You have a key role in preserving our heritage

Historic England has an online tool for recording the Jewish stories of noteworthy buildings


Soup Kitchen For The Jewish Poor, Brune Street

September 09, 2021 10:49

September is a good time to think about Jewish heritage. The High Holydays allow us to contemplate our spiritual heritage — and the B’nai B’rith UK Culture and Heritage Days encourage us to celebrate the material dimensions of our heritage as British Jews today. With this in mind, it seems a good moment for Historic England — the public body that looks after our country’s historic environment — to ask British Jews to think, for a moment, about the buildings and places they know and love, and to share what they know with others.

The National Heritage List for England, maintained by Historic England, is a register of the buildings and places we value most. It is governed by rules but it hasn’t evolved systematically. Not all the entries are equivalent because they were written in different ways, for different reasons, at different times. For this reason, the List is itself an important historical record. It is an expression of our collective identity as a society, and because it is constantly changing, it also reflects the ways in which that identity continues to evolve. In this sense, it tells us as much about the present as it does about the past.

A few years ago, when I typed the word ‘Jewish’ into the List database, I was disappointed — and frustrated — by what I found. Most of the entries seemed to be synagogues and cemeteries. Only a few entries spoke to the urban past of Britain’s Jewish community, like the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Bethnal Green (listed 1989) or Stepney Jewish Primary School (listed 1973).

Some of these buildings had interesting stories to tell. For example, 88 Whitechapel High Street (listed 1989) had been successively the offices of the Jewish Daily Post, and the premises of Alberts Menswear, a Jewish clothing business. Its intriguing exterior, which features a Magen David with a Menorah and two Lions of Judah rampant, was designed by Arthur Szyk, a Polish-Jew who became one of America’s leading political artists during the Second World War.

What really struck me about the List was how thin the Jewish dimension was. There are 400,000 listed buildings in England, but even now when I type in ‘Jewish’ I come up with 194 items. This is a hopelessly inadequate testimony to the innumerable ways in which Jews have shaped both the English past and the built environment over hundreds of years.

Fortunately, the tiny number of entries flagged as ‘Jewish’ is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. My interest in the National Heritage List was sparked by a project I am leading on Jewish Country Houses. When I first searched for Jewish items, only three properties came up: Salomons Estate, near Tunbridge Wells, The Pleasaunce in Cromer and the remains of Ramsgate’s East Cliff Lodge.

That didn’t mean that houses like Waddesdon Manor and Strawberry Hill were not listed. It simply meant that whoever wrote those entries had not bothered to flag the Jewish stories they told.

Happily, Historic England could see the problem and we have recently completed a programme of Minor Enhancements.

It doesn’t aspire to be comprehensive but it is representative, and it does introduce a new kind of Jewish story and a new type of Jewish heritage into the List.

Programmes like this take time, money and resources, but there is so much more to do if we want to fill the Jewish gap in this important record of our national past.

An important way that anyone can help to do this is by ‘Enriching the List’. This is a long-running Historic England initiative which invites people to share their knowledge and images of listed places, so important facts can be recorded and perhaps even some secrets unlocked.

I encourage readers to Enrich the List with Jewish memories, Jewish knowledge and Jewish stories.

Enriching the List couldn’t be simpler. You can create an account at Just click on ‘Register Here’ and start adding your history, stories, and pictures.

This is not something that requires specialist knowledge. It is something everyone can be part of. Please, log on and go ahead.

Abigail Green is Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and a Fellow of Brasenose College

September 09, 2021 10:49

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