The Jewish Community in London: A Historical Journey

For centuries, London has been home to Britain's largest Jewish community with roots dating back to 1290. Learn about their journey through history.

The Jewish Community in London: A Historical Journey

For centuries, London has been the home of Britain's largest Jewish community, with its roots in the city dating back to the 12th century. Despite their autonomy, these communities were subject to anti-Semitism and were eventually expelled from England in 1290. Today, Jews in the United Kingdom number around 275,000, with more than 260,000 of them living in England. The majority of England's Jews are located in and around London, with nearly 160,000 Jews in London itself and another 20,800 in nearby Hertfordshire. The Norman conquest of 1066 marked the beginning of Jewish communities in England.

Major Jewish figures such as Josce of Gloucester and Aaron of Lincoln were the main financiers of English kings and their policies during the 12th century. By the 13th century, Jewish communities had been established in London and other major cities such as York, Leicester, Norwich, Winchester, Gloucester and Oxford. The first recorded mention of the London Jewish community dates back to the reign of William Rufus (1087-1100), who appears to have had a certain degree of favoritism towards Jews. During his reign, a religious dispute occurred at Westminster between an abbot and a Jew from Mainz who was conducting business with the abbey. The pogroms that took place in Russia during the 1880s drove Jewish communities westward and thousands of Jews from these communities came to the United Kingdom to settle or move on to the United States. In 1884, Nathan Mayer Rothschild became the first Jewish member of the British House of Lords; Benjamin Disraeli was already a member.

To try to maintain peace between the Jewish and Arab populations, especially after the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, Britain strictly limited immigration. This group of Jews quickly assimilated into British society, becoming accustomed to both concealing their Jewish identity and interacting with non-Jewish communities. Since Jews did not have full rights or protections under English and British law until the 19th century, 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. Although there was an increase in anti-Semitism during the 1930s, it was offset by strong support for British Jews from their local communities. This new population enabled an increasingly vibrant Jewish community centered on the East End of London. However, progress in renovating and improving facilities for Jewish youth was slow. During the 1990s, London saw a continuation of the trend from being a member of traditional Central Orthodox synagogue to left-wing progressive and right-wing ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

The Metropolitan Archives of London has published a summary of Jewish genealogy sources that would be useful for locating a Jewish ancestor. A communal center for London's major Jewish institutions and a Jewish museum were established at Woburn House in Bloomsbury. However, with improvements to transportation systems and roads came changes to traditional patterns of settlement symbolized by the Jewish district. On July 26th 1858 Lionel de Rothschild was finally allowed to hold a seat in the British House of Commons when the law restricting oaths to Christians was amended; Benjamin Disraeli was already an MP. This project will highlight and make Jewish documentary history more accessible by identifying and cataloguing archival evidence relevant to the history of the Jewish community in London.

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Dermot Bailey
Dermot Bailey

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