History of Jews in Britain

The history of Jews in Europe starts with the Judean Revolt of 66CE and the Jewish slaves taken from Judea. They were shipped and sold all over the Roman Empire. Over time these slaves were freed and began to develop into the diasporic communities we can recognise today. In Gaul, modern-day France, Jews in the ports in the south travelled north to establish communities in Paris, Orléans, and Vannes. By the 8th century Jews were active in the fields of commerce, medicine, and certain permitted agricultural practices including viticulture and the production of wine.

A significant Jewish community also established itself in the new town of Rouen, the capital of the Duchy of Normandy. After 1066 and Duke William ‘the Conqueror’s successful bid for the English crown, some Rouen Jews moved with the Norman administration to London and began to set down roots. By the 12th century the community had begun to spread out into the rest of England. Much of the information we have on the Jewish community of this period comes from royal records, such as the Pipe Rolls held by The National Archives.

However, a growth in anti-Jewish sentiments fostered by the Church, including the ‘blood libel’ – the alleged murder of Christian children by Jews, and the English Crown’s need for funds, led to the Jewish community being increasingly heavily taxed in the 13th century and began a steady exodus of Jews from the country. This culminated in 1290 when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, expelling the remaining Jews, in exchange for Parliament agreeing to the largest single tax of the Middle Ages.

There was no established Jewish community in England until 1665, and Oliver Cromwell’s Readmission of the Jews, although Jews did visit Britain and others lived in the country for a time under the cover of being Christians. The community that re-established itself in Britain consisted of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews the Dutch Republic. These Jews had faced expulsion in 1492 from Spain, settling in the Netherlands, and establishing a flourishing community in cities like Amsterdam.

By 1698, Jews were legally safe to practice their faith and in 1701 Bevis Marks Synagogue was inaugurated for the Sephardic ‘Spanish and Portuguese’ community. In 1702, the Great Synagogue was opened in Aldgate for the growing Ashkenazi (mostly German and Polish) Jewish community. While Jews were reintegrating themselves into British culture their residence was legally murky, and in 1754 a ‘Jewish Naturalisation Act‘ was passed through Parliament, only to be struck down in 1754 following anti-Jewish public protests.

Despite this the Jewish community continued to formalise its presence in the country with the establishment of the Board of Deputies in 1760. In 1822, the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane, Aldgate was opened, and in 1826 University College London opened on Gower Street, London, providing university education to all regardless of gender or faith. Quickly following in 1855, the Jew’s College, offering Jewish higher education, was founded nearby in Finsbury Square (the College’s archives are held by the London Metropolitan Archive). Finally, in 1841 Jewish Chronicle (whose archives are held at Southampton) and its short lived rival the Voice of Jacob were both founded. Jews weren’t yet equal, but they had synagogues, schools, colleges, and a newspaper.

It would be nearly a century until Jews gained full civil and political rights. In 1858, after a long campaign by Lord Mayor of London David Salomons – the first Jews to hold the post – Parliament passed the ‘Jewish Relief Act’ finally granting British Jews the same rights as their Anglican neighbours. That same year, the first Jewish Member of Parliament, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was finally able to take his seat in Parliament. Rothschild had been elected in 1847 but was unwilling to swear the Christian oath required to sit in the Commons, a requirement that was struck down with the new Act. In 1868, the first Prime Minister of Jewish descent, Benjamin Disraeli, was appointed. The Jewish community at this time was still relatively small totalling around 46,000, most of who were of Sephardic descent. It had begun, again, to spread out from London into the rest of the United Kingdom and communities were established in WalesScotland, and Northern Ireland.

However, after 1881, a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, sparked by war and violent antisemitism, radically changed the community increasing it fivefold by 1919. These Jews, mostly poor refugees, settled where work or cheap housing was available: in the East End of London, in Leeds, and Manchester. This wave of immigration only slowed after the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, the first piece of immigration legislation in British history, and the start of the First World War in 1914. As equal members of British society, many Jews signed up or were conscripted into military serves during the First World War, but other more recent Jewish immigrants were interned on the Isle of Man.

The rise of Fascism in the 1930’s presented an existential threat to the Jewish communities of Europe. Many Jews fled before the war started in 1939, such as Alfred Wiener, while at home, the Board of Deputies formed a Defence Committee to address the threat. Charitable organisations formed to help refugees, like World Jewish Relief and the Association of Jewish Refugees. The Holocaust had an inescapable impact on British Jews, and efforts to commemorate and record its impact continue to this day, at the Imperial War Museum and The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre among other places.

In London, the areas of Jewish settlement moved north, leaving behind the memories of the East End and a couple of active synagogues such as Sandys Row Synagogue. Today around 250,000 Jews live in Britain, based largely in London and Manchester with smaller communities throughout Britain. The ‘Hidden Treasures’ project was started to help bring together the many strands of Jewish history in Britain and help the public understand and research this fascinating history.

– Daniel Cesarani


Read more news stories

Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain