Researching the history of synagogues and mikvehs

Synagogue, Duke's Place, Hounsditch in 1809Jews are mentioned in English ecclesiastical documents as early as 740 AD and came to England in significant numbers after the Norman conquest, settling in London and other towns of significant size: Bristol, Cambridge, Canterbury, Exeter, Gloucester, Hereford, Ipswich, Nottingham, Warwick, Worcester andYork. After outbreaks of anti-Semitism, they were driven from England in 1290.Wales was under English rule by that time.There was no persecution of Jews in Scotland, but little to attract them there either at that date. Urban life was less developed in Scotland than inEngland.What's more - England and Scotland were at war. Most English Jews left for France and Belgium.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496, Jewish refugees made their way from country to country. Some arrived in the south of Ireland. Others settled in Bristol and London between 1590 and 1600. The re-admittance was officially sanctioned in 1656, giving Jews freedom of worship. Subsequently political disturbance and anti-Semitism in Europe at various times caused more Jews to flee to Britain.

In the establishment of a new Jewish community, the rabbis of the Talmud gave top priority to the building of a mikveh - a ritual bath. Jews could congregate in their houses or rented rooms to worship until the community grew large enough and wealthy enough to build a synagogue. Both mikveh and synagogue should ideally be within walking distance, since travelling on the Sabbath is prohibited to Jews.

The earliest recorded synagogue in Ireland was a prayer room established in 1660opposite Dublin Castle. The first post-medieval, purpose-built synagogue in England was the Bevis Marks, London, consecrated in 1701 and retaining much of its interior from that period. Above is an aquatint of the synagogue in Hounsditch built in 1765-6, designed by George Dance senior.





Primary sources


Jewish Historical Society of England, 33 Seymour Place, London W1H 5AP.
The society's library resources are located within the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London.