The Jews of South-West England

Thesis by Rabbi Bernard Susser

Chapter Five

Cemeteries, synagogues and other buildings used by the Jewish communities in the South-West of England after 1740

Jewish communities in England have always emerged after a process of growth, one or two Jews settling in a town, to be followed by a few more, so that over a period of years there would be enough to form a community. [Unlike the situation in the modern State of Israel where whole communities from the diaspora sometimes settle in one organized move.] Accordingly, services were first held in the house of an early established Jew, who had a room large enough to accommodate a dozen or so worshippers. Then a larger room was rented, and after that as the numbers grew too large to be conveniently seated in a hired room or small hall, land was acquired and a synagogue built. But long before a permanent house of prayer was built somebody would have died and a duly sanctified burial ground was required. Indeed, the acquisition of a cemetery is often the first communal act of a newly formed community. [Roth, Provincial Jewry, p. 14; Australian Genesis, p. 218.]

The Jewish communities of the South-West developed on just these lines. It has already been shown that a small number of Jewish families settled in Plymouth in the early 1740's. About this time, apparently, a local Jew died and it was not convenient to take him (or her) to London or to the nearest established community, Portsmouth. Almost certainly this Jew was buried in a garden on the Hoe which, in 1744, was either already in the possession of Sarah Sherrenbeck or was bought for this purpose, because this land ultimately formed part of the first Plymouth Jewish Cemetery (See Map 5). [Ply. Syn. Cat. 3,6. This information is not given in the catalogue, but is set out in the lease itself.] In 1752, this land was held by Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck in trust for his wife Sarah. [Ibid. 3,5. C. W. Bracken, A History of Plymouth (Plymouth, 2nd edn. 1934), p. 272, writes that the Hoe Jewish Cemetery was opened in 1748, which fits very well with this account.] In the next five or six years the community apparently expanded and required a proper burial ground with a small chapel for laying out the dead, and Sarah Sherrenbeck's original garden which had served its purpose as a kind of private burial plot was no longer large enough. In June 1758, therefore, another quarter acre of ground and a summer house, with its garden near to, and probably adjoining the garden owned by Sarah Sherrenbeck, was bought by three prominent London Jewish merchants, on behalf of the Congregation. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 4,3.] The reason for the involvement of the London merchants was probably that the community was still not sufficiently well established - it did not yet possess its own synagogue building - for its members to be certain that the Congregation was a permanency. They therefore arranged for London merchants, who probably advanced much of the necessary cash as well, to be the nominal owners, to ensure that whatever happened the cemetery would be looked after and the graves cared for. In 1811, when the Congregation was flourishing and a further piece of land was acquired, nobody outside Plymouth was involved. [Ibid. 5, 3.] This time the land was conveyed to three Plymouth Jews and a non-Jew, [They were Abraham Emanuel of Plymouth Dock and Michael Nathan of Plymouth, shopkeepers, Benjamin Levy of Plymouth, optician, and John Saunders of Plymouth, gentleman.] the latter in case Jews were not legally entitled to hold land. [For the same reason the property owned by Sarah Sherrenbeck and the Plymouth Congregation was held in trust for them by some prominent non-Jewish Plymothian.]

It is typical of the early development of Anglo-Jewry that there were a series of de facto situations which time legalized. In the same way as there was never any formal declaration by Cromwell permitting Jews to resettle in England (and hence no legislation about them for Charles II to repeal) [Roth, Jews in England, p. 171.] so, too, there was no formal application for permission to establish a Jews' cemetery in Plymouth. Private ground already in Sarah Sherrenbeck's possession was used for a burial ground, and only fourteen or fifteen years later in 1758 was the purpose for buying more ground 'officially' disclosed in the lease.

The lease and release of 1758 relates that in consideration of £40 the London Jewish merchants were to have a garden and summer house about 55 feet in length and 35 feet in breadth

to permit and suffer all and every such persons as profess the Jewish ceremonies and religion and who now reside in or near the borough of Plymouth or at any time thereafter ... to be used as a place of burial ... [Ply. Syn. Cat. 4,3.]

