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Portsmouth Jewry
Early History
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)


The history of Jewish settlement in Portsmouth, which for most commentators commences with the founding of the first synagogue in the eighteenth century, can be associated with two important moments in English political history. The first came with Oliver Cromwell’s decision to allow Jews to return to England 365 years after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290 so that by the end of the seventeenth century Jewish communal life was being re-established in London, the major centre of early resettlement. The two communities to emerge there were the Ashkenazi (European) associated with Dukes Place Synagogue. and the Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) centred on Bevis Marks Synagogue. The rise of London as a financial centre in the early seventeenth century, coupled with the decline of Amsterdam, coincided with a period when European Jews with financial and allied interests were permitted to transfer their activities to England. The English social historian G. M. Trevelyan attributes the weak anti-semitism in England at that time to the absence of Jews from the financial scene throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods when monarchical attacks on wealth fell upon monasteries and the nonconformist Quakers. Jews could, then, re-emerge in English financial affairs without great prejudice at a time when parliament rather than monarchic whim dictated the course of economic and political affairs. The second historical moment came with the accession of the Elector of Hanover as George I of England in 1714, an enthronement which must have encouraged German Jews to emigrate to England for certainly they featured prominently among the founding fathers of the Portsmouth Jewish community. George I spent half of his reign in Hanover (1714-1727) demonstrating that a complete lack of the English language and continuing attachment to his homeland were no disqualification from highest office. His son, George 11, spoke English with a heavy German accent. German and other Jews treated as foreigners in England at that time must have felt only relatively disqualified given the spectacle of German monarchy at the head of the British state.

Accounts of the early period of Jewish settlement in Portsmouth are extremely sketchy. The one exception was that of W. G. Gates, Portsmouth’s best known historian, who devoted a chapter in his major work to the increasing importance of Jews since they were attracted to the rapidly developing naval and mercantile port during the early Hanoverian period.’ According to Gates, the first synagogue was established in Oyster Street subsequent to the purchase of a plot of land for Jewish burials in 1749. City records show that in 1716 there were five public houses in Oyster Street where they seem to have constituted the largest number of domiciles at that time. One of these may well have provided the public room in which an incipient Jewish congregation could gather for prayer. If Oyster Street was soon abandoned by the congregation it continued to be associated with Jewish residence. A Mr Nathan was a merchant there in 1822.2 and three of its properties were leased to the heirs of David Levey who became one of the first Jewish local councillors.3 Gates traces a move from Oyster Street to Daniel Street in the heart of the most expanding trading area of Portsea and attributes a further move to White’s Row in 1742 (renamed Curzon Howe Road, on just the opposite side of Queen Street to Daniel Street) to the growth in size of the congregation. White’s Row provided a home for the Jewish congregation until it moved to Southsea in 1936.

