Marcus Roberts (2004)


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The Jewish community at Portsea, Portsmouth was founded at one of England's principal Naval bases and ports in the 1730s and 1740s. There are references to individual Jews in official records of the Borough Sessions from 1736-40. Some of these Jews, who were cited in these legal charges, probably lived in lodgings in Portsmouth as they do not appear in rate books of this time, while others gave their main residence as London. Its main founder is generally accepted to be Benjamin Levi of Wiesbaden - an engraver by trade. The Portsmouth community is important as it is generally accepted to be one of the earliest Jewish communities established outside of London, if not the earliest.

It is thought that the origins of the community, as indeed for many other provincial communities, lay in the commercial activities of pioneer peddlers and hawkers in the town in the 1730s. These itinerant traders based themselves at Portsmouth where they got their supplies, but traded through the countryside or aboard ship during the week, only returning to Portsmouth to celebrate the Sabbath together and to settle accounts.

The community was certainly well established by 1742 when a synagogue was set up at Oyster Row and in 1749 when it purchased a small piece of land as a cemetery. Many of the early congregants were Askenasim from Germany and Prussia, as well as some from Holland. There were a few Sephardic Jews - indeed one of the earliest Moses Mordecai a notorious recidivist - gave his address as Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1743. The community also had special links with the Jamaican Jewish community. The early roll of the synagogue does include at least one convert, Rachel wife of Moses Aaron Levi. The impression is that Sephardim were of some significance in the early community and that there were important links with Bevis Marks.

The community grew in the 1750s and flourished especially during the Napoleonic Wars when it served the needs of the Navy and a busy port. For some time the community was the most important Jewish community outside of London. One other reason for their success was that Portsmouth was largely under the political control of dissenters (especially the Carter family) and they found common cause with the Jews. Aubrey Weinberg in his important study, Portsmouth Jewry (to which this account of Portsmouth is indebted), reveals that in 1773, the Carter family threatened their political opponents by nominating nine Jews as potential burgesses to Parliament! The Carters were philo-Semitic and actively supported the Portsmouth Jewish community over a considerable period.

Many local Jews and Jewish peddlers would go out to naval vessels in boats to sell goods to sailors, many of whom had been pressed into service and were not allowed ashore. On one of these trips, back from business aboard HMS Lancaster, in a so called "tailor's cutter", led to the "Drowning Disaster" when the over-loaded peddlers boat over-turned when gybing - always a dangerous manoeuver inviting capsize in strong wind. In consequence 19 Jews were drowned and eight were saved.

Other naval based professions were that of Navy Agents, where licensed Jews provided advances to sailors on their wages. There were also slopsellers selling the general clothing and gear needed by sailors. One John Moses also worked as a sword cutler.

Other occupations in the early 19th century included pawnbrokers, silversmiths and jewelers, watchmakers, grocers, outfitters, coach booking agents, insurance agents, doctors, tobacconists, engravers, bookbinders, curiosity shop keepers. Interestingly there was also a publican; Philip Barnard kept the "Antelope" tavern at 39, Hanover Street. Another Jew ran a peep show with scenes of the Rhine. Overall the picture is of a diverse and thriving Jewish economy in Portsmouth at the time of the Napoleonic War.

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