Streetwise: Plumer Square, Haifa

Why was a Haifa square named after a British high commissioner who spent most of his time in Jerusalem?

Plumer square 88 248 (photo credit: Wendy Blumfield )
Plumer square 88 248
(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield )
Without a street map, a visitor to Haifa would never find Plumer Square although it is situated in one of the oldest of downtown neighborhoods. There is no street sign and one could be mistaken in thinking that this square which encloses the Central Railway Station and the Dagon silo is part of Rehov Ha'atzmaut, the main road which runs parallel to the port. Lord Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer was British high commissioner from 1925 to 1928. For much of his work he was based in Jerusalem, so to get an answer to the question as to why a Haifa square was named for him, I contacted Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, rector of the University of Haifa and head of the municipality's committee for the naming of streets. He explained that Lord Plumer in his short term of office encouraged the development of the railways. With the plans in progress for the building of Haifa Port, Lord Plumer instigated the building of a railway station adjacent to its entrance. The original Haifa (East) station, built in 1905 and the site of the Railway Museum, is a classical stone building typical of the Ottoman architecture. But the new Haifa Central, opened in 1937, set back on this tree-lined square, was an oblong clean-cut Bauhaus structure. Designed as a one-story building, a second level was later added for the administrative offices of Israel Railways. Two years ago, this station was renamed Hashmona in memory of the eight railway workers who were killed by a Hizbullah rocket on July 16, 2006 at the start of the Second Lebanon War. The area around the railway station was reclaimed from the sea during the construction of the port, and true to Lord Plumer's vision of creating a viable network of public transport, one of Haifa's central bus terminals was also situated in the station square up to as late as the 1960s. To the southwest of the square a more modern building houses the Dagon silo, a grain elevator 68 meters high and a museum of the history of grain in the Holy Land, its cultivation, handling, storage and distribution from the Neolithic period to the present. The museum, opened in 1955, contains many archeological artifacts donated by Dr. Reuven Hecht, director of the Dagon silo complex. Downtown Haifa was the scene of great turmoil during the fight for independence and in an attempt at self-defense during the Arab riots prior to and after the UN vote, the Hagana stored arms and ammunition in a hideout under Plumer Square, discovered in a search by the British on February 15, 1948. However, when Lord Plumer started his term of office in 1925, he was deluded by a comparative peace and tranquility. This was due more to the stagnation in Jewish immigration and comparative relief among the Arab population and not a sign of permanent stability in the region. Although he created the system of municipal elections to test the feasibility of self-government, he was not politically motivated and avoided troublesome issues. He shared London's primary concern that Palestine should not cost it money and welcomed the lull in hostilities in the hope that he could reduce the number of British troops in the area. After his departure, the simmering tensions surfaced and broke out into the Jerusalem riots of 1929. A caricature figure of a British field marshal, the original Colonel Blimp, Lord Plumer previously served as governor in Malta. Aged 70 when he became high commissioner in Palestine, he was a short solid man, wore a bowler hat and a blue serge suit, and carried a rolled umbrella. He made many visits to Haifa when the port was being planned, and it would have been hard to miss him with his red face and drooping, white walrus moustache walking along the main thoroughfare of downtown Kingsway, later renamed Rehov Ha'atzmaut. But his appearance was deceptive for he was a man of vision and a very successful army commander. He was born in Yorkshire in 1857; some sources say Torquay in Devon. After an elite Eton education, he concluded that education was only useful to mold the character. He then went to military college and served in the Sudan and South Africa in the Boer War, led successful campaigns in Italy during World War I, never forgetting the discipline of the British army which stayed with him well past retirement age and his service during the Mandate. According to Tom Segev in his history of the Mandate, Hakalaniot, translated into English as One Palestine Complete, Lord Plumer was pragmatic and tried to do what he saw as an administrative job with fairness within the limits of his cultural expectations of the native population. He granted land to the Arabs and he envisioned that this would be solely for agricultural use, and for the Jews he initiated industry and public works as a means to reduce unemployment. Lady Plumer, in contrast to this short solid man in a bowler hat, was tall and thin, always wore huge feathered hats and had a collection of fans. She sounds like a character created by Oscar Wilde, but she was sympathetic to the suffragettes and danced for joy when she heard that Britain had granted the vote to women. Her husband was not impressed and in fact refused to be president of the Palestine scout movement because girls were included. He was a keen cricketer, while his wife played bridge, and he could not understand why Jews spent so much energy and money on education; he thought it better to invest in agriculture and industry. Although Haifa's municipal leaders have striven for Jewish-Arab coexistence since 1948, the Mandate period was very unstable in the city, with a strong British military presence attempting to keep the peace. Old-timers reminisce about perilous bus rides through the crossfire, riots, attempts to hide ammunition stores. But there were romantic interludes between the young soldiers and the local girls, with dances at the Windsor Hotel just round the corner from Plumer Square, leisure time at the casino and pool at Bat Galim. With ships coming into port and trains taking soldiers and citizens around the country, Haifa was a hub of industry and social life. The Technion and Reali schools attracted an educated elite to the city long before the birth of the computer and software companies, which boomed from the early '70s. In spite of being on the frontline during the Scud attacks and Second Lebanon War, there is a legacy of that Mandate period, long after Lady Plumer's feathered hats and fans returned to London.