Jewish during the Regency

Other than Heyer’s casual, racist (but probably historically accurate) references to moneylenders and Nita Abram‘s brilliant Courier Series about an Anglo-Jewish family during the Napoleonic wars, I didn’t know much about the Jewish population of Regency London. I still don’t. But I’ll share what I have.

First, a great overview of Jewish history in England from the terrific georgianlondon.com which mentions the significance of the Bevis Marks synagogue, in continual use for almost three centuries. Also on the same site, there’s a map (Horwood’s map of London, 1792) showing the areas of settlement for various ethnic groups.

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. More.

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. Wasn’t he a hot young thing. But I digress).

There’s a lot more to find out. Here are some interesting sources other than the ones I’ve quoted. The Jewish Museum of London has a great site and looks like a terrific place to visit.

Another historic site is 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields, originally built as a Huguenot silk weaver’s home and workplace. The Huguenots moved on, and the mid-nineteenth century wave of Jewish immigrants moved into Spitalfields, when a synagogue was added to the house. It’s untouched, but badly in need of restoration and funding. More on the East End of London and later Jewish immigration at jewisheastend.com.

I’m interested in Jewish history because of my own family history; my grandfather came to England in the great Ashkenazi Jewish wave of immigration at the end of the nineteenth century. The family archivist/genealogist is still finding out about him and his many siblings. More on that some other time. Do you have a niche of history that fascinates you, family-inspired or otherwise?

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17 Responses to Jewish during the Regency

  1. Jane Austen says:

    MY family was heavily involved with Rockefeller and his oil industry, so I’ve always been fascinated by the Gilded Age. I’m looking for more historical novels set there, but can really only find one mystery series. If anyone knows of anything else please let me know. I think I’m not searching for the right thing when I look for books. If I had a few historical fiction books to go from I could probably find more. I want New York or Newport. Thanks to anyone who has a suggestion.

  2. Emery Lee says:

    This was an intriguing post for me, as there is very little detailed information about the 18th century Jews of London.

    Interestingly, I am just now in the process of writing what I hope will be an historically accurate account of a Jewish financier of Portuguese descent who was very prominant during the Georgian age.

    Apparently many of the earliest “East-end” Jews were Sephardic, having escaped the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal to obtain sanctuary in England under Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Although their religion was tolerated, they were denied the rights of full English citizenship.

  3. Emery, the whole issue of Sephardic vs Ashkenazi is quite complicated, which is why I didn’t get into it in this post. And isn’t it fascinating that Cromwell admitted (I wouldn’t say welcomed) Jewish immigrants.

    JA, there’s always Henry James, Edith Wharton et al! Also Sex Wars by Marge Piercy, written from a feminist point of view which I may have read (not much of a recommendation).

  4. M. says:

    I don’t recall Judaism as an element in any Regency I’ve ever read – thanks for all this interesting info.

    The post makes me recall an excellent novel set in
    England in a different time period though – ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ by Ariana Franklin – which not only has a central Jewish character, but a plot that takes a look at the perils that faced the Jewish community in a small English town and how the presenence of the Jewish community in England at large shaped politics and the economy. Highly recommended.

  5. M, I am a huge Ariana Franklin fan, and I loved that book and its depiction of the besieged Jewish community too! Do hunt down Nita Abrams’ books, they’re quite wonderful.

  6. Lusty Reader says:

    see i never would have thought to look into jewish history during regency times, but this post is fascinating!

    especially that england has had a jewish PM, but we’ve only had protestant presidents besides JFK. i will definitely be clicking through the links in this post too!

  7. Kay Webb Harrison says:

    Does anyone else remember the movie “The Rothchilds”? I saw it ages ago on a local channel late night movie show. It was about the Jewish banking family–especially during the Napoleonic wars. They had branches all over Europe, and used carrier pigeons to deliver messages. That way the London Rothchilds learned of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo ahead of most everyone else and were key players in keeping the London Exchange from crashing; they also made their large fortunes larger. The hero of Heyer’s A Civil Contract did the same, only he invested based on his faith in Wellington.

    Kay

  8. Nita Abrams says:

    Thank you so much for the generous comments about my series; I do have some links up on my site to e.g. the Jewish Museum of London.

