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Britain’s oldest synagogue is safe for now – but developers still threaten its future

15 October 2021

At the beginning of October, the City of London Corporation rejected a proposal for the building of a 48-storey tower overlooking Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. The Corporation’s planning committee received more than 2,800 objections. However, this was just the latest of a series of development schemes in recent years that have put this sensitive site in jeopardy. Another scheme, recommended for approval by City planners, remains to be decided…

The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue at Bevis Marks, on the limits of the City of London, opened on 30 September 1701, and has been in continuous use for 320 years. Built by Sephardi Jews who had arrived from Amsterdam after Dutch Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel’s petition to Oliver Cromwell, during the brief period when England was a republic, Bevis Marks was the first purpose-built synagogue in the country from the time of the Expulsion under Edward I in 1290 to the ‘Readmission’ of the Jews in England in 1656. Since then, the Jewish community has enjoyed a history of unbroken settlement and freedom of worship in Britain. This is a record unrivalled anywhere else in Europe and physically expressed in the Grade I-listed bricks and mortar of Bevis Marks.

It has often been claimed that, architecturally, Bevis Marks is a small-scale replica of its ‘mother’ congregation, the Portuguese Great Synagogue of Amsterdam (the Esnoga), that was opened in 1675.  While the two buildings share some common features they are not identical. Bevis Marks does not display all of the elements for which the parent synagogue is noted, not least its sheer scale. The Portuguese Great Synagogue is at least three times bigger than Bevis Marks. It has seating capacity for some 2,000 people whereas Bevis Marks comfortably accommodates about 600. Amsterdam was a comparatively tolerant environment and its chief synagogue was exceptional in its prominence as a city landmark. It was built at a time long before Jews were emancipated from the ghettoes and shtetls of Continental Europe. Bevis Marks was discreetly tucked away in a back alley, on a leasehold site, just on the limits of the City of London where Jews were barred from owning real estate. Anglican  England was not immune even from anti-Catholic and anti-Dissenter riots; clearly, the builders of Bevis Marks did not yet share the confidence of their Dutch counterparts to make a similar public statement of their presence. Whereas the Amsterdam Sephardim commissioned the City Mason to design their synagogue, the architect of Bevis Marks, Joseph Avis, was a mere carpenter and master builder who had worked for Christopher Wren. Like the Jews, he was an outsider, reputedly a Quaker, who stood outside the official establishment of the Church of England.

The Gateway, Bevis Marks Synagogue.

The Gateway, Bevis Marks Synagogue. Photo: Derek Kendall; © Historic England

The simple but dignified architectural style of Bevis Marks undoubtedly owes a debt to Amsterdam. It too is approached through a courtyard, and has a symmetrical facade with central doorway featuring date stones and bearing the Hebrew name Sha’ar HaShamayim, ‘Gate of Heaven’, that it shares with the Esnoga. It is constructed of reddish brick, with stone dressings, parapet and a hipped roof. Unlike the giant stone-columned and barrel-vaulted interior of Amsterdam, Bevis Marks has a simple flat ceiling with a plaster cornice. A series of timber Tuscan columns support the gallery, painted to give a marble effect. The presence of a gallery as a fully integrated architectural element does, however, come from Amsterdam. Indeed, the Esnoga introduced this novel feature into the history of synagogue architecture. For the first time (as far as we know) in the synagogue, women were accommodated in a proper gallery carried on column supports integrated into the main space. In the medieval synagogue, if any accommodation was provided for them at all, women worshippers sat in a separate space, on the same level but physically divided from the men’s prayer hall by a wall. In traditional Jewish communities, women are not required for public worship. Women are not expected to attend services, precluded by domestic duties, except perhaps on major festivals.

Bevis Marks and the Portuguese Great Synagogue of Amsterdam share a common liturgical arrangement: the Ehal (the Ark which houses the Torah scrolls) on the east wall, facing Jerusalem, and the Tevah (the reading platform) displaced to the rear (west). As in the Esnoga, the benches on the floor of Bevis Marks are placed lengthways, parallel with the long north and south walls, with extra seating located between the Ehal and Tevah. The fine seating is mostly original early 18th-century, ‘very domestic looking’ according to Pevsner (1957). A special feature of the furnishings at the Esnoga is reproduced at Bevis Marks: the canopied wardens’ pew or Banca in the middle of the north wall. However, like the front of the building, it is devoid of the famous curved buttresses that characterise the Amsterdam prototype, that were based on Renaissance visualisations of the biblical Temple of Solomon.

