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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter II



BEFORE we go further, one observation must be made. The earliest records of the Great Synagogue have been lost. Until the year 1722, all that we have to go upon are stray references in scattered sources in a bewildering variety of languages: a couple of old deeds: the casual statements, sometimes contradictory, of the protagonists in a forgotten quarrel: and (a document now studied for the first time) the oldest account-book of the congregation, with sporadic entries referring to the first decade of the eighteenth century. Often, these allusions are cryptic beyond the verge of unintelligibility. English words and names and places appear strangely transmogrified, and sometimes unrecognisable, in the careless Hebrew transcription. The interpretation of the entries is frequently open to doubt. But all these sources must be used exhaustively in the default of any connected record: and the story that has been pieced together with their aid, though certainly open to amplification and correction in details, is at least consistent. We are thus enabled to reconstruct the record of a third of a century of communal history, hitherto an utter blank.

The precise date of the foundation of the first Ashkenazi Synagogue in London is unrecorded, and the original records relating to it have long since disappeared. In 1827, however (according to the Preface to the Laws of the Congregation of the Great Synagogue issued in that year), there was still to be found among the muniments of the community "the remnant: of an ancient manuscript book of laws and minutes of transactions" which indicated that the congregation was in existence prior to the year 5452 (1691/2). The document here in question was apparently the earliest book of Takkanoth, or Synagogue Laws (preceding the oldest now extant, those of 1722). From the phraseology, which we must analyse with the utmost care, it would appear that the beginning of the volume, giving the date of the redaction of the code and the organisation of the community, was missing, the earliest of the supplementary laws or minutes being dated A.M. 5452. It is unwarrantable to state, as has been done hitherto on the basis of this record, that this year is given as that of the foundation of the synagogue.

We now have, in fact, definite evidence to the contrary. In 1689/90, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a Presbyterian divine, of Aberfoyle in Scotland, visited London, and kept a careful record of everything he saw in the great city. As a minister of religion, he was interested in the Jews, and paid a visit to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Creechurch Lane, of which he gives an interesting description. But he made it clear that this was not the only one in London at the time. He enumerates all the places of worship of the various sects: ten Quaker, two Lutheran, six Anabaptist, and "3 Jewish synagogues (but cannot contain them all)".1 The mention of a third Jewish place of worship at this date presents a problem. Possibly, there was in existence some other Bethel of which we know nothing (perhaps for the Italian immigrants, who had already arrived in some numbers and like the Ashkenazim were none too cordially received by the magnates of the Spanish and Portuguese community). But it is clear that at the time of this visit there was more than one synagogue in London: and, since the regulations of the Creechurch Lane Synagogue forbade the setting up of a rival congregation following the same ritual of prayers, the second synagogue must necessarily have been constituted for the benefit of the Ashkenazi group.

This is, as we have seen, in 1689/90. The lost synagogal record referred to above proves the existence of the Congregation before the year 5452 or 1691/2 - i.e. at the latest in the year 5451 or 1690/1. The year 1690 - to be exact, the last months of that year - is the common denominator of these two unimpeachable authorities.

Another newly-published source, which saw the light after these lines were written, provides confirmation for the date 1690 for the establishment of the institution. According to Dr. Lionel Barnett (Bevis Marks Records, London 1940, i, 30), the quarrelsome Samuel Heilbuth, jeweller, of Duke's Place (members of whose family were to be closely associated with the Great Synagogue in its early years) had been living in England at least since 1671, and was associated with the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. From 1690 to 1694 there was, for no apparent reason, a break in his attendance. It is natural to explain this as a consequence of the establishment of the new place of worship, to which he properly belonged, even though later on he once more began to attend the older synagogue sporadically. One may deduce from this too that it was in 1690 that the second metropolitan community was set up.

