25 August 2023

Singers Hill Synagogue,
Birmingham, is England’s
oldest functioning
‘cathedral synagogue’

Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham is the oldest still-functioning ‘cathedral synagogue’ in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Singers Hill Synagogue is the most important and influential synagogue in Birmingham. It is home to the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation and has been the focal point for Jewish life in Birmingham for almost 170 years.

Singers Hill Synagogue is the oldest still-functioning ‘cathedral synagogue’ in England. It stands on the corner of Blucher Street and Gough Street, less than ten minutes’ walk from New Street Station and the Bull Ring in Birmingham. An outstandingly beautiful building, it was built in 1856, and was recently awarded English Heritage’s prestigious award for the ‘Most Improved Place of Worship in the West Midlands.’

Due to economic growth and the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham attracted many people from other parts of England and other countries, including Jewish immigrants. Many of these new arrivals included Jewish immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands and Poland.

By 1851, there were 780 Jews in Birmingham, of whom about a quarter were recent arrivals from Poland and Russia. They were active mainly in many areas of economic life, and these patterns of migration and growth mean that Birmingham’s Jewish heritage is largely Victorian.

Singers Hill Synagogue was built to replace the Severn Street Synagogue, designed in 1823-1827 by the architect Richard Tutin, and the rival congregation established in Wrottesley Street in 1853. Unity was restored in 1855, and the two congregations united with the opening of the synagogue in Singers Hill in 1856. The synagogue was consecrated on 24 September 1856 by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Adler.

Singers Hill Synagogue was designed by the leading Birmingham architect of the day, Henry Richard Yeoville Yardley Thomason (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The synagogue was designed by the leading Birmingham architect of the day, Henry Richard Yeoville Yardley Thomason (1826-1901), who also designed Birmingham Council House and Art Gallery.

Thomason had been a pupil of Charles Edge (1801-1867), the architect who completed Birmingham’s neo-classical Town Hall after the original architects, Hanson and Welch, went bankrupt. Thomason set up his own independent practice around 1853.

Thomason was a fan of Italian Renaissance architecture. His original plans for Singers Hill, including rare colour-wash decorative schemes for the Ark or Aron haKodesh, survive in Birmingham City Archives, and were particularly valuable during modern restoration work.

Externally his plans featured a portico with a rose window in the entrance gable, flanked by to projecting wings to form the entrance courtyard. Tsurface is of confident red and yellow brick.

The interior combines Romanesque and Neoclassical styles with Italianate detailing, based on the classic Basilica plan. The mahogany central bimah or reading desk and the mahogany Aron haKodesh or ark were clearly visible to all as natural light streamed in over the clerestory. The original cast and gilded gas chandeliers were hanging between the beautifully gilded capitals of the classical columns.

Singers Hill is built of red brick with stone dressings. The complex includes two houses for the resident ministers, the whole forming three sides of a quadrangle around a courtyard. In the central range, the generous vestibule lined with donors’ plaques is set back behind an arcaded porch with an enormous wheel window above.

Inside, the main prayer hall is built on a basilica plan. This plan would become a hallmark of the ‘cathedral’ synagogues of the later the 19th century. These were Victorian, highly ornate, with seating capacity around 1,000, and with a strong choral tradition, and now they are often heritage-protected.

The mahogany Aron haKodesh or Ark is set in an apse in the east wall and is backlit from above by three round-headed windows separated by Corinthian pilasters, in a composition probably inspired by John Davies’s London New Synagogue, opened in 1838.

The ark surround was altered later, but the original semi-circular marble duhan or ark platform, decorated with blue, yellow and gold mosaic, was revealed during renovation in 2014-2015, when the later timber platform built over it was removed.

The Victorian ner tamidor ‘eternal light’ was taken down and replaced by the present ‘Aladdin’s lamp’ in the 1960s.

Three stained-glass windows behind the Ark date from 1856. These are worked in a rich diaper pattern with the Luhot (Ten Commandments) featured in the central window. The fine red and blue glass in the west rose window also survives, but the figurative stained glass on the long walls is a recent addition, replacing simple leaded lights.

The new windows are executed by PA Feeny and DB Taunton of Hardman Studios of Birmingham (1956-1963), a leading stained-glass studio associated with AWN Pugin and the Gothic Revival in church architecture. These windows are unusual in their depictions of human forms – rare but not unknown in Jewish art. The subjects range from the traditional Bible stories and holidays to contemporary themes such as the ‘Emancipation of the Jews,’ ‘World Aid to Israel’ and the ‘Emergence of Israel.’

The gallery is supported on three sides on a superimposed order of columns of Bath stone, in a manner that has been characterised as ‘Gibbesian.’ The columns are set base-to-capital, with Corinthian capitals above and foliated cushion capitals below, all richly gilded. The gallery has box-fronts but the original low ornamental wrought-iron mehitzah or partition was removed in the 1930s.

Singers Hill retains its original and most splendid ornamental gas chandeliers. A fire in the 1870s was caused by overheating due to the presence of 336 gas lighting jets. Temperatures regularly reached 31°C in the gallery, causing some women to faint on Yom Kippur. Ventilators were installed, and in 1904 the gasoliers were converted to electricity.

Following major repairs and renovations, the synagogue was reconsecrated on 1 September 1912. It was rebuilt once again in the 1930s and was rededicated on 29 August 1937.

Under the influence of Reform thinking, the bimah was dismantled in 1937 and replaced by a combined Ark-bimah-pulpit arrangement at the east end, with a choir gallery above, a move that accentuated the cathedral-like axis of the building.

Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941), the Birmingham-born founder of the Odeon Cinema chain, was President of the synagogue in 1932-1940, and he used his own cinema architect, Harry W Weedon. At the same time, the Victorian stained deal pews were replaced by plush upholstered seating, and the overall seating capacity was increased to 1,000.

A central bimah was reinstalled in the 1980s and the choir moved to the rear. The present bimah is thought to have come from the bombed Osborne Street Synagogue in Hull, dating from 1903.

Singers Hill Synagogue was repaired and redecorated in 2014-2015 and officially rededicated in March 2015 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Victorian Library and the Council Room are upstairs. The adjoining children’s synagogue was created in 1957-1959 by Cotton, Ballard & Blow. There is no mikveh. The synagogue has been a Grade II* Listed Building since 1970.

The interior of the synagogue was repaired and completely redecorated in 2014-2015. It was officially rededicated by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, in March 2015.

Singers Hill Synagogue has always had the reputation of being the ‘Englischer Shul’ of Birmingham Jewry. It has regained its position as the flagship of Birmingham’s tiny Jewish community. The Chief Minister of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Yossi Jacobs, has seen a period of advancement since his appointment.

Membership has increased, there is a choir, and activities include men’s and women’s classes, a Cheder, a mother-and-baby group, an after-school club, youth and teenage programmes, singles events, pensioner outings, educational visits, keep-fit classes and weekly Shabbat Kiddushim.

Birmingham Hebrew Congregation runs the King David School and the Jewish cemeteries in Birmingham. There are links with other faith leaders and civic leaders, and the Lord Mayor is the guest of honour at the annual Civic Service, a Shabbat morning service.

Shabbat Shalom

Yeoville Thomason, who designed Singers Hill Synagogue, also designed Birmingham Council House and Art Gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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