Behind a modern building in the City of London can be found from the outside a rather ordinary building, and yet inside is a heritage that goes back centuries.
This is the Bevis Marks synagogue, which was opened in 1701, and has been in continuous use ever since. There are other synagogues in mainland Europe that are older, but most had to close down in the 1930s and 40s for reasons that shouldn’t need elaborating on.
Jews first arrived in London shortly after William did his conquering bit, as he wanted their money lending skills to support his takeover of England. Jewish people were tolerated up to the time of Edward I, who expelled them — allegedly to avoid paying back debts he owed, and it was eventually Oliver Cromwell who allowed Jewish people back into the UK in 1657.
Most of the Jews who arrived in London came from Amsterdam, where there were strong trading links with London, and were motivated as much by trade as a religious view that the Messiah would only come to Earth once the Jews were in all parts of the world.
Initially, they rented a room to use as a synagogue in Creechurch Lane, but 40 years later, the community was large enough to warrant a purpose-built synagogue of their own — and that was built around the corner in Bevis Marks.
By sheer coincidence, the site was formerly a religious one – being the former Abbot of Bury St Edmunds Inn for the Abbot’s visits to London.
It’s also now a synagogue that you can visit, and on three days of the week, a short talk/tour of the building is also given.
Entry is by waiting at the locked door to be allowed in, a very thorough bag search, and a reminder not to take photos. We waited a while for a tour group to arrive — and in came about 30 people clearly doing the “Jews visit Jewish bits of London” tourist trail.
Although we were told in the talk that the way the synagogue is hidden behind the locked gates by offsetting it to one side to make it less obvious that it was here, John Roque’s Map of 1748 clearly displays a “Jews Synagogue” on the site. Much more likely though is that if you look at even older maps, you can see that the entrance gateway already existed and lead into a courtyard, and quite frankly, the placement of the synagogue building is the only place it could have gone.
The synagogue was built to a design that is almost identical to a much larger building in Amsterdam, but in the UK built by the Christian church architect Joseph Avis, and that’s why it’s very obviously not a church inside, it still looks like, well, a Georgian era church inside.
What really makes the building significant, apart from its Jewish heritage, is that almost all of it is original 1700s. Most churches built after the Great Fire of London were redecorated internally over the centuries, but not this synagogue.
You sit on original pews, under original chandeliers on original floorboards and look around at original fixtures and fittings.
Talking of chandeliers, this building has seven huge brass chandeliers, that are still lit by candles – on special occasions. The chandeliers are pretty much the overwhelming architectural feature of the building when you first walk in so dominant are they, and yet not unpleasantly so.
There are seven of them, one for each day of the week, and the largest in the centre, donated by the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam is for the Shabbat.
They added electric lighting in the 1920s, and heating in the 1980s — when they had to rip up much of the flooring due to dry rot. What they did though was reuse as much of the wood as possible around the edges when relaying the floor, so the central section of floor is the only part of the entire building that’s relatively modern.
The pews are odd — being slightly uncomfortably high to sit on, until I noticed the foot bar just above the floor which makes it more comfortable. I am guessing that the raised bar was a clever way of keeping feet off the dirty floor, but it’s just a guess as I’ve never seen that design before anywhere else.
As a talk, it was mostly a quick run through of the history of the building and the local Jewish community — and then about half of it given over to two famous sons of the synagogue, being the future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli and the philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore.
Sir Moses is remembered in the synagogue by having his personal seat set aside for visiting VIPS, such as Prince Charles, who has recently become the Patron of a new project to add a museum to the synagogue to show off its heritage items.
There’s an upper gallery as well, as this is a Sephardi congregation and they don’t let the ladies sit with the men. As the ladies are also above the height of the chandeliers, the light from the candles must have blocked out much of the view of below. I noticed up here that the front row of pews all have leather padding to sit on, but none of the other have the same. Presumably, the richer members get pampered bums.
It’s up here though that they have the Mantels — the highly decorated fabric covers for their Torah scrolls, and those are worth going up to the gallery to see in their own right, as they are beautifully decorated.
The gallery incidentally is held up by 12 pillars – for the twelve tribes of Israel.
A visit to Bevis Marks is to visit a familiar and yet slightly strange place. A church-like building that’s clearly not quite a church. A historic site that can transport you back to the time of Queen Anne and the rebuilding of London. Step inside and you’ll see something not seen elsewhere in London — what a church could have looked like 300 years ago.
The Bevis Marks synagogue is currently open to the public to go inside on the following days of the week:
- Mon: 10:30am – 2:00pm
- Tues: 10:30am – 1:00pm
- Wed: 10:30am – 2:00pm (talk/tour at 11:30am)
- Thur: 10:30am – 2:00pm
- Fri: 10:30am – 1:00pm (talk/tour at 11:30am)
- Sat: Closed
- Sun: 10:30am – 12:30pm (talk/tour at 11am)
Entry is £5.
There are no visiting hours on Jewish Sabbath, Jewish Festivals, Tisha B’Ab and Bank Holidays.