A Venerable Jewish Community in Kent
A Brief History of Chatham Memorial Synagogue
The Medway Jewish Community, which serves a large part of Kent, is centred on the Chatham Memorial Synagogue, which is situated at the eastern end of Rochester High Street; its beautiful baroque interior is becoming
known to the wider Jewish community, with the growing popularity of group outings visiting historic Kent centres, such as the Ramsgate home and family synagogue of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, Canterbury
Synagogue, Chatham Historic Dockyard, Saloman’s, near Tonbridge Wells and Chatham Synagogue itself.
The Chatham Jewish Community is one of the oldest in this country, being nearly three hundred years old. Hobbes, in his “Reminiscences of Seventy Years”, states that, as early as the twelfth century, there
were families of Jews in the area; the present writer has seen an uncorroborated reference in local archives to a plea for shelter to the Lord of Rochester Castle, in about 1180, Jewish families then being allowed
to live for some months in the outer parts of the castle (these are no longer in existence, only the keep and moat remaining).
The Encyclopedia Judaica records that at the entrance to Rochester Cathedral Chapter House, there is a fine specimen of the conventional medieval carvings representing Church and Synagogue, the latter as a dejected,
blindfolded female, bearing a broken staff and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Chatham and Rochester have been major ports for hundreds of years, with ships trading to and from Baltic, North European and Low Countries’ ports, as well as being an active naval dockyard, so it was not unnatural
for Jews, on arrival as religious or economic refugees in this country, to settle in the immediate area, even if only transiently.
It seems likely that the community assumed some importance during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when some members were listed as Naval, or Admiralty, Agents, deriving profit from the purchase of
prize money shares from Royal Navy ships crews, when captured enemy vessels were sold off, as recorded in Geoffrey I.Green’s book, “The Royal Navy and Anglo-Jewry, 1740 – 1820”. Amongst those listed for
Chatham, in a list of 1790, Lazarus Magnus and his son Simon Magnus (builder of the present synagogue) both appear. When the practice ceased, these people tended to become ships’ chandlers, or military
tailors, some of their companies still being in existence today, in naval dockyard ports. However, the naval agents were not the only members to benefit the wider community over the years: Rochester
Guildhall museum has a number of exhibits of Jewish interest, including a heavy gold mayoral chain and signet bracelet, donated by Lewis Levy, who was elected to that office twice in the mid nineteenth century.
Again, in the old cemetery behind the synagogue an ornate memorial records the achievements of Daniel Barnard, who owned theatres and music halls in Chatham, Dartford and London, was Mayor of Chatham, Deputy Lord
Lieutenant of Kent and who, amongst other benefactions, founded Chatham Fire Brigade. The Barnard family was responsible for early music halls country wide.
It is thought that the cemetery dates back to about 1700.
The present synagogue replaced an earlier building on roughly the same site, which was referred to in Bagshaw’s Street Directory of Chatham, dated 1847, as being”….. a small building of brick and wood, about one
hundred years old, with a clock, visible from the High Street, noteworthy for having a face with Hebrew characters”
Recent research has unearthed a property transfer, or purchase, document, dated March, 1750, relating to the purchase of that earlier building, “for the purpose of making a synagogue of the Jews”. The original synagogue was of Polish timber and brick design.
The record books of the Synagogue, now kept in the special-to-purpose Rochester Archive Study Centre, go back only to 1790 and the earliest decipherable gravestone in the old cemetery behind the building is dated
about that time.
It is worthy of note that a combination of synagogue and cemetery is rare; it is possible that the original graves predated the first building, possibly indicating Jewish interments from around 1700. Some of the graves are obviously older than 1790 and a clearly incised half stone, dated 1747, is stored in Rochester Museum, having been found in the foundations of an old theatre which was pulled down in the 1930’s. An interesting gravestone is of one Abraham Abrahams, who was executed in 1819, for the crime of burglary and a cutting from a contemporary local newspaper mentions that his friends prayed with him all night prior to the execution.
Simon Magnus had the present synagogue built as a memorial to his son, Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus.
It was formally opened and consecrated in 1869. The site was in an unadopted area between the two towns, referred to on old maps as “Chatham Intra”, or “Chatham Without”, which was taken into Rochester about ten years after the building opened. The land originally belonged to the Trustees of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which was founded by Bishop Gundulph (or Gandolf) in about 1090, after building Rochester Castle (to the instructions of William the Conqueror), starting to build Rochester Cathedral and designing the Tower of London. When the freehold was purchased by Simon Magnus, he was not allowed to buy the freehold of a strip of ground, one yard wide, running up the west side of the plot, which purported to be the passageway between the river landing place opposite the plot and the hospital, used by lepers and other incurables. The rent of that strip is now 5p per annum, payment of which is, of course, a legal necessity, although any lepers landing there now would have to negotiate a high brick wall between the cemetery and the hospital!
