the S&P Sephardi Community

(formerly the Spanish & Portuguese Jews' Congregation)





Page created by Louise Messik: 29 May 2006
Page reformatted: 7 November 2011
Latest update or revision: 30 June 2017


Miriam Rodrigues-Pereira
Honorary Archivist to the Spanish & Portuguese Jews' Congregation

The Spanish & Portuguese Jews' Congregation of London is very fortunate in possessing in its archives a remarkable collection of records of its many organisation dating from the mid 17th century. In particular it provides a valuable resource for genealogical research, much of it unique material pre-dating official government registration.

As many of you may know, the Congregation of London traces its origin back to the famous Petition presented to Cromwell in 1656 by Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, from Holland, and six of the 'secret Jews' (Marranos) living in London. For the first time since the expulsion in 1290 Jews were permitted to live and worship openly in England. They quickly set up a synagogue in a rented house in Creechurch Lane in the City of London and leased land in Mile End, Stepney, for a burial ground. The Congregation grew steadily and it was eventually decided to build a large new synagogue. In 1701 the beautiful Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City was opened. It remains in regular use.

Increasing migration of members of the Congregation from the East End to the west and north-west of London led to the establishment of a branch congregation, at first in Wigmore Street, Cavendish Square in 1853, from 1861 in a purpose-built synagogue in Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, which is nowadays the most populous. Ancillary activities (discussions, social events, talks etc.) take place frequently at the Sephardi Centre there.

A small synagogue in north London at Mildmay Park, also existed between 1883 and 1936. Further demographic changes brought about the founding of another branch of the Congregation in Wembley in 1962 and the building of a synagogue there in 1977. The Beth Holim, founded as a hospital in 1747, and later a Home for the Aged, was transferred to the same site in 1977. (It now houses Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim). Some sheltered housing has also been built there.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries immigrants joined the Congregation. They came either direct from Portugal (Marranos) or from the Jewish communities elsewhere, e.g. Holland, France, Italy, North Africa and Gibraltar, and in more recent times from the countries of the Middle East.

The Congregation was led by a small group (Mahamad) consisting of two Wardens (Parnassim) and a Treasurer (Gabay), chosen annually from among the Elders. In the mid -19th century this body became an elected Executive. The Mahamad compiled the first Laws of the Congregation (Ascamot) - owing much to Amsterdam and Venice - which were designed to maintain a pious, united and well-ordered community. With the expressed support of the Elders and, for some purposes, of the members as well, the Mahamad levied taxes on members, chose and paid the Haham (Chief Rabbi) and other officials, received offerings, legacies etc. authorised the solemnization of marriages and distributed charity both in money and in kind - matzot, coal and blankets in due season. Many charitable activities, such as education, looking after the sick poor, burials, charity to the Holy Land, the redemption of captives, were separately organised as in Amsterdam. Their affairs were regulated in a similar fashion with a Parnas / Treasurer at the head, and subscribers where appropriate. Later, some of these institutions were combined and came to be administered by the Congregation's Secretariat. Much of the early organisation of the Congregation survives, with modifications up to the present day.

The leaders of the Congregation were methodical men, mostly merchants, and they preserved their records very carefully. Important documents were kept in an 'Iron Chest', a safe which still existed until fairly recently. In the 19th century, as was the custom in local churches, each year's records were deposited in a lidded wooden box with the date written on the outside. These boxes were stored in the attic roof space at Bevis Marks Synagogue. In the 1970s they were removed to the Congregation's offices.

For many years a small number of volunteers has devoted much time to bringing the mass of records into order. The importance of the genealogical records was recognised and it became the Congregation's policy to publish them, ensuring their availability to the wider community. All the records of births, circumcisions, marriages and burials up to the end of the 19th century are now in print. They are fully indexed and contain informative introductory essays.

And now to these records in more detail. Until 1819 they were written in Portuguese. This caused no great difficulty in transcription, though sometimes the handwriting did, but the indexes were another matter. Before 1850 they were compiled in a curious way, by first names in the order in which Patriarchs, Prophets and Kings of Israel appear in the Bible. Non-Biblical names follow. This nightmarish arrangement was perhaps based on a Portuguese system relating to names of Saints which was of use in the 17th Century. Fortunately surnames were always recorded in full.

