Jews in England During the Napoleonic Era

By Lucy Inglis and Janet Mullany

Synagogue, Duke’s Place, Houndsditch. From Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832), The Microcosm of London or London in Miniature. Courtesy of

“Was you ever in the Service, sir?” asked Jack.
“I? Why, no. I am a Jew,” said Canning, with a look of deep amusement. 
– Conversation between Jack Aubrey and Mr. Canning, Post Captain

In Post Captain we are introduced to Mr. Canning, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur who is building a swift privateer and wants Jack Aubrey to take command of it. While he is something of a peripheral character (though also a vitally important one), his inclusion in the series hints at a part of the Napoleonic Era about which not much is known. What was the status of Jews in a society that was strongly prejudiced even against Catholics, theoretically fellow Christians? Lucy Inglis and Janet Mullany provide us with some insight.

|Historical Background| |Napoleonic Era|

Historical Background by Lucy Inglis

The first Jewish people arrived in England after 1066. They were regarded as being outside the ordinary population, and the rights granted to Englishmen by Magna Carta did not apply to them. Each successive king reviewed and granted a Royal Charter allowing them to remain. There are many myths perpetuated about usury and England’s Jews at the time, but the plain fact was Christians were forbidden to employ or apprentice Jews. Judaic law decrees interest bearing loans are acceptable when made to Gentiles, and Sephardic merchants were known for having ready cash washing about. English kings were known for having no money. The rest is history. By the mid 13th century, the English crown owed so much to the Jews of London, they kept trying to write it off by hiking up the taxes and making life generally fairly tough. In the end, the state owed the Jews so much money, the only answer was the Edict of Expulsion, passed by Edward I in 1290.

Officially, the only Jews in England from that point onward lived in the Domus Conversum in Chancery Lane. They were given food and lodging, as long as they converted to Christianity. It continued intermittently until 1608, when there was little need for it any more. The old Public Record Office now stands on the site. The reason there was little need for it was because Jews were living successfully, and in theory secretly, in London. During the 15th century Parliament intermittently records London merchants squealing about Jews purporting to be “Lombardy” merchants, and gathering together to meet and trade (and no doubt, worship). They were mainly Sephardic Jews from the Iberian peninsula, known amongst their own community as Marranos, the secret Jews. They pretended to be Spanish Catholics on the whole, but it is unlikely they were that convincing. They were also enemies of the Crown, like a lot of minority faiths, and passed a lot of information to Cromwell on the activities of Charles Stuart. Cromwell, in turn was quite happy for them to establish a synagogue in Creechurch Lane and ignore what went on there.

As time went on, Cromwell became aware how rich and useful this little community was. He didn’t like Holland and was having a bit of a war with her anyway, so he decided to try and tempt the large and very wealthy community in Amsterdam over to London. He negotiated with Menassah Ben Israel, who represented the Dutch community. Then in 1656, Cromwell declared war of Spain and told all the Spaniards to get out of London. The Marranos said “We’re not Spanish, we’re Jewish,” and Cromwell said, “Oh all right then, keep helping me out with money and information and stuff, and you can do what you like, just don’t try and convert anyone, and don’t worship in public, stay inside.” (paraphrase). In 1657, a piece of land was purchased for a Jewish cemetery, the first Jewish broker was admitted to the Royal Exchange, and the first Jewish names appeared in the Denization Lists.

When Charles Stuart was ‘restored’ to the throne in 1660, some pestered him to restore the Edict of Expulsion, but Charles had been aided in his exile by a few Jews of Royalist sympathies, and he ignored the bleaters. James II continued in the same vein. When William III came to the English throne however, the Jews made big progress. William was ably assisted in matters of war, and gold, by Solomon de Medina. Solomon de Medina established himself amongst the top of London’s shifting nobility, and was the first Jew to be knighted in England, in 1700.

