17 March 2023

How an old guild hall
in London was once
the New Synagogue

The site of the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Hall on Leadenhall Street … and the site of the New Synagogue in 1761-1837 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I enjoy walking around the City of London and the East End, visiting synagogues and churches. Opposite Saint Katharine Cree Church, at the corner of Leadenhall Street and Creechurch Lane, a blue plaque reads: ‘On this site stood Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Hall 1538-1883.’

But the plaque does not mention that for 76 years, from 1761 to 1837, this was also the site of the New Synagogue, once of the four principal synagogues in this part of London.

The Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers is one of the ancient Livery Companies of the City of London, numbered 37 in the order of precedence. The company received its first Royal Charter in 1568, although its roots go back to the 15th century. Its livery or membership today stands at about 150.

The company had a monopoly on bricklaying in the City of London until the Great Fire of London. A royal decree insisted that brick or stone, instead of timber, should be used in building homes. The Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Company could not cope, craftsmen were brought in from across England, and the monopoly came to an end.

Eventually, the company leased its hall. The building became a tavern on the ground floor and the New Synagogue became tenants in the floors above.

The New Synagogue in Leadenhall Street was founded in 1761. From its foundation, during the first few months of the reign of George III, until 1837 when Queen Victoria had just come to the throne, this was the site of the New Synagogue.

The New Synagogue was one of the four important historical synagogues in this part of London, alongside Bevis Marks Synagogue, the Great Synagogue and the Hambro’ Synagogue.

The entrance to the synagogue in Leadenhall Street, formerly Bricklayers’ Hall, depicted in 1811

A black-and-white etching from a drawing by John Nixon published in 1811 shows the exterior of the New Synagogue at Bricklayers’ Hall, Leadenhall Street. This etching was published in the European Magazine, which was produced in London in 1782-1826.

The door to the left of the picture is the entrance to the synagogue and in the shadows can be seen a man wearing a hat and what might be the clerical collar of a rabbi. The bird over the entranceway was, perhaps, the sign of the Cock Tavern, although the name above is ‘Litchfield’ (sic).

When the hall was refurbished as a synagogue, a marble plaque with a Hebrew inscription that has been described as ‘a rare theological jest’ was placed in the hall: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ (Psalm 118: 22).

The plaque also had the date 1757, although this was four years earlier than the establishment of the New Synagogue in the hall.

Another theological jest took the form of a couplet referring to the Cock Tavern on the ground floor of the premises and the synagogue above:

The spirits above are the Spirits divine.
The Spirits below are the Spirits of wine.

In time, the congregation of the two Ashkenazi synagogues, the Great Synagogue and the New Synagogue, were reconciled. The first Rabbi of the New Synagogue, Moses Myers (1759-1804), who was brought over from Holland, was acknowledged as the Chief Rabbi of the three Ashkenazi Synagogues in 1792-1802.

The members of the synagogues in this part of London were to the forefront in the movement for Jewish political emancipation at the beginning of the 19th century. The Bevis Marks Synagogue included had the Goldsmiths, the Montefiores and the Disraelis. The Great Synagogue had the Rothschilds. The New Synagogue had the Salomans family, including David Salomans (1797-1873), the first Jew to stand for parliament, the second to be elected, and the first to speak there, and the fourth to become a baronet. He was the first Jew to be elected Sheriff of London (1835), to be elected Alderman (1847) and to be elected Lord Mayor (1855).

The New Synagogue, Great St Helen’s Street, depicted in the Illustrated Times in 1855

The New Synagogue was a success, and the congregation aspired to a purpose-built building of its own. In 1838, it moved to a grand, purpose-built synagogue in Great St Helen’s, just off Bishopsgate, a five-minute walk away.

