08 September 2023
The former synagogue
on Wrottesley Street has
oldest Chinese restaurant
During my recent self-guided walking tour of Jewish Birmingham, I realised that the surviving Jewish heritage of Birmingham is largely Victorian.
The finest example of this Victorian heritage is Singers Hill Synagogue, now Birmingham’s main synagogue, which was founded in 1856. Its predecessor around the corner is the former Severn Street Synagogue at 60 Severn Street.
The foundation stone of Severn Street synagogue was laid on 29 May 1809 and the building was completed in 1813. After that synagogue was completed, it was wrecked and pillaged in religious riots. But it was largely rebuilt and subsequently enlarged in Greek Revival style by the architect Richard Tutin (1796-1832) in 1823-1827, and it was refurbished in 1851.
By then, there were 780 Jews living in Birmingham, of whom about a quarter were recent arrivals from Poland and Russia. They were active mainly in four areas of economic life: glaziers, slipper makers, tailors and traders.
A schism developed within the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation in 1852, leading to the formation in 1853 of the rival though short-lived Wrottesley Street Synagogue. Unity was restored in 1855, and the two congregations were reunited at the opening of the synagogue in Singers Hill in 1856.
Today the building identified by local historians as the former synagogue is in the heart of Birmingham’s China Town. However, the red-brick and terracotta building is late Victorian, clearly not the purpose-built Greek-revival synagogue designed by the architect Thomas Norton of Birmingham.
By the early 1850s, the Jewish population of Birmingham had increased to about 700 people or 140 families, and the synagogue council was ‘energetic and out for change’. Synagogue finances were revised, but attempts to develop a suitable system caused controversy, and the level of membership payment determined whether members had the right to vote and where they sat in the synagogue.
Quarrels were rife and on occasion were referred to the Chief Rabbi or Sir Moses Montefiore for arbitration. In 1851, the president of the community begged to be relieved of the task of solving disputes, and the treasurer volunteered to take over the task. Insults were exchanged freely between the synagogue officers: a Mr JC Cohen grumbled about his seat all the year through, and he was not satisfied by being given the position of president on Yom Kippur that year.
The council was constantly aggrieved by The Reader, the Revd Lewis Chapman, and often urged him to make himself ‘agreeable and useful’ or told him to leave. He was accused of being lax in his duties, singing when he should chant, and even of being ‘violent’ once at a wedding.
Although the council raised his salary from £70 to £100, he continued to find ways to supplement his income, running a clothes shop on the side, coaching private pupils during school hours, and taking in boarders.
The synagogue was organised almost like an exclusive club. Privileged or ‘free’ members formed the first category of the wealthier. They paid an entrance fee, were voted for in a select committee and could be blackballed. This elite had the franchise and all rights. The second category, the seat-holders, rented seats but had no privileges. The strangers had no seats.
The assessment system was in place by 1851. Each member was levied according to his means and a collector was engaged to collect the money. Everybody complained from time to time, even the wealthiest, the only exception being the public-spirited Isaac Blanckensee (1807-1871), a successful jeweller, who asked to have his assessment raised.
Those who fell into arrears were relegated to a back seat, some were even excluded from buying kosher meat, and those who bought it on their behalf were fined 10 shillings.
Discontent was rife and a letter to the Chief Rabbi in 1853 complaining of the ‘supremacy of money’ and that ‘poor Jews worshipped almost on sufferance.’ This unpopular system was probably one cause of the first brief division in the congregation in 1853. A group led by AT Louis and Isaac Blanckensee set up a separate synagogue in Wrottesley Street, and Lewis Chapman left with the dissidents.
The rift was healed in 1856 and the Wrottesley Street Congregation, including Chapman, returned to the newly-built Singers Hill Synagogue, and it remained the only synagogue in Birmingham for many years.
By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population was again increasing rapidly, as persecution in Russia brought a new generation to Birmingham. By 1900, the city’s Jewish population had increased to around 3,200.
The newcomers found Singers Hill ‘cold and unfriendly,’ referring to it as the englische shul. They wanted a building where they could worship in a different style. Around 1901, a group of about 90 people set up the Wrottesley Street Beth haMedrash (house of study).
Another Beth haMedrash in Holloway Head had been registered for worship in 1894 and became known as the New Synagogue.
The governing council of Singers Hill was keen to retain its influence over the community, however. Its archive contains several versions of agreements between Singers Hill and the Wrottesley Street Beth haMedrash, which require the Beth haMedrash to apply annually to Singers Hill for the right to hold services, among other conditions.
The new synagogues reflected the class divisions within the community. The area between Hurst Street and Holloway Head was known as the working class Jewish area of the city. But by this time, some of the more prosperous members of the congregation had moved out to the fashionable areas of Edgbaston and Moseley.
A member of the community interviewed for an oral history project in the 1980s recalled , ‘There was east side Birmingham and West Side Birmingham, believe me there was! There was the ‘Hagley Rd’ set and the rest of Birmingham Jews. The Hagley Rd set had got ‘it’ and the rest were nobody. There wasn’t any mixing, none.’
The Birmingham Beth haMedrash and Talmud Torah used the Wrottesley Street building for worship from 1901 to 1928. It was the precursor of the present-day Birmingham Central Synagogue, which acquired its own purpose-built home at 133 Pershore Road, Edgbaston. This was designed by the architects Hurley, Robinson & Son in 1959-1961.
The congregation sold the synagogue for redevelopment in 2013, and downsized to the remodelled communal hall. Only a few of the important series of 44 frosted and etched glass windows designed by RL Rothschild and made by Coventry Glass could be reused. The rest were dispersed.
Meanwhile, the former Wrottesley Street Synagogue is the Chung Ying Chinese Restaurant, in the heart of Birmingham’s China Town. It was opened in 1981 by husband and wife team Siu Chung and Yuk Ying Wong. It was the first Chinese restaurant in the area now known as China Town.
China Town is now one of the most popular and thriving parts of Birmingham and Chung Ying Cantonese was the catalyst in this development. Today, it one of the best-known restaurants in Birmingham.