Bevis Marks: Britain’s oldest synagogue is central to London’s history – here’s why it needs protecting

At 320 years old, Bevis Marks in London is the oldest continually functioning synagogue in Europe. So it is perhaps unsurprising that recent plans to erect two (very tall) skyscrapers overshadowing the building have led to angry opposition.

One 48-story tower, planned to be built in nearby Bury Street, was rejected in early October on the grounds that it would severely disrupt the use of the Grade I-listed historic site. A groundswell of protest, led by the likes of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and historians Tom Holland and Simon Schama, voiced concerns about how the shadow from the proposed tower would affect the synagogue’s spiritual power.

Another 21-story highrise, meanwhile, planned on Creechurch Lane, is still under consideration.

For Jews in many countries, Bevis Marks stands as the equivalent of a world heritage site. For British Jews, it is their prime heritage asset. It was built in 1701 by the Spanish & Portuguese Jews Congregation, in close proximity to the Bank of England and the Mansion House (the official residence of the lord mayor of London).

Beyond its architectural value, the building speaks to a history of London in which British Jews fought for civil and political rights as non-Christian citizens, thereby paving the way for other religious minorities.

Jewish presence

As historian David Knyaston demonstrates in his book The City of London, Jews and Jewish businesses played a critical part in London’s evolution as a global financial and commercial centre. However, this history occupies no place in the British national narrative, which overwhelmingly associates Jews with the mass immigration from eastern Europe after 1880, and the influx of refugees fleeing the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s.

Besides Bevis Marks, there is now little trace of the historic Jewish presence in the City. Yet, it is the cathedral synagogue of British Jewry. It reminds us that Britain’s history as a place of refuge for Jewish immigrants dates back to Oliver Cromwell, who first allowed Jews to return to the country after their expulsion in 1290.

The earliest arrivals were Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had fled the Iberian peninsula after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. In time they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from central Europe. Bevis Marks’ construction drew inspiration both from the Christopher Wren churches in London and from the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam.

A new era of financial capitalism, centred on London, began at the turn of the 19th century. And as our research has shown, Jews forged alliances with Quakers and Catholics to build inclusive businesses such as Alliance Assurance.

Together, they campaigned for an end to the legal restrictions that beset non-Anglican groups and prevented them from participating fully in British economic, social and political life. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 brought relief for Protestant dissenters. Then came Catholic emancipation in 1829. In the 1830s, the House of Commons began to vote in favour of Jewish emancipation. Dominated by Tory aristocrats and bishops, the House of Lords voted against.

The place of Jews in the City and the support they received within it proved critically important in this context. It was here, as scholar James Parkes recounts, that businessman David Salomons became the first Jewish Sheriff (in 1835), Alderman (in 1847) and Lord Mayor (in 1855).

And it was the City that elected the Jewish businessman Lionel de Rothschild an MP in 1847, creating an protracted crisis of democratic accountability. Rothschild was, for over ten years, unable to take up his seat in parliament because he refused to swear an explicitly Christian oath.

Later, after Jews achieved emancipation in 1858, their presence at the heart of the City paved the way for other groups. In 1873, Sir Alfred Sassoon –- a Jew born in Baghdad and brought up in Mumbai –- became the first Indian to receive the Freedom of the City of London, an ancient honour and an entitlement to civil privileges, heralding a new phase of diversification.

Hidden legacy

In the 19th century, Londoners knew and valued this history. When Salomons’s brother Philip gave 400 volumes of Hebrew and rabbinical texts to the Guildhall library, he was effectively inscribing Jews into the City’s historic collections and underlining the relevance of Jewish culture in this world. Later, in the 1880s, Londoners of different faiths fought to preserve Bevis Marks from an attempt to relocate the synagogue to Maida Vale, in what was one of the earliest examples of a public campaign of this kind.

In 1978, when a site in neighbouring Creechurch Lane was up for development, the City of London actively protected Bevis Marks. Its planners insisted on a redesign of the proposed building to ensure the fourth floor would be set back from the frontage overlooking its courtyard, thus allowing more light to enter the synagogue and its immediate setting.

Bevis Marks is now the only site of Jewish memory in the City because it is the only non-Christian place of worship in the Square Mile. But the built environment is always changing and, increasingly, growing taller.

One tall building has been approved on nearby Leadenhall Street. In early October, however, the City’s Planning and Transportation Committee threw out plans for another on Bury Street, close to the synagogue, on heritage grounds. It was the first time in years that the committee had rejected the recommendation of its planning officers with such a resounding majority.

Proposals for a third, substantially more damaging building at 33 Creechurch Lane – only 3.5 metres from the synagogue’s cathedral window – are due to be considered early next year.

The City of London’s Local Plan, drawn up in 2015 specifies the importance of sustaining and enhancing heritage assets, their settings and significance. The significance of Bevis Marks is entwined with the fact that it remains a living religious community in the heart of a dynamic commercial space.

Abigail Green receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC grant number AH/S006656/)

Jaclyn Granick receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. (grant number AH/S006656/)