18 October 2019
Cornwall’s Jews today and
myths about mediaeval
Market Jew and Marazion
The names of the small coastal town of Marazion in Cornwall, the street name of Market Jew Street, the main street in Penzance, and a street in St Ives called Mount Zion, between the Wharf and Victoria Place, made we wonder last week about the history and presence of Jewish communities in Cornwall.
It turns out, in fact, that both the name of Market Jew Street and the name of Marazion came not from the presence of any mediaeval Jewish communities but from the corruption of the name Marghas Yow or Jovis, meaning the ‘Thursday Market.’
But I was working on a series of blog postings on the history of present and past synagogues in Dublin, which came to a conclusion this morning. And so, last week, as I photographed churches, chapels, former convents and a cathedral throughout west Cornwall, I naturally wondered whether there was also a Jewish community or a synagogue in Cornwall.
Keith Pearce and Helen Fry published their The Lost Jews of Cornwall in 2000. Keith Pearce, in his book The Jews of Cornwall – A History – Tradition and Settlement to 1913, records how the first Jews arrived in Cornwall in the 1740s. They and Charles Thomas, former professor of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, agree the first Jews arrived in Cornwall in the 1740s and they were attracted to the two ports, Falmouth and Penzance, where there was no ghetto system.
A small number landed at Falmouth and one or two at Fowey, only to move on promptly to London and elsewhere. Others arrived in Cornwall, mainly from continental Europe.
The first Jewish communities in Cornwall were formed in Falmouth and Penzance, and there was a smaller community in Truro, with a few Jewish families in other small Cornish towns. The Jewish families who moved to Cornwall include the de Pass and Hart families.
Lehman or Lemon Hart, a trader from Penzance and the grandson of a German rum traders, became famous for his own brand of rum. He set up his own company in 1804 and is thought to have been the person who negotiated with the Royal Navy to provide the required ration of a daily tot of rum for sailors.
There is no evidence that there was ever a synagogue in Truro and services were presumably held in private homes. Although the community did not appoint a minister, it had a shochet in the 1820s.
However, these communities died out by the end of the 19th century. A movement to the cities after the industrial revolution severely diminished Cornwall’s Jewish Community. The synagogue in Penzance had closed its doors by the 1850s, and the building was bought by the Plymouth Brethren.
There are Jewish cemeteries in Penzance and Ponsharden (Falmouth). A small Jewish burial ground is thought to have existed in Truro, but this was abandoned in the 1840s, and no visible remains exist today.
In recent years, a Reform Jewish congregation has been formed by Jews living in and around Truro. Kehillat Kernow, or the Jewish Community of Cornwall, has about 100 members, was founded 20 years ago in 1999, and is an associate community of the Movement for Reform Judaism.
The community has no synagogue and services take place fortnightly on Shabbat mornings in a local school, with alternative venues for High Holidays and some festivals. They are led by members of the community and, occasionally, by visiting student rabbis from Leo Baeck College.
The community uses a Torah scroll on permanent loan from Exeter Synagogue and a scroll it received from the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. The scroll was previously used by Falmouth Synagogue, which closed in 1882, and it was officially handed over by the Duke of Gloucester to Kehillat Kernow at a ceremony in the Royal Cornwall Museum on 28 May 2004.
In the past, services were held at a school in Blackwater, near Truro, and formerly in the Truro Baptist Church. The High Holy Day services this year were held on 8 and 9 October at Roselidden Farm, a retreat centre halfway between Truro or Falmouth and Marazion or Penzance. The services were led by Eleanor Davis, a student rabbi.
Cornwall’s Jewish population today is a small but thriving congregation of around 50 families in Truro. Their numbers are boosted in summer with the influx of visitors and holidaymakers.