Similarly, the lease of the ground bought in 1811 declares that it is to be used as a 'burying place for the Society of Jews in Plymouth'. [Ibid. 5,3.] There is no similar statement in the lease of Sarah Sherrenbeck's ground, but the mere fact of its inclusion with the other burial ground leases on the Hoe as well as the contiguity of the plots makes it almost certain that it was indeed the first Jewish burial ground in Plymouth and the South-West. Continued expansion of the Plymouth Congregation necessitated a further purchase in 1868 of land in Compton Gifford adjoining the Old Plymouth Cemetery near Central Park. [Ibid. 6,1.]

Turning to Exeter, the first physical evidence of a Jewish cemetery there was a decision by the Exeter City Council to grant a lease on 28 March 1757 to Abraham Ezekiel for a term of 99 years determinable on three lives in late Tanners plot in the parish of the Holy Trinity at the yearly rent of 10s. 6d. for a burial place for the Jews ... [Exeter City Council Act Book, XIV, p. 232. The yard was previously let to one Chas. Tanner at 6s. 8d. per annum, but was in ruins when the Jews took it over (Warden of the Poor Rentals, Michaelmas, 1756). The plot was let for a maximum of 99 years. When the last of the three 'lives' who were mentioned in the lease died, the lease ended.]

The plot was '22 feet towards Maudlin Street and in depth backwards 80 feet'. [A Book of Maps of all lands and tenements belonging to the Chamber of Exon. (c.1770), Map 5 (Exeter City Archives).] The lease was made from 18 May 1757 for a consideration of five shillings on the lives of Abraham Ezekiel himself, then aged 31, Rose his daughter, aged 2, and Israel Henry, the son of Israel Henry, also aged 2. [Information in the companion to the Book of Maps referred to in the previous note.] The lease on this plot of ground was renewed on 7 January 1803 for a consideration of five shillings and double the rent. This time the lessee was Moses Mordecai and the three lives were Solomon Ezekiel, then aged 17, and Simon Levy and Jonas Jonas who were then both 12 years old. [Ibid.] It seems as though the Exeter Congregation was 'outgrowing' its cemetery, because only four years later on 23 June 1807 Moses Mordecai took out a new lease for the original ground and also for a plot adjoining it. [Ibid. Roth, Provincial Jewry, p. 60, is referring to this extension when he writes that the cemetery was acquired in 1807. Roth knew of Jenkins, History of Exeter (1806) which already mentions the cemetery, and this accounts for Roth's parenthetic note that the cemetery of 1807 was perhaps not the first.]

In 1845, the Exeter Congregation reported to the Chief Rabbi that

two out of the three lives have dropped and the third is very aged, which leaves us in a very precarious state. The trustees have offered to receive a piece of ground in lieu of it and to convey our present ground to us as freehold which will cost us £300. We have applied for subscriptions to the parties who have relatives lying there but have not succeeded. [MSS 104, Chief Rabbinate Archives, p. 37.]

The freehold was eventually purchased, and the burial ground is still in use. [It was also used until the 1960's by the Torquay Congregation, which now has its own cemetery.]

It has not been possible to trace any lease of the Falmouth Jewish cemetery. It is situated on the Penryn Road midway between Falmouth and Penryn, and was thought to have been presented to the Jewish community by Lord de Dunstanville towards the end of the eighteenth century. [W. Warn, Directory and Guide for Falmouth and Penryn, 1864, p. 45.] In 1913, however, it was up for sale as the lease had expired. It was bought by a local Jew, A. A. de Pass, and it is now cared for by the Board of Deputies. [64th Annual Report of the Board of Deputies, (1915), p. 45.] It was already in use by 1791, as the oldest surviving tombstones date from that year, [FHC tomb. 2, 3, 4.] though B. L. Joseph, about 1850, apparently read the date on one stone as 5534 (=1774). [FHC tomb. 1, but the date appears to be 5555 (=1795).] It is reasonable to suppose that the Falmouth cemetery was in use some decades before the date of the oldest surviving tombstones because the Plymouth Jewish cemetery was in use by 1750, and the oldest tombstone there is dated 1776, [PHC tomb. 58a.] whilst the Exeter Jewish cemetery was opened in 1757 and its oldest readable tombstone is dated 1807.

