Portsmouth’s Jewish History Part I

The late Dr Audrey Weinberg examines the origins of Portsmouth’s Jewish community, which was to become highly influential in local public life.

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 and three of its properties were leased to the heirs of David Levey who became one of the first Jewish local councillors. 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. 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. 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. 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.”

Star & Crescent is grateful to Jack White for allowing us to reproduce this article.

Photography copyright Jack White.