© Marcus Roberts (2012)


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The community was refounded in the late 18th century by German Jews. It is related that Michael Joseph was the founder of the community in 1787. The community grew during the Napoleonic Wars. It was one of several communities in provincial towns that grew due to the trade generated by the presence of large militias in the provinces. Bedford in 1806 was described as quartering "various marching regiments". The town also had the advantage of being a busy market town which also had an established population of German-Moravian immigrants. Importantly the town had a strong non-conformist tradition. The associations with John Bunyan are well known but also the town was sufficiently tolerant to provide a home to the bizarre cult of the millennial prophetess Joanna Southcote. A row of houses belonging to Southcote have been pointed out to me as still stand empty in the town in readiness for the millennium.

The Jewish community however was only modest comprising of some five families. The principal families were the Joseph, Lyon and Levy families. The Levy family in particular provided a dynasty of clock makers in the town. The first modern synagogue was established in 1803 and was a modest affair. Michael Joseph's son Nathan was appointed the first rabbi to the congregation. Seven years later the seeds of destruction for the works of Michael Joseph's hands were sown. The presence of the small numbers of Jewish souls in Bedford had caught the attention of the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, and a local branch was set up. Determined efforts were put into train that were ultimately to lead to the conversion of the founder's son and the rabbi to Christianity and to lead to the closure of the synagogue.

These events were not to transpire until the Jews of Bedford had fought another battle which was of real significance in the historic Emancipation of the Jews of England. An exceptional free Education was provided in the town of Bedford by the Harpur Trust. This trust was a late medieval charity that had suddenly come into fantastic funds in the 18th century as ancient leases on former low value market gardening land in Holborn fell in, in what was now the burgeoning growth areas of London. The new funds had been well regulated and protected from corrupt administration. Therefore all the children of Bedford residents could attend its free public schools and could also receive sums on the completion of apprenticeships. Girls could also receive marriage portions.

To begin with the children of Bedford Jews were allowed to attend but then they were excluded. The matter had come to a head when Joseph Lyons daughter, Sheeba, was told she was ineligible. This must have seemed especially unjust as the other children of Joseph Lyons had already attended the schools and benefitted from the trust. In fact both sides had made religious compromises to excuse the boys from the most overt aspects of the Christian observance in the school. For example the boys attended Christian prayer but they sat rather than knelt and did not read the New Testament, also they were allowed absence for all Jewish holy days including the Sabbath.

At the time the causes of the problems were said to be due to fears that many more Jews might wish to take advantage of the charity. Also there were problems with the children attending the school regularly, according to its regulations, due to the need of the children to attend the Sabbath and Jewish festivals.

It may be said that it is well known that up to the 1830s many parents would specifically move into towns with good Public Schools to receive the free education on offer. From the 1830s many charitable public schools had their trusts wrested such that the poor pupils were excluded by the rich, hence why some "public" schools contradict their title. In light of this the reason given for excluding the Jewish pupils seemed largely prejudicial.

The matter was taken to the High Court in 1818-19 and lost. Lord Eldon interpreted the Trust statutes as that of a Christian foundation as conservatively as was possible and refused to recognise the intervention of the Great Synagogue in the matter as they had not legal standing as a body. Obviously, in fairness the duty of the Chancellor was, as he stated, in addressing specific legal points rather than general principles. Also the conclusion that a Jew could not conscientiously allow his child to attend a school whose purpose was to educate the children in Christian doctrine no doubt had validity in the context of its times. However excluding Jewish girls from receiving marriage portions and apprenticeships on the basis that they could not apply to the trust with their Christian names seemed rather tenuous.

The failure of the Jewish community to win this case must be set against its place in the history of the social emancipation of the Jews. Essentially, the appeal came a few years too early. England in this time was just making a dramatic transition from the traditional fastness of a singular Anglican faith and state, where religious plurality was barely officially tolerated; to a society where all of the traditional certainties of faith had been cast adrift from their moorings and freedom and plurality of thought and faith was the norm.

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