Interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue, 1884
Archive Treasures: Jewish Life
Nicola Avery, Principal Archivist
London Metropolitan Archives holds one of the most important collections of Jewish archives in the country. Its collections relating to the history of Jewish life in London are unrivalled, as the archives of major nationwide Jewish organisations, all based in London, have been deposited there, as have those of many schools, synagogues and charities working in London for the local Jewish population.
Jewish communities have been continuously resident in London since their re-admission to England by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s; they had previously been expelled by Edward I in 1290. The first new synagogues to be built in London in the 17th century were based around Aldgate in the City of London and the focus of Jewish settlement remained in the City and the East End until the mid-20th century.
In the years after 1881 the Jewish population of the East End of London expanded considerably as refugees from Eastern Europe arrived in their thousands. The newcomers were able to benefit from a familiar cultural and religious environment, and from charitable, religious and social support networks which were already well-established. Many of the organisations providing this support have deposited their archive collections with the City. Large institutions with a national remit such as the Office of the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Beth Din (the court of the Chief Rabbi) are included, as are national and international welfare organisations including World Jewish Relief. Education is also well represented, especially through the archive of the Jews’ Free School (now JFS Comprehensive). Local charitable organisations range from the Jewish Memorial Council, a major educational charity based in Bloomsbury, to the tiny Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Stepney.
Indenture relating to the acquisition of the 'Novo' Jewish burial ground in Mile End Road. Manuscript on parchment, 14 February 1734
The archives of religious congregations span all branches of Judaism, both Ashkenazi (Jews from Eastern Europe) and Sephardi (from Spain and Portugal), and from liberal to orthodox, including the orthodox United Synagogue, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation. The latter was the first community to return to England in the 17th century, worshipping first in a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the City of London. As the congregation grew, so did the need for a bigger place of worship. In 1699 a committee consisting of members of the Congregation hired Joseph Avis, a Quaker, to build the new synagogue and leased land for the purpose in Bevis Marks, tucked away in a back street in the City (Jews were still not allowed to build on the public highway). In 1747 a member of the community, Benjamin Mendes da Costa, bought the lease of the ground on which the synagogue stood and presented it to the Congregation. Bevis Marks Synagogue opened in 1702 and is still in use today, the oldest working synagogue in England.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation used a burial ground in Mile End Road, East London (now known as the ‘Velho’ or ‘Old’ Cemetery), but by 1720 there was little space left in this cemetery. The Congregation therefore negotiated the purchase of two and a half acres of extra land further east along Mile End Road, to guard against the day when a new cemetery was required. The ‘Novo’ (‘New’) cemetery was brought into use in 1733, paid for by wealthy members of the Congregation, who put their names and seals to an indenture for the purpose in 1734. The Novo Cemetery was extended by an additional four and a half acres in 1849.
The Congregation continued to expand, and began to move out of the City and East End of London during the 19th century. In 1896 its new synagogue was built in Maida Vale, West London.
The exterior of Bevis Marks Synagogue
The article above appears in a book which has been published to showcase the holdings not only of LMA, but also of Guildhall Library and Guildhall Art Gallery. The contents of London: 1000 years range in date from 1067 to 2007 - the latest items are the memorabilia left at the 7/7 bombing sites - and they include not only the obviously iconic material like love letters from the dying Keats, or one of the very few documents in the world carrying Shakespeare’s signature, but also less expected, more ephemeral items. All of it tells a story.
You can buy London: 1000 Years from Amazon or all good booksellers (as the saying goes), price £29.95, but it is also available from City of London Corporation outlets (LMA, Guildhall Library, Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Information Centre) in a special paperback edition for just £19.95. Anyone who would like a copy is welcome to contact Lloyd Child email@example.com (020 7332 3859) who will be glad to help.
David Pearson (ed.): London 1000 Years: Treasures of the Collections of the City of London. London (Scala Publishers), 2011. 160pp. ISBN 978-1-85759-699-1.