In 1723, a law was passed allowing Jews to hold title to land, by permitting them to omit the oath to Christianity in legal matters. This, as you can imagine, was quite a big step forward. Creeping progress was made during that decade when laws passed meant Jews could become naturalized citizens after seven years. The same was passed in 1753 in London, charmingly dubbed “The Jew Bill”, but repealed the following year due to massive protests by crowds carrying placards bearing the legend “No Jews, no Wooden Shoes (a reference to the Dutch origin of many Jews)”.

The Napoleonic Era by Janet Mullany

By 1800 there were about 20,000 – 25,000 Jewish inhabitants of England, predominantly from Holland and Germany, three-fifths of whom lived in London. They were widely differentiated in wealth and social strata and formed different communities which expressed themselves strongly in terms of education, charity, and religious practice. However, the decade of the 1790s had seen a great increase in paranoia and fear of foreigners, including the Jewish community. Yet Jews proclaimed their patriotism, and enlisted in the army and navy.

It is said that on one occasion, when a general review of the newly-enrolled force was held in Hyde Park, George III was very much struck at the number of animal names (Bear, Wolf, Lion, and so on) in one of the East End regiments, largely Jewish in composition. At the time of their enrolment, however, there had been a certain difficulty. On October 19th, a solemn fast had been observed, large numbers of volunteers paraded the City, and ten regiments went to Church for Divine service. The corps who had not already taken the oath did so now, and three hundred Jews, of good family, were among their number. A contemporary news-sheet gives an account of their difficulty:

By an order from their High Priest they were prohibited from attending in our churches during the time of Divine Service. The High Priest, however, expressed his highest concurrence to their taking the oaths of fidelity and allegiance to our king and country. These gentlemen accordingly took the oaths, either upon the drilling-grounds of their respective corps, or in the vestry-room of the churches, as circumstances required. They were sworn upon the Book of Leviticus instead of the New Testament.

The call for service continued: and on August 15th, 1803, Rabbi Hirschell–not long since arrived in England–preached in the Great Synagogue [Bevis Marks] on the duty of taking up arms in defence of the country, though insisting at the same time that the ritual precepts of Judaism (such as the observance of the Sabbath) should not be neglected save in emergency. – The Synagogue and the Nation 1792 – 1815

A Royal visit was made to the Synagogue in 1809 by the Dukes of Cumberland, Sussex, and Cambridge, a very big deal indeed (and a grand opportunity for cartoonists):

Yesterday, at half past six o’clock, the Dukes of Cumberland, Sussex and Cambridge attended the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place to witness the Hebrew form of worship. The preparation made to receive the princes evidenced the loyalty of the Jewish people, and the spectacle was magnificent and most solemn. The Synagogue was most suitably decorated on the occasion. The seats on each side were raised and the pulpit in the centre was adorned by crimson and gold. A space between the pulpit and the ark was appropriated to the Royal Dukes and the Nobility, who stood on a rich platform with four beautiful Egyptian chairs and stands for their books, flowers, etc. The Synagogue was brilliantly illuminated by chandeliers. The High Priest, Rabbi Hirschell, in his sacerdotal habit displayed unusual magnificence: he was dressed in a robe of white satin of considerable value and ordered expressly for him by Abraham Goldsmid, Esq. The Royal Dukes arrived in the carriage of Mr. Goldsmid, and their own carriages followed with several ladies of distinction. The singing was excellent and the Royal Dukes appeared much gratified by the Choruses. When the Ark was opened to take out the Five Books of Moses the Princes were conducted by Mr. Goldsmid to view the interior, at which they expressed great satisfaction, the structure being grand and beautiful. The galleries were crowded with beautiful Jewesses who attracted much the attention of the Royal Party. After the service, the Royal Dukes drove to the mansion of Mr. A. Goldsmid, where a sumptuous entertainment was provided, which was followed by a grand concert.

But it wasn’t until 1855 that London had its first Jewish Lord Mayor, David Salomons, and the following year Jews were declared eligible to run for Parliament. Benjamin Disraeli dandy and novelist turned politician (1804-1881), was the first Jewish prime minister of England (although he’d converted to Christianity at his father’s request).

Courtesy of Lucy Inglis of Georgian London and Janet Mullany of Risky Regencies.

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