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© Godfrey R Gould

In this article Godfrey Gould reviews the fascinating history of the synagogues of Brighton and Hove.


© Godfrey R Gould

There have been about 18 places in Brighton and Hove where regular Jewish worship has taken place. In this article I am concentrating on roughly the first 150 years and then mainly on those in Brighton itself.

Although the first Jewish presence locally dates from 1766 (see my last piece in this column) it was not until 1792 that there was a shul (synagogue). Emanuel Hyam Cohen was the founder of our Jewish community and he came here from Niederwarren, near Munich in Bavaria, in 1782. I cannot find Niederwarren on any map and it may be that the name has been changed? Cohen had a school in Artillery Street, now demolished, but off the sea front between Cannon Place and West Street. He married a local girl, Hannah Benjamin (who bore him 12 children), so there were other Jewish families from whom a minyan (minimum number of Jews needed to for a religious service to be quorate) was formed. This first shul was in Jew Street, but although there are those who can identify the probable site, I have so far seen no documentary evidence for this. It was not purpose built but a room or rooms in a house. As we have have written evidence of the next shul we can assume that this first one was certainly no better.

In 1808 the fledgling Congregation moved to Poune's Court, off West Street. In those days there were narrow lanes off West Street leading to courtyards around which there were arranged cottages and houses. Poune's Court, named after a local builder, was on the east side near the sea front about where the new block of flats, Avalon, now stands. All these Courts have now disappeared but the last can be seen on the 1875 Ordnance Survey 25" plan. It was situated between Duke Street and North Street, and some of the lanes behind this area might be a part of the original Court. In 1817, Marianne Francis (1790-1832) wrote of a visit to the shul on Yom Kippur. She was horrified and compared the praying "to nothing but the war-song of North American Indians". The shul was in the garret and consisted of one room divided by a railing. There were about 30 men and six women present "The women all terrible frights, looking like pawn broker's wives, with frowsy wigs, and tiny shabby lace caps perched on their heads". "There was no appearance of devotion, but laughing, talking, and going in and out!" (Nothing much changes?).

But by 1825 they moved again, this time to 38-9 Devonshire Place. Although there seems to have been some building on the site by 1838, there had been erected a purpose built shul, the first in Brighton. The architect was David Mocatta, a pupil of Sir John Soane, and architect to the new London and Brighton Railway. That his father was the business partner of Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, a founder Director of the Railway and major local property owner and developer might have helped, but Mocatta was a highly talented and distinguished architect just the same! The building, listed Grade II, is of course till extant, though somewhat rebuilt. The pediment records its purpose and year of opening "JEWS' SYNAGOGUE AM 5598". We know what it looked like for in Brighton Museum there are two fine watercolours of both the interior and the exterior done by W A Delamotte in 1853. There are copies (a bit faded) to be seen at Middle Street Synagogue. We also know the layout of the interior for a ground floor plan is on the OS 25" plan LXVI 10.21. The Ministers house was at the front with the two storey shul proper behind facing, naturally, east. Down an open entry on the south side, now built over, there was at the back a workshop and school. The interior was lit by a lantern roof which still illuminates the living room of the principal flat in the current building. There was accommodation for 150 worshippers, although in the Church census of Sunday 30 March 1851 (presumably in our case 29 March?) accommodation is given as 75 with 40 davening Shacharit (main morning service), 16 at Minchah (noon-day service), and a surprising 40 again at Ma'ariv (evening service)! The exterior of the building is now somewhat changed and the interior has been reconstructed into flats, but a blue plaque to Mocatta's memory has been affixed by Brighton & Hove Council.

I should, of course, mention the ohel (Prayer House) at Florence Place Cemetery. The plot was given to the Congregation by Thomas Read Kemp in 1826. The original ohel was by David Mocatta (1837) but the current hexagonal one (listed Grade II) is by Lainson and Son (1891-3).

Despite a law prohibiting any member opening another shul within three miles of Devonshire Place, the President, David Salomons, had his own private shul in the roof of his house at 26 Brunswick Terrace, Hove (although then known as West Brighton!) It is, of course, still there although part of the top floor flat, and can easily be seen from the road. The whole Terrace is listed Grade I. There is an acrimonious correspondence between Salomons and the shul regarding his transgression.

Eventually, after a very long gestation the Congregation moved again, this time to the iconic Middle Street. The Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler, laid the foundation stone in 1874 and a year later the shul was opened for worship. Despite some views to the contrary the Ashkenazi form of worship has always been followed, there never having been a Sephardi shul in Brighton or Hove! The style of architecture is variously given as either Byzantine or Romanesque, but which ever, it is very similar to the prevailing style of Synagogue architecture in the late nineteenth century as can be seen at St Petersburg Place (Bayswater), Princes Road (Liverpool) and the former Leazes Park Road (Newcastle-on-Tyne). The magnificent interior, described by Anthony Dale as "after the Royal Pavilion, the most spectacular interior in Brighton", came to fruition during the next four decades or so. As we see it now, is what it has been like for about a century. As much has been written about this wonderful building and anybody can visit it on open days and special openings, it is not necessary to write any more at this stage. If you haven't seen it, go!

In 1927 an Orthodox break away Congregation was established. Initially they worshipped still in Brighton at the Little Vic Theatre, but by 1930 a former Gymnasium had been rebuilt by Newcastle architect, Marcus Glass, to form the still current Holland Road Shul. And by 1935 a Progressive shul had been established in Lansdowne Road, both in Hove to which the Jewish population had now tended to move. Strangely, at the Progressive building, although on an east/west orientation, worship is to the west. Future developments, including the Reform Shul and New Church Road, have centred on Hove rather than Brighton, but to this very day there is still one shul in Brighton proper and which holds regular services every week!

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