There are some important anomalies in the account by Gates. The establishment by purchase, of a Jewish burial ground can hardly have preceded the establishment of a worshipping congregation. There is sufficient evidence to indicate a community of Jews in Portsmouth prior to the 1740s. The Jewish historian, Lucien Wolf, who provides a commentary on the religious practices of poor Jews of German and Polish origin who came to work for shopkeepers located in coastal ports, offers a clue to the evolution of Portsmouth’s Jewish community.4 Sent inland to peddle boxes of trinkets, laces, cigars and other portable goods to farmers, and with a similar service being offered to sailors on board ship, the shopkeepers and their dependent hawkers would gather on Friday afternoons to settle accounts. All would then assemble for the inauguration of the Sabbath either in a shop or a hired room. From the known Jewish pedlar presence at the time this seems likely to have been the practice in Portsmouth during the 1730s so that a relatively settled community would have predated the establishment of a burial ground. Moreover, with many of these early itinerants enjoying membership of the earlier established London synagogues, they could have expected to have been interred in Jewish cemeteries in London. Sufficient numbers of other Jews considering themselves as residents of Portsmouth would have been required to undertake the consecration of an acceptable, permanent resting place in the town. The date of the establishment of the Jewish burial ground is beyond dispute. In December 1749 a piece of land, twenty-five feet square, part of a field belonging to Wish Farm, by Lazy Lane, was leased by Richard Anham for 1,000 years at a peppercorn rent, on payment of ten guineas, to four members of the Jewish Community, Benjamin Levi (engraver), Mordecai Samuel (jeweller), Lazarus Moses (chapman) and Mordecai Moses (chapman). The lease is among a number of contractual documents held by the present Hebrew congregation. Commenting on the lessees the Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, chose to attribute the origin of the Portsmouth congregation ‘not to hucksters but to an artist' a reference to the reputation of Benjamin Levi who hailed from Weisbaden and whose family tree Roth had extensively reconstructed.5 however, elsewhere in his paper on Portsmouth Jewry he records the doubtful reputation of the trader Mordecai Moses, another signatory to the lease, who originated in Konigsberg. The more likely truth of the matter would therefore signify a mixed early Jewish community of craftsmen and traders, the balance of which is reflected in the occupations of the burial ground lessees.

In another publication on Portsmouth history Gates cites the date of the first Jewish settlement as 1735, although without substantiation! If the several accounts by Gates are matched he would seem to be claiming that between their settlement in 1735 and their establishment in White’s Row in 1742 the Jewish community not only expanded appreciably in size but moved their place of worship twice in a matter of seven years. Another local historian, Slight, also takes 1742 as the founding date of the Jewish synagogue, giving the name of Abraham Woolfe as its principal founder.7 The Jewish Year Book uses 1747 as the date of the founding of Portsmouth Hebrew Congregation, an entirely arbitrary date. If a synagogue was established on a permanent site in 1742, and the present Hebrew congregation has adopted that date as it foundation year, it can confidently be assumed that a congregation of sorts would have pre-existed suggesting a tenure in Portsmouth of 250 years standing.

It also seems most probable that the reference by Gates to a synagogue in Daniel’s Row refers not to the incipient development of the main congregation but to the recorded temporary establishment of a synagogue at that location in 1766 by a secessionist group (see the later section on Divisions within the Congregation). References in other local historical commentaries to two synagogues on Southsea Common for Dutch and Portuguese Jews’ seem to be similarly misconceived.~ Dicciotto draws attention to an incident in June 1781 when the Portuguese congregation of London received news from Portsmouth of the arrival of a number of destitute Jewish families from Gibraltar. These families were provided with sufficient funds from the Portsmouth congregation to allow them to proceed to London and join the congregation there. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of Bevis Marks had just granted 50 towards the building of the first permanent synagogue in Portsmouth, thus putting the local congregation under some obligation. Had there existed a Portuguese synagogue in Portsmouth at that time it is unlikely that the Gibraltarians would have been sent on from the town by the Ashkenazi synagogue, particularly as one of the refugees was Haham Almosnino, Chief Rabbi of Gibraltar."’ Taswell’s reference to two synagogues ‘for Jews of different 4sects’ comes a little closer to the truth."

The first legal document confirming the existence of a synagogue in Portsmouth is the lease of 178t which conferred the White’s Row property to Isaac Levi (engraver), Elias Levi (engraver), Benjamin Woolfe (silversmith) and Pinchas Moses (silversmith) on behalf of the Jewish congregation for one year, to be followed in 1781 by its extension for 1,000 years at a rent of 30 per annum. The building which had previously served as a synagogue on that site had consisted, according to Rabbi Newman, of a converted house rented at 6 a year from John Howell, subsequent lessor.’2 In 1780 the house was pulled down and a proper synagogue constructed in its place. When extensions to that synagogue were being carried out in 1919, five memorial stones, set in 1780 (Hebrew Calendar 5540, which had been long obscured by various reconstructions, were uncovered. Three of the stones bore the names of members of the first synagogue management committee, Abraham Cohen, Benjamin Levi, Abraham Woolfe (mentioned by Slight), and Gershom ben Benjamin.’3 The importance to British Jewry of the Portsmouth congregation is conveyed in the names on the other two foundation stones, those of Tebele Schiff, Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue (who features in the later account on the ‘great split’) and Haham Moses Cohen D’Azeveda of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, leaders of the two branches of the country’s Jewry.

