17 August 2023

A self-guided
walking tour of
the principal sites in
Jewish Birmingham

New Street Station, Birmingham, was built on the site of a synagogue established in the 1780s in the Froggery district (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of the day yesterday on my own self-guided walking tour of Jewish Birmingham, including Britain’s oldest active ‘cathedral synagogue.’

There are few records if any of a Jewish presence in mediaeval Birmingham, which was only a market town until the Industrial Revolution, and there has never been a large Jewish community in Birmingham.

Jews began to have a numerical presence in Birmingham in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Smaller Jewish communities later developed in other parts of the Midlands in the Victorian period, including Wolverhampton, the Five Towns of ‘The Potteries’ in Staffordshire, Coventry, Nottingham and Northampton.

The first Jews to settle in noticeable numbers in Birmingham arrived ca 1730. A generation later, Meyer Oppenheim built the city’s first glass kiln. A synagogue was established in the 1780s in the Froggery district, a low-lying marshy and swampy area that was later built over with Station Road and New Street Station in 1845.

Seven years after the anti-Catholic ‘Gordon Riots’ in 1780, Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) converted to Judaism in Birmingham in 1787, at the age of 36. Some sources say his conversion occurred earlier when he was in exile in Holland. However, it seems he underwent brit milah or ritual circumcision at the synagogue in Severn Street in 1787, when he took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon, and became a Ger Tsedek or righteous convert.

Gordon lived with a Jewish woman in the Froggery, grew ‘a beard of extraordinary length,’ dressed like a Jew, and observed kosher dietary standards. However, little else is known about his life as a Jew in Birmingham until he was arrested and jailed in 1788.

Gordon lived as an Orthodox Jew In Newgate Prison, where he put on his tzitzit and tefillin daily, fasted on the days of fasting, and celebrated the Jewish holidays. The prison authorities supplied him with kosher meat, wine and Shabbat challos, and they allowed him to have a minyan on the Sabbath, to affix a mezuza on his cell door, and to hang the Ten Commandments on the wall. In Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens describes Gordon as a true tzadik or pious man among the prisoners.

When Gordon’s prison sentence was due to end, he appeared in court on 28 January 1793, and refused to remove his hat. He died of typhoid fever in Newgate Prison on 1 November 1793 at the age of 41. He was buried not in a Jewish cemetery but in the detached burial ground of Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly. It later became Saint James’s Gardens, but in recent years the burials there were reinterred to make way for work on HS2.

A new synagogue was built in Hurst Street, Birmingham, in the vicinity of the Froggery, in 1809. But it was destroyed, along with other places of worship during riots in 1813. It was rebuilt and enlarged in Greek Revival style in 1823-1827 by the architect Richard Tutin.

Because of the growth in the Industrial Revolution in the 1830s, cities in the Midlands and the north, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, 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 four areas of economic life: glaziers, slipper makers, tailors and traders. These patterns of migration and growth mean that the surviving Jewish heritage in Birmingham is largely Victorian.

The synagogue on Hurst Street was refurbished in 1851. However, a schism divided the community the following year (1852), leading to the formation of a rival synagogue on Wrottesley Street in 1853.

Unity was restored in 1855, and the two congregations united at the opening of the new synagogue on Singers Hill in 1856. The synagogue on Hurst Street was sold to the Freemasons that year and became the Athol Masonic Hall.

The Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, usually known as Singers Hill Synagogue, was founded in 1856 and was built on Blucher Street and Ellis Street. It is often known as the ‘Cathedral Synagogue’.

On the eve of World War I, there were 6,000 Jews in Birmingham, and the community reached a peak of 6,600 in 1918.

There were still 6,300 Jews living in Birmingham in 1967. But, while Birmingham is England’s second city, it had a proportionately small Jewish community, depleted by the exodus to the suburbs and surrounding towns. The Solihull and District Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1963. Later, the Central Synagogue moved to Pershore Road, the New Synagogue moved to Park Road, and the Progressive Synagogue moved to Sheepecote Street.

More Jews left Birmingham in the 1980s, mainly for London, Manchester and Israel. There were then only 3,000 Jews in Birmingham in the 1980s, and census figures show about 2,200 Jews are living in Birmingham today.

In my self-guided tour of Jewish Birmingham this week, with the help of Sharman Kadish’s superb book, Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland: an architectural guide, I visited many of these Victorian landmarks. But more about them, hopefully, in the days or weeks to come.

The Birmingham Moses (1787), Lord George Gordon caricatured in a satirical print by William Dent

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (81) 17 August 2023

Christ Church, Lichfield … a Gothic Revival triumph by Thomas Johnson, the Lichfield architect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2023).

Before this day begins (17 August 2023), I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. For this week and next 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.

