Interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue, 1884.
Archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation
Cataloguing of the archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation (1598-1997) has recently been completed (reference code LMA/4521).
The Spanish and Portuguese Congregation is a Sephardic (descended from Jewish communities in Spanish and Portugal, rather than the Ashkenazi communities who originated in Germany) Jewish community based at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London. The Congregation’s first synagogue was established in Creechurch Lane in 1657. This was replaced in 1701 with the present synagogue, which still stands in the east of the City, close to Aldgate Tube station and 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin). Bevis Marks Synagogue is designated as a monument of national importance, open to visitors, and religious services are still held there.
Membership of the Congregation expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, with new members who had arrived in London from Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, Italy and North Africa, the Middle East, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Over the course of time its members began to move out of the City and the East End to the west and north of London, and branch synagogues were established, initially in Wigmore Street in 1853, moving to Bryanston Street, Marble Arch, in 1861 and then to Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, in 1896. This is now the administrative headquarters for the Congregation. Another synagogue was constructed at Mildmay Park in North London in 1883, which closed in 1936. A further synagogue was opened in North London at Wembley in 1962.
Famous members of the synagogue include Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, (1784-1885), financier and Jewish community leader; boxer and prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza (1763-1836); and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), who was circumcised at the synagogue, although a later quarrel between his father and the synagogue Elders led to the family leaving the congregation and the children being baptised as Christians in 1817 (thus allowing Disraeli to enter Parliament).
The collection came to LMA in 2007, and the catalogue is largely based on the descriptions in the synagogue’s handlist. References from the original handlist are included in the former reference field in the catalogue.
The collection includes: records relating to the governance and administration of the Congregation including ascamot (laws) of the Congregation and minutes for the Mahamad (Executive), Elders and Yehidim (Congregation); service registers covering births (1767–1882), circumcisions (1715–85, 1803–25, 1855–69), ketubot (marriages contracts, 1690–1795) and burials (1657–1935); property and legal papers; financial records; some records for the Lauderdale Road and Mildmay Park Synagogue; personal papers and family records from members of the Congregation; and some material relating to Sephardic congregations in Barbados, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Venice and Germany.
Entrance to Bevis Marks Synagogue, 1958.
The collection also includes a variety of records for charities and organisations run by or connected to the Congregation. These include two sets of almshouses, the Barrow’s Almshouses in Bethnal Green and Cock Court Almshouses in the City; the Beth Holim Hospital in Mile End, founded in 1747; several schools and a Theological College; an orphan society; two Dower Societies which provided assistance for brides to set up their homes; a Board of Guardians; and six burial and mourning societies.
The collection is a rich resource for family historians and those interested in Anglo-Jewish history and Jewish worship. Nicola Avery’s recent article gives more information about one archive treasure from the collection, a deed purchasing land in Mile End Road to use as a burial ground after the existing cemetery became full, which includes over 150 signatures and seals of members of the Congregation (LMA/4521/A/03/06/003).
The collection also includes papers relating to the runaway marriage of Sarah Ximenes Cardoso and Joshua Lara, who eloped to Paris (LMA/4521/A/03/08/001). The indignant father of the bride, however, had them excommunicated by the Congregation, the marriage annulled and the couple arrested. Eventually the excommunication was withdrawn and the marriage recognised by the Wardens.
The ‘livros dos pleitos’ (dispute case book) series record the Mahamad’s arbitration of various disputes amongst the Congregation, covering 1721-1868 (LMA/4521/A/01/21/001-006). Cases heard include those relating to debts and breaches of the Congregation’s laws, as well as domestic disputes and quarrels about child maintenance payments.
A legal case in 1656 established the principle that Jews could live in England legally for the first time since their expulsion by Richard I in the 13th century. After this legal case, Charles II and James II lent further support to the admission of Jews to England by quashing indictments against the Jews for unlawful assembly, and there are petitions in the collection from members of the Congregation to Charles II and James II asking for support (in series LMA/4521/A/03/01).
The collection also contains the unsigned diary of an English apothecary James Petiver, recording his journeys from Ingleborough to London in 1691 and concluding with a description of a visit to the synagogue at Creechurch Lane (LMA/4521/C/02/002).
The records in this collection can only be accessed with prior written permission from the Congregation, which can be obtained from the Honorary Archivist and Chief Executive of the Congregation. Contact details are in the catalogue. Users should also be aware that many of the records are in Portuguese, and there are also records in Hebrew, Spanish, and occasionally in Italian, Dutch and German.