A Strong Presence: England 1700-1800


A landmark for British Sephardim was the inauguration of Bevis Marks synagogue in 1701. This imposing building replaced the pre-existing, small synagogue in Creechurch Lane. It was said that Princess – soon to be Queen – Anne herself offered an oak beam as part of the construction. The Sephardim had arrived: they had a large place of prayer, hard evidence of Jewish life on the island. 

The New Universal Magazine or Gentleman and Lady’s Polite Instructor gave an account of Bevis Marks soon after its construction. An anonymous Jewish writer describes the building’s architecture as revealing of the community’s culture. For example, the placing of women in the gallery, separate from the male congregation, is central to Jewish orthodoxy. From the tone of the description, it is clear that the writer was trying to normalise Jewish religious practice for the Christian reader. 

There is also a rather bizarre comment, that ‘the excommunicated are buried by themselves’. The first Sephardi burial ground had been established in 1657. New land was acquired in Mile End in 1725 for a second cemetery, the Novo or Novo. The first burial here was in 1733. Nearby a Sephardi hospital was established in 1747, the Beth Holim – the only hospital in the country where Jewish dietary laws were observed.

Sephardi assimilation
In The Jews in the History of England, David Katz writes that the Sephardi community was proud of its success but ‘unhappy about Jews who spoiled their image and self-image as substantial and almost aristocratic English Nonconformists’. As well as wayward Jews, Sephardim were also concerned about members of the community converting to Christianity. Learned converts were attractive to Christian scholars as they were seen as rich resources of Hebraic knowledge for theology students. 

The problems posed by intermarriage are encapsulated in the case of a young Sephardi widow, Kitty Villareal, who, after legal battles, was able to use her inherited fortune to pursue her own way as a Christian convert and marry William Mellish. Her prosperity is said to have helped him gain a Parliamentary seat in 1741. Her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Villareal, was the first Jew to marry into the English peerage.

Continuing insecurity and inequality
Nevertheless, in spite of this growing sense of self-confidence particularly among wealthier members of the Sephardi community, Jews were still not secure in their position. Tricks were still being played to exploit them. For example, Jews could be elected to London parishes but were then fined for refusing to take the Christological oath. In 1702, despite opposition from the Sephardi community, Parliament passed an Act to oblige Jews to maintain and provide for their Protestant children when these had converted to Christianity. 

By far the biggest illustration of this insecurity was the controversy surrounding the Jewish Naturalisation Bill of 1753, commonly known as the Jew Bill. As non-English aliens, foreign-born Jews were prohibited from owning land or other real property. Denization, which many Sephardim had enjoyed since the mid-seventeenth century, helped to remove some of these restrictions. However, only naturalisation allowed for the acquisition of full economic rights. 

Rich and poor Sephardim divided
In 1714, the philosopher John Toland argued that, for the good of the country, Jews should be placed on the same footing as other subjects. This was the rationale behind the Jew Bill, introduced in the House of Lords in April 1753. Its aim was to give foreign-born Jews the right to apply to Parliament for naturalisation without the obligation to receive the Holy Sacrament. Each proposed naturalisation would still require an individual Act of Parliament, which meant that only the wealthy could take advantage of it. In other words, this proposed easing of the rules for foreign-born Jews was limited to an elite. 

This was important. By the time of the Jew Bill, there were 7,000-8,000 Jews in the country, between a quarter and a third of whom were Sephardi. The rise in the Jewish population was fuelled by immigration rather than natural growth. Renewed activity by the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal in 1720 and 1735 had provoked a new arrival of conversos. An estimated 3,000 Sephardim arrived directly from the Iberian Peninsula in the eighteenth century. Smaller numbers also arrived from the Italian states, including the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli. Others came from North Africa, Gibraltar and the Ottoman Empire. Poor Ashkenazi migrants from the German states, Poland and to a lesser extent from Holland were also arriving in England. These were mainly Dutch Jews of German origin.

A new wave of Sephardim also arrived. Unlike their seventeenth-century predecessors, they were mainly destitute. We find evidence of their life in the newly industrialised areas of London, where they endured foul conditions working in feather factories and other industrial hubs.

There were skilled craftsmen, shopkeepers, small-scale merchants, artisans and brokers among the Sephardim. However, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the Jewish population, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, became increasingly composed of unskilled individuals with few material resources. They were often pedlars and hawkers, itinerant traders selling goods frequently of poor quality or dubious provenance. Edelman writes of how these poor Jews worked as street traders selling oranges, lemons, spectacles, costume jewellery, sponges, dried rhubarb, lead pencils and inexpensive framed pictures. These Jews lived on the margins. They experienced a London that was quite different from that of the merchant Sephardi elites who still sat at the pinnacle of the Bevis Marks community.

Bad apples
Poverty among these Jews sometimes was associated with a degree of criminality, including the dealing in stolen goods. Reports reveal that some Jews were hanged or transported to the colonies for their crimes. The Chelsea Murders of 1771, committed by a group of Yiddish-speaking and thus mainly Ashkenazi Jews, was an infamous example. A robbery went wrong and a manservant was shot. The accused individuals were hanged at Tyburn. This provided another opportunity for anti-Jewish sentiments. But even those who were not philosemites, such as encyclopaedist William Jackson, were critical of the way Jews were treated. Jackson wrote, ‘There is something wantonly cruel in affronting the whole body of a people because a few individuals of that people have rendered themselves obnoxious by the atrocity of their guilt.’

When the Jew Bill was passed in May 1753, it provoked a huge anti-Jewish backlash, so much so that it was repealed that December. Writer and politician Horace Walpole commented that ‘the Jew Bill which superstitious bigots in the Commons repealed under the influence of a fanatical mob […] was still enslaved to the grossest and most vulgar prejudices’. Equal status was not achieved until the nineteenth century, when Jews were finally granted political and therefore full economic rights.

The boxer who fought antisemitism
Perhaps the most telling symbol of the social shift in English Sephardi society was the life of Daniel Mendoza (1765-1836).The son of Sephardi artisans, Mendoza was a hugely popular bare-knuckled fighter known as the inventor of ‘scientific pugilism’. He is considered the father of modern boxing. In his long career, he styled himself ‘Mendoza the Jew’ and, through his popularity, helped challenge antisemitism. At the cusp of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, just before Jews gained political rights, his pugilism and celebrity shifted the image of the Sephardi male from one of merchant and financier to that of working-class hero.