Page created: 5 December 2006
Latest revision or update: 4 August 2016
Two Unknown Welsh Synagogues, and an Oxford Connection
Despite this being a Welsh story, it begins in Oxford. It may be recalled that one of the first incidents in the nascent 1840s Oxford community was the fire in February 1844 in which Aaron Jacobs and his daughter Rebecca died. One of the survivors was his son Nathan who later became a minister and ended up, at first, in South Wales. Although the Jewish population in the Principality is now small, with congregations confined to the three coastal towns of Swansea, Cardiff, and Newport, in the latter part of the 19th century and in the early 20th century there were many more communities as well as isolated families in numerous places. Some places developed formal congregations with their own synagogues, not only along the coast but also inland, at the heads of the valleys, in such places as Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale, and Aberdare.
On page 46 of the book edited by Ursula R.Q. Henriques, The Jews of South Wales, Historical Studies (1993) there is a map of Jewish settlements. Those places which had a synagogue are underlined. It appears to be complete but for short periods at any rate two other places had synagogues; these were at Pontypool and at Neath. I was alerted to these two by letters printed in the Jewish Chronicle, in 1867 and 1868. They were written by Henry D. Marks, of Cardiff, and were based on his visits to various places in South Wales. In the first letter, referring to Pontypool, printed in the JC on 1 March 1867, p. 6, he noted that the congregation was very small ‘consisting, in fact, of three families only, with sufficient males to form a “minyan” .’ He went on: ‘I am proud to say they consecrated a place of worship for themselves last week, and have engaged the services of Rev. D. Rosenthal, who acts as Hazan [in Hebrew] and Shochet [in Hebrew], and Teacher to their children’. The consecration took place on 10 February 1867. The writer, Henry Marks, noted that the opening of the synagogue was due to the efforts of Rev. Nathan Jacobs of Cardiff who also gave ‘a most thrilling and appropriate sermon on the occasion’, which was reported in a copy of ‘a local periodical’ which he had included with his letter to the editor. This was the Pontypool Free Press of 16 February - a copy of which I obtained through the good offices of the Archivist of the Gwent Record Office. It contained a very full report of the consecration, amounting to several thousand words. The building was one which had been occupied by Mr Philip Hambleton, a builder and farmer, who appears in the 1851 Census as living in Wain House. The newspaper report stated that the two upper rooms had been ‘thrown into one’ and in the centre was a reading desk, opposite which was the Ark containing a Sepher Torah. ‘A portion of the room is railed off for the accommodation of the female members’.
The details of the proceedings of the consecration are given in full. They were conducted by four ministers; in addition to Nathan Jacobs there were David Rosenthal and D. Marks of Cardiff, and L. Harfield of Newport, and there were Jews present from other places in South Wales - Newport., Cardiff, Abersychan, Blaenavon, as well as from Liverpool. There were also several Christian guests. Translations of the Hebrew prayers were printed along with a verbatim account of a long sermon by Nathan Jacobs. After the service the congregation retired for ‘a splendid collation’ provided by the President and Treasurer (the former identified as Joseph Jacobs). Many toasts were drunk including one to ‘Christian Strangers’.
Who were the Jewish families living in Pontypool? One can trace them from the Census reports. The newspaper report of the consecration referred to Mrs. Bloom, whom I take to be Leah Bloom, the widow of Solomon Bloom, pawnbroker, who died in 1864. At the 1871 Census - 8 years before she died - she was still living in Pontypool, having taken over her husband’s pawnbroking business. (A major Jewish occupation in South Wales was pawnbroking.) Her family in 1871 had no adult males (just two grandsons), but her son in Pontypool , Abraham Bloom (also a pawnbroker), had a 14-year old son Emanuel (an assistant pawnbroker). Another family which was in Pontypool, at any rate in 1866 when a daughter, Hinda, was born, was that of Coleman Follick, an outfitter, but that family soon moved to neighbouring Brynmawr. One other family that I have traced is one that takes us back to Oxford. This was that of Aaron Joseph Jacobs (presumably this was the Joseph Jacobs, the President, mentioned in the newspaper report) , whose household including his brother Benjamin, both of them the sons of Nathan Jacobs and both born in Oxford. Aaron was, surprise, surprise, a pawnbroker, but his brother was in another Jewish trade, that of ‘traveller in jewellery’, i.e. a door-to-door pedlar. Although the nearness of Pontypool to Cardiff might explain Nathan Jacobs’s interest in creating a synagogue in the town, the fact that his two sons were living there must have been an incentive. Another family was that of Henry Crawcour, his name also mentioned in the newspaper report as being appointed vice-chairman of the ‘collation’.
This still does not amount to a minyan of ten adult males unless perhaps some others living nearby were included.
How long the synagogue lasted is unknown. The only subsequent notice I found was in the JC 25 October 1867 page 5 which reported that a ‘discourse’ was held at Pontypool on the Day of Atonement by Mr J. Woolf of the Jews’ Free School.
The other synagogue, mentioned by Henry Marks in his second letter to the JC, was at Neath. This was particularly interesting as it was built entirely at the expense of a resident of the town, Lazarus Samuel - yet another pawnbroker. Henry Marks’s letter was published in the JC on 22 May 1868, page 5. It was long and gave a detailed description of the building which, unusually for the smaller provincial communities at that date, was purpose-built rather than being a converted building. He noted that the foundation stone was laid on 14 April 1867 by Mrs Lazarus Samuel, the wife of its originator and he marvelled at the synagogue’s possessing ‘all the appurtenances, insignia, and paraphernalia of synagogues of larger dimensions’. The ark was made of ‘beautiful New Zealand teakwood’; the reader’s desk was made of ‘polished Spanish mahogany’, and there were two ‘magnificent windows of stained and frosted glass’. There was a ladies’ retiring room ‘fitted with toilet requisites’ and there was even a Succah. Lazarus Samuel died in 1874 and his widow, Rachel, continued the pawnbroking business. A report in the JC 17 September 1880 page 10, stated that the synagogue was opened for the New Year, ‘prayers being read by two gentlemen who were specially engaged. It will also be opened for Pentecost’. The newspaper continued that it was opened once a year for New Year and Pentecost, although how long that continued is not known. I have not come across any other references to it after 1880.
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