The Jews of South-West England
Thesis by Rabbi Bernard Susser
The communal organizations of the
Jewish communities of the South-West, 1750-1900
The Anglo-Jewish community has never had a central fund from which subsidies could be given to local Congregations to enable synagogues to be built or to help pay officials' wages, [In France and Germany the Rabbis' wages were paid by the state from the nineteenth century onwards. In England, a Provincial Ministers' Fund was set up in 1884 to encourage smaller congregations to engage English speaking ministers. It was never of great importance. The United Synagogue, and to a lesser extent, the Federation of Synagogues, in London, make loans to newly formed communities to enable them to build synagogues.] so that provincial Congregations, at least, which rent or build houses of worship and engage officials must devise some machinery to raise the money to cover expenses. In this chapter an attempt will be made to describe the methods employed to finance both capital and recurrent expenditure.
At first, the typical eighteenth-century Anglo-Jewish Congregations' financial needs were small. The few worshippers met in one of their homes. Each Jew provided his own prayer book and ritual regalia. The most expensive item at the nascent stage was the Scroll of the Torah. This was usually provided by a wealthy individual, [J. Sherrenbeck and Abraham Joseph loaned their own Scrolls to the Plymouth Congregation, and eventually bequeathed them to it. In 1782, 17 Baalei Batim of the Plymouth Congregation gave sums ranging from five shillings to two guineas and totalling £18. 4s. for the purchase of a Scroll. At the same time, Abraham Joseph gave £1. 3s. to the Congregation to purchase two pairs of phylacteries, which would presumably have been for use in the synagogue by worshippers who could not afford to buy their own, and twelve mezuzot, possibly for resale to members of the Congregation (PHC Min. Bk. I, p. 28).] or possibly loaned by a neighbouring Congregation.
Usually, a Congregation first became involved in recurrent expenditure of any size when it rented a room or hall for its services. Now, regular weekly expenditure had to be matched by regular weekly income. This was achieved in two ways: seat rentals which were the mainstay, and contributions which those called to the reading of the Torah were expected to give. In most Anglo-Jewish Congregations there was also a supplementary income from sale of synagogal honours, fines from those refusing honours, entrance fees from those wishing to become vestry members, and bequests. Nonrecurrent expenditure, such as the purchase of land, buildings, or Scrolls of the Torah, major repairs, arranging the defence of Jews whose conviction would bring the Congregation into disrepute, or contributions to Government War Appeals, was covered by appeals to the members of the local and other Congregations or by special levy. [Examples of this type of expenditure and appeals or levies will be given in the ensuing pages.]
Turning first to seat rentals, these were fixed in 1760 at two guineas per annum for a vestry member and one guinea or half a guinea for seatholders. [PHC A/c. 1759, passim.] More than a century later, the seat rentals had increased by one hundred and fifty per cent, the rentals in 1883 being two shillings weekly for the vestry members, and a shilling for the Seatholders, or sixpence for those in straitened circumstances. [PHC A/c. 1883, passim.]
The other major source of income was that from offerings, either those made to secure the privilege of performing certain rites in the synagogal service, or donations, generally subject to a minimum amount, made after receiving such an honour.
