Provincial Jewry
in Victorian Britain




Extract from papers on
Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain

Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman for a conference at University College, London, convened on 6 July 1975 by the Jewish Historical Society of England
Reproduced here with Prof. Newman's kind consent)


Page created: 10 March 2017
Latest revision: 13 April 2017

5606 / 1845

Chief Rabbinate Archives MS 104 1

Transcribed by the late Rabbi Bernard Susser, B.A. M.Phil.

(By hovering your mouse cursor over the superscript footnote number in the text,
the wording of the footnote will appear in a pop-up box.)



It has long been known that Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler issued an elaborate questionnaire on 13 August, 1845, shortly after his induction, asking all the congregations in Britain under his control for detailed information about synagogal, charitable and educational activities.2. Only a small part of the information which he gathered has hitherto been published3., viz. a table in the Jewish Chronicle of 23 July 1847 which gave the number of Baalei Batim, 'seatholders', and individuals in each congregation. The rest of the information has never been published no doubt because some of the replies were too frank and contentious to be printed contemporaneously without some form of editing, and also because much of the information was only of passing interest at that time.

In spite of the fact that the volume containing the replies was entitled 'Statistical Accounts of All the Congregations in the British Empire', only congregations in England, Ireland and Jamaica are entered, and only Ashkenasi ones, at that.

The replies were written up in one volume by a clerk, Dr. Adler himself adding comments in his own handwriting. In particular he noted down the names of parents who had children of school age in small communities. The information gathered as a result of the questionnaire provides a basic source for historical research into the state of the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Jewry.

To one who is unacquainted with the size of early Victorian Anglo-Jewry, it comes as a surprise to find that communities which currently number tens of thousands of Jewish souls, in 1845 had a mere handful of residents. The industrial communities of Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull and Manchester, for example, were in 1845 in a nascent condition. On account of the comparatively small numbers in most of the provincial congregations, the Chief Rabbi had a detailed knowledge of individuals throughout England and this must have facilitated his work in recommending officials to these communities and keeping the peace between feuding factions.

Demographically, the figures have already been used to assess the number of Jews living in England at that period. The Jewish Chronicle only published the total numbers, the breakdown into men, women, and children will help to establish the multiplication factor to be taken into account when trying to estimate the size of a Jewish community where only the number of adults, or only the number of children is known. From these returns it is also possible to make some assessment of the degree of religious observance. The laws of conjugal intimacy had almost fallen into abeyance. Only half of the congregations in Britain possessed a Mikveh, the rest evading the issue by reference to public baths or the proximity of the sea. At Exeter, even though the public bath approximated to the regulation size of a Mikveh, it was not generally used. As no questions were asked about the observance of the Sabbath and Dietary Laws, it may be assumed that, in general, there were no great fears that these aspects of Jewish life were not being maintainted. A tendency to act on questions of Jewish Law without reference to the central. Rabbinic authority is already at, for example, Glasgow and Exeter. Such a tendency was to be expected for two reasons. The first, the difficulties of communication and the second, that Rabbi Adler came to his position after an inter-regnum following the death of Rabbi Hirschell who had been ill in the last few years of his life. It may be that by sending out a pastoral letter4. and this questionnaire, Rabbi Adler wanted to bring home to his far flung congregations that he had taken up the reins of authority. It is well known that the Adler dynasty frowned upon attempts on the part of others to exercise Rabbinical authority in the communities under their care.

Much light is also thrown on social conditions within the community, the apallingly low salaries of many provincial synagogue officials, bitter strife within a congregation and between one congregation and another, and also upon the charitable impulse of the community and the lack of it.


In view of the continuing crisis which confronts Anglo-Jewry in the educational field, it is perhaps this aspect of the survey which is of the greatest interest today. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the educational survey is the existence of Jewish Day Schools in the modern connotation of the term, that is, schools where both Jewish and secular subjects were taught on an equal footing. Early Victorian and present day Jewish Day Schools had a similar purpose, to provide Jewish education for children who were in danger of assimilation, whereas at the end of the nineteenth century, the prime purpose of Jewish Day Schools was to assimilate immigrant children and to turn out little English Gentlemen.