Inside Christ Church, Leomansley … built on Christchurch Lane in Lichfield in 1846 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ Church, Lichfield:

Christ Church was built in 1846 on Christchurch Lane in Leamonsley, just off Walsall Road in the south-west corner of Lichfield. It serves a parish that includes the areas around Leamonsley, Sandfields and Lower Sandford Street.

The church was photographed extensively and described beautifully (13 January 2013) by the Lichfield blogger and local historian Kate Gomez. It has connections with two great Gothic Revival architects, Thomas Johnson and George Frederick Bodley, and its Hardman and Kempe windows and interior decorations bring together a truly delight expression of the late period of Gothic Revival architecture and art in Staffordshire.

My recent visit to the church some time ago was arranged by the Revd Janet Waterfield, Vicar of Christ Church, Lichfield, and Saint James’s, Longdon, and I was shown around the church by the verger, Margaret Beddoe.

Christ Church is a fine example of the Decorated Gothic revival style of the 19th century. The church is a Grade II* listed building. On the ceiling of the chancel are some unique Pre-Raphaelite canvas panels painted by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932).

A growing population in the west of Lichfield created the need for a new church in the area. Building work on Christ Church began in 1844 and it was completed by 1847, making it the first new parish church in Lichfield since mediaeval times.

The ¾-acre site for the church was a gift in 1844 from Richard Hinckley, a Lichfield solicitor and the owner of Beacon Place and its surrounding estate grounds. The site was about 500 metres south of Beacon Place at the edge of the grounds of the Hinckley estate and could be seen by the Hinckleys from their home.

The church was built in the corner of the park surrounding Beacon House. Because the church had no parish, a new parish was created by annexing parts of the parishes of Saint Michael and Saint Chad.

The church was built and endowed by the generosity of Richard Hinckley’s wife, Ellen Jane Hinckley, the daughter of John Chappel Woodhouse (1780-1815), Dean of Lichfield (1807-1833). She was a niece of the Lichfield hymn-writer, Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), best known as the translator of ‘O come, all ye faithful.’

Ellen had suffered tragic family losses. Her first husband was Canon William Robinson, and they had two daughters, Ellen-Jane and Marianne, who died in their childhood in 1813 and 1814. These two children are the subject of the memorial in Lichfield Cathedral carved by Sir Francis Chantry and known as ‘The Sleeping Children.’

Canon Robinson died in 1812 while he was still in his 30s. Ellen married her second husband, Hugh Dyke Acland (1791-1834), in Lichfield Cathedral in 1817. But she was widowed a second time when he died in 1834. A year later, in 1835, she married her third husband, Richard Hinckley. They moved into Beacon Place in 1837, and soon after donated a corner of their estate for building a new church.

Christ Church was built of sandstone quarried in Lichfield and was designed by the Lichfield architect, Thomas Johnson, who lived in 67 Upper John Street, later known as Davidson House.

The church was built with local red sandstone in a decorated Gothic revival style under the design of Thomas Johnson of Lichfield. When the church was completed in 1847, it consisted of a chancel, nave and west tower with a bell cast in 1845 by CG Mears of London. The tiles are by Herbert Minton, whose firm also worked closely with AWN Pugin and donated tiles to about 40 or 50 churches and vicarages throughout the Diocese of Lichfield.

The church was consecrated on 26 October 1847 by the Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Revd John Lonsdale. The first incumbent was Canon Thomas Alfred Bangham (1819-1876). He been ordained priest only a few months earlier in May 1847, but he stayed at Christ Church until his death.

Over the decades, the church has been richly endowed with many treasures and more practical items such as a modern heating system due to the generosity of local benefactors.

The north and south chancel windows, transept east window and nave south window date from the 1870s and 1880s and were designed by Hardman & Co, the Birmingham firm founded by John Hardman (1811-1867) of Handsworth, who worked closely with AWN Pugin.

The church was enlarged to designs by Matthew Holding of Northampton in 1887, when the north and south transepts and the bays were added. The north extension consisted of a Lady Chapel and the south extension provided the church with an organ chamber and vestry. The extensions were partly funded by Samuel Lipscombe Seckham, who had bought Beacon House from the Hinckley family in 1881, and partly by public subscription.

Samuel Lipscomb Seckham (1827-1901) was a prosperous architect, developer, magistrate and brewer. He was employed by Saint John’s College, Oxford, to develop parts of North Oxford, including Park Town, Walton Manor and Norham Manor. From 1877 to 1883, he owned Bletchley Park, later known as the location for the codebreakers in World War II. In 1889, he bought Whittington Old Hall, a 16th-century country house outside Lichfield.

