Opening the Archive World War One

The Theman Brothers and the Gurkha Knife

How did two Manchester businessmen from a respectable Jewish family come to be accused of supporting the enemy during the First World War?

January 1915. The Great War was less than six months old, but already more than a million British men had volunteered to serve; many thousands had been killed. The Manchester Regiment (including the newly-formed Manchester Pals) had been deployed and seen action, including at the first Battle of Ypres.

Supporting the effort

In central Manchester, tobacconists Marcus and Henry Themans decided to show their support for the troops. They obtained a kukri – the iconic curved knife of the Gurkha soldiers – and displayed it in the window of one of their shops, along with a caption, hand written by Henry:

Genuine war trophies

Poisoned throwing knife and Kukri as now being used by the Indian Gurkhas with great success against the Germans.

image of a kukri knife
A Gurhka kukri (Creative commons)

Henry had been given the information by a Mr Gibbons, the man who had supplied the kukri. From the story which appeared in the Manchester Evening News (MEN March 1915 PDF) it seems that Henry either misheard Mr Gibbons or chose to embellish the facts to make a bolder statement.  Either way, the caption was incorrect: Gurkhas do not use poisoned weapons and what is described as a ‘throwing knife’ would actually have been used to sharpen the kukri.

Providing the enemy with an excuse

The claim that the British army was using poison attracted several complaints, made first to the brothers then to the police. The brothers removed the caption, but this did not prevent action being taken against them. So it was that, in March 1915, Marcus and Henry appeared at the City Police Court in Minshull Street, charged with ‘making a false statement … likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty’.

From our perspective, this may seem something of an overreaction. After all, both sides in the war would use poison gas just a few months later in 1915. But the truth is that, during the first months of the war, poison was a highly sensitive subject. The warring sides had signed the Hague Convention which prohibited the use of poison in warfare and, though they were already preparing stocks of chemical weapons, neither wanted to be accused of war crimes by being seen to use it first. To state publicly that the British army was already using poison was not merely wrong – it was regarded as deeply dangerous, potentially providing the enemy with the excuse it needed to use its own stocks of gas.

Supporting the enemy?

But there is a less obvious aspect of the story, which may well provide clues as to quite why the case went to court.

In their defence, the brothers’ representative specifically states that the firm was neither German nor of German nationality and therefore, he implies, not disposed to support the enemy. Why might people think this in the first place?

Marcus and Henry’s father was Dutch, moving to England in his youth. Holland remained neutral throughout the war but in fact was used by Germany as a route to continue to import the supplies it needed. This was to continue until 1916 when the Royal Navy imposed a blockade. Relations between Britain and Holland were, at best, strained in 1915.

Possibly of more relevance is that, in popular opinion, ‘Jew’ and ‘German’ were increasingly becoming synonymous: an August 1914 issue of the Jewish Chronicle complained that references published in the Times ‘might very seriously encourage the ignorant identification of Jew with German’.

Life after the case

Other evidence, such as the War Series cigarette card below, shows that the brothers were keen to associate their business with support for the army. Since Henry appears to have corrected the kukri caption immediately he had consulted Mr Gibbons about the facts, we can only wonder whether the case would have reached court had the brothers been neither Jewish nor sons of immigrants.

Image of Theman Brothers' cigarette card from 'A Series of Fifity War Portraits'
Cigarette card front and back. Kind permission of Cigcardpix (

The brothers were each fined £25 (equivalent to more than £2,500 each today) plus costs.

The brothers continued to trade, but it seems likely that the court case damaged their reputation if not their business: just four months later, Henry changed his name by deed poll.

Despite often being treated with suspicion, records show that more than 55,000 Jewish men (many born outside Britain) served in the British army during the First World War. No less than five won Victoria Crosses.

This research is the result of our recent First World War project. Having found an intriguing newspaper article about the Theman brothers in the archives here at Central Library, we worked with a Pakistani Muslim women’s group in Rochdale to research the case in more detail and explore the history of Britain’s relationship with the Gurkhas. Poet and scriptwriter Anjum Malik then worked with the group to create a dramatic monologue; The Curious Case of the Gurkha Knife. The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and supported by Arts Council England, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cartwheel Arts. Post written by David Orman.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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