20 July 2013

The tent is up and Portrane
prepares for the big sale

4436 Enjoying the evening sunshine on the beach in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The wonderful weather that I enjoyed in Cambridge for the past week has also been blanketing much of Ireland too.

The temperature was in the high 20s this afternoon, when two of us headed north to the Donabate, Portrane peninsula.

The terrace in front of the Waterside House Hotel in Donabate was packed with a mixture of people waiting for a wedding party to arrive and families seeking a refreshing break from the heat on the beach below.

Rather than heading down on to the long sandy beach to the south, we walked north along the path below the smaller beaches, leading to a cliff walk by the hospital, with rocky cliffs and bays below.

The sunshine seemed to linger a little longer this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although evening was approaching, the heat of the sun was still strong, and families on the sand below seemed determined to savour every last moment of the summer heat today.

However, the strong heat created a haze, and Lambay Island was almost so indistinct out in the water that it might have been covered in light clouds.

The tent is up and everyone is getting ready for the big sale in Portrane on the August holiday weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier in the afternoon, we had called in to see my Lynders cousins at The Quay, where the large tents are going up, furniture is being moved by teams of heavy volunteers and an array of goods is being sorted in advance of the big sale on the August Bank Holiday in two weeks’ time.

The sale runs from Saturday to Monday, 3-5 August 2013, in aid of Heart-to-Hand and its projects in Romania and Albania. I hope the good weather holds until then so that I can enjoy the beach views behind the big red-and-white tent while I volunteer on the book stall.

An afternoon by the boathouses
and the river, watching life go by

The Rosie makes its way between rowers, scullers and houseboats, with Fort St George (left) on the south bank of the Cam and Peterhouse boathouse on the north bank (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

My week in Cambridge ended as it began: walking by the river, enjoying the sunshine, and enjoying the sight of people in boats on the water.

Having left my bags at the Porters’ Lodge in Sidney Sussex College on Friday afternoon [19 July 2013], I walked around the corner into Jesus Lane, and on to the junction with Maid’s Causeway and Victoria Avenue to Midsummer Common, on the north-east of the inner city.

Midsummer Common in the middle of summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This vast stretch of common land stretches for over 33 acres (13.4 hectares) along the banks of the River Cam, from Victoria Bridge to Elizabeth Way. Until Victoria Avenue was cut through the common in 1890, there was an even larger expanse of open land that included Jesus Green.

Although Midsummer Common is open common land, it looks more like a vast city park, with street lighting, tarmac paths and cycle lanes, and all the human problems that city parks attract.

I crossed Midsummer Common to the south side of the river, where houseboats are moored along the bank, while most of the boathouses of Cambridge colleges and town clubs on the north side.

In between the swans and young people learning to row and to scull, a small narrowboat, the Rosie, was chugging up and down the river, taking small groups of people on river tours.

I crossed the river at Clare Footbridge, and walked back and forth along the north bank of the Cam, in and out between the boathouses.

There are about 30 colleges in Cambridge, each with its own boat club on the Cam, interspersed with a the boathouses of a number of town clubs and the premises of the Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs, which manages college rowing on the Cam and running university races, such as the Lent and May bumps but not the Fairbairn Cup. There are clubs too for medical students at Addenbrooke’s and students at the Veterinary School.

Sidney Sussex shares a boathouse with Girton, Corpus Christi and Wolfson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Close to Clare Footbridge, Sidney Sussex shares a boathouse with Girton College, Corpus Christi and Wolfson. The Sidney Sussex club’s blades are dark blue with red stripes. Sidney alumni race as the Lord Protector Club – well, Oliver Cromwell was a Sidney alumnus.

The other clubs on the river include the Cambridge ’99 Boat Club, the Cantabrigian Rowing Club, the City of Cambridge Rowing Club, the Rob Roy Boat Club, the X-Press Boat Club and the Champion of the Thames Boat Club, some of them based in the boathouse of the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association.

The Goldie Boathouse, home of the Cambridge University Boat Club, is named after JHD Goldie (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Some of the boathouses have names that have become part of Cambridge lore. The Goldie boathouse is the home of the Cambridge University Boat Club. The boathouse is named after JHD Goldie, of Saint John’s and CUBC.

The Boat Club of Saint John’s College is known as Lady Margaret. According to Cambridge myth, the name Lady Margaret was adopted after the Saint John’s Boat Club was banned from using that name. However, the club was probably named after its boat, as was custom in the formative years of college rowing. The alumni race as Lady Somerset Boat Club.

The names of some town clubs are associated with well-known pubs in Cambridge.

The X-Press Boat Club was once the boat club of the Free Press Public House, but is now it is associated with The Cambridge Blue after the landlord switched pubs. The name of the club was supposed to change to the Cambridge Blue Boat Club, but this was blocked after objections were raised by the university.