Thus, the Plymouth Congregation's regulations of 1779 specify that one called to the Torah on Sabbath or Festival must offer three donations to the synagogue, charity, and cemetery funds, the minimum to each being three pence. [PHC Min. Bk. I. Regulations nos. 2, 58.] The Bridegrooms of the Law had each to offer 7/6d. [Ibid. Regulation 12.] One could buy the honour of standing Segan, i.e. to decide who should be called up, for sixpence. [Ibid. Regulation 60.] The other South-West Congregations had similar rules. [E.g. Roth MSS 205; PenHC Regulations, 1823, nos. 79, 81, 84; EHC Regulations, 1833, nos. 22, 36. An unusual feature in Exeter was the obligation to offer on a "Good Sabbath" (i.e. one on which two Scrolls are taken out) and the Sabbath of Comfort (Sabbath Nahamu) but not on ordinary Sabbaths.] These offerings formed a considerable proportion of a Congregation's total income. In 1760, for example, before the Plymouth Synagogue was built, the offerings amounted to £66. 6. 11d. from the 25 resident donors, who subsequently formed the nucleus of the Congregation. [PHC A/c. 1759.] In 1765, that is three years after the Plymouth Synagogue was built, the total income from fourteen contributors (the accounts may be deficient) was £81. 11. 3d. of which only £22. 11. 0d. came from seat rentals whilst £59. 0. 3d. came from donations. [Ibid.] This was possibly an unusually high proportion as just over £31 came from two donors. [They were Joseph Sherrenbeck and Mordecai ben Yehiel (PHC A/c. 1759, pp. 1, 5).] Unfortunately, the next sufficiently detailed accounts of the Plymouth Congregation which have survived, so that a comparison of seat rentals with donations may be made, are those of 1883. In that year seat rentals brought in to the Plymouth Congregation £155, and donations from members were £54. 15. 0d. [PHC A/c. 1883-1886, passim.] The balance sheet for the year ended 3 September 1885, [In the author's collection.] conveys a similar picture:
At the outbreak of the First World War, seat rentals doubled but the offerings remained approximately the same; if anything they dropped, certainly the proportion they formed of the total income dropped: [PHC A/c. 1913, Balance Sheet in the author's collection.]
The tendency for voluntary donations to form a decreasing proportion of the Plymouth Congregation's income may be explained in the following way. There was an ever decreasing number of regular worshippers, so that the same people were called to the Torah more and more often. These regular worshippers decreased their donation on each occasion so that their total for the year remained constant. These voluntary offerings fluctuated throughout the year and therefore did not form a reliable method of financing the Congregation's expenditure, so it was exceedingly difficult to budget ahead. The drawbacks of relying on voluntary donations were already manifest by the early nineteenth century when Treasurers frequently had to lay monies out of their own pockets until their accounts were finally paid. [PHC Min. Bk. I, p.76.] To ensure a ready supply of money to pay bills on hand, the South-West Congregations resorted to a tax on meat (which the observant Jew could only buy under Congregational auspices), either a farthing or halfpenny on each pound weight. This tax was collected by the butcher, remitted to the Treasurer and then credited to the member's account to contra his seat money or offerings. [PHC A/c. 1759, passim. The Exeter Congregation's Meat Tax Book survives at the Jewish Museum, London.]
One form of supplementary income which substantially helped the Plymouth Congregation, and to a lesser extent the other three Congregations in Devon and Cornwall, was that which came from legacies. These were often spent as they came in, except in Plymouth where legacies from the mid-nineteenth century were invested so that only the interest on the investments was used. According to the necrology of the Plymouth Congregation, some £2,500 was left to the Plymouth Synagogue between 1780 and 1900, and this by no means represents all legacies, as the munificent legacies of Jacob Nathan in 1868, which include £1,000 to the Synagogue, were for some unknown reason, not incorporated in the necrology. Many of the legacies were left on the express understanding that a Yizkor (Commemorative prayer) should be recited at the appropriate time on Festivals. [For example, E. A. Ezekiel of Exeter, died 1807 (a copy of the will is in the author's collection, the original was destroyed); Abraham Joseph of Plymouth, died 1794, P.C.C. Newcastle, 91; Moses Mordecai of Exeter, died 1809, P.C.C. Loveday 298; Revd Myer Stadthagen of Plymouth, died 1862 (P.C.C. 1862/414).]
At least one legator was afraid that his wishes would be neglected. He was Jacob Jacobs, Plymouth silversmith, goldsmith and Navy Agent, and the relevant portion of his will reads as follows:
The Plymouth Congregation's far sighted decision to invest legacies and use only the interest has provided it with a substantial "unearned" income. In 1884, for example, the interest from four legacies amounted to over £60 out of an income of £320, nearly one-fifth. In 1913, seven legacies provided £62 out of a total income of £538, and in 1963 the interest from 43 legacies amounted to £424 out of £3341, or about 12 per cent. [Balance Sheets of the Plymouth Congregation in the author's collection.] If the Congregation continues to decline numerically this investment income will play an increasingly important part in its finances.