The chancel screen in Christ Church was presented by Seckham’s wife, Kinbarra Sweene (nee Smith), in 1888, but this has since been removed to the former choir gallery.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church in 1897, the vicar and churchwardens commissioned the decoration of the chancel ceiling and walls by John Dickson Batten, better known as an illustrator, and his work for Joseph Jacob’s various editions of fairy tales in the 1890s display his talent for design and creativity.

Batten painted his canvases for Christ Church in the Pre-Raphaelite style, depicting Old Testament figures with symbols of the Passion and the Eucharist. In these canvasses, Batten represents the Biblical figures pointing to Christ as the promised and hoped-for Messiah and the Eucharist as the Christian’s means of union with him.

The paintings on the north side of the sanctuary represent (viewed from left to right):

● Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden;
● Noah, with the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise and blessing;
● the Archangel Gabriel guarding the gates of Paradise until Paradise should be regained by Christ;
● Abraham with Jacob, with Jacob’s vision of a ladder between Heaven and Earth;
● Moses, the leader and lawgiver, with Aaron, the High Priest who offers sacrifice to God.

The paintings on the south side of the sanctuary (viewed from left to right) represent:

● Joshua leading God’s army into the Promised Land;
● David, the king and psalmist from whose royal house the Messiah would come;
● Solomon, the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem;
● Elijah, the prophet of God’s judgment, with Isaiah, speaking of comfort;
● the Archangel Gabriel, with Saint John the Baptist, calling the Virgin Mary to be the mother of Christ.

The original watercolours used by Batten as cartoons for his work on the ceiling paintings were discovered in the tower of Christ Church in the early 1980s. At first, it was thought they were the work of the Birmingham stained-glass artist Florence Camm (1874-1916). But this was disputed while the watercolours were being restored at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Art historians and the BMAG and the Victoria and Albert Museum now agree that they are the work of Batten.

The Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) designed the glass for the north transept west window in 1894. Kempe, who studied architecture under George Frederick Bodley, also designed the colourful triptych that forms the reredos of the altar in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral.

The reredos and marble sanctuary floor were presented to Christ Church in 1906 by Thomas Cox, a churchwarden, and his daughters in memory of Sarah Cox, wife and mother.

The sanctuary refurbishings were designed by George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), and were built by Robert Bridgeman and Son of Quonians Lane, Lichfield.

Bodley was a lifelong friend of Kempe, and he was the first major patron of William Morris’s stained glass. He is closely associated with the Gothic Revival and High Anglican aesthetics, and his biographer Michael Hall argues he ‘fundamentally shaped the architecture, art, and design of the Anglican Church throughout England and the world’ (George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America, Yale University Press, 2012). The Church Historian, Owen Chadwick, says Kempe’s work represents ‘the Victorian zenith’ of church decoration and stained glass windows.

Bodley’s other works in the Diocese of Lichfield include the Church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross (1871-1872), the Mission Church in Hadley End (1901) and Saint Chad’s Church, Burton-on-Trent (1903-1910).

Other churches designed by Bodley include All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, Cambridge, close to Westcott House and Sidney Sussex College; and the Chapel of Queens’ College, Cambridge. He also designed the statue of a sailor from HMS Powerful, carved by Bridgeman, on the wall of Lichfield’s former museum and library, now the city Register Office, at Beacon Park.

The clock on the tower of Christ Church, installed in 1913, was presented by the Burton brewer Albert Octavius Worthington of Maple Hayes in memory of his wife Sarah. He was the vicar’s warden in Christ Church, and after he died on Ascension Day 1918 the east window was installed by his children in his memory in 1920.

The churchyard was enlarged twice, in 1895 and again in 1929. Three tombs of the Hinckley and Acland families at the rear of the church also have Grade II listing as monuments.

Today, Christ Church stands serenely in a beautiful and peaceful churchyard. It has a very village-like feeling to it in this quiet corner of Lichfield. The Vicar is Canon Janet Waterfield.

Christ Church is an active parish church with regular Sunday morning services at 9.30 am, Evening Prayer at 6 pm on the second and fourth Sunday, and an afternoon service at 4 pm on many Sundays. The church is open on weekdays from 10 am to 3 pm.

The reredos in Christ Church was designed by the Tractarian artist CE Kempe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 18: 21 to 19: 1 (NRSVA):

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.

The paintings by John Dickson Batten on the ceiling of the sanctuary (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 ‘Reducing Stigma.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (17 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for all who live with HIV and Aids and all who support and care for them.

Hardman windows in the chancel of Christ Church (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Let your merciful ears, O Lord,
be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions
make them to ask such things as shall please you;
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:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have willed that the gate of mercy
should stand open for those who trust in you:
look upon us with your favour
that we who follow the path of your will
may never wander from the way of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Adoration of the Magi … a window by CE Kempe in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church, Lichfield (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

The tombs of the Hinckley and Acland families at the east end of Christ Church are Grade II listed monuments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)