10 February 2023

The Jewish community in
Northampton and a synagogue
dating back to the 1880s

The synagogue on Overstone Road, Northampton, was built in 1965-1966 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Northampton last week, I visited both the site of the mediaeval synagogue on Sheep Street, and the modern 1960s synagogue on Overstone Road.

Jews have lived in Northampton since mediaeval times, with a synagogue and cemetery in Northampton. The first record shows Jews living in Northampton in 1159, and the Jewish community there expanded until all Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

Jews were allowed to return to England in 1656, but did not return to Northampton until the mid-19th century. There is no firm evidence of Jews settling in Northamptonshire before 1850, although the names of some individuals living in the town before 1850 suggest they may have had Jewish ancestry.

Barnard Moses Levy was living in Northampton in 1770. Benjamin Levi was the proprietor of the mail coach at Northampton in 1793-1798, and he owned buildings in Horsemarket, Northampton, as well as the Admiral Hood in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. The Revd Moses Marcus, who was described as ‘formerly a Jew’, was the Vicar of Saint Sepulchre’s, Northampton, in 1822-1823 and published a Hebrew grammar in 1825.

Adolph Gonski (1807-1893), who was born in Posen, appears to be the first Jew to have lived in Northampton in the 19th century more than fleetingly. His naturalisation papers show he was in Northampton in 1843, and by 1853 he was living in Northampton ‘for ten years past’. He was a general dealer in Sheep Street, and his business partner, Joseph Davis (1819-1906), married Gonski’s sister, Pauline (1827-1895).

The next Jew to have an impact on life in Northampton was Major Samuel Isaac (1812-1886), an army contractor who has a shoe factory in Campbell Square. He presented the fountain in the Market Square in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra. The fountain was dismantled in 1962. His brother Saul Isaac (1823-1903), MP for Nottingham, was the first Jew to be elected a Conservative MP.

Another early Jew living in Northampton was David Hatchwell (1820-1878) who was born in Gibraltar. He lived the last year of his life on Billing Road.

Meanwhile, some time after 1855, an estate at Ashton, near Oundle, was bought by Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. In 1871, Rothschild owned 1,772 acres in Northamptonshire and in 1874 Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, Anthony de Rothschild and Mayer Amschel de Rothschild were landowners in Ashton and Lutton parishes. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808-1879) was the first professing Jew in England to sit and vote in House of Commons (1858).

The Ashton estate was given to Nathaniel ‘Charles’ Rothschild (1877-1923) by his father as his country residence. Charles Rothschild was, in 1902, the first Jew in the county to be appointed a magistrate, and was appointed High Sheriff for Northamptonshire in 1905. Victor Rothschild (1910-1990), banker and scientist, played cricket for Northamptonshire.

George Leopold Michel (1834-1911), a leather merchant, is regarded as the main founder of the Northampton Hebrew Congregation. He was born in Merxheim, and his naturalisation papers in 1880 show he was then living in Northampton for 20 years. He was the inspiration for setting up regular religious services (1885), for arranging the purchase of the synagogue building (1890), and for securing, with Phineas Hayman, in 1902, a small plot in the municipal cemetery on the Towcester Road for Jewish burials.

By 1920, GL Michel & Sons was run by the three brothers Montague, Henry and Leon Michel. George Michel’s daughter, Ditta, was the first person in Northampton to run a typewriting school, established in 1892.

Other key figures in founding the Northampton Hebrew Congregation include Morris Moss (1855-1925), was one of the founders of the Northampton Liberal Club, and Phineas Hayman, a shoe manufacturer based in the Billing Road in 1889.

Inside the synagogue on Overstone Road, Northampton

The persecution of Jews in Russia intensified after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and several Jews from Tsarist Russia soon arrived in Northampton, so that a regular congregation began to form in the 1880s.

The ‘Laws, Rules, and Regulations’ of the Northampton Hebrew Congregation were signed in 1888, giving the community formality, and a building in Overstone Road was bought in 1890. The building may have been built about 1877, and had been used by the ‘New Church signified by the New Jerusalem in the Revelation’ or Swedenborgians.

The synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, and the first wedding there took place later in 1890. A section of the Towcester Road municipal cemetery was set aside for the burial of Jews, and in 1902 Morris Kuyaski, a tailor, was the first Jew buried in consecrated ground in Northamptonshire for over 600 years.

The brothers Saul and Hyman Doffman arrived in Northampton in 1900. They were master tailors, with a shop at the corner of the Market Square and Abington Street, known as ‘Doffman’s Corner,’ and another shop in Gold Street. Saul Doffman was elected president of the Chamber of Trade, and in 1934 he was elected a town councillor, the first of two Jews in the town to have been elected.

Leo Blake (1891-1984), who arrived in 1920, became treasurer and secretary of the congregation, and the founder of the Northampton Council of Christians and Jews. In the inter-war years, several Jews were market traders, businessmen, shopkeepers and employers.

Some Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution began arriving in Northampton from 1933. Some refugees who had only settled briefly in London, were evacuated to Northampton, and the host Jewish community strained to provide a welcome and to support the refugees and evacuees. A hostel for refugees and was established by Isidore Marx, himself a refugee from Germany.

The refugees included Hugo Hainebach (1898-1986) from Germany, who set up a tannery in Earls Barton, and the evacuees included David Winnick, later Labour MP for Croydon South (1966-1970) and Walsall North (1979-2017).

Arthur Katz (1908-1999) arrived in England as a refugee from Germany in 1933. Along with Philip Ullman, his relative and also a refugee, they established a toy factory (Mettoy, later Corgi) in Northampton. Hans Wreschner, another refugee, founded the Deanshanger Oxide Works, manufacturing dyes, and became chair of South Northamptonshire district council.

A few local Jews were also categorised as ‘enemy aliens’, and were moved to internment camps on the Isle of Man in 1940.

By October 1941, there were over 430 Jewish children in the county: rabbis cycled from village to village. A Jewish Congregation was formed in Kettering in January 1941, with over 100 people attending its first meeting. A Zionist Society was formed in Northampton in 1940, followed by a Jewish Youth Centre, a kosher canteen, a soldier’s canteen, and a Jewish Forces Centre.

Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz lived in Northampton before becoming an army chaplain at El Alamein in 1942. He was later Chief Rabbi of South Africa and then Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.

The Northampton and County Independent reported in December 1943 that 1,000 Jewish civilians and servicemen attended the Chanukah festival at the Town Hall.

Three Northampton cinemas in the post-war years, the Ritz and the Tivoli, were owned and managed by Myer and Sydney Cipin. Warren Julius Wolff, chairman of Giesen and Wolff Ltd, a fine arts publishing company, moved to Northampton from London during World War II, and later helped with the cost of rebuilding the synagogue in Overstone Road in 1965.

After World War II, there was an uninterrupted series of ministers. Between 1945 and 1965, the size of the congregation numbered around 300 individuals. The last locally resident officiant, Harold Silman (1920-2002), retired in 1992 after 21 years’ service.

The Torah scrolls in the synagogue in Northampton

The synagogue building bought in 1890 was a corrugated iron building. It was used until 1964 when it was demolished and it was replaced in 1965 by the present synagogue. It was built on the same site, and was consecrated on 4 September 1966 by Dayan Moshe Swift (1907-1983).

A commemorative service and celebration to recognise the 125 years was held on 13 October 2013 and was attended by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Today, this is a provincial synagogue under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi.

The community continues to play an important role in Jewish religious and cultural life, and the membership is drawn from a wide age range and a variety of nationalities.

Further Reading:

Michael Jolles, ‘The Presence of Jews in Northamptonshire,’ Northamptonshire Past and Present, No 57 (2004), Northamptonshire Record Society, pp 54-68.

Shabbat Shalom

There has been a synagogue on Overstone Road, Northampton, since 1890 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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