The Ark in Bevis Marks Synagogue.

The Ark in Bevis Marks Synagogue. Photo: © Anthony Harris

The gorgeously gilded oak Ark cabinet consists of two tiers connected by elegantly carved scrolls, reminiscent of a late Renaissance church front. The broken pediment frames the Luhot (Decalogue) inscribed in gold Hebrew block. The overall design of the Ark owes much to the Esnoga where the ‘Tablets of the Law’ are thought to have made their appearance atop a synagogue Ark for the first time in Jewish architectural history.

‘Tablets of the Law’ also appeared on the altarpieces of 17th-century churches in London, notably those designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The connection is underlined by the fact that not only had Joseph Avis himself worked for Wren but so too had most of his craftsmen. Just as the Amsterdam Esnoga was created by Dutch church builders, Bevis Marks was created by London church builders. It naturally shares features in common not only with Wren churches but also with the larger non-conformist meeting houses, not least the galleried interior and the large round-headed windows filled with clear glass.

Thus Bevis Marks expresses in architectural terms a dual identity, much like Jewish identity itself. It is rooted in English soil, built by an English architect using English materials and influenced by contemporary English styles. On the other hand, it cannot be fully understood without reference to the architectural tradition of the western Sephardim, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, that began in Amsterdam.

The synagogue has survived many threats to its existence throughout its long life, from the Blitz to the IRA bombings of the Baltic Exchange in 1992 and 1993. Back in the 1880s it was saved from itself when a proposal to decamp to the leafy suburbs of Maida Vale, in convenient walking distance of the homes of some of the more affluent members, galvanised the formation of the ‘Bevis Marks Anti-Demolition League’. This was the first organised conservation campaign inside the Jewish community and attracted the support of William Morris. In the 2020s, the challenge comes from a different quarter: the Corporation of London’s so-called Eastern City Cluster. The present planning applications to build yet more overblown tower blocks on Bury Street and Creechurch Lane are just the latest in a series of proposals that have threatened to cut out light and air from the synagogue and its courtyard. As in Amsterdam’s Esnoga, it is the unrestricted ingress of natural light that gives Bevis Marks its special atmosphere. This goes a long way to explaining the sensitivity about redevelopment around the site. In daytime, the interior is flooded with light filtered through 28 generous windows positioned on all four walls. The windows – round-headed upstairs and segmental-headed below – are deeply recessed and filled with clear glazed leaded lights. The large windows in the centre of the east and west walls possesses elegantly elliptical heads.

Good lighting is essential in the synagogue, where reading from the Torah scrolls is central to many services. Hence, at Bevis Marks, in addition to generous glazing, is the abundant provision of massive brass ball chandeliers, seven in all, low-slung over the Tevah, in the style of the Esnoga. Some of the brasswork was actually donated by the parent synagogue in Amsterdam, probably including the great central chandelier over the Tevah and the four lamp stands before the Ehal. Although electric lighting was installed in 1928 it was designed only to supplement the wax candles and not to supersede them, given the heritage status of the building. The chandeliers are still lit by hand for special occasions.

Bevis Marks faces the same prospect as many fragile baroque churches: of being overwhelmed by the dense forest of glass, steel and concrete towers that has gradually been taking over the City, spreading beyond the boundaries of the Ward of Portsoken right into the East End, the historic heartlands of Anglo-Jewry. Naively, we thought that the attacks of September 11 2001 would have put paid to the international love affair with very tall buildings. The latest proposals (for office developments) are not even justified by the domestic housing crisis, growing population and a shortage of land. All over the world, from New York to Dubai, from London to Liverpool, the ‘Manhattan skyline’ is perceived as a mark of economic virility. Or is it simply indicative of rising land values, vested financial interests and human greed? But this is not the place to debate the big questions of urbanism. We can only hope that the over-development that still threatens the special character of Britain’s oldest synagogue will be scaled back if not stopped in its tracks altogether.

Sharman Kadish has written several books on British Jewish history and heritage including The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland (Yale University Press) and companion guidebooks Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland (Historic England) and Jewish Heritage in Gibraltar (Spire Books).