Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Jews of Regency England

The Regency period in English history is broadly defined as the period between 17751837, beginning while King George III was still on the throne and ending with the ascension of Queen Victoria.  In the century before this period England had experienced a huge expansion of its empire and its commercial enterprises.  It is not surprising then that Jews were attracted to England, Sephardic Jews escaping the restrictions of Spain and Portugal and Ashkenazi Jews escaping the persecution and ghettos prevalent on the European continent. 

There is a myth that the Jews of England during the Georgian period were mostly Sephardic, coming in the wake of the unofficial permission granted by Oliver Cromwell to Manasseh Ben Israel of Holland in 1665 to allow Jews to live in England.  Jews had been in England from the time of William the Conqueror, but had been expelled in 1290 and officially there were no Jews in England until 1666, although it is known that there was a small community of Secret Jews (Marranos or Anusim) who passed as Spanish.  However, the facts show that a large proportion of Jews in England during the Georgian and Regency period were in fact Ashkenazim.  It is estimated that during this period there were a total of ca. 15-18,000 Jews in England and of those only ca. 12% were Sephardim. 

This was the situation described by Libi Astaire, who comes originally from Kansas City, studied in NY, and now lives in Jerusalem. She is the author of books on the Secret Jews of Spain ("Terra Incognita") as well as a detective series on Regency England (see  She spoke at AACI Netanya on "Pride, Prejudice and Jews: London's Jewish community during Jane Austen's time."  Of course, there were restrictions on the Jews of England during this period, they were not allowed to become citizens and foreign-born Jews weren’t allowed to own property, but they were allowed to build their own synagogues and worship as they liked, and they were not forced into ghettos as they were in Europe.
Needless to say among the Jews were the wealthy, such as Abraham Goldsmid, Nathan Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore, and the many poor, who often started as rag merchants, a familiar sight roaming the streets dealing in old clothes.  There was a well-known Jewish "fence" named Ikey Solomon, who was deported to Tasmania, and who might have been the inspiration for Fagin in Charles Dicken's "Oliver Twist."  But, recent research has shown that there was another possible source, namely a Black man named Henry Murphy who was reputed to steal children to use them as thieves.  Another famous Jew during this period was the prize fighter Daniel Mendoza known as the "Star of Israel" who fought and won many bouts and became Champion of England.

It is important to remember that during this period there was no welfare system and no police force, so people were more or less on their own, except in so far as the Jewish communal organizations helped them.  And it is known that the wealthy Jews in this period were very generous.  The first Ashkenazi synagogue built in England was the Duke Street Synagogue in the East End of London in 1690, but it was destroyed during WWII and so Bevis Marks Sephardic Synagogue is the oldest one remaining. 

Although Jane Austen herself did not mention any Jews in her novels, there were sympathetic Jews described in English literature, such as in "Harrington" by Maria Edgeworth, and "Daniel Deronda" by George Eliot.  But, most portrayals were negative caricatures.  No wonder many Jews cast off their origins to baptize their children in order to better fit into the prevalent English culture.  One such was Isaac Disraeli, whose son Benjamin  became a British Prime Minister.  But, overall the Georgian period was one of relative tolerance, prosperity and growth for the English Jewish community.


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