Whereas English historians have generally been restricted to sources located in official documents or local legend, Jewish historians have been advantaged in their investigations of Portsmouth Jewry by having access to records maintained by the Hebrew congregation. Given the importance of Portsmouth’s early community for Anglo-Jewish history, it was indeed unfortunate that the first minute book of the congregation vanished at an early date. The second minute book covers the period 1766 to 1842 and it was significant that the first items in that book consisted of lists of names of those seceding from and those remaining with White’s Row. No minuted record has ever been found of the secessionists’ twenty-three years of independent existence, other than the Circumcision Register referred to later. All four Jewish historians who have addressed themselves to the Portsmouth community have utilised knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish, requisite for translating the early minute book. Records of various laws, community decisions and financial transactions are recorded in the minute book in a rather haphazard fashion.

Lucien Wolf, a member of a Portsmouth family, examined the minute book and published his extract in 1890, but his sole concern was with the rules of the congregation and the ‘great split’ of 1766, issues to be dealt with later.

The next translation of the minute book was made by Revd I.S. Meisels who had become first principal of Portsmouth’s Aria College.14 This was a more thoroughgoing examination, the essentials of which were presented in a paper read to the Jewish Historical Society of England in l907. Meisels, like Wolf, was impressed with the detail of the congregation’s Rules which occupy much of his paper but he also pointed to ‘matters financial’ which comprise a considerable number of the pages of recorded minutes. Meisels’ strongest emphasis highlighted the congregation's redoubtable conduct, guiding principles and over generosity. and particularly the insistence that ‘members lived in strict accordance with Jewish law’. Commenting on the unusually sympathetic treatment of the congregation’s paid officers, he cited the annuities granted to their widows and the reimbursement of Mr Sandor, Beadle and Secretary, of a sum of money stolen from his house. Meisels mentioned the financial support received from the ladies of the synagogue. monies sent to support ‘our poor co-religionists in Palestine, and for the relief of British prisoners of war in France’. He lauded the efforts of 42 members of the congregation who subscribed to the fund for the rebuilding of the synagogue in 1807 and the eight members of the executive who advanced an interest free loan for the purchase of an additional piece of ground adjacent to the cemetery. Meisels remarked too, on the language used in the minute book, some of which is ‘good Hebrew or German’, with other parts written in a ‘jargon of language’. He seemed much taken up with the frequent reference by the minutes’ scribes to the Great Synagogue of Portsmouth. Portsmouth’s special affinity with Dukes Place Synagogue, London’s ‘Great’ will be pursued later on, but Meisels chose to attribute the reference to greatness as particularly pertinent to the ‘moral integrity and overall wholesomeness’ of the local Jewish congregation. qualities which much impressed him as establishing Portsmouth in the vanguard of Britain’s Jewish communities.