The hall was then occupied by a Jewish Mechanics Institution, and then by the Jewish Literary and Scientific Institute, when the hall became known as Sussex Hall in honour of the sixth son of George III, Prince Augustus Frederick (1773-1843), Duke of Sussex. He was known for his sympathy towards the Jewish community, held a large collection of Hebrew books, and who was described as having ‘dabbled in Hebrew and patronised Anglo-Jewish institutions’.

In time, the Cock Tavern changed its name to the Sussex Tavern and then to the Sussex Arms.

The Jewish connection with the hall ended in 1860 and Sussex Hall was occupied for its last 23 years by the City of London College. The hall was demolished in 1883.

The New Synagogue in Great St Helen’s had 185 baalai batim or heads of household in 1845, and 266 seat-holders. The New Synagogue was also one of the original five communities that formed the United Synagogue in 1870.

The New Synagogue remained in Great St Helen’s until 1915. By then, many of its members had moved to the northern suburbs of London. The synagogue moved to Stamford Hill, and the building in Great St Helen’s was replaced by the headquarters of Shell Petroleum.

The third New Synagogue in Stamford Hill, was a new, purpose-built synagogue on Egerton Road. There, the synagogue it reached its peak of over 1,000 members in the 1950s and 1960s. But membership began to decline in the aftermath of World War II and the synagogue building was sold in 1987 to the Bobov Chasidic Community. Today it is used as Chasidey Bobov D’Ohel Naphtali and Yeshiva Bnei Zion Beth Hemedrash.

The much-shrunken congregation continued to meet at the Victoria Community Centre in Egerton Road. Some of the artefacts of the New Synagogue that survived from the early days at Bricklayers’ Hall are in the Jewish Museum, others have been dispersed. The plaque with the rare theological jest, when last seen, had been removed from the wall of the vestry in Stamford Hill and was broken in half.

Shabbat Shalom

The site of the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Hall on Leadenhall Street … and the site of the New Synagogue in 1761-1837 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

(Image of the hall from 1811 © The Trustees of the British Museum. This image is copyright of the British Museum and is used under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0): https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (24)

Inside the chapel in Trinity College, Dublin … Samuel Johnson received an honorary doctorate in 1765 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day [17 March 2023], and it is worth recalling that Samuel Johnson is forever known as ‘Doctor Johnson’ because of the honorary doctorate he received from the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin) almost 260 years ago in 1765.

Johnson was a close friend of the Irish-born politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who was educated at Trinity College Dublin, but they strongly disagreed with each other on their political views. According to his biographer James Boswell, Johnson once said of Burke:

In private life he is a very honest gentleman; but I will not allow him to be so in publick life. People may be honest, though they are doing wrong; that is between their Maker and them. But we, who are suffering by their pernicious conduct, are to destroy them. We are sure that [Burke] acts from interest. We know what his genuine principles were. They who allow their passions to confound the distinctions between right and wrong, are criminal. They may be convinced; but they have not come honestly by their conviction.

Johnson’s other Irish friends in London included Oliver Goldsmith, Arthur Murphy, Charles O’Connor, Bishop Thomas Percy of Dromore and Bishop Thomas Barnard of Killaloe, and, in a curious accident of history the papers of his biographer, James Boswell, were eventually found in Malahide Castle, Co Dublin.

In his Life of Johnson, Boswell records Johnson as having famously said on one occasion:

The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, Sir; the Irish are a fair people; – they never speak well of one another.

Boswell also records the following conversation with Johnson:

He, I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour.

Johnson: It is the last place where I should wish to travel.

Boswell: Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?

Johnson: No, Sir; Dublin is only a worse capital.

Boswell: Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?

Johnson: Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.

But what did Johnson truly think of Ireland? Boswell recalls Johnson once saying during a conversation with an Irishman on the state of Irish politics:

Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them.

He also recalls Johnson saying:

The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice.

In a letter to the Irish writer and historian Charles O’Connor (1710-1791), Johnson wrote in 1755:

I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection

‘Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see’ (Samuel Johnson) … on the cliffs above the Giant’s Causeway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)