Marcus Roberts


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The early Jewish community established their first synagogue in the St Dunstan's area of the city, outside of the west walls of Canterbury, in 1730. They were forbidden to reside inside the city liberty due to religious prejudice and the desire to protect city trades.

This early synagogue was but a temporary building. It was replaced in 1762 with a permanent building in St Dunstan's Street. Two years before this in 1760 the community established their cemetery at a convenient distance away, off the Whitstable Road. The establishment of both cemetery and permanent synagogue indicated that the Canterbury community was well established and sufficiently prosperous by this point to provide these signs of their corporate existence.

This first permanent synagogue was apparently a rather unappealing building, costing around £400. It was entered from a 'low, dismal, narrow and dark passage from St Dunstan's Street'. The community managed to lose its copy of the lease and documents. This proved to be very unfortunate, when in 1845, the synagogue found itself in the way of a planned railway line and in danger of a compulsory purchase of their site. Since they were unable to prove their ownership to the railway, they had to settle for a lesser sum than they might otherwise have got. In the end they got miserable £125 and the right to salvage the materials of the old synagogue.

The destruction of this old synagogue, swept away by the railway, is in many ways emblematic of the decline of the provincial Jewish communities themselves, due to the advent of the railways. The coming of the railway age changed the local economies that the provincial communities depended on and drew many of the Jews into the major urban centers away from the provinces to the new economic opportunities there.

The destruction of the old synagogue led to a hectic effort to raise funds for a new synagogue. A new synagogue had to built, but the community was short of funds. To encourage generous giving the community took the expedient step of changing the constitution of the synagogue from a restrictive 'closed corporation' to an 'open corporation'. What the closed corporation meant was that the privilege of full voting rights was only granted to sons of members or those who had married a daughter of a member. Otherwise voting rights could only be given if a majority of the members voted permitting the applicant to purchase the privilege.

For the normal seat-holder, with no voting rights, this was not an incentive to free giving for the cause. Hence the change to the open corporation, whereby anyone who had been resident for 12 months and who had paid a guinea, could gain the privileges of membership. The result of the appeal was that all the men, women and even children of the community gave 10 Guineas each to the fund! Fund raising was carried on across the country and the neighbouring communities of Dover, Ramsgate and Deal, which had close ties with Canterbury, and gave generously. Former members of the community who had settled on the Island St Helena gave generously too. Some non-Jews also showed exemplary good will and gave donations too.

When the synagogue was built, it was set up in King Street, a continuation of Best Lane. It was well made (if eccentrically conceived) in the Egyptian style and soon after, in 1851, a mikveh or ritual bath was added in the grounds for the use of the women. The community had the services of a kosher slaughterer and butcher.

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