When the Penzance Congregation built its first synagogue in 1807, it already had a cemetery at the back of Leskinnick Terrace. [C. Roth, 'Penzance', JC Supplement, May 1933.] There, too, the oldest stone is dated 1791, and it may well be that the cemetery was in use some time before that date.

The Exeter Jewish cemetery has a small chapel still in use where the dead are washed in the last purificatory rites; at Plymouth's old Jewish cemetery and at Falmouth only a fireplace against the wall indicates where the chapel stood. The Plymouth Congregation's new cemetery at Gifford also has a chapel which was rebuilt in 1958, as well as a caretaker's house.

After the purchase or leasing of a cemetery the next concern of a growing Jewish community was to engage itself in building a synagogue. The synagogue buildings of the four South-West Congregations are all extant. [From 1805, Jews resident in Devonport prayed from time to time in various rooms hired there for that purpose, to spare them the long walk into Plymouth. The last such miniature synagogue at 66, Chapel Street, was founded in 1907, and destroyed in the Blitz of 1941. See infra.] Those of Plymouth and Exeter are still in use as synagogues, Falmouth's was sold about 1900 and is currently used as a furniture warehouse, and Penzance's was sold in 1906 and is at present used as a meeting house for a nonconformist sect.

The most detailed records have survived for Plymouth's synagogue. On 27 April 1762 the mayor and commonalty granted a lease to one Samuel Champion [The lease was made in the first instance to a non-Jew because of doubts then expressed as to the legality of Jews leasing or buying land.] for 99 years determinable on the deaths of George and John Marshall and Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck, at a yearly rental of £2. 12. 0d of 'a garden in St Katherin's Lane ... to erect or build any houses or edifices thereon'. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 1,2. The foundation stone reads [~2 lines of Hebrew here. See note foot page 184 in Thesis.] (Holy to the Lord. This holy and honorable house was founded and built in the year, 'Come let us worship, bow down and bless before the Lord'). The verse is from Psalms, xcv, 6, with slight changes, and the chronogram gives 5522 (=1761/1762).] It is noteworthy that there is no mention of the purpose for which the 'edifice' was to be built. Just one month later Samuel Champion signed a deed in which he declared that he held the lease in trust for Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck and Gumpert Michael Emden of Stoke Damerel, shopkeepers, elders of the Synagogue. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 2,1.] This lease was renewed in 1786 and again in 1797. [Ibid. 1,3; 1,4.] In 1834, the mayor and commonalty transferred the freehold of the synagogue's land to seven members of the Plymouth Congregation acting as trustees, for a consideration of £100. [Ibid. 1,6; PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 229.]

Besides the main synagogue in Plymouth, there were at least two buildings in Plymouth Dock (now called Devonport) used as a 'branch' synagogue, or 'Minyan Room'. The first was in operation before 1810, but heads of agreement were signed by a committee of Plymouth and Dock residents on Tuesday, 10th July 1815. [PHC Min. Bk. II, 53 ff.; D. Black, The Plymouth Synagogue (Plymouth, 1961), p. 10.] It was probably dissolved by 1844, when Mrs B. Moss presented to the Plymouth synagogue a spice box used in the havdalah ceremony, which she had previously given 'to the Plymouth Dock Minyan Room'. [The silver box, in the shape of a four leaf clover worked in fine filigree, is not hallmarked, and was probably made by a local Jewish silversmith. It is still used by the Plymouth Congregation.] A second Minyan Room was opened about 1907, according to the late Mr H. Greenburgh of Plymouth, although it is first recorded in The Jewish Year Book of 1914. It was bombed in the blitz on Plymouth in the second World War, its scrolls of the Torah being rescued from the rubble by F. Ashe Lincoln Q.C.

