01 September 2023

The former synagogue
on Severn Street is
part of Birmingham’s
Victorian Jewish heritage

The former Severn Street Synagogue at 60 Severn Street … in use from 1809 to 1856 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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.

There was a small synagogue from at least 1780 to about 1791 in the area in Birmingham then known as the Froggery, a low lying swampy area replaced in 1845 by Station Road and New Street Station.

A new synagogue was built, in Hurst Street, in the vicinity of the Froggery, and was in use from ca 1791 to 1809. It was succeeded by the Severn Street Synagogue at 60 Severn Street.

Severn Street was newly carved out of the former Gooch Estate when that earlier synagogue was founded in 1809. The foundation stone of that synagogue was laid on 29 May 1809 and the building was completed in 1813.

Shortly after the synagogue was completed, however, it was wrecked and pillaged in riots against ‘dissenting houses of worship.’ The rioters also severely damaged the Methodist Church in Belmont Row, the Quaker Meetinghouse near Lady Well, and the Baptist Chapel in Bond Street.’

The synagogue was largely rebuilt and subsequently enlarged in Greek Revival style by the architect Richard Tutin (1796-1832) in 1823-1827.

Severn Street Synagogue 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 in the community in 1852, leading to the formation in 1853 of the rival Wrottesley Street Synagogue. However, unity was restored in 1855, and the two congregations were reunited with the opening of the synagogue in Singers Hill in 1856.

The Freemasons have retained the Aron haKodesh or Torah Ark, with slight modifications, from the former Severn Street Synagogue

After Singers Hill Synagogue was built, the Severn Street Synagogue was sold to the Freemasons in 1856 and became the Athol Masonic Hall.

The Freemasons have retained the Aron haKodesh or Torah Ark, with some slight modifications. Its handsome, fluted Doric columns and classical entablature remain. The Master’s Chair is placed in the former Torah Ark niche.

The adjacent banqueting hall, decorated with Stars of David, was added for the Freemasons by the architect Henry Naden in 1871-1872.

The building has been a Grade II Listed since 2006.

Shabbat Shalom

The Severn Street Synagogue was sold to the Freemasons in 1856 and became the Athol Masonic Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (96) 1 September 2023

Methodist Central Hall, Coventry … one of 100 or so Methodist Central Halls built in British cities between 1886 and 1945 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the life of Saint Giles of Provence (ca 710), Hermit.

Before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

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

1, Looking at a church in Coventry;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Methodist Central Hall, built in 1931-1932, is a vibrant city centre church in Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Methodist Central Hall, Coventry:

Coventry Central Hall, Coventry, is one of 100 or so Methodist Central Halls built in British cities between 1886 and 1945. Each one was designed as a place for the community to gather, and would attract thousands of people on Saturday evenings with concerts, cinema and meeting spaces.

The Methodist Church still owns 18 of the original buildings, many of which have been substantially altered. Another 27 have been completely demolished or were bombed in World War II. Nineteen of the buildings are protected as listed buildings.

Coventry Central Hall was built in the 1930s. It is a vibrant city centre church, embedded in the local community and it was fully engaged with Coventry’s City of Culture 2021 programme.

Dr Angela Connelly of the University of Manchester says these Methodist Central Halls were large buildings, all designed not to look like a church. She says: ‘Nearly everyone in the UK will have seen a Methodist Central Hall: Pavarotti performed at Kingsway Hall and the UN Declaration was signed in Westminster Central Hall … in their heyday, they attracted big crowds: the Manchester and Salford mission headquarters once boasted 2000 volunteers.’

But because they do not look like churches or cathedrals, the public are not aware of those that remain at all, especially those that have been converted into other uses such as bars and pubs.

The decline, she says, is explained by a long period of drops in Methodist congregations nationally, as well as even steeper losses through inner-city demographic and economic changes.

Her research shows how the missions promoted cultural activity to make Methodism relevant to everyday lives and provide people with an alternative to the lure of alcohol. This included popular entertainment such as film shows, concerts and variety performances.

Joseph Rank of Rank Hovis provided much of the capital to build the Central Halls. His son, the film producer J Arthur Rank, was also a prominent Methodist who became interested in the film industry after seeing the pioneering use of religious films at the Methodist Missions in the 1920s.

As numbers dropped and maintenance costs spiralled, rooms were let out to other organisations and the halls were used for a wide variety of events and rented out to other organisations for theatres, libraries, social services and school exams.

Grimsby and Southampton are now theatres, Liverpool’s Central Hall hosts a collection of independent traders, at Bristol and Bradford the central halls have been converted into flats.

The Central Hall in Coventry can be traced back to the Wesleyan chapel on Warwick Lane, designed by John Toone of Leamington and opened in 1836 for the congregation that had once worshipped in a chapel in Gosford Street. Vestries and classrooms were added later. By 1851, morning congregations averaged 400, with 40 attending the Sunday school.

The new Central Hall opened in Warwick Lane in 1932, in the same location as the former chapel but on a larger site. From March 1931 until January 1932, while building was in progress, the congregation used the former Baptist chapel in Cow Lane.

The new hall was designed by Claude Redgrave and Partners of Coventry and is an impressive red-brick building in the Tudor style, with a stone entrance arch surmounted by an oriel window and a small turret. In 1940, the principal hall could seat 1,379 people, and there were also four school halls and 19 other rooms.

Serious war-time damage was repaired in 1946, and during that time the Coventry Hippodrome was used for services.

Central Hall is locally listed. Close by is the Grade II* listed Christchurch Steeple.

Central Hall is part of the Coventry and Nuneaton Circuit of the Methodist Church. The ministry teams includes the Revd Stephen Willey and Deacon Sheila Dawson. Next Sunday (3 September), the services include: 9 am, Breaking Bread, the Revd Stephen Willey; 10:30 am, Covenant, the Revd Stephen Willey; 5 pm, Taizé.

Central Hall on Warwick Lane was designed by Claude Redgrave and Partners of Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 25: 1-13 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’

Central Hall in Coventry can be traced back to a Wesleyan chapel on Warwick Lane that opened in 1836 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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 the ‘República de Jovens Home in Brazil.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (1 September 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us lift in prayer the Anglican Parish of Inclusion. May God guide and bless their ministry, especially their community projects.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire or deserve:
pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
but through the merits and mediation
of 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:

God of all mercy,
in this eucharist you have set aside our sins
and given us your healing:
grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Central Hall is part of the Coventry and Nuneaton Circuit of the Methodist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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

A statue of Saint Giles above the west door of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford … today is feast of Saint Giles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)