24 October 2022

In search of the site of
the mediaeval synagogue
in Old Jewry in London

The site of the Great Synagogue at No 11 Old Jewry, in the heart of the mediaeval Jewish area in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During a working day in London last week, I returned to Old Jewry, a one-way street in the City of London that runs from Poultry to Gresham Street, close to Bank underground station and Cannon Street mainline station.

The street now houses mainly offices for banks and financial companies, but it was once at the heart of the original Jewish settlement in London, sometimes described as a ‘ghetto’.

A City Plaque in the street called Old Jewry marks the site where the Great Synagogue of London stood until 1271.

Soon after the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror encouraged Jews to come to England. Some settled in cities throughout England, including London, Lincoln, Oxford and York.

According to the Revd Moses Margoliouth, Old Jewry was a ghetto. However, the English word ghetto does not arise until the 16th century and is derived from the Jewish ghetto in Venice. The Ghetto in Venice was instituted in 1516 when the Doge Leonardo Loredan and the Senate issued a decree forcing Jews to live in a designated area in Cannaregio.

William the Conqueror brought the first Jews to England as ‘feudal Jews’ to be royal serfs, providing him with financial services and income. Those Jews probably arrived in England in the 1070s. At first, they came to England in small numbers, but many more arrived from Rouen in the decades that followed, fleeing the pogrom in 1096 in Rouen, once an important centre of Jewish life in Northern France.

The Jews in mediaeval London settled in an area of the City between Old Jewry and Lothbury. It seems richer Jews lived around Old Jewry because the land was more valuable being near the market at Cheapside – known then as Westcheap. Jews also lived in other parts of the City and in Southwark. The first documented reference to a Jewish quarter in London only comes ca 1127.

The rights of Jews of London were proclaimed in the Statutum de judaismo issued by Henry I. Under this ‘Jewish Charter,’ the Jewish population of London was guaranteed ‘liberty of movement throughout the country, relief from ordinary tolls, protection from misuse, free recourse to royal justice and responsibility to no other, permission to retain land pledged as security, and special provision to ensure fair trial.’

They followed a variety of professions, with doctors, workers in metals, goldsmiths and in trades not controlled by the guild system.

When the Jews were living in the City, the street was known as ‘The Jewry’. In his Dictionary of London, Harben gives 1181 as the earliest recorded date for the name. The street was not called ‘Old Jewry’ until after the Jews were forced to leave at a later date.

A blue plaque marks the site of the Great Synagogue in Old Jewry in London (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Research has found the sites of at least five synagogues in the area, including the synagogue in Old Jewry that was known as the ‘Great Synagogue’.

By the end of the 12th century, life in London was generally a good one for the flourishing Jewish community. However, in 1187 Jerusalem fell to Saladin and Christians rallied to reclaim the Holy City.

Old Jewry provided a safe haven for Jewish financiers and their families. But the Jewish community’s seclusion within the streets of Old Jewry only worsened their obscurity, a factor that contributed to a disdain for Jews.

Gradually, antisemitic feelings began to rise in London and throughout England. When the English Barons took London in 1215, they imposed so many restrictions on Jews that some died and many more fled.

Many Jews were massacred in the street in 1261 and the synagogue was burned as the great bell of Saint Paul’s tolled out. About 500 Jews were massacred again in London in 1264.

Edward I issued a statute in 1275 that ended official Jewish usury and many Jewish financiers lost their livelihoods. In 1278, Jews were accused of ‘coin clipping’ – an act of clipping small pieces from the coins which were all made of gold and melting it down for profit. Many Jews were executed for this spurious offence.

Edward I issued an edict on 18 July 1290 expelling all Jews from England. They were to leave by All Saints’ Day 1 November 1290. The edict was not overturned until the time of the Protectorate – more than 350 years later – when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657.

The City Plaque on the wall in Old Jewry is one of the few records of the way of life of the Jews in London in the 11th to the 13th centuries. None of the Jews’ houses exist today, although many of them were substantial stone structures.

Jewen Street off Aldersgate, which still existed in 1722, was the only permitted burial ground for Jews in London. In 2001, archaeologists also found a mikveh or ritual bath near to Old Jewry, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street, under what is now the State Bank of India. It would have fallen into disuse after 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England.

The original Jewish residents of Old Jewry and the surrounding streets are remembered in the names of two nearby churches: Saint Olave Old Jewry, of which only the tower survives; and Saint Lawrence Jewry, on Gresham Street, next to the Guildhall, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire in 1666,

Old Jewry in the heart of the mediaeval Jewish quarter in London runs from Poultry to Gresham Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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