Two marriage registers have been published covering the period 1686 - 1837 and 1837 - 1901. Marriage contracts in Hebrew (Ketubot) for all weddings performed by the Congregation's Rabbis were always copied into our special Books, as they still are. There is one book missing, for 1794 -1811. The gap has been partly filled using the Mahamad's records of Licenses given to the Haham to perform the ceremony.

The first register (Bevis Marks Records Part II ), contains the transliterated names of the parties to the marriages extracted from the Hebrew Ketubot, some 1840 in all. The names are given in the form groom's first name 'de' (=son of) and father's full name, them the bride's name similarly, followed by the Jewish calendar date. A number of Ashkenazi women married into the Congregation from about the end of the 18th century and these entries do not usually have the father's surname. Further research in Minute Books has however revealed some names and it is hoped to publish them at a later date.

In the period 1702 - 1735 there was a notable influx of immigrants from Portugal and a number of entries at this time include the words Vindos (=came) de Portugal, evidently indicating the couple was already married. Arrangements were made for them to fulfil religious requirements for marriage and then receive the Ketubah.

For the second register (Bevis Marks Records III) the entries from the Ketubot have been combined with data from the official government registration, which began in mid -1837, and are presented in tabular form. They give much more information - ages of the parties, their addresses, professions and those of their fathers, witnesses and other points of interest. Some later entries record only a religious marriage, i.e. evidence that a previous civil marriage had taken place . Before the 1860's marriages were usually celebrated in private houses and not in synagogue, as is the common practice nowadays.

Records of children's births were not at first maintained by the Congregation but some of the registers kept by individual circumcisers (Mohalim) have come down to us. The earliest book is that of Isaac Carriao de Paiba and his son Abraham which covers the period 1715 - 1775. and contains nearly 1500 entries, including a few Ashkenazim. It was exceedingly difficult to transcribe and edit and completed (as Bevis Marks Records Part IV) only after painstaking effort by Dr Richard Barnett, my predecessor as Honorary Archivist. He also wrote an historical Introduction including the fascinating story of the immigrants from Portugal in the early 18th century.

Some further research which resulted in a partial reconstruction of a list of circumcisions in 1679 - 1699, and a few marriages in 1679 - 89. with some female births, supplement this work.

In 1767 the Congregation decided to set up a full record of male and female births. The register covers the period up to 1881, though it is rather incomplete in the later years, once official registration became compulsory. Four lists of circumcisions have been incorporated into this publication, Bevis Marks Records Part V containing some 6,000 entries, 300 of them Ashkenazim. Mothers' first names appear in this book as well as full names of godparents, mainly for Sephardi circumcisions.

And now to the burials of which there is a complete record dating from the founding of the Congregation. The first cemetery the Velho (=Old) in Mile End Road, East London was in use from 1657 until 1735. The register, containing some 1100 entries, two-thirds of them children, was published in 1962 by the Jewish Historical Society of England (Miscellanies VI). It is hoped to publish in the future a revision of this work and include in it some 100 epitaphs transcribed from the gravestones.

The Novo (=New) Cemetery, further along Mile End Road, adjacent to the present Queen Mary College, was in use from 1733 until 1918, some years after a third cemetery was opened in Golders Green in north west London. The Novo cemetery was partly cleared in the 1970s in accordance with Rabbinic requirements, in face of a compulsory purchase order. Reinternments were carried out at Brentwood, Essex, where all the names are recorded on plaques.

The Novo cemetery burial register (Bevis Marks records Part VI) contains about 10,000 entries (about 40% of them children) between 1733 and 1918. Much additional material has been incorporated - a few hundred epitaphs in Portuguese, English and Hebrew, details of addresses, age. All the information is linked by a common serial number to help the user.

These volumes taken together provide an exceptionally useful study aid for anyone having Sephardi ancestry and for some Ashkenazim as well, or for those interested in the history of this small but important community.

Bevis Marks Synagogue

List of Spanish & Portuguese Jews' Congregations



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