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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (89) 25 August 2023

Saint John’s Church, Wall, stands on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began on Sunday with the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XI, 20 August 2023).

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. Throughout this week and last week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Lichfield;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint John’s Church, Wall, was designed by WB Moffatt and Sir Gilbert Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint John’s Church, Wall:

Wall is a small village just south of Lichfield, close to the A5 and the junction of the Roman roads Watling Street and Rynkild Street. Today, it is best known for the ruins of the Roman settlement at Letocetum, although it is not as well-visited as other Roman ruins throughout England.

In the first century AD, A fort was built in the upper area of the village near to the present church in 50s or 60s and Watling Street was built to the south in the 70s. By the second century, the settlement covered about 30 acres west of the later Wall Lane.

In the late third or early fourth century, the eastern part of the settlement of approximately six acres, between the present Wall Lane and Green Lane and straddling Watling Street, was enclosed with a stone wall surrounded by an earth rampart and ditches. Civilians continued to live inside the settlement and on its outskirts in the late fourth century.

The settlement declined rapidly soon after the Romans left Britain in AD 410 and the focus of settlement shifted to Lichfield. After the Romans left, Wall never developed beyond a small village.

The earliest mediaeval settlement may have been on the higher ground around Wall. Close to the church, Wall House on Green Lane probably stands on the site of the mediaeval manor house, while Wall Hall stands on the site of a 17th century house. The Trooper Inn was in business by 1851. In the 1950s, 10 council houses were built on a road called The Butts. The re-routing of the A5 around Wall, as the Wall by-pass in 1965, relieved the village of traffic, re-establishing its quiet nature.

The parish church in Wall was built in 1837 and was consecrated as the Parish Church of Saint John in 1843. The church is set at the top of a rise and is said to stand on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva, and later used for Mithraic worship. But even before the Romans, this may have been the site of Celtic temple dedicated to the god Cernunnos, who was the equivalent of the Roman Pan.

The site for the church was donated by John Mott of Wall House in 1840, along with an endowment of £700, and a further grant of £500 came from Robert Hill, a previous owner of Wall House.

The church is the work of William Bonython Moffatt (1812-1887) and his partner, the great Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).

The church is built of pale yellow, chisel finished sandstone. There are tiled roofs on corbelled eaves with verge parapets. The church has a west steeple, nave and chancel. The steeple is a square tower of approximately three stages on a plinth with two-stage diagonal buttresses, and is chamfered in at the last stage to form an octagonal base for the short spire.

There is a single stage of small lucarnes and a small slit trefoil-headed window over the pointed west door.

The nave is of four bays on a plinth and is divided by two stage buttresses. There are two-light, square-headed trefoil-light windows to each bay.

The chancel is lower than the nave but has similar details and consists of one short bay. At the east end, there is a three-light, labelled pointed, Perpendicular-style window with panel tracery.

The interior is plain-finished, with a plastered nave, a single hammer beam and arch braced roof with double purlins and exposed rafters. There is a narrow, pointed chancel arch.

The church was built as a district chapel for the Parish of Saint Michael in Lichfield, and the finished chapel was consecrated by the Bishop of Hereford in May 1843 on behalf of the Bishop of Lichfield.

Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), the Victorian stained glass designer and manufacturer, and his studios produced over 4,000 windows along with designs for altars and altar frontals, furniture and furnishings, lichgates and memorials that helped to define a later 19th century Anglican style. Many of Kempe’s works can be seen in Lichfield Cathedral, Christ Church, Lichfield, and the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield. He also designed the reredos in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield.

Kempe’s window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, shows the Risen Christ meeting Mary Magdalene in the Garden on the morning of the Resurrection, and addressing her: ‘Mary.’ Peter and John who arrived at the empty tomb that Easter morning can be seen as two small figures in the background.

The dedication on the window reads: ‘To the glory of God and in loving memory of Georgina Charlotte Harrison, AD MCMIX (1909).’