In view of these three independent pieces of evidence, all pointing to the same conclusion, it may now be regarded as an established fact that, while the origins of the Ashkenazi community in London may go back some while earlier, its organised existence began in the year 1690.2

Where was this earliest precursor of the Great Synagogue situated? The current works of reference are explicit on this point. It was, they say, in Broad Court, Mitre Square, being removed later on to the present site. It remains to decide where Broad Court, Mitre Square, was to be found, for it figures on no modern map. But it must be realised how vague and how fluid London place-names were down to the nineteenth century. Before this period, the name "Duke's Place" seems to have been most frequently applied, not as it was for so long, and as will generally be the case in the present volume, to the present Creechurch Place (previously St. James's Place) but to what is now called Mitre Square, at the rear of the Great Synagogue, and the adjacent streets. The historic Duke's Place, now so sadly metamorphosed, was variously called Duke's Place Court or Broad Court - a designation found at irregular intervals from as early as 1646 to as late as 1775. "Broad Court, Mitre Square" where the Synagogue was originally established, was not therefore some obscure cul-de-sac. It was none other than Duke's Place itself, where the first permanent synagogue was built, according to the historians, in 1722, and which for so many years was the heart of the London Ghetto.3

The Synagogue area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (from Stowe's Survey of London, 1754)

Unfortunately, the rate-books and similar records of the parish of St. James's, Duke's Place, can no longer be traced, and the aid which they might have provided in locating the primitive synagogue more precisely is thus lost. It is worth while, however, to attempt the task. Clues are not entirely absent: for in the chronological table at the close of E. H. Lindo's A Jewish Calendar for sixty-four years, published in 1838, the following interesting entry may be read:

1692. The first German Synagogue erected in London, in Broad Court, Duke's Place, on the site of the present Great Synagogue.

This represents, presumably, the tradition current in the London community upwards of a century ago. If it is correct, and the position remained unchanged from the time of the foundation onwards, we must conclude that the first Ashkenazi Synagogue in London, the precursor of the present Great Synagogue, was actually founded in the year 1690 on a portion of the site which that stately edifice now occupies. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue was as yet still situated in its primitive home in Creechurch Lane. The esnoga which was subsequently to be erected in Bevis Marks was as yet not even projected. But the congregation which afterwards adopted the name of the Great Synagogue was already established on the same site that it has continued to occupy down to the present day, sanctified now by an unbroken tradition of Jewish worship extending over two and a half centuries,4 The area was historic. Fifteen centuries before, the Romans had constructed a bastion of their City Wall just here: and masonry belonging to it may be seen below the present Great Synagogue building. In the Middle Ages, the area was occupied by the famous Priory of the Holy Trinity, otherwise known as Christ Church (by a curious coincidence, certain ground in the neighbourhood belonging to the foundation was at one time mortgaged to a Jewish financier, bringing back the connexion perhaps to Angevin times). The former Duke's (now Creechurch) Place is on the site, and to the present day preserves the actual form, of the Great Court of the Priory. Indeed, down to the beginning of the last century access to it was obtained through an ancient Gothic archway, which had formerly been the main entrance to the mediaeval pile. The Great Synagogue occupies part of the site of the Conventual Church (though it is questionable whether the Austin Canons who worshipped there would have appreciated the revolution); while a portion of the synagogal area is described in an old deed as "abutting on the house called the Great Kitchen" On the dissolution of the monasteries, the ground in question was granted by Henry VIII to Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor. From him, it went to his daughter, Margaret, who married the Duke of Norfolk. Their heirs allowed it to pass piecemeal into plebeian hands, the main precinct being purchased by the City in 1592, though a certain portion devolved on Trinity College, Cambridge, from which body various extensions to the Great Synagogue site were acquired. The nomenclature of the neighbourhood vividly recalls this past history. Mitre Square (on the site of the former cloisters) and Mitre Court were named after the tavern which used as its sign the distinctive head-dress of the Prior of Holy Trinity; while Duke's Place preserves a reminiscence of His Grace of Norfolk, former proprietor of the entire area.