The lease for the ground of the Exeter synagogue in St Mary Arches was granted on 5 November 1763 to William Luke, [A non-Jew in case a Jew could not hold a lease.] Abraham Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs, at an annual rental of two guineas. [Reference in MSS at Exeter City Library, 48/12/7/18b. According to Billing's Devonshire Directory (Birmingham, 1857), p. 29, the synagogue of 1764 was built on the site of an earlier one. As there is no mention in the lease of an earlier one it is not likely that there was an earlier synagogue.] An inscription in a Breeches Geneva Bible gives the exact date and order of service of the consecration and first use of the synagogue ten month's later: August the 10th, 1764; This day the Jews Consecrated their new Synagogue in the City of Exeter. The service began with prayers for the King and Royal Family. As soon as those prayers were ended, the musick (which consisted of two violins, a heautboy and bassoon) played God save the King. They then carried the Law of Moses seven times round their reading desk and between the the times of carrying it the following psalms were sung in the following order, 1st - 5, 91; 2nd - 30; 3rd - 24; 4th - 84; 5th - 122; 6th - 132; 7th - 100.

After these psalms and some prayers they stopped about half an hour and then said the first service of their Sabbath, the whole lasted above three hours. [Letter of C.A. Mansell, 410 South Lincoln Street, Martinsville, Indiana, USA, dated 17 July 1929 to the Postmaster, Exeter, found at the Devon Record Office, Exeter, by Mr R. Sweetland.]

The Falmouth Synagogue first was erected in 1766 in Hamblyn's Court, later known as Dunton's Court, and then moved in 1806 near to Smithick Hill. [W. Warn, Directory and Guide for Falmouth and Penryn, 1864.]

The Penzance synagogue was built after a lease granted to Hart Woolf and others on 11 December 1807. [This and later conveyances are at J. Jewill Hill, solicitors, Penzance.]

In common with most eighteenth-century synagogues, and nonconformist meeting houses for that matter, all the South-West synagogues had plain exteriors to avoid unwelcome attention and envy. For these reasons the entrances of many eighteenth-century synagogues were tucked away from main thoroughfare. [There is a foundation stone with an all Hebrew inscription on the front of the Plymouth synagogue, but this may not have been its original position. The original stone has crumbled away, and its replacement has slight errors.] Both the Plymouth and Exeter synagogues have only one entrance and that fronts on to a narrow pavement which is used only as a pedestrian short cut, whilst those at Falmouth and Penzance were hidden away in the back streets. [Portsmouth and Edinburgh were approached by lanes off a street, Dublin and King's Lynn through a yard at the rear of another property (E. Jamilly, 'An essay on the Georgian Synagogue' (not published) (afterwards quoted as Jamilly, 'Georgian Synagogue'), p. 14).] The Exeter Synagogue like that of Hull, has no windows and is lit through the roof, possibly to prevent noise annoying the church next door or to give an extra sense of security to congregants. [Jamilly, 'Georgian Synagogue', p. 14.]

There may be an additional reason for not making the entrance on the main road but on a back street. This is so that the worshipper on entering the synagogue would be facing the ark and at the same time facing Jerusalem. An inscription placed over the inner doors leading into the Exeter synagogue at its refurbishment in 1836 displays three biblical verses quoting Jerusalem, the chronogram for 1836 based on the hebrew word for Jerusalem, and a specific injunction (in translation): Pray according to the law towards Jerusalem. [The inscription spells out the reference to this law: Orah Hayyim, Section 94.]

