Portsmouth’s Jewish History Part II

The late scholar Dr Audrey Weinberg concludes her fascinating study of the growth of the local Jewish community and its significance on the national stage.

The first legal document confirming the existence of a synagogue in Portsmouth is the lease of 1780 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.’ 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.’ 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. 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 presented. 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.’ 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.’

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.’

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,  and remarked that ‘this macabre record constitutes the earliest nominal roll of Portsmouth Jewry.  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.

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

Photography copyright Jack White.