Exeter Synagogue Archive

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Levander of Exeter

The descendants of James Levander had no knowledge of their Jewish origins until, quite by chance, one of them looked up the name in the index of Rabbi Susser's book. There are many mentions of them in the records of Exeter Synagogue until they suddenly disappear in 1835. This story is extremely poignant: the parents converted to Christianity for the sake of their son's education - a place at a university - but lost their family and were never completely accepted by English Christian society. An all too familiar tale. It was 150 years before the story was revealed to their descendants. It is a very sad and moving account, with hindsight.


To most families there is attached a history, to mine there is, as far as I know, none. Notwithstanding all my efforts I have been able to discover absolutely nothing - I could not know less if my parents had been the first man and woman created.

I was born in Exmouth, April 29 1839 (10.45 a.m.) the youngest of six children (1) - 3 boys and 3 girls. It was not until the Census of 1881 that I found that Henry, the eldest, was born at Goat Lane, Norwich. Where the others were born I never knew.

My earliest recollections are when I was about 7 years old and I was taken to a school kept by a Miss Knox, who lived next door to us in Southernhay, Exeter. These houses stood together, ours was the centre one and next to Miss Knox's was the entrance to the Barnfield. I was at this school for about three years and was so well taught that when I went to the Exeter Grammar School at Easter 1850 I took an unusually good place. Here my greatest friend for some time was a boy of the name of Huish, who afterwards - for no reason - turned against me and became the ringleader of a set of bullies who made my life almost unbearable.

My home life was, like that of most schoolboys of the time, spent chiefly in work - 3 schools a day and a lot of preparation. My chief solace, when I had any spare time, was reading the very few books to which I had access - I think those I liked best were Robinson Crusoe (in Latin) and Anton's Voyages - and watching my brother Edward, who was very fond of drawing and making models. Had he lived he would have been a very clever man

In the holidays, some of us used to collect tradesmen's cards and put them in albums. I remember, in consequence of a question put to me in the course of my pursuit thereof, once asking my father about our name. I was told, if asked again, that I might say it was of foreign origin. (2) We, especially my younger sister, Louisa, and myself were always wishful to learn about father's and mother's families - who was the "Grandfather" whose portrait used to hang in the dining room - who and whence was James Levander - who and whence was Julia Jones whom he married 17th February 1825. And these questions are still unanswered by me as they were half a century ago. It was only recently - after Henry's death (3) and therefore when all opportunity of enquiring was cut off - that through one of my colleagues at U.C.S. I found the name occurs in the British Museum Catalogue. All other boys and girls had relations - how was it that we had, at any rate apparently, absolutely none.

I have heard that a brother (4) of my father was in India, when or where or what he is or was I know not. I gathered that my father was at one time a partner in his profession with my mother's brother - Alfred Jones. That he was treated very badly by the latter, that they parted and that my father was reduced from a condition of affluence to that of comparative want.

Alfred Jones died 17th September 1882 and left his property to his widow who died 15th February 1883, leaving £14,000.

Of Henry we saw very little as he came home only at vacation time. We younger children saw clearly enough that things were very cramped. We had but few friends; we had no parties, as other children have and went to none.

Though my father was acknowledged to be a very clever dentist, his practice decreased and others, younger, cheaper and less skilful came into the neighbourhood. Henry always did his best to help. But illness set in and my eldest sister died in 1852 of consumption, borne for several years. This was naturally a great strain on a limited purse and was followed in turn by long illness and subsequent deaths of my second sister (1851) and second brother (1854). But before the death of the latter we had been obliged to move into another house on the opposite side of Southernhay. Matters went from bad to worse and we had to go into lodgings in [?] and then Longbrook Street, my father having consulting rooms at Miss Balls and afterwards at Mr. Ross, watchmaker, in the High Street.

It had always been intended that I should go to Oxford, and I worked hard at school, getting prizes and promotion every half year. For the last 2 years I was at the head of the school and gained several of the larger prizes as well as considerable praise from the University Examiners. In the early part of the summer quarter 1857, it became known that the Head Master, Rev. H. Newport, a Cambridge man, intended to award to F. D. Thomson, my junior and not in need of the money, the Exhibition that had been tacitly understood was to come to me. Instead, therefore, of my going to Exeter College, Oxford, Thomson went to St. John's Cambridge and I turned out to earn my living teaching without a degree, the absence of which has certainly not assisted me. Still, I was fairly successful and always left my situations of my own accord to improve my prospects.

In the autumn of 1857 my father died, 1860 my sister Louisa (Lily) with whom there was more sympathy than with the others and whose influence I believe still affects me. In 1865 my Mother died at Winchester.


(1) My great grandfather, the only child to marry

(2) It was always assumed that the Levanders were Huguenots, also the name is not uncommon in Sweden.

(3) Died in London 1884





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