The South-West synagogues were austere not only in their outward appearance, the interior was also plain with bare plaster walls coloured by water paint, plain ceilings, roughly planed wooden floors, and cheaply knocked up wooden benches. According to a craftsman employed in the restoration of the Plymouth synagogue in 1965, the benches display joints typical of eighteenth-century naval craftsmen and were probably made by dockyard carpenters. Apart from the bimah (the central dais) and the ark on the east wall, the four synagogues in Devon and Cornwall could equally well have been nonconformist meeting houses. It is not considered likely that architects were employed for provincial synagogues, and usually their design was taken by the builder, himself usually a nonconformist, [Cf. Hyamson, Sephardim of England, p. 78, for Avis, the Quaker builder of Bevis Marks who would not accept a profit on his work.] from his local chapel. [Jamilly, 'Georgian Synagogue', p. 8.] Both the Exeter and Plymouth synagogues are listed as buildings of special architectural or historic interest under section 30 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, and they are strikingly similar. The ark in the Exeter Synagogue is a simplified copy, reduced in scale, of the one in Plymouth. [Ibid. p. 35. But note JC, 9 June 1854, when apparently a new ark was made.] In the Plymouth Synagogue the ark is the most ornate item of furniture. It might have been imported from Germany because there are indications that it has been cut down to size. [See J. Godfrey-Gilbert, 'Proposed Restoration of the Plymouth Synagogue, 1964' (afterwards quoted as Godfrey-Gilbert, 'Plymouth Synagogue Restoration, 1964'), p. 2.] It figured in the schedule of fittings which were mortgaged with the synagogue in 1770:

One Alter [The bimah (central dais).] and one Tabernacle. [The ark.]

Three large Brass Chandeliers, [These have disappeared.]

Eight large Brass Candlesticks, [These have now been silver plated.]

Five setts of the five books of Moses engrossed on parchment in the Hebrew language. [These were later withdrawn from the mortgage as they were the private property of individuals (Ply. Syn. Cat. 2,3).]

One clock, seats or chairs or other furniture. [Ply. Syn. Cat. 2,3.]

The architect responsible for the restoration of the Plymouth synagogue in 1965 has described the fittings in these terms:

The Bimah must have been a very beautiful and dignified platform, with the eight great candles alight, and the richly polished woodwork which would reflect the light of the candles contained in the three great Dutch type brass candelabra which were no doubt suspended from the centre of the three circular ventilation rilles in the lofty ceiling. The great Ark which closely resembles the one in the old Synagogue in Venice, with its pediment cartoushe at the top, its beautiful cornice and carved decorations in the Roman Corinthian order, was completely covered with silver and gold leaf. The columns, capitals, cornices, flowers and mouldings were all in gold leaf, while the plain surfaces which are now painted dull red, were in silver leaf. [Godfrey-Gilbert, 'Plymouth Synagogue Restoration, 1964', p. 2.]

It has been pointed out that:

whereas carved detail in other types of buildings sometimes becomes coarser and less plentiful as the surfaces recede in perspective from eye level, richness was evenly spread over the Ark front and, if anything, tended to become more elaborate towards the top. A possible explanation lies in the traditional arrangement of the synagogue, the high balcony fronts used for the screening of women cut off from view the lower half of the synagogue and concentrated attention on the upper part of the Ark. Furthermore, as Georgian synagogues were generally small, the detail of the Ark had to satisfy closer scrutiny. [Jamilly, 'Georgian Synagogue', pp. 36, 37. The inscriptions on the ark are the Ten Commandments and [one line of Hebrew] (I will worship towards Thy holy ark in fear of Thee.) It is the second half of Psalms, v, 8, and the chronogram gives 5522 (=1761/1762). See Illustration 9.]

The eight large brass candlesticks with their wide sconces and candle holders are replicas of those used at the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London, and symbolize (according to the beadle there in 1963) the three requirements of the havdalah service, light, wine (the candle holder has the shape of a traditional wine cup), spices (the long column of the candlestick has the shape of a 'spice tower'). All the joinery work, such as seating, balustrading etc., which is in Pine, was stained and polished into a rich tone to contrast with the pale tints of the decorations. [Godfrey-Gilbert, 'Plymouth Synagogue Restoration, 1964', p. 1.]

