Chatham and Rochester
Marcus Roberts


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The Jews of Chatham and Rochester can almost certainly trace their roots back into medieval antiquity. There is evidence to suggest that Jews were present in the Medway town of Rochester in the 12th century. Rochester boasted an important and ancient Cathedral and a dominating Castle built by Bishop Gandulf. Rochester and Chatham were also important ports dealing with the Baltric and North European trade. There is evidence that a community of Jews sought refuge in the castle in c.1180, the first mention of a Jewish presence in the town.

Little else is known from the medieval period - after the virtual absence of the Jews from England after the medieval expulsion the modern Jewry formed itself around the trade and port of Chatham and Rochester in the about 1750. This makes it one of the oldest modern communities in the country.

The early settlers were mainly involved in commerce. The signatories of the various leases for the first official synagogue in Chatham from the period 1766-1787 lists four sales men, a silver smiths and a tobacconist. A renewal of the lease in 1808 lists additional five signatories all recorded as "shopkeepers".

The synagogue was definitively in existence from a date between 1766-1770 when a small tenement was acquired on the site of the present synagogue for Jewish worship - a defining moment in the history of any community.

In the years 1770-1780 this modest building on Chatham High Street was rebuilt as a small brick and wood building with a clock. This public clock was notable, if not unique, for having Hebrew figures on the clock face, evidence perhaps of increasing Jewish confidence. An adjoining building may well have been used as a minister's residence from about 1787.

The site of the synagogue was significant as it was in the no-mans'-land of "Chatham Intra" between the boundaries of Chatham and Rochester. This area would have been outside of the civic jurisdiction and religious influence of the Rochester or Chatham, a factor that was of still of significance in the 18th century. This area was very soon after taken into Rochester; thus the modern "Chatham" synagogue is officially in Rochester!

An additional eccentricity of the site is that it is built on land originally owned by and immediately adjacent to the old leper hospital of St Bartholemew, founded by Bishop Gundulf in c.1090. While the freehold of the site now belongs to the synagogue there is still a narrow strip of land running along the west boundary of the synagogue and cemetery that is leased for 5p per annum. This is in order to preserve the continuing free passage of lepers, if need be, from the landing place on the river to the north, to the hospital itself. Any would-be lepers or incurables to day would need to negotiate not only the sometimes waist-deep weeds of the cemetery but would also need to scale a ten foot high brick wall at the back of the cemetery into the hospital grounds.

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