was born in Livornia, Tuscany, and died in London. (For her ancestry, see below). They were the parents of:

Dove Deborah (Paloma) de Isaac Nunes Martinez (1788-1876). She was born in Mile End, London, in 1788. She married her first husband, Moses Moseh Hanoch A’Cohen (1784-1832) in Bevis Marks Synagogue, London, on 16 March 1806. He was born on 25 March 1784, and died on 9 January 1832, aged 48.

Dove married her second husband, Abraham Ottolenghi, on 28 May 1847. The Ottolenghi (Ottolengo) Jewish Italian family in Piedmont apparently originated in Germany, and the name is an Italian form of Ettlingen. Prominent members of the family include: Joseph b Nathan Ottolenghi (died 1570), Rabbi of Cremona; Samuel David b Jehiel Ottolego (died 1718), scholar and kabbalist, born in Casale Monferrato; and Abraham Azariah (Bonaiuto) Ottolenghi (1776-1851), rabbinical scholar, born in Acqui.

Dove and Abraham were both in the Portuguese Jewish Hospital, Mile End Road, London, in 1861. Abraham died in 1866 and Dove died in 1876.

Dove and her first husband Moses A’Cohen were the parents of:

Sarah (Cohen) Asher (1814-1895). Sarah was born on Mile End Road in 1814, and died in 1895, aged 81. She married David Asher (1812-1866) in Birmingham in 1843. He worked as a confectioner and a hatter, and worked in New Street, Dudley Street and Lower Temple Street in Birmingham before moving to London, where he died in 1866. David Asher and Sarah (Cohen) were the parents of a number of children, including:

Elizabeth (Bessie or Betsy) Asher (1858- ), who was born in London 1858. She performed on the stage at a very early age. Bessie married John James Sipple in 1876. Their children included two daughters who married two Comerford brothers:

Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881- ), who married Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955), known on stage as Harry Ford.
Agnes Violet (Aggie) Sipple (1884-1965), who married Albert (Bert) AG Comerford.

Inside the Scuola Spagnola in Venice, founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews … Bienvenida Abraham Tubi de Mendoza ancestors included Jewish families in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen resolution)

The Mendoza and Tubi families:

While the Asher family were Ashkenazi Jews, Rosina Sarah (Sipple) Comerford and her sister Agnes Violet (Sipple) Comerford were descended through their grandmother’s family from some of the most interesting Sephardi families in Spain, Venice and Livorno (Leghorn) in Tuscany. As I researched the story of this branch of the Comerford family, I was particularly moved by this detail, having visited the synagogues and ghetto in Venice last November, and followed the Jewish trails through the former Jewish quarter in Seville the month before.

The history of the Jewish community in Livorno begins with the history of the town itself. The first stone was for building the city and port of Livorno was laid in 1577. To populate the new town, the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici of Tuscany issued edicts known as the Livornine in 1591-1593, providing new immigrants with tax exemptions, some immunities and complete religious freedom. Jewish, Turkish and Moorish merchants were expressly invited to move to the town. Jews could own houses, open shops in all parts of the city, study at the university and did not have to wear the Jewish badge.

Thanks to these provisions and Livorno’s central position in the Mediterranean, Jews flocked in the port and the Jewish population soon reached one eight of the entire population of the town.

Because most of these new settlers were Marranos and Levantines, Spanish became the official language of the Jewish community in Livorno. These Jews kept contacts with their places of origin, and their cultural and commercial contacts and trade networks throughout the Mediterranean lasted for centuries.

In 1765, more than one-third of the 150 largest commercial houses in Livorno were owned by Jews. For 300 years Livorno, ‘the city without a ghetto,’ was a point of reference for the Diaspora. But after Napoleonic capture, the port of Livorno declined in commercial importance and the Jewish population dwindled in numbers.

David de Mendoza (1650-1730) of Jaén was a Marrano or a member of a Jewish family that had converted publicly to Christianity at the Inquisition but continued to practice Judaism privately. Jaén is about 90 km north of Granada, 100 km east of Cordoba, and 240 km east of Seville. He married Abigail David de la Penha Castro (1665-1751), daughter of David Haim Joseph de la Penha Castro and Gracia de Ledesma. They moved from Seville to Amsterdam, where he died on 22 December 1730, and she died on 13 July 1751.

They were the parents of:

Daniel de David Mendoza (ca 1685-1758) was born in Seville. His wife Esther (1689-1774) also seems to have been born in Seville. He died in Amsterdam on 28 October 1758, and she died there on 2 May 1774.

They were the parents of:

Aaron Daniel de Mendoza (1709-1751) of Amsterdam and London. He was born in Amsterdam in 1709. He was a shochet or kosher ritual butcher. He married Bienvenida Abraham Tubi (1709-1765) in the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in London on 22 March 1730. She was born in Livornia in 1709. Her father, Abraham Judah Tubi (1670-1739), was born in Venice and died in Livornia; his father was Judah Tubi (1629-1670). Bienvenida’s mother was Abigail Emanuel Nunes (1673-1747).

Their children included a daughter:

Abigail Aaron Mendoza (1744-1810), who was born in Livorno in 1744 and died in London in 1810. She married Isaac Moses Abraham Martin Nunes Martinez (1745-1841). They were the grandparents of Sara (A’Cohen) Asher, the grandmother of Aggie Comerford and Rosina Comerford.

Following the Caminos de Sefarad or Sephardic trail in the former Jewish Quarter in Seville … David de Mendoza’s family moved from Seville to Amsterdam, and then to London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Last revised and updated: 4 April 2019.