England Jewish History and Culture (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Jews[edit | edit source]

History and Beliefs[edit | edit source]

Originating in the area bounded by Mesopotamia in the east and Egypt in the west, Judaism is one of the oldest religions on earth. Their neighbours, Sumerians, Canaanites, and Egyptians all worshipped many gods but the Jews were convinced that there is but one God. In contrast to many of the gods worshipped by surrounding peoples, the Jewish God is just, righteous and loving, and demands moral behaviour from his people (Palmer et al.).

Their story begins with Abraham, the patriarch who made covenants with God, his son Isaac, grandson Jacob and then his 12 sons. Under Moses they were released from slavery in Egypt and covenanted to live a higher moral law than their neighbours. Moses had received the Torah and taught it to his people so they understood they had to live righteously. Old Testament prophets and modern rabbis are considered extensions of Moses’ teaching.

History in England[edit | edit source]

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 large numbers of Jews came to England at the invitation of William I. They were indispensable as money lenders since Mediaeval Christian laws forbade usury, but they were not allowed to trade or to practice agriculture. London, (King’s) Lynn, Lincoln, York and Norwich all had Jewish communities and Jewish financial expertise was of great use to the king, nobles, religious communities and other land owners. They were unpopular, however, partly because of religious prejudice and partly because of jealousy of their commercial success. During the 1st crusade anti-semitism broke out and 40 households of Jews were massacred at York in 1190. By 1218 there were ten specially-protected Jewish communities containing about 3,000 individuals, down from a possible peak of 10,000 previously, but their fortunes declined under Edward I especially because they were subject to excessively high taxation or tallage, and they were expelled from England in 1290.

This early group were Sephardic Jews from Spain. After the Spanish Inquisition (1478) small numbers of Marranos (crypto-Jews) and Conversos (converts) existed as exporters and importers, wholesalers, ship’s chandlers, and ship owners in England until the early 17th century. Oliver Cromwell officially re-admitted Jews in 1655 and they were permitted to practice their religion privately. Further Sephardic Jewish immigration from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey and Morocco, sometimes by way of the Netherlands, brought the number of Jews in England to 6,000 by 1734, and these were generally prosperous families.

The Sephardim typically used regular surnames which is a genealogical blessing. By this date there were also Ashkenazi Jews in England; they were originally from the Rhine Valley in Germany, but had subsequently settled in Poland, the Baltic States and Russia. Their native language was Yiddish, a form of German written in Hebrew characters, and some were skilled craftsmen but most were labourers. They opened their first synagogue in 1690 in Duke Street, London. More Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the 18th century so by 1800 there were approximately 23,000. Thousands more came in the 19th century following persecutions in central eastern Europe as well as Russia. Many were desperately poor when they arrived having been stripped of their possessions in Germany, Poland, Russia and other Eastern European lands. Their educational levels, however, were generally well above the English poor of the time

Synagogues were permitted to be opened from about 1690 but Jews were barred from land ownership until 1728. They were not allowed in certain occupations, for examples they could not become barristers until 1833, they were unable to vote until 1835, to become army officers until 1846, and were only allowed to enter the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1871. Jews could not be freemen of the City of London, which effectively excluded them from trading there. Thus many became shopkeepers in other cities and towns, and were particularly evident as tailors, goldsmiths and jewellers. The flood of eastern European Ashkenazim from 1880 until after WWI mainly settled in London’s east end, typically in groups from the same villages and areas, and were the dominant force in its clothing industry.

Jewish Names[edit | edit source]

Many Ashkenazim arrived in Britain using the patronymic naming system where the children use their father’s first name as their surname, as in Aaron ben Joseph or Rachel bat Benjamin. Those who had been in Austro-Hungary in 1787, and parts of what is now Germany and Poland in the early 1800s had been forced to acquire surnames then. Many of the Jewish surnames like Friedman, Goldstein and Rosenberg originated at this time. Hereditary surnames were adopted fairly arbitrarily when required by the authorities in England, so are of no use in tracing families in their country of origin. Admittedly, some took the name of the town from which they came to England, but this was not necessarily their place of birth. Others took their tribal name such as Levi, and the priestly tribe of Kohanin became Cohen, Cohn, Katz etc. Brothers frequently assumed different surnames, whilst some took an already established surname from their wife’s side of the family. The researcher should be prepared for a wide range of anglicization and spelling variation in names. Jewish naming is a specialist area and Kaganoff (A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) should be consulted for details.

Families with identifiable Jewish or German-sounding surnames understandably anglicized or completely changed their surnames, usually without formality, during the two World Wars to avoid unwarranted persecution, and this can be a major stumbling block if the family has not retained a record of the original surname.

Location of Jews in England[edit | edit source]

To a greater extent than other immigrants Jews have remained within their own self-supporting communities, tied by language, religion and tradition. They have always been hardworking and resourceful and most have thus prospered, even though the original immigrants may have arrived penniless. Although there are many exceptions, the majority of present-day British Jewish families have only been in Britain for four or five generations and are Ashkenazim. This has the advantage that fairly modern records of their origin were probably kept, and thus research can proceed in those countries with the help of Latter-day Saint resources.

Although most Jews settled at first in London, there were several other early nuclei of Jewry, for example in Bristol, Canterbury, Chatham and Falmouth, and histories are available (Roth). The records of Kentish Jews are summarized by Webster. Wenzerul includes a bibliography of Jewish histories in these specific places: Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Canterbury, Cheltenham, Cornwall, Falmouth, Gateshead, Glasgow, Grimsby, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Northampton, Nottingham, Oxford, Portsmouth, Scotland, Sheffield, South West England, Sunderland, Twickenham and Wales.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.