Entrance to Duke's Place in the eighteenth century (from an engraving)

Now that they had their permanent synagogue, one thing only was required by the Ashkenazim to make their newly-established community self-supporting. Hitherto, they had buried their dead in the cemetery of their Spanish and Portuguese coreligionists in Mile End, acquired with the connivance of Oliver Cromwell himself at the time when Menasseh ben Israel was in London. After their own congregational organisation was formed, it was hardly equitable that this arrangement should continue, especially in view of the constant increase in their numbers. On Sunday, January 11th, 1692/35 David Penso, parnas of the Burial Society of the older community, called the attention of the Mahamad to "the many tudescos who are at present in this city and increase every day", and the problem to which this gave rise. His fellow-dignitaries agreed that their burial-ground was not large enough to serve both sections of the community, and decided to take action. Summoning to the vestry-room the leaders of the other body ("The Mahamad of the tudescos", as they were designated in the record) they presented them with an ultimatum, indicating that they must find their own cemetery within six months, after the lapse of which time no more of their number would be buried in the House of Life except those who had paid their burial-rate (finta de Bethahaim). This is incidentally the first documentary record of the existence of an organised Ashkenazi community that has thus far been traced. The six months passed, but whether from penury or from neglect nothing was done (unless, as is conceivable but not probable, a cemetery of which all trace is now lost was instituted at this period for the poorer members of the community). No doubt pressure continued: and in the year 1695/6 a separate Burial Society (Hebra Kadisha) was instituted in connexion with the Ashkenazi community. The names of the original governing-body of this organisation have been preserved, constituting the earliest nominal roll of members of the Synagogue: we shall have to return to this document later on.

Deed for the acquisition of Cemetery, 1696/7

In the end, the pressure from without grew too great to be resisted any longer. Benjamin Levy, the wealthy Ashkenazi magnate, determined to take the responsibility on his own shoulders. It was for him indeed a matter of minor importance, since he was a full member of the Spanish and Portuguese community, paying all synagogal dues according to an ample assessment, and having thus been able to lay his wife to rest in the Mile End burial-ground not long before. It was therefore quite altruistically that he acted. There was a piece of vacant garden-ground abutting on the Sephardi cemetery on the north side, the property of Captain Nathaniel Owen. It was impossible for Levy to purchase this outright, being not only a Jew but also alien born, though an endenizened British subject. He accordingly acquired it, by a deed of February 12th, 1697 (February 2nd, 1696, according to the "old style" of reckoning) for 999 years, at a peppercorn rent, for a payment of £190, of which amount £105 was left on mortgage. This God's Acre may still be seen, being that part of what is now termed the Alderney Road Cemetery (considerably enlarged since that date) immediately to the left of the entrance from the street, with a low wall dividing it from the historical Beth Haim of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation.

The Cemetery in Alderney Road (Acquired 1696/7)

Thus, with its synagogue, its regulations, its Governing Body, its Burial Society, and its Cemetery, the new community was at length fully equipped with every necessary adjunct.


1 D. Maclean and N. G. Brett-James in Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, n.s. vi, 324, vii, 151.

2 Both A. M. Hyamson in his History of the Jews in England and E. N. Adler in his History of the Jews in London date the foundation of the Great Synagogue "c. 1690", apparently without printed authority, but possibly following some traditional source which neither at present recalls.

3 The name Duke's Place, as applied to the present Creechurch Place, is found as early as 1666; sometimes, however, it is applied more loosely to the entire area. Mitre Square on the other hand was also designated Little Duke's Place (1799-1831). As indicated, the new nomenclature will generally be neglected in these pages, The name Duke's Place was transferred to the former Shoemaker's Row (later Duke Street) in the nineteen-twenties.

4 This statement, hypothetical when it was written, is finally confirmed by a document of 1795 in the Guildhall Archives, discovered while this volume was passing through the press (see below, p. 116): "The Congregation of German Jews in London have always congregated themselves in their Synagogue in Shoemaker Row, which, is built on lands belonging to this Honble City."

5 This form of date is used for clarity. The "Old Style" Calendar, which began the year in March, still prevailed in England: the year was therefore 1692 according to the "Old Style" and 1693 according to the "New", officially adopted in 1752 but already widely used.

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