12 July 2024

A search for the lost
mediaeval Jewish
communities and
synagogues in Bedford

The High Street in Bedford was the heart of mediaeval Jewish Bedford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

On my bus journeys between Milton Keynes and Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire this week, I visited both Luton and Cambridge, and In Luton I went in search of the town’s Jewish history and the story of its Jewish communities and synagogues.

Although Luton is the largest urban area in Bedfordshire, Bedford, with a population of about 100,000, remains the county town. It is 74 km north-west of London, 40 km west of Cambridge and 27 km north-east of Milton Keynes.

Bedford is home to one of the largest concentrations of Italian immigrants in Britain, with estimates that about 30% of the population at least is of partial Italian descent.

The town has a large variety of places of worship, including Saint Paul’s Church and Saint Peter’s Church, the largest Sikh gurdwara in the United Kingdom outside London, and the former headquarters of the Panacea Society, founded in 1919, which believed that Bedford would have an important role in the Second Coming of Christ and that Bedford was the original location of the Garden of Eden.

However, there is no longer a synagogue in Bedford. Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue, which was formed in 1967, is based in Luton although it meets in Bedford once a month, and the nearest Orthodox synagogue is the Luton United Synagogue in Luton.

Bedford had a mediaeval Jewish community until the mass expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. Mediaeval Bedford was one of the 26 centres in England to have an archa. These archae were official chests, provided with three locks and seals, and they held and preserved all deeds and contracts of the Jewish communities.

The archae were part of the reorganisation of English Jewry ordered by Richard I following the massacres of Jews in England 1189-1190. During the riots and massacres after his coronation, the mobs had destroyed Jewish financial records, resulting in heavy losses of Crown revenues.

The archae were introduced to safeguard royal interests in case of future disorder. All Jewish possessions and financial transactions were registered in designated cities. In each city with an archa, a bureau was set up with two reputable Jews and two Christian clerks, under the supervision of a new central authority known as the Exchequer of the Jews.

Bedford was one of the original cities with an archa. Other centres included London, Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Winchester and possibly Bristol, Cambridge, Gloucester and Northampton or Nottingham. The centres had increased in number to 27 by the mid-13th century. By the time of the mass expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, Jews had already been excluded from eight of these centres and only 19 archae were active.

The earliest record of Jews living in Bedford dates from 1185, when Jacob of Bedford and Solomon of Bedford paid substantial sums to King Henry I to recover debts. From then on, the names of Jews from Bedford occur sporadically in the records, with some Jews migrating to other places, such as Hitchin, Thetford and Essex.

A decade later, Fleur de Luz, a Jewish woman, was one of seven members of the Jewish community in Bedford who contributed £1 8s towards the ransom of Richard I in 1194, under the provisions of the Northampton donum – the equivalent of up to £2 million today.

Bonefard of Bedford, a Jew in Bedford, was accused in 1202 of causing the death of a child named Richard, a nephew of Robert of Sutton, by ‘ementulating’ him. This was probably a case of conversion to Judaism on the part of Richard. It was tried before a jury of the Hundred and Bonefard was acquitted.

Jews in Bedford suffered from violence during the Barons’ Wars in 1263 and again in 1274, and three Jews were hanged for coin clipping in 1278.

It appears the Jews in 14th century Bedford lived on the High Street. When Jews were forcibly expelled from England in 1290, Jewish-owned property in the High Street in Bedford passed to the Crown, including two messuages on the High Street belonging to Cok Fil Benedict and Pictavus.

His name indicates that Pictavus was an immigrant from Poitou. One of his two sons, Benedict fil’ Pictavus, was baptised in Ely; the other son, Jacob, was hanged for felony, and his messuage on High Street was given by the king to the town crier of Newnham.

By the River Ouse in Bedford … Jews began resettling in Bedford in the 1780s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Jews began resettling in Bedford in the 1780s, although the first modern congregation was not established until 1803, when it was formed by Michael Joseph. This early synagogue followed Ashkenazi Orthodox ritual. But little is known of the congregation, its synagogue or its officers, and it was closed and services were discontinued in 1827.

Nevertheless, it seems there was a continuing Jewish presence in Bedford, and it seems to have been traditional that willows from the Great Ouse were sent to London at Sukkot for use as lulavs.