Various alterations and additions have been made to the Plymouth Synagogue since it was first built. As female worshippers in the synagogue are generally restricted to a balcony there is seldom sufficient room for them. Originally there was a balcony only across the west wall, [The gallery in the Exeter Synagogue runs round the {north,} south and west walls.] and this was later extended across the north and south walls. [Godfrey-Gilbert, 'Plymouth Synagogue Restoration, 1964', p. 2.] Iron pillars had to be installed to support the gallery in 1807. [PHC Min. Bk. I, p. 42.] Two of these were placed under the balcony at the entrance to the synagogue. Their place there might be structurally necessary, but equally well they may symbolize Jachin and Boaz, the columns associated with Solomon's Temple. [I Kings, vii, 21. Frontispieces to sacred Jewish books invariably show such stylized columns.] The synagogue itself had to be extensively repaired in 1795 when a carpenter was engaged to carry out repairs at a cost of £50, [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 64.] and additional seats for children were added in 1811 on the west (rear) wall. [PHC Min. Bk. I, p. 65.] In 1863, Leon Solomon 'unsolicited enlarged the gallery, painted and redecorated this synagogue at his sole expense'. [Tablets of commemoration hanging in the Plymouth synagogue. An Order of Service (with the Hebrew hand-written) for the consecration of the synagogue on 21 February 1864 survives.] There were further extensive refits of the synagogue in 1910, [Western Morning News, 28 February, 1910. See Illustration 11 for the title page of the Order of Service.] and again in 1965. [The restoration cost some £10,000. See Illustration 12 for a photograph of the Torah Scrolls being taken into the synagogue.] The Exeter synagogue underwent a thorough repair and refurbishment in 1854, [JC, 9 June 1854.] in 1905 in memory of Rev. S. Hoffnung and his eldest son, [ Jewish Year Book, 1930. The cost was underwritten by the Hoffnung family.] and again in 1962.

Surprisingly, in view of the importance of the institution, there are few references in the surviving minutes of any of the South-West Congregations to a mikveh, either to the building of one or to its repair. [A mikveh is like a miniature swimming pool, constructed to strict specifications of Jewish law, in which married Jewesses must immerse themselves after their monthly periods before resuming marital relationships.] There was, however, a mikveh attached to each of the South-West synagogues. [MSS 104 Chief Rabbinate Archives, pp. 37, 47, 135, 139.] The ruins of the mikveh at Falmouth are still to be seen, but there is no trace of the one at Penzance. The mikveh at Exeter was built in the synagogue, possibly at the time when the synagogue was built in 1764, at a cost of £84. The Congregation informed Chief Rabbi Adler that the mikveh had to be built on the second floor and the apparatus for heating the water was above that. The difficulty of obtaining a proper water supply and the injury to the premises from the steam and wet led the Congregation to abandon the use of the mikveh in 1844. The report continues:

consequently the public baths are now resorted to where there is a bath constructed which on investigation is found to be within two inches of the prescribed rule for size as kosher. But we regret to add that on account of a trifling extra expense it is not generally used. [Ibid. p. 37.]

The earliest reference to a Plymouth mikveh is in 1821, when there appears to have been a 'mikvehhouse', [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 220.] though the mikveh was probably in the Congregation's house adjoining the synagogue which was used for the beadle's residence and for a schoolroom. It is not known how long this mikveh lasted, there are references to one in 1833, [PHC Min. Bk. II, p. 218.] and again in 1845. [MSS 104 Chief Rabbinate Archives, p. 139.] New arrangements were made in 1910 for the Plymouth Corporation to provide a mikveh at the public baths. It cost £50 and the Congregation paid £25 per annum for the use of it. [Copies of correspondence and agreement in the author's collection.] This arrangement was subsequently abandoned and until 1974 the mikveh was situated in the Congregation's vestry house. [Since the reconstruction of the Congregation's house in 1975 there has been no mikveh in Plymouth.]

The vestry house itself was built in 1808. [MSS 104 Chief Rabbinate Archives, p. 48.] It was rebuilt in the latter part of the nineteenth century to provide classrooms for the cheder, a flat for the caretaker or beadle on the ground and upper floors, and a vestry room for Congregational meetings together with a classroom on the middle floor. It was again rebuilt in 1975, this time providing additionally a flat for the resident minister, or after 1981 a visiting minister.

The only other building known to have been used for Jewish communal purposes in the South-West was the Jacob Nathan School, founded in 1869, which met at 69, Well Street, Plymouth, until after the First World War. [See infra, p. 361.]

F. Ashe Lincoln Q.C.

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