    Another novel about Anglo-Jewish life is David Liss’s excellent ‘A Conspiracy of Paper’. It’s a financial thriller (I know, sounds like an oxymoron) set in 18th century London; the hero is a Jewish boxing champion (a la Mendoza).

  9. Great post, Janet! I really enjoyed looking at the museum site and the Princelet Street house looks quite fascinating. I don’t know much at all about Jewish life in England in this period (though I did visit a great Jewish museum in Paris that had a jumble of exhibits!), and I loved the Abrams books. An interesting novel about Jews in England in the Elizabethan period is Faye Kellerman’s “Quality of Mercy” but I haven’t come across many others…

    Jane Austen, if you’d like a Gilded Age-set romance novel, one of my all-time favorites is an older book by Megan McKinney called “Lions and Lace”–I loved that book so much!

  10. Diane Gaston says:

    Wow. What great information, Janet!
    I’m off to the WRW Retreat tomorrow, so I don’t have time to explore. I will later, though!

  11. Terrific information, Janet. Definitely filing this info away for future reference. And I LOVED Mistress of the Art of Death. Fabulous novel.

  12. Susan/DC says:

    Ariana Franklin, aka Diana Norman, often has interesting Jewish characters and insights into Jewish life in the historical period in which her books are set, ranging from Henry II and his relationship to his Jewish subjects (very different from that of his son Richard) to her “City of Shadows”, a fascinating look at Berlin between the wars.

    Two Regency novels with Jewish characters are Carola Dunn’s “Miss Jacobson’s Journey” and Marjorie Farrell’s “Lady Barbara’s Dilemma”. The Dunn has a Jewish heroine. Two men vie for her hand, one Jewish, one not, and there is an interesting interplay between them about the moneylenders who charge high interest and the nobles who renege on their loans. The Farrell has a Jewish secondary couple and realistically depicts the offhand anti-Semitism of the day. Both books are very good for both the romance and the ways in which they incorporate the standard tropes of the Regency novel yet also move beyond them.

    London is an excellent city for walking tours, and at one time they had a walking tour of Jewish London, an interesting sidelight to the ones of Dicken’s London, upperclass London, etc.

  13. Janet, I’ve been to the Jewish Museum in Camden (actually I think there are two, one in Camden and one in Finchley), and I once took a walking tour called a ‘Shetl called Whitechapel). During the tour we went in to the Bevis Marks synagogue where I learned all about Sir Moses Montefiore, and Disraeli. Apparently when Prince Charles came for the 300th anniversary of the synagogue, he had his own yarmulke with the Prince of Wales feathers embroidered on it! Right now in my WIP set in NY in 1895, one of my characters is Jewish of Sephardic descent.

    Jane Austen, you might want to try Anna Godbersen’s YA series The Luxe. It’s late Gilded Age. Or the novels of Gertrude Atherton from the late 19th century. Also John Jakes, in his Kent Family Chronicles.

    Kay, I’ve never seen the film but I have seen the musical, written by Bock & Harnick. Lovely song that Meyer Rothschild has called “In My Own Lifetime”

    So many great book recommendations!

  14. librarypat says:

    Interesting post.
    It seems our family has an early history in Canada. Family stories say our ancestors were french fur traders along the ST. Lawrence River. We get names back to the early 1800’s but no real information. There are just no records.

  15. Lori says:

    Interesting post! I find it very hard to find historicals (from any period) with Jewish characters. I am starting a geneology project and discovered my 2x great grandfather emigrated from Leeds to the US In the 1850s because of the anti-semetism there.

  16. The Jewish community in England fascinates me, as does the black/African/Caribbean community. For those interested in upper-class Jewish life in late 19th/early 20th century Britain, I hear Edward VII and his Jewish court by Anthony Allfrey is a pretty good resource.

  17. Libi Astaire says:

    Thanks so much for your post about the Jews of Regency England, and for letting us know about authors who have written historical novels that feature England’s Jews. If I may, I’d like to add my name to that list since I’ve written a historical mystery series set in Regency London that features that era’s Jewish community. The first two books in the Ezra Melamed Mystery Series – The Disappearing Dowry and The Ruby Spy Ring – are both available at amazon.com. Be well.

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