A second modern Jewish congregation was formed in 1837, and Moses (Morris) Lissack, a ‘teacher of languages and dealer in jewellery', was living in Bedford by 1839. The congregation met only on the solemn festivals, and a private room in Offa Street, Bedford, initially served as the place of worship.

The synagogue was located on High Street in Bedford by the 1850s. However, it had only five known members, including Godfrey Levy, who presided over the congregation in 1853. His son Lewis Levy was the last secretary of this congregation. He received his authorisation as shochet in 1832 and in 1862 he performed a marriage ceremony.

The synagogue had only three seat-holders by 1874. It became defunct by the 1870s and was dissolved. Moses (Morris) Lissack, the teacher and jeweller, who had been living in Bedford in 1839, was the only Jew in Bedford in 1879.

In the early 20th century, Bedford Hebrew Congregation was formed in 1903. It followed Ashkenazi Orthodox ritual, and although it was an unaffiliated congregation, it was under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. The Revd Daniel Caplan (1879-1959) was the Reader and Shochet from 1903 until about 1906. Alfred Newmann was President from about 1903 to 1907 and treasurer around the same time. No address is listed for this congregation, its final listing in the Jewish Year Book was in 1906-1907, and it had come to an end by about 1907.

Yet, the Abrahams family, the best-known Jewish family in Bedfordshire, was living in Bedford by the early 20th century. The father of the family, Isaac Abrahams, was a Jewish immigrant from Polish Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. He was a financier and settled in Bedford with his Welsh Jewish wife, Esther Isaacs.

The eldest son was the physician Sir Adolphe Abrahams (1883-1967), the founder of British sport medicine; he was knighted for helping refugee doctors to gain permission to practise in the UK. The next son, Sir Sidney Solomon ‘Solly’ Abrahams (1885-1957), was a British Olympic athlete and long jumper, and Chief Justice of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Harold Maurice Abrahams (1899-1978) was an English track and field athlete. As an Olympic champion in the 100 metres sprint in 1924, his feat depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Harry Abrahams reported from the 1936 Berlin Olympics for the BBC, exuberantly covering Jack Lovelock’s win in the 1500 metres. His daughter reported that Abrahams had sat close to Hitler and had said afterwards: ‘I wish I’d shot him.’

At the beginning of World War II, with an influx of evacuees, a congregation was re-established in Beford yet again in 1939 as Bedford Hebrew Congregation. The Jewish population in Bedford soon included over 400 families who were evacuated from London, and the congregation included evacuees, refugees and military personnel, as well as some resident families

This too was an unaffiliated congregation under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. The rabbis in Bedford in the 1940s included Dayan Dr Julius Jakobovits, about 1941, and Rabbi A Rappaport, from at least 1945 until about 1947.

Julius (Yoel) Jakobovits (1886-1947) was born in Lackenbach (then in Hungary, today in Austria), the son of a rabbi and brother of two rabbis. He studied in Pressburg (Bratislava) and in Berlin. Later the synagogue in Berlin where he was the rabbi was destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938. After Kristallnacht, he found refuge in Britain but was briefly interned on the Isle of Man.

After his release, he was rabbi with the Bedford Hebrew Congregation. He then served two neighbouring evacuee communities in Windsor and Slough, and in 1945 became Dayan at the London Bet Din. He was the father of Lord (Immanuel) Jakobovits (1921-1999), Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1949-1958) and later Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth (1967-1991).

S Orgel was President of the Bedford Hebrew Congregation ca 1945-1947. However, no address is listed for the congregation. The community did not have a synagogue and survived through the endeavours of a small number of people. Numbers began to dwindle again after World War II, and the congregation was practically dormant from the late 1940s until the early 1960s, so that it was not even listed in the Jewish Year Book from 1948 to 1963. After that services were generally held only on high holy days.

John Trevax was honorary secretary of the congregation ca 1945-1947. A Rochlin was honorary secretary ca 1964-1971 and chair ca 1971-1978, and RJ Berman was honorary secretary from 1978 until the 2000s. The congregation came to an end by the early 2000s, and it ceased being listed in the Jewish Year Book in 2012.

There is no longer a synagogue in Bedford, and the nearest Orthodox synagogue is the Luton United Synagogue in Luton.

Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue or Rodef Shalom Synagogue was formed in 1967. Initially, it met mainly in St Albans and from time to time in Bedford. Since 1982, it has been based at Luton, where most services are held, with most events taking place in members’ homes. Jewish life in Bedford has seen a renaissance recently with regular monthly services under the auspices of the Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue.

‘Reflections of Bedford’, a sculpture by Rick Kirby on Silver Street, represents the diversity of ethnic backgrounds in Bedford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
64, Friday 12 July 2024

The High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon … the venue for this week’s USPG conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

We are continuing in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar and this week began with the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity VI). I am back in Stony Stratford this morning, having spent much of the week at the High Leigh Conference Centre at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, taking part in the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection in connection with this week’s USPG conference;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘I am sending you out like sheep … do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say’ (see Matthew 10: 16, 19) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 10: 16-23 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 16 “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the gentiles. 19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you at that time, 20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Sibling will betray sibling to death and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in this town, flee to the next, for truly I tell you, you will not have finished going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Many of the rooms and features at High Leigh remain unchanged since the days when the Barclay family owned the house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

This morning’s reflection:

I have spent much of this week at the High Leigh Conference Centre on the western fringes of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. The house was once the home of the Barclay family, and during the week, I have been reminded of that family’s Quaker roots, their social conscience and generosity, and their later commitment to the life and mission of the Church of England.

With its beautiful Victorian fa├žade, extensive parkland and landscaped gardens, High Leigh could easily provide the location for a television period drama. Its tranquil and spacious setting makes High Leigh popular, yet delegates at conferences also find the time and space to relax and unwind and for reflection.

High Leigh was originally built in 1853, and was bought in 1871 by Robert Barclay (1843-1921), a successful banker and committed Christian. He was born in Walthamstow, Essex, the son of Joseph Gurney Barclay and Mary Walker Barclay. Over the generations, his ancestors had married into many other prominent banking families, and he was responsible for merging 20 banks into Barclay’s Bank.

Robert Barclay’s ancestors were Quakers, but he was an Anglican, and his family also played key roles in the life of the Church of England. He married Elizabeth Ellen Buxton (1848-1911), a granddaughter of the 19th-century reformer and anti-slavery campaigner, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, and she too had many Quaker ancestors in the Gurney and Fry families. They had a large family that included CMS missionaries.

Much of the original 19th century manor house at High Leigh and its period features remain unchanged, including the Woodlands Lounge and the Oak Room.

High Leigh is also known for its gardens, covering 40 acres of beautiful countryside in Hertfordshire, with parkland that is dotted with formal areas, woodland, lawns and ponds. Some of the house’s most prominent outdoor features were created by the Pulhams, a family of landscape gardeners who owned Pulham Manufactory in nearby Broxbourne. It is thought the Pulhams themselves worked on the design and installation of many of the pieces in the garden at High Leigh.

When Robert Barclay died in 1921, the house was sold to First Conference Estate of which he had been a director. First Conference Estate, now known as Christian Conference Trust, was founded in 1909 with the express purpose of providing affordable facilities for various missionary and other Christian societies. The Hayes at Swanwick in Derbyshire was opened in 1910 and High Leigh opened in 1921.

One of the curiosities of USPG’s charters is that ex-officio incorporated members of the council include the Lord High Almoner. The office was held from 1946 to 1953 by Edward Sydney Woods (1877-1953), Bishop of Lichfield (1937-1953), whose wife Clemence Barclay (1874-1952) was a daughter of Robert Barclay of High Leigh. She was born at High Leigh, and they were married in Hoddesdon in 1903. The story is told that Bishop Woods had the distinction of being one of two survivors of a German air raid by hiding under a dining table with Ann Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming.

The Chapel Barn at High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 12 July 2024):

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 ‘United Beyond Borders.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections on this week’s USPG conference by Rachael Anderson, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Friday 12 July 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray for all those who feel lonely and excluded. Who feel like they are on the outside looking in. May we do more to be welcoming and understanding that we are all equal in God’s eyes.

The Collect:

Eternal God,
who made Benedict a wise master
in the school of your service
and a guide to many called into community
to follow the rule of Christ:
grant that we may put your love before all else
and seek with joy the way of your commandments;
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.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Benedict
that he served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The bell tower above the entrance to the High Leigh Conference Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.