Chatham and Rochester
Marcus Roberts


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Lazarus Simon Magnus had a glittering career. As a young man he was fully involved in his family business's, his principal occupation was as a coal factor or merchant. He increasingly attained roles of status and responsibility at a young age. By 1856 he was a trustee of Chatham synagogue. He became deputy chairman of the Sittingbourne and Sheerness Railway Company. His instrumentality in taking the new Railway to Sheerness via the ancient but moribund port of Queenborough on the west side of the Isle of Sheppy, caused the locals to consider themselves indebted to him.

In Consequence of this the grateful borough elected him as a Freeman and a Jurat (magistrate) of the borough in 1857. This prepared the way for him being elected mayor 1858 when he presided over the first quarter sessions in the town under his mayoralty. He was re-elected twice more in 1859 and 1862 . Magnus was in all probability the first Jewish Mayor in the provinces - a minor landmark in the history of Jewish emancipation. At the time he was reckoned to be the second only provincial mayor in Europe, after one in Belgium.

Magnus apparently never lived in Queenborough, no search of the official records shows any trace of him there. In his speech at his mayoral inauguration he clearly stated that his civic office in the borough was solely due to his role in bringing the railway to the town.

In 1860 Magnus founded a volunteer corp from virtually all the men of the Chatham synagogue - the Kent 9th Volunteer Rifle Corp. This was in a period when a large number of such patriotic corps were being raised across the country. Their role was it seems one of civil defense in a period when England was embroiled in a variety of conflicts, such as the Indian Revolt and the Crimean War. In that year he was commissioned as captain of his corp. Charles Isaacs, a member of the prominent Isaac's family in Chatham was also gazetted Lieutenant of the corp. A photograph of Captain Magnus, decked out in his uniform complete with bearskin hat, still survives and is displayed with pride in the synagogue.

That a Jew was the head of a Jewish "home defense" corp in Chatham was significant as far as the story of Jewish emancipation and assimilation into English life is concerned. It was particularly significant as far as Chatham was concerned due to its military prominence. Also it was against the background of great historical sensitivities in the town. For this was the town where the Dutch had, in 1667, landed with an invasion force, bombarded the docks and in a final flourish of humiliation, towed off the pride of the English fleet, the Royal Charles.

That Magnus would have risen to yet greater things is very likely. But this quite glittering young man's life was cut short by an absurd tragedy. It is reported that Lazarus Simon Magnus went to his lodgings in Adelaide Place, London Bridge one day complaining of toothache. He retired and was found dead the next day. His death certificate gives his cause of death as, "Accidental, from an over-dose of Chloroform taken to allay the tooth ache, found dead."

The community was grief struck and his father was inconsolable. There was the sense that an exceptional and good young man had been cut off in his prime. That he was held in exceptional esteem is indicated by a piece of living oral history relayed to me by Gabriel Lancaster of Chatham Synagogue. He relates that at the time of the centenary celebrations of the synagogue he received a letter from an old lady from Queenborough. This lady, who was not Jewish, recalled as a very young girl sitting on the knees of an uncle, when Magnus was being discussed. This uncle and relatives were speaking of him in exceptional high regard. This event must have made some impression on the young girl for her to recall it with clarity all those years later.

It is also interesting to note how Magnus' death gained a legendary aspect. Many Jews in Chatham came to believe that he had died a rather more heroic death by drowning or some such drama.

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