The survey of educational activity in 1845 was not complete inasmuch as there were no returns from the Jews' Free School with its 900 pupils or the much smaller Jews' Infant School in Cox's Square, Bell Lane, and possibly others. From the returns it is apparent that there were few good Jewish day schools, and such as there were educated only a very small proportion of the Jewish child population. There must have been about a thousand Jewish children in Liverpool, of whom only 60 attended the day school, and there is no mention of any other educational facilities. Where part-time instruction was given, the picture is little better. At Chatham, only 7 out of 103 children were currently receiving Jewish education, while at Glasgow barely half the boys and only one fifth of the girls attended for private instruction.

The day schools then, as now, were probably bedevilled by lack of funds. In general, the income from fees amounted to less than half of the expenditure on teachers' salaries, so there was a considerable deficit to meet. Nor were the standards particularly high. In the main, those who did receive some form of instruction were taught to read Hebrew, to translate from the Pentateuch and Prayer book, a little grammar, some Biblical History and general Jewish religious knowledge. Apparently, the commentary of Rashi was not taught, nor were Mishnah and Talmud included in any curriculum. The day schools used similar text-books for Jewish studies, though hardly any of them were designed specifically for the use of children. The shortage of suitable text-books is underlined by the use of the British and Foreign Bible Society's publications, in schools which were founded to counter-act the missionary activities of it and similar societies.5. Dr. Adler campaigned for more day schools and he collected money to help small congregations pay teachers,6. but it took twenty years before his efforts met even with partial success.7.

Notes (of Rabbi B. Susser) (↵ returns to main text)

  1. Published with the kind permission of Chief Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits.

  2. The replies on education are dealt with in the second part of this paper.

  3. Dr. V.D. Lipman correctly surmised this in his article 'A Survey of Anglo-Jewry', Transactions Jewish Historical Society of England, xvii (1953), p. 172.

  4. Voice of Jacob, 18 August 1845.

  5. S. Levin, 'The Origins of the Jews' Free School', Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, xix (1960), p. 112.

  6. Chief Rabbinate Archives, vol. xii, p. 501.

  7. Jacob Nathan of Plymouth was influenced by Dr. Adler to leave his fortune to found a day school in Plymouth (Chief Rabbinate Archives, vol. vii, 13 June 1861).



Aron Kodesh





Profits and Hagiographa

Baal HaBayit (pl. Baalai Bayit)





Certified Officers of Rabbinical Court or Congregation






Chairman of Synagogue Council







Chazan Sheni


Second Cantor

Porsher (+ Porger)


One who removed forbidden fat and veins from meat







Chevra Chinuch Yeladim


Society for Educating Children

Shamas (fem. Shamastra)



Chumash (pl. Chumashim)





Ritual Slaughter of animals




Shomer Beit Hakevarot


Cemetery Keeper

Derech Emunah


Path of Faith

Shomer LePessach u'Sheliach


Doorkeeper & Messenger










Shorshei Emunah


Principles of Faith






Reading Desk




Shulchan Aruch


Code of Law

Matzah (pl. Matzot)


Unleavened Bread

Sifrei Torah


Scrolls of the Law

Mikdash Mi'at


Minor Sanctuary

Sofer S.T.M.


Scribes who write Scrolls of the Torah, Teffillin (Phylacteries) and Mazuzot



Ritual Bath

Tefillah (pl. Tefillot)





Quorum for Public Prayer






Case heard at Rabbinical Court



Corpus of Jewish Teaching



Honours bestowed in connection with the reading of the Law

Yesodei Hadat


Foundations of Religion


Contents Page - Statistical Accounts of Congregations

Provincial Jewry in Victorian Britain - List of Contents

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