Exploring the Jewish Community in London: A Comprehensive Guide to the Records

This collection brings together a number of institutions that were essential to London's Jewish community over the past 300 years including synagogues. Learn how to locate records about Jews from medieval times up until today.

Exploring the Jewish Community in London: A Comprehensive Guide to the Records

This collection brings together a number of institutions that were essential to the Jewish community in London over the past 300 years, including synagogues. From medieval times to the present day, London has been home to Britain's largest Jewish community. However, over the centuries, Jewish communities have been established in towns and cities across the country, from Penzance in the south to Aberdeen in the north. These communities were often formed near ports or due to economic opportunities.

The Jewish community in London leads a very observant and communal religious life, with limited access to television, radio, and other forms of media. As such, religious leaders have a special dispensation for critical business purposes. This means that public health messages must be communicated without relying on digital communications. The National Archives holds records that document the arrival, settlement, status, and activities of Jewish peoples and communities in Britain and its former colonies over the past 900 years.

Locating records of Jewish people in the National Archives can be complicated because they are not specifically named Jews in most of the records in which they appear. A person's religion was not routinely indicated in most official records until 2001. Jewish individuals and families are often identifiable because they usually have Jewish names. However, many surnames that are considered Jewish are German or Eastern European or, in the case of Sephardic Jewish families, Spanish or Portuguese. Therefore, surnames may not be exclusively Jewish, and many Jewish immigrants who arrived in the UK anglicized their surnames or simply changed them.

The Norman conquest of 1066 marked the arrival of Jewish communities to England. The Jewish financiers of Rouen soon arrived at the invitation of William I. Major Jewish figures such as Josce of Gloucester or Aaron of Lincoln were the main funders of English kings and their policies in the 12th century. By the 13th century, communities had been established in London and other major centers such as York, Leicester, Norwich, Winchester, Gloucester and Oxford.

The database of immigrants from England 1330-1550 has opened National Archives records documenting immigrants from the medieval period but does not allow searching by religion. However, searching by nationality, place or origin is possible and may be the best way to locate individual Jewish immigrants. Aaron of Colchester was caricaturized as “Son of the Devil” in an image from 1277 for defending his sons Isaac and Samuel who were accused of hunting deer illegally in Essex. This is the first English representation of the “badge of shame” - a yellow cloth to be worn by all Jews over seven after the Statute of Jewry of 1275. Emigration left a Jewish population of about 3,000 in 1280s.

With a significant drop in real tax revenues for Jewish communities, Edward I no longer saw them as a valuable resource for the Crown. The related hostility of Christian church fueled popular discontent and other European rulers' expulsion of Jewish communities was one of the final elements that convinced Edward I to expel Jews from England. The National Archives' richest sources for tracking Jewish people and communities related to England or Great Britain during this period are collections of petitions, orders, letters and grants created by government officials in course of their work for state. Access to State Papers Online (an institutional subscription required) will open up correspondence, petitions and discussions about events at Privy Council.

Since Jews did not have full rights or protections under English and British law until 19th century, best evidence of Jewish life and settlement during this period is reflected in complaints about abuses they suffered or calls for government agencies to intervene on their behalf. Consult national state documents from Hanoverian era for information on growing economic contributions and political influence of Jewish merchants in 18th century leading to so-called “Jewish Law” of 1753 which provided path of naturalization for Jewish settlers in England. The new law sparked anti-Semitic riots across country many provoked by religious and commercial groups. The threat of violence became so great that it was considered necessary to introduce new bill to repeal law.

The importance of 1782 is due to year when Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were created which announced beginning two large collections found in National Archives (for information on records Ministry Foreign Affairs see section). Given its broad powers Ministry Interior inevitably created records related to Jewish people communities and affairs. Use correspondence guide with Home Office for detailed advice on how search for information on specific topics and locate individual articles correspondence. See respective research guides for more general advice on how search National Archives catalog for records related to Jews Britain.

Dermot Bailey
Dermot Bailey

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