South Side:

The windows on the south side, beginning at the west end, beside the entrance, depict:

1, Saint John the Baptist and the Prophet Isaiah: Both Saint John the Baptist and the Prophet Isaiah, who herald the promised coming of Christ as the Son of Man, are depicted holding staffs. The dedication reads: ‘To the glory of God & as a thank offering this window has been erected by HS and CAS.’

2, The Risen Christ meets Mary Magdalene.

3, Saint John the Divine and Saint Luke: This window may also be the work of CE Kempe. The left light shows Saint John the Evangelist holding a parchment with the opening verse of his Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ The window’s dedication reads: ‘To the glory of God and in loving memory of Anne Bradburne AD 1899.’

4, Saint Peter and Saint Paul: Saint Peter is on the left holding the keys of the kingdom, while his stole is inscribed with the Greek word Άγιος (‘Holy,’ ‘Saint’ or ‘Saintly’). Saint Paul, on the right, is holding a sword, the symbol of his martyrdom. The dedication reads: ‘To the Glory of God & in loving memory of the Rev W Williams, formerly vicar of this parish.’ The Revd William Williams was the Vicar of Wall for 12 years from 1864 to 1876.

The East End window:

The East Window above the altar shows Christ as the Good Shepherd. There are three sets of initials in the top of the window: Alpha (Α) and Omega (Ω), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and a title of Christ in the Book of Revelation; IHS, representing the name Jesus, spelt ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in Greek capitals (Ιησουσ); and the Chi Rho symbol (XP), representing the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Χριστός, Christ). On either side of Christ are the Virgin Mary (left) and Saint John the Divine (right).

The North Side:

The windows on the north side, from left to right, beginning at the west end or entrance, depict:

1, Abel and Enoch: The first window on the north side shows Abel and Enoch. Abel on the left is holding a lamb, while Enoch is one of the early prophets. The Letter to the Hebrews praises the faith of Abel and Enoch (see Hebrew 11: 4-6). The dedication reads: ‘To the glory of God & in memory of Ann Danks of Fosseway in this parish, died Sep 3 1877.’

2, Noah and Abraham: Noah (left) is holding the ark in his arms, while Abraham is holding a rather unwieldy knife representing his intended sacrifice of Isaac. This window is without any dedication or inscription.

3, Moses and Elias: This window, with Moses on the left and Elijah (or Elias) on the right has the dedication: ‘To the glory of God and in loving memory of Louisa Ann Mott & Henrietta Ley.’ Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, and at the Transfiguration they are seen on either side of Christ.

The West End:

The two, single-light windows at the west end, at either side of the entrance, depict the Lamb of God (north) and the Holy Spirit (south).

The Church of Saint John the Baptist is at Green Lane, Wall, Staffordshire, WS14 0AS. It is uited with the Parish of Saint Michael, Greenhill. The Sunday services are normally at 10 a.m. each week. The benefice is awaiting a new rector, but in the past Sunday services have included Holy Communion on the first, second and fourth Sundays, Morning Worship on the third Sunday, and ‘Wall praise’ on the fifth Sunday, described as ‘a serviced for all the family.’

The East Window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 22: 34-40 (NRSVA):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

The Risen Christ meets Mary Magdalene … a window by CE Kempe in Saint John’s Church, Wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Modern-Day Slavery Reflection – The Clewer Initiative.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

For more resources: www.theclewerinitiative.org

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the work of the Clewer Initiative and all that they are doing to fight human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

The Collect:

O God, you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of all mercy,
we your faithful people have celebrated that one true sacrifice
which takes away our sins and brings pardon and peace:
by our communion
keep us firm on the foundation of the gospel
and preserve us from all sin;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint John the Divine and Saint Luke … this window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, may also be the work of CE Kempe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Looking down at the Roman site of Letocetum from the West Door of Saint John’s Church, Wall, south of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)