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Jewish Londoners

Last updated: 2003-10-28

Daniel Mendoza, boxing champion

Daniel Mendoza, boxing champion

SomethingJewish offers an exclusive extract from a fascinating books that looks at Jewish history in London. In Jewish London: An Illustrated History, writer Dr Gerry Black takes readers on a history of Jews who came to London. Read the first chapter online and find out more about the first Jewish londoners.


Jewish London : An Illustrated History by Dr Gerry Black
published by Breedon Brooks and priced £16.99

Jewish history in London properly begins with the arrival of a small group of Jews with William the Conqueror. Despite their expulsion in 1290, the influence of Jews on the life of capital has grown, especially after the large-scale immigrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jews have had an extraordinary impact on the life of the city, and this book shows how it happened.

Dr Gerry Black recalls the origins and motives of the generations of Jews who came to make their home in London. The development of the famously close-knit societies they formed in the East End, in north London and elsewhere in the capital is recorded, and illustrated, in graphic detail. He also gives a fascinating account of their struggle to establish themselves in the city – their housing, their work and trades, schools, hospitals and synagogues.

His narrative gives a vivid portrait of outstanding individuals who made notable contributions to the Jewish community and to the wider history of the capital – businessmen, artists, lawyers, artisans. At the same time he records momentous events that marked the course of Jewish history in the city, from the expulsion of 1290 to the Jack the Ripper case and the Sydney Street siege.

The story comes right up to the present day, as Dr Black looks back at the further immigration that took place from Germany and Austria before World War Two and from Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Iran and India after the war. His lively account offers a sharp insight into the contribution made by modern Jews to the culture and economy of London. His book will be essential reading for everyone who is interested in the Jewish community and the cultural diversity of the capital.

Chapter 1
1070-1290: The first Jewish Londoners

The Jews have never accounted for more than one per cent of the population of Britain.

There were individuals or small groups of Jews living in England in Roman and Saxon times, but it was only after William the Conqueror arrived that the first Jewish community settled there.

Normandy, William's home country, was prosperous, partly thanks to a body of Jews who contributed greatly to its wealth. They were able to do so because under the laws of the mediaeval Catholic church Christians were banned from lending at interest, it being declared a sin. This, coupled with the virtual exclusion of the Jews in northern Europe from all other trades and handicrafts, apart from the practice of medicine, compelled them to devote themselves more and more to moneylending and commerce. William believed they could be a key to making his newly-acquired land equally prosperous. In around 1070 he invited a group of Jews to London from Rouen. They brought with them some capital and their commercial experience.

During the following 220 years the Jews of England endured a roller-coaster existence. Periods of relative success, wealth and tranquillity were followed by years during which they suffered cruelty to an extent notorious even by the standards of mediaeval Europe.

The hub of the walled City of London was Cheapside, a market street with stalls and shops on either side. For London it was, and indeed still is, a very wide thoroughfare. The Jews settled in a street running off Cheapside which adopted and still bears the name Old Jewry. The area they occupied was not large, extending perhaps just a little further to the north than where Gresham Street is now, and a little to the west and east of Old Jewry itself.

The Jews' position within English society was unique. They were not serfs bound in allegiance to their lords, nor lords bound in allegiance to the king. Instead, William took them under his direct protection, bypassing the lords, a situation that had both advantages and disadvantages. They existed entirely at the royal pleasure under charters that could be revoked at any moment. Vast sums could be extorted by any king who wished to do so, merely by declaring a 'special levy' upon the whole community. Further, and unfortunately, the promised protection was not always immediately available when needed, and not all succeeding monarchs were as favourably disposed towards Jews.

Unlike the majority of the population the Jews were allowed to travel freely throughout the country but, as in continental Europe, most trades were barred to them. They were ineligible to join the guilds that controlled the crafts since these were organised on a religious basis. They could not farm, as they were forbidden from owning land or hiring Christian labour. However, Canon Law did not apply to them and they could loan out their capital at interest. It was an occupation that could be profitable, but carried considerable risks.

Throughout the 12th and 13th century English monarchs were plagued by a persistent shortage of funds and borrowed from the Jews to pay for their wars, their ever more magnificent courts and buildings, and their elaborate administrations staffed by salaried officials. The great lords loved luxury and were also big spenders. They shared with royalty the problems of a perennial shortage of cash, and they too became heavy borrowers.

As for the Church, the arrival of the Jews in England occurred just when a need arose for the erection of many important buildings devoted to religious as well as secular purposes. Without capital no large building schemes could be undertaken. Notwithstanding its attacks on usury, the church willingly and openly borrowed at interest from Jewish financiers who advanced money to abbeys and minsters, including Lincoln Cathedral, Peterborough Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, on the security of their plate.