The Champion of the Thames Boat Club has boasted its unusual name since 1995, and is sponsored by The Champion of the Thames, a pub on King Street, near Sidney Sussex College. The pub, in turn, is named after an oarsman who won a race on the Thames on 1860, moved to Cambridge and ever after had all correspondence addressed to “The Champion of the Thames, King Street, Cambridge.”

A glass of wine at the Fort St George on a summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I crossed the river again at Peterhouse Footbridge, and close to the houseboats, across from the Peterhouse boat club, I stopped for a cool glass of wine in the Fort St George, an old sprawling pub on the south bank of the river.

To give the pub its full name, this is The Fort St George In England, and is the oldest public house on the Cam. It is a Grade II listed timber-framed building and dates from the 16th century. The pub got is unusual name because it is said to look like the East India Company’s Fort St George in Madras (Chennai).

I could have lost all sense of time in the afternoon sunshine on the river bank, until a friend from the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies joined me at the table, and conversation turned to reality.

I strolled back along the south side of the river, where the people who live on the houseboats have their own sense of community and call themselves the Camboaters.

Christ’s College Boat Club has the oldest wooden-framed boathouse on the river (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Christ’s College Boat Club is housed in the oldest wooden-framed boathouse on the river, and this is the nearest to Jesus Lock.

As I continued on to Jesus Lock, people were sunbathing on the banks of the river, enjoying this unusually warm and bright summer weather. There were lengthy queues too at the Lido to get into the Jesus Green Swimming Pool.

The corner of Chesterton Lane, Northampton Street and Magdalene Street, seen from the grounds of Saint Giles Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I crossed the river once again at the Jesus Lock Footbridge, at Chesterton Road, and walked on back along Chesterton Lane, and Magdalene Street and Bridge Street to Sidney Sussex College. My week in Cambridge was coming to an end.

Magdalene Street, walking back into Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Some other boathouses on the River Cam:

Lady Margaret Boat Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Boat Club of St John’s College is known as Lady Margaret, after the founder of the college, Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Jesus College Boat Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Jesus College Boat Club is responsible for Fairbairns, the favourite event in Michaelmas term. Jesus alumni race as the Disciples.

Trinity Hall Boat Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Pembroke College Boat Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Emmanuel Boat Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Rosie passes Downing College boathouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Downing College boathouse has been close to the water in more ways than its member may care to remember ... the boathouse flooded while it was still being built.

The Cambridge ’99 boathouse and the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association boathouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Champion of the Thames Boat Club is not a London club, but a Cambridge club. It takes its name from a pub in King Street and uses the the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association boathouse.

A curious question leads to the
story of the Jews of Cambridge

The Cambridge Synagogue and Jewish Student Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

During these warm summer evenings, some of us have walked from Sidney Sussex College up Sidney Street and Bridge Street in Cambridge to the Mitre to enjoy each other’s companies and to discuss and debate the day’s proceedings at the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

The Mitre is an anomalous name for a pub in Cambridge. After all, there is no Bishop of Cambridge, and the university and the city lie within the Diocese of Ely.

A quiet corner in Portugal Place … place names can lead to curious searches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Some evenings, I have wondered whether Portugal Place and Portugal Street, which are beside the Mitre, were so named because Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula found a welcome in Cromwell’s England. This conundrum had added interest for us this week, given that Oliver Cromwell was an alumnus of Sidney Sussex College.

Indeed, in my rambles this week, I soon found out that the Cambridge Synagogue is in Thompson’s Lane, close to the Mitre and to Portugal Place and Portugal Street.

The first Jews arrived in England in the wake of the Battle of Hastings and William I’s conquest of England. The majority of these Jews initially settled in London, but Cambridge may have soon become the centre of one of the earliest provincial Jewish communities. Fuller, in his History of Cambridge puts the date of the first Jewish settlement at 1073.

The Round Church on Bridge Street … did the site ever belong to the Jews of Cambridge? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There is a tradition that the Round Church on Bridge Street, opposite Saint John’s College, was a synagogue, and the parishes of All Saints’ and Saint Sepulchre were once known as “in the Jewry.”

Although 13th century Cambridge Jewry is better documented, it appears Jews were more active in 12th century Cambridge, and the first recorded medieval Cambridge Jew. Theobold of Cambridge (Theoboldus Kantebrugie). He is mentioned in 1144 as an alleged convert to Christianity and a monk. He played a crucial role in establishing the case for Saint William’s martyrdom at the hands of the Jews of Norwich, and so he became a key figure in disseminating the first-known propaganda alleging ritual murder.

Another early episode mentioned in the life of the Cambridge Jewry is of a fine inflicted upon Comitissa, a Jewish woman in Cambridge, for allowing her son to marry a Jewish woman from Lincoln without the king’s permission. It is probable that this Comitissa was the mother of Moses ben Isaac Hanassiah, the author of the Sefer ha-Shoham.

The Jews of Cambridge do not seem to have suffered much during the riots of 1189-1190.

The Guildhall on Market Hill … part of the site once belonged to Magister Binjamin and the old synagogue stood nearby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A grammarian known as Benjamin of Canterbury may have been from Cambridge, since the Latin records make mention of a Magister Binjamin in Cambridge. In 1224, King Henry III granted the house of Benjamin the Jew to the town as a jail. This was on the site of the present Guildhall.

The Jews of Cambridge were victims during the revolt of the barons in 1266, and the official records of Jewish life in Cambridge were removed that year to Ely. Within a decade the Jews were banished from Cambridge in 1275.

King Edward I issued an edict in 1290, expelling all 5,000 Jews from England and confiscating their property, and the Jews who were expelled crossed to France and Flanders.

The old synagogue was near the prison – later the site of the Guildhall on Market Hill. It was given to the Franciscans, who had their main house in Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College.

Oliver Cromwell’s portrait in the Hall in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

However, Jews started returning to England in the 1650s under Oliver Cromwell, an alumnus of Sidney College. Jewish scholars began visiting Cambridge to teach Hebrew as part of the Cambridge BA, and by the early 1700s stable Jewish communities were emerging in Cambridge.

Well-known Jewish teachers at the university include Israel Lyons (1739-1775), Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinnessy, and Solomon Schechter. By 1847, a tiny resident congregation was worshipping in the Union Society’s premises in 1847.

Although Professor JJ Sylvester took high honours in mathematics in 1839, he was debarred from taking his degree by the university statutes. Arthur Cohen entered Magdalene College in 1849. An Act of Parliament in 1856 opened up Cambridge BA degrees to Jews, Muslims, and others, “without violence to the conscience,” and in 1858 Arthur Cohen became the first Jew to take his BA at Cambridge.

In 1869, Numa Hartog gained the position of senior wrangler, the highest mathematical triumph a Cambridge student can obtain, and so he helped to secure the passage of the University Tests Act allowing Jews to take their degrees.

Petty Cury today … in 1873, a small Jewish congregation was meeting here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

By 1873, the Jewish congregation in Cambridge was meeting in Regent Street. There was a brief move in 1888 to Petty Cury, a narrow street that links Sidney Street and Saint Andrew’s Street to the east, Market Hill and Guildhall Street to the west, and Hobson Street on the corner of Christ’s College.

After the death of Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinessy, the Romanian rabbi Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) was appointed to the faculty at Cambridge University in 1890, serving as a lecturer in Talmudics and reader in Rabbinics.

His greatest academic fame came from his excavation in 1896 of the papers of the Cairo Geniza, a collection of over 100,000 pages of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and mediaeval Jewish texts that were preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionised our understandings of Mediaeval Judaism. The story is told in Janet Soskice’s book Sisters of Sinai (London: Vintage, 2010).
Saint Mary’s Passage near King’s College, Cambridge, today … in 1900, the Jewish congregation was meeting here over a china shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Professor Alfred Philipp Bender (1863-1937), who was born in Dublin and educated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was instrumental in founding the Cambridge Hebrew Congregation and conducted its services for many years. His father, the Revd Philipp Bender, was the minister of Mary’s Abbey Synagogue, Dublin.

In 1899, the university students took over from the residents of Cambridge in running the synagogue. A year later (1900), residents and students were managing a minyan in a room over Barrett’s china shop in Saint Mary’s Passage, on the corner of Market Place. They then moved to a studio in a garden in Camden Terrace (Park Terrace).

A bicycle outside the entrance to Sidney Sussex College … in 1912, the Jewish community was worshipping in premises behind a bicycle shop on the site where this photograph was taken (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2103)

By late 1912, the Jewish community on Cambridge had moved into premises behind a bicycle shop opposite the entrance to Sidney Sussex College, possibly in premises on the site that is now part of Sainsbury’s.

A purpose-built synagogue in Ellis Court (as it was called then) in Thomson’s Lane, off Bridge Street was consecrated on 21 October 1937 by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Joseph Herman Hertz. There were some 50 active Jewish students at the time.

Today, the resident Jewish population of Cambridge has a high percentage of members from the university, ensuring there is a good intellectual and social atmosphere in the shul.

During university term, the services are run by the students, with a touch more boisterousness than out of term. Outside university term, the shul reverts to the residents, who also run the High Holy Day services.

The Jewish community in Cambridge says it is unique, and it provides its own self-description by saying: “It is serious without being pompous, friendly without being happy-clappy, open without losing sense of the necessary boundaries – and, above all, a true community, where people look out for each other, and enjoy each other’s company.”

The Mitre, Bridge Street … the pub with an anomalous name which set me in search of the story of the Jews of Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Revised 1 October 2019