The regulations of the South-West Congregations will be discussed in detail towards the end of this chapter. At this stage it is apposite to mention one aspect of them, and that is that they, in common with other Anglo-Jewish Congregations, freely prescribed fines. To give just a few examples: those who did not accept office, [PHC Regulations, 1835, nos. 32, 119, 120.] or absented themselves on a Sabbath or Holyday after receiving notice that they would be called to the Torah, [Ibid. no. 107.] or who made a disturbance during meetings or prayers - or allowed their children to do so, [Ibid.] or who were contumacious or rebellious, [Ibid. no. 133.] and paid officials who neglected their duties, [PHC Regulations, 1835, no. 101.] were all liable to pay fines ranging from as low as a few coppers to sums as grand as five guineas.
It is clear that the fines were intended to be penal rather than fiscal, that is to say, they were designed to encourage members and officials to do their duty rather than to increase income. In Exeter, for example, fines of £12. 3s. were imposed over a six year period from 1827 to 1833, but were rarely paid. [EHC A/c. 1827-1833, pp. 5, 6, 7, 9, 19, 28, 42, 103, 110, 113, 114, 130, 150, 162, 165, 172.] Fines often proved to be a source of discord, those who felt aggrieved paying reluctantly or not at all. [PHC A/c. 1850-1853, sub H. Hyman and Mr Levy.]
Entrance fees to the Congregations of the South-West were payable only by aspiring Baalei Batim, the vestry members with superior rights and privileges. The married son or son-in-law of a vestry member could, on election, become a vestry member on payment of a half guinea, others had to pay one and a half guineas. [PHC Regulations, 1835, no. 52.] In Penzance the same privileges were acquired by an entrance fee of two guineas, [Roth MSS 205, nos. 39, 40.] and in Exeter for one guinea. [EHC Regulations, 1833, no. 15. Sons of vestry members only had to pay 10/6d.] Again, these entrance fees can hardly be regarded as an income producing institution as there were rarely more than one or two new vestry members admitted in any one year.
Reference has already been made to buildings and land which were owned by the Congregations of the South-West. At this stage it is appropriate to discuss the ways by which these Congregations funded capital projects. Invariably, the first financial step taken by any Anglo-Jewish Congregation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries towards paying for large capital expenditure was to launch an appeal to local and distant Jews. [For Canterbury's synagogue building fund, see JC, 16 October 1846; for Gt. Yarmouth's, JC, 4 February 1848; for Dover's, JC, 8 November 1861.] If the appeal did not bring in sufficient funds then a mortgage was raised, which was later generally repaid out of current income.
No records of any appeals by the South-West Congregations have survived which relate to the purchase of lands or buildings in the eighteenth century. Indeed, apart from the one instance of the Plymouth Synagogue, no financial details relating to eighteenth-century capital expenditure by the South-West Congregations seem to have survived.
Examining the records which relate to the building of the Plymouth Synagogue in 1762, it is apparent that the Congregation did not have sufficient funds in hand to complete the building. Accordingly, on 3 September 1762 the elders of the Congregation through a Gentile, Samuel Champion, to obviate possible legal complications, had to borrow £300 from a Mrs. Elizabeth Aven of Plympton 'to complete the buildings edifices and erections now building and erecting thereon and which is designed for a Jewish Synagogue or place of worship for persons professing Judaism'. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 2, 2.] The Congregation was unable to pay even the interest on this sum, as in 1770 there was £336 owing. [Ibid. 2, 3.] Mrs Aven having died, her executor called in the mortgage but not only was there insufficient to pay that, but the Treasurer was short of £34 to pay Raymundo Putt and Edward Stephens, who were probably the builders. [Ibid.] The Congregation's difficulties were temporarily solved by a loan of £370 from one Christopher Harris who advanced £220 on the security of the Synagogue and £150 on a joint bond of the elders. The debt was steadily paid off; the interest was not unreasonable being five per cent of the outstanding balance, which on 19 April 1780 was £100. [Receipts for mortgage payments kept with the Plymouth Congregation's leases.] The mortgage was finally paid off on 6 November 1783, twenty-one years after the synagogue was built. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 2, 4. A silver shield, 7 inches by 5 inches hung prominently in the synagogue, inscribed 'and all the work was finished, 4 Sivan 5544 [= May 1784]', with nine names of vestry members, probably commemorates this event. There was also a payment of £300 being part of £450 outstanding on 19 April 1786. This may have been for monies owing on the purchase of the cemetery or perhaps a Synagogue house (Ply. Syn. Cat. 3, 6).