Cecil Roth’s interest in Portsmouth appears to have derived from his general interest in the history of the Jews of England but also from his association with the Magnus family, Lady Magnus having been born in Portsmouth. Roth’s analysis extends beyond his translation of the Portsmouth Pinches to the broad historical context within which this is presented16. He traced important family connections and scrutinised local records and publications for additional detail. From his researches, he made a number of informed speculations about the early settlement in Portsmouth some of which are now open to addition or correction. Attempting to associate the date of the first burial ground purchase to an actual demise in the congregation he cites the elimination of the name Nathan Jacobs from the rate book records of that year, ‘the only unmistakable Jewish name, indeed, which the rate books of the parish provide at this early date’.17 Moreover Nathan Jacobs lived in Oyster Street where the first synagogue was purported to have been located. However, other records indicate that Roth was probably mistaken in respect to Jacob’s antecedence. The Portsmouth Borough Sessions papers reveal an Isaac Jacobs who lived on ‘The Point’ at about the same time as Nathan Jacobs and who was at first a ship’s caulker and then a shipwright. Moreover, Isaac Jacobs signed his name at the oath taking in clear English script. The burial records of St Thomas’s Parish Church reveal the interment of eleven men and women named Jacobs between 1749 and 1791 including such equally Jewish names as Jacob Jacobs and the already mentioned Isaac Jacobs. Similarly Jacob Jacobson. whose name was apparently overlooked by Roth, also lived on ‘The Point’ from 1730-1739 and was probably not Jewish for he is registered as taking the oath as a juror in 1740 and 1743.

If Roth could find no Jewish names among the rate records of the 1740s they do surface in the Borough Sessions papers of that period. Between 1736 and 1740 nineteen charges were heard involving Jews who may be so identified by their Hebrew signatures and the given synagogues of origin. Six of the charges involved the same Moses Mordecai referred to earlier as a signatory to the Jewish burial ground lease of 1749. Moses Mordecai is referred to by a contemporary historian, commenting on the ‘growing mood of anti-semitism in Portsmouth’. as a ‘particularly belligerent Jew’ who featured in half of the assault charges involving Jews between the years 1742 and 1755.’18 It is interesting to note that whereas, in 1743, Moses Mordercai’s address was given as Bevis Marks synagogue. London, by 1755 he is recorded as living in Portsea. Jacob Thulman (1736), and Simon Hart (1747) also recorded London addresses but Leon and Sarah Abraham. Samuel Solomon, Jacob Abraham, Lyon Abraham, Judah Levi. Mordecai Samuel, Soloman Isaac, Lazarus Hart and David Barnett all gave Portsmouth as their place of residence, although none of these names appeared in the rate book records. It would appear, then, that they must have been accommodated in some sort of lodging house, thus comprising a ‘hidden’ Jewish population.'19 Their documented presence in Portsmouth lends support to the plausibility of 1742 as an official founding date for the Jewish synagogue, however sceptical Roth may have been about such an early beginning. The embryonic congregation was quick to decry the public exposure of Jewish affairs when Jews brought three assault charges against their fellows, enshrining their concern in written congregational rules which insisted that all disputes between Jews should be settled within the community under threat of expulsion from membership.21

The Jewish community seemed well established during the 1750s, thriving on the spending power of sailors from ships engaged in the war with France. Roth cited the names of eleven salesmen who perished in a sailing boat accident one Friday afternoon in 1758 after having left HMS Lancaster at Spithead in order to reach land before the onset of the sabbath,21 and remarked that ‘this macabre record constitutes the earliest nominal roll of Portsmouth Jewry.22 As such, it was an incomplete roll for the periodical report of the accident refers to a ‘great many Jews’ who were aboard the ship that day of whom about twenty embarked on the boat which subsequently capsized. That contemporary report conflicts with Roth’s claim of only one Jewish survivor. However serious the impact upon the local community. only seven years later. thirty-one names are recorded in the Pinches, divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’ congregations. Not only had the community revived and added to its numbers, but Roth was able to name nine further residents who removed to London during the 1760s.

Apart from some description of the synagogue building up to the 1930s the remainder of Roth’s account is taken up with the ‘great split’ in the congregation. In a reference to that ‘split’ Roth drew attention to the congregation’s Circumcision Register which embraced the period 1762-1808. Rabbi Newman’s paper on Portsmouth Jewry provided the first full translation of that document and his commentary addressed to the congregational ‘split’ offers a context within which the subsequent development of the Portsmouth Jewish community may be elaborated.