Research Reveals Nineteenth Century Typo

The Mysterious Letter • London Metropolitan Archives

Hopes that a previously unseen letter from 1546 – written in Canterbury at a time when Jews had been expelled from England – had been found  amidst Board of Deputies files, were dashed when research revealed a nineteenth century typo!

The letter, dated 25 September 1546 was found in a box of archive material deposited this week by the Board of Deputies of British Jews at the London Metropolitan Archives in London. Archivist Nicola Avery, who manages the Jewish collection, spotted the date, but was suspicious from the start.

‘It is a very peculiar little thing and I would like to do a bit more digging before we get excited’ she said.  ‘The content of the letter is very mundane, and is a request from J. Jacob to the Great Synagogue to return some deeds belonging to the Jewish community of Canterbury (it doesn’t specify what the deeds are of, but it was adjacent in the pile to papers relating to the Jewish Cemetery at Canterbury so could relate to an old burial ground).

I am very slightly suspicious of it, as the writing is not of the style I would expect from the 16th century – not necessarily a problem in itself, however if it is the Great Synagogue in London Jacob is writing to, that synagogue was not built until 1691 (I wouldn’t expect to find a proper synagogue earlier than the mid-17th century anyway).  The date is very clearly written on the letter, otherwise I would have assumed I had read it wrong.

The paper looks right for the period and I can’t imagine why someone would forge something so innocuous, but it’s the couple of things that don’t add up that make me wonder what’s going on’.

The Board’s Archives and Heritage Manager Dawn Waterman did some research and discovered that the Old Synagogue in Canterbury had a Secretary Jacob Jacobs who died on 10 January 1873. His handwritten diary, now in the Anglo Jewish Archives at Southampton University, is the principal source on the history of the Canterbury community. She wondered whether 1546 should actually have read 1846?

Armed with this information, Nicola looked more closely,

‘I think I have got to the bottom of this, thanks to you and Sharman Kadish’s book (Jewish Heritage in England: An Architectural Guide).  The letter is in such bad condition I was reluctant to open it and read the middle page – if I had done that earlier I would have found a reference to Canterbury’s settlement with the South Eastern Railway Company!  So it’s definitely not 1546.

Looking through the paperwork it came with, I have found a reference to someone finding and reading the letter at Woburn House in 1990 when looking for deeds for the Canterbury synagogue/cemetery; they noted the date as 1546 but with several question marks and noted that it was of no use to them.  I also found within the surrounding paperwork a bit on the history of the synagogue which adjoined the cemetery – it was demolished in 1846 to make way for the South Eastern Railway, so that ties down the date and the subject matter.

As you can see from the scan of the front page, the date is certainly written as 1546 but I am guessing it was a ‘typo’ as Jacob had just written Sep 25 and had the 5 in his head.  The letter being in awful condition (for 1846) and on brittle and discoloured paper fooled me into thinking 1546 was a viable possibility.’

A knowledgeable archivist, a little research and the mystery is solved!


– Dawn Waterman


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