The Plymouth Synagogue's opening brought a number of large gifts. Joseph Sherrenbeck gave £52 and then £30 on Passover and Tabernacles in 1760 in anticipation of the opening, [PHC A/c. 1759, p.1 (Heb. pagination). These sums are recorded as Matnat Yad i.e. donations at Yizkor on these festivals.] as well as £10. 10. 3d. for the Almemor (platform in front of the ark) in 1762; [Ibid.] Mordecai ben Yehiel gave £33 on Pentecost 1762, [Ibid. p. 5 (Hebrew pagination).] the cost of Ark; and at the same time the Prayer for the Royal Family, sign-written on canvas, at a cost of eight guineas. [Ibid.]
A major repair programme was carried out to the Plymouth Synagogue in 1805 for which an appeal was made on the last day of Passover and which brought in promises of £141. [A beautiful handwritten commemorative inscription with full details of donors' names and the amount they gave hangs in the Plymouth Synagogue. The information which follows is taken from this inscription.] There were 87 subscribers to the appeal, two of them - Joseph Joseph and Abraham Emanuel of Plymouth Dock - gave nearly half, £40. 6s. and £20. 4s. respectively. Friends, relatives or former members who resided elsewhere were among the contributors: 1 each from Exeter, Basingstoke and Bristol, 2 from Portsmouth and 5 from London. Seven widows and a spinster were amongst the contributors.
Yet another inscription, this time dated 1813, records the names of 26 donors who gave £160. 1s. for major repairs to the Plymouth Synagogue. The one shilling was given by the beadle, Hayyim Issachar. [This inscription also hangs in the Plymouth Synagogue. It is a copy made by Joseph Goldston in 1900 of the original destroyed by damp.] A large appeal in 1858 brought in £1,035 for the new Burial Ground at Compton Gifford. [This appeal, too, was recorded on an inscription which hangs in the Plymouth Synagogue.] There were 83 donors to this appeal, all local; more than half was given by Jacob Nathan, the Plymouth Congregation's Mycenas, who gave £555. There is nothing to suggest in any of these appeals that the members were levied according to their comparative wealth or by any arbitrary assessment. Each donor gave according to the generosity of his or her heart. Undoubtedly, similar appeals were made for similar objects in the other South-West Congregations but no record of them appears to have survived.
Where the good name of the Anglo-Jewish community was endangered the Plymouth Congregation did not hesitate to pay for legal representation, and if necessary, to apply to the rest of Anglo-Jewry for help. Some trouble seems to have befallen one Solomon ben Hayyim in 1804 when the Congregation granted his wife fourteen shillings a week, and the same amount to himself. Within a few months it was decided 'that the vestry should hire a counsellor and lawyer' for him out of Congregational funds. [PHC Min. Bk. II, pp. 31, 33.] Another occasion arose in 1817. The dry entries of debits and credits in an account book are suddenly illuminated by the following (translated) account:
The murder of Isaac Falk Valentine in Fowey in 1811 involved the Plymouth Congregation in heavy expense which was met by a levy on the local Jews and an appeal to the Jewish community throughout England. Valentine, appointed shochet to the Plymouth Congregation in August 1811, acted as an agent for a London money changer, buying up gold for paper money. [See supra, p. 213.] One Wyatt lured Valentine to Fowey and drowned him. Subsequently, a roll of sea soaked notes amounting to £260 was found in a pile of dung in Wyatt's stables. Wyatt was hanged for this crime. [Royal Cornwall Gazette, 30 November 1811, 28 March 1812, 3 April 1812.] For some reason that is not now clear the Plymouth Congregation was saddled with an obligation to pay legal expenses on account of Valentine. A committee was set up on 2 February 1812, before Wyatt's trial, 'to remedy the state of affairs'. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p.71, foot of page.] It reported on 7 June 1812 that the 'legal expenses' were £275. [Ibid. top of page.] The committee recommended that each individual member be levied a year's seat money, payable in three instalments. [Ibid. At least one member strenuously objected to the proposal, insulted the committee and was disciplined with an 18/-d fine (PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 72).] The levy would only bring in £150 which leaves a deficiency of £125 which is too onerous for our Congregation to raise. It is therefore agreed that letters should be sent to the Congregations of England, and one also to be sent to the Rav, the Gaon, the head of the Beth Din of the holy Congregation of London, and one also to request from the Rav, may his lamp shine, a testimonial which we might send to the Congregations that they should help us. [Ibid.]
