The Archaeology of Anglo-Jewry in England and Wales 1656-1880

Our foundation stones


By Kenneth Marks
Archaeopress, £35

What physical evidence is there of Jewish life in England between the Cromwellian resettlement and the eve of the great migration of Jews into the country from Eastern Europe after 1881? As Kenneth Marks observes in this pioneering study, "paradoxically, the main body of archaeological evidence… is derived from cemeteries." A synagogue is an optional extra. But a cemetery - along with a mikveh - is a necessity.

Moreover, since the dead must lie undisturbed (though the Sephardim seem to have found a way around this prohibition), Jewish cemeteries in England have survived remarkably intact, often with ground-plans and records of the dates of individual burials.

Marks has visited 60 of them and, in this guidebook-cum-gazetteer, provides detailed entries on them all, together with poignant photographic evidence (it includes details of cemetery neglect, not to mention desecrations, including headstones smashed and daubed).

This evidence also reminds us that the great English and Welsh seaports of the post-resettlement era almost invariably numbered Jews among their business folk. The Jewish cemetery at Penzance dates from the Hanoverian period (the earliest legible inscription is dated 1791). The Jewish cemetery at Sheerness now contains only 11 standing stones; that at Great Yarmouth (Alma Road) boasts an imposing wooden gated entrance.

But Marks's main focus is on "living communities" - synagogues, street and place names, mikvehs and other artefacts. He has visited virtually every synagogue that existed in England and Wales within his designated time-span, and offers photographs, prints and historic maps to locate and illustrate each, reminding us that Anglo-Jewry has always been a community of city-dwellers, living in the closest proximity to their Christian hosts.

The Archaeology of Anglo-Jewry is a labour of love and will certainly occupy a place on my bookshelves. But there are some gaps in the inventory of the Anglo-Jewish-built environment that Marks offers - not least its failure to include Jewish day-schools. As it is, Marks's bibliography is incomplete, and his historical introduction is inadequate. The first professing Jew entered Parliament in 1851, not 1858. Neither is it true that professing Jews could not "attend university in Oxford or Cambridge" until after 1870. Acts of Parliament in 1854 and 1856 made it possible for professing Jews to take Bachelors degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge. I also found the absence of an index to be a major irritant.

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