Hobbes mentions that the cost of the Synagogue, Minister’s House (now demolished) land and endowments amounted to nearly £10,000.
In its day the building, designed by the well known ecclesiastical architect, Hyman Collins, was considered to be a structure of outstanding beauty and was described as such by the local press and national architectural records. To quote, “The Synagogue proper is at first sight awe-striking in its beauty and richness of colour. Lovely tinted windows, beautiful green and red marble (scaglio) pillars.” Despite this, a letter in a local newspaper bemoans the lack of worshippers, some fifteen years after its opening! “Plus ca change …….”? A few years ago the original décor was restored, by the good offices of the parents of a local barmitzvah, with the help of advice from English Heritage.
Captain Lazarus Magnus was a highly respected man, active in local and communal affairs.
He was a captain in the 4th. Kent Artillery Volunteers, a member of the Board of Management of the Synagogue, a vice chairman of the directors of the Chatham Railway and, three times, elected Mayor of Queenborough, a town on the Isle of Sheppey (apparently as a mark of gratitude for his having been instrumental in bringing the railway to Sheerness and Queenborough). He died accidentally, at the early age of thirty nine years, when he was still unmarried. His grave memorial dominates the cemetery and it is conditional in the Deed of Trust that it shall always be visible from the High Street.
A handsome Memorial Book, dated 5595 (c. 1835) handwritten in classical Hebrew, includes a list of earlier benefactors to be prayed for when Yizkor (the Memorial For Departed Souls) is recited. Amongst others,
it is possible to read the Hebrew names of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, who were (and, indeed, their descendants still are) inter-related by marriage with the Magnus family.
When it became necessary, around 1972, to incorporate a classroom and social hall into the building, the Trust Deed condition concerning visibility of the Magnus Memorial caused some difficulty.
However, in order to ensure the viability of the community, the Charity Commissioners were good enough to arrange for a Parliamentary Bill to vary the Deed, by allowing the new social hall to be built across the sight line of the Memorial, whilst maintaining the spirit of the Deed. By this time the Minister’s house had been condemned and had to be demolished to make way for the new building; since a benefactor provided large quantities of glass, the architect was able to incorporate large windows in the new building, leaving the Memorial still visible from the High Street.
The community has no resident minister at present but is fortunate in having capable lay readers, who officiate at services, together with occasional visits from the Minister for Small Communities, the Rev. Malcolm
Weisman, O.B.E. and Mr. Elkan Levy, Director of the Office for Small Communities. Since the former Jewish communities of Gravesend and Sheerness ceased to exist, the Chatham Memorial Synagogue has become the
only one in mid-Kent and has regenerated itself to become an independent, traditional centre for all Jewish life in Kent.
As well as traditional religious activities, social events are held, under the umbrella grouping of “Jewish Kent”, founded by the Chatham community, organised and supported by members of all the Jewish communities of Kent, from Bromley Reform community, through the Kent Liberal Jewish Community – Ohel Rachel, based in Maidstone, to the Reform and Orthodox communities of the Thanet and Canterbury area. Members of the Synagogue are drawn from a large area, although the majority live in the pleasant environments of the Medway Towns and Maidstone. Newcomers are quickly drawn into taking an active part in communal affairs – a benefit of life in a small Jewish community. The Synagogue web site is becoming known internationally and we have had communication from groups in the U.S.A. and Australia, asking for permission to adopt some of our innovative ideas concerning the transliteration of the liturgy.
The Ladies’ Guild 0f the Synagogue has a long record of active service.
One of the Synagogue’s museum pieces is a beautifully embroidered Reading Desk Torah cover, made by the ladies of the earlier Shul to celebrate a marriage, in a style of needlework called “stump work”, which was popular in Kent and Northern France in the eighteenth century and earlier. This has a Hebrew date embroidered on it corresponding with around 1820 and hangs in the foyer.
During the 1939/45 war years and later, during the time of National Service, hospitality was extended to the many Jewish service personnel passing through the Medway Towns.
When the new Centenary social hall and classroom was built, the ladies designed the kitchen to meet the criteria of the Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court) and they ensure that the rules of Kashrut are strictly adhered to in its use.
Members of this independent, traditional Jewish community continue to play an active part in local life, being teachers, District Judges, J.P.s, school governors, local councillors and chairing Kent and Medway
Advisory Councils for Religious Education, amongst other activities.
The writer and others address local schools and accept many school groups at the Synagogue from the whole county, including the outskirts of London, in accordance with current religious education curriculae and carrying out teacher training to this end. Members have a strong input into local inter faith work, helping to organise Holocaust Memorial Day and other civic activities.
As mentioned earlier, Jewish social groups are finding that a visit to Chatham Memorial Synagogue provides historic interest, as well as pleasant refreshment.
The essence of Judaism is strength through community life. Throughout its long history the Medway community has been small but vigorous and, as in the past, its present members possess the strong desire and
intention to maintain this tradition by words and deeds.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?”