One more example of raising funds by levy, this time for a national emergency, may be given. The relevant minute vividly gives the circumstances:
To what extent were the various methods of financing the South-West Congregations effective? From one point of view the Congregations were always financially solvent. Income nearly always exceeded expenditure, and if for one or two years it did not, then expenditure was reduced.
This may be seen from the early minute books of the Plymouth Congregation. From 1788 until 1813, only the accumulated balance each year is recorded. From 1814 until 1834, however, the actual income and expenditure each year is minuted, and Table 39 gives the relevant details.
Table 39: Annual income and expenditure of the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation, 1814-1834
(Source: PHC Min. Bk. I, II, passim.)
From Table 39 it appears that there was a drastic fall in the income of the Plymouth Congregation after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. There are indications in the Congregation's minute book that already in 1814 'it was found that the Congregation is in a very poor state'. [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 98.] By 1816, the fall in income made it necessary to budget very carefully:
[PHC Min. Bk. II, p.183.]
Unfortunately, neither the minute books nor the surviving account books indicate how the Congregation managed to reduce expenditure from £747. 14s. 8d. in 1815 to rather less than half that amount in 1816.
One balance sheet of the Plymouth Congregation of the early nineteenth century has fortuitously survived, that of 1824. It gives a picture of the type of expenditure incurred by a Congregation at that period, and, as there is nothing in the minutes of that year to indicate the contrary, was probably typical. In the original spelling and style it runs:
[The following table will be reformatted after a review of the original document.]
Anno 5584 [=1824] Exps Receipts etc £ s d £ s d
Mr Alexander [This was Michael Solomon Alexander who later became Bishop of Jerusalem, see infra, p. 348ff.] 55 weeks at 21/- 57 15 0
By Mr Alexander for stationary 1 5 0
from Emden [This and the following three items probably represent monies collected by Gentile butchers on behalf of the Congregation.] 26 1 10
Cantor 13 months at 66/8d 43 6 8
from Heard 36 2 7
~Judah Moses [This and the next three entries refer to pensioners of the Congregation.] 55 weeks @ 5/- 13 15 0
from Butlands 62 14 6
Mrs Abrahams 11 months @ 21/8 11 18 4
Toll 8 9
~Mrs Davis 13 months @ 16/8 10 16 8
By offerings and seats 97 13 7
Ralph 17 weeks @ 5/- 4 5 0
3 years Ground Rent 7 16 0
By error in casting 1 16 2
Insurance 4 0 0
By Balance due 7 17 5
Wax candles 6.17. 7 __ þ ______
Tallow 5. 9. 6 12 7 1 232 14 11
Old Debt 2 14 9
Strange and resident poor 8 0 6
to Moses for eating [The poor received cash donations, and were also allowed to eat at Judah Moses, who was paid for his expense.] 1 11 0
Moatzers & gave the Poor [Matzot and special help to the poor at Passover.] 9 11 6
Printing 3 6 6
Hambley 1 16 6
Incidental Expenses 7 16 6
Error in Casting 1 16 2
Balance last year's acct 25 1 10
d d paint bill 3 3 10
232 14 5 (sic)
When there were too few members to shoulder the responsibility of paying salaries, rates, repairs and the other items of expenditure necessarily incurred in maintaining a Congregation, then it had to close down. This was the fate of the Falmouth and Penzance Congregations.
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