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Chatham and Rochester
Marcus Roberts

Places of interest

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Chatham Memorial Synagogue and Cemetery
Chatham High Street
Historic Dockyards Chatham
Rochester Cathedral
Rochester Castle
Rochester Museum

1. Chatham Memorial Synagogue and Cemetery

The best place to start a tour of Jewish Chatham is at the synagogue. This is situated at the very end of Rochester High Street, on the south side, just before it becomes Chatham High Street. Opposite is Ship Lane which is a convenient place to park if arriving by car.

Before visiting the synagogue itself, walk down to the Ship Pier at the end of the lane for an impression of the River Medway and the strategic location of Chatham on it. The pier itself was the ancient landing place for the lepers making their way to the St Bartholemew's Hospital via Ship Lane. The hospital was founded in 1078 by Bishop Gundulph the builder of Rochester Castle and much of the cathedral. Turning back up to the top of the lane the extension of the lepers path is up the right hand (west) side of the synagogue along the boundary wall of the cemetery. The remains of the line of which may well account for the slight deflection in its otherwise straight line. The hospital wall and the hospital is at the rear of the cemetery.

If you are unable to arrange access to the synagogue a view of the synagogue and cemetery can be found over the wall of Bartholomew's Terrace. Best of all if the pedestrian signs to the outpatients department (from St Gundulp's Lane) of the hospital are followed, there is an excellent and convenient high level view from the hospital terrace over-looking the rear of the synagogue and grounds. It may be noted that this is in all probability not a public right of way though it is a public area.

The synagogue is from the exterior a neat Victorian building in a grey rough stone, with freestone mouldings and quoin work. Its most prominent features being its tower, a large raised entrance and vestibule and its roof which has a prominent glass skylight facing to the street. At the rear the building is apsidal in form with a further lower projecting extension from which is part of the Ark within the building.

The ministers' house formerly stood off to the eastern side (or left-hand side if viewed from the front) and was a modest dwelling in the same style of the main building. The gap between the two buildings was taken up by a railed frontage which allowed a prominent view of the Magnus memorial neatly framed by the buildings either side.

The centrality of dedication of the synagogue as a memorial is made clear, not just by the Magnus Memorial but also by a large memorial inscription located above the door. It reads:

5629 - 1869

9th TEBETH 5625 - 7th JANUARY 1865 AGED 39 YEARS.

Another similar but smaller memorial inscription is closer to street level on the face of the tower.

The cemetery lies in a rectangular plot which comes right up to the back of the synagogue. This is one of the remarkable features of the schule - it is a unique feature and one which is in breach of Jewish religious law which insists on a minimal separation (around a hundred paces) between the synagogue, or Jewish dwellings and cemeteries.

The synagogue stands in relation to its burial ground much as a parish church to its graveyard. It seems that the best explanation for this irregular arrangement is that the earlier synagogue buildings and burial ground had a greater separation on the same site, but the expansion of the buildings and burial area closed any separation that existed earlier on. There is additional but inconclusive evidence that there may have been an earlier cemetery nearby, another tombstone, of c.1747, to a married woman (Perela?) was found some half a mile away on the site of an old cinema. This is now preserved in Rochester Museum. Even allowing for all this the arrangement is a vivid illustration of the greater levity in Jewish observance that was common in the provinces.

The other notable feature of the cemetery is a narrow raised brick terrace, about 7 feet wide, adjoining the back wall of the cemetery extending some two thirds the way across the back wall. This seems to be a classic example of the so-called "upper ground" (as opposed to the "lower ground") that existed in a number of Anglo-Jewish cemeteries. J. Mills wrote of this arrangement in 1853 "...In this raised ground are interred all the privileged members, together with those who may have purchased the right: but the congregation are generally buried in the lower part."

Mills explained elsewhere that if the right to be buried in the raised ground was brought, burial could only be permitted, "provided the character borne by the deceased be satisfactory to the parnassim..." in short a character test was applied. On checking the names of those buried in the terraced area, I found that many were of the leading members of the community or their relatives. While it is often said that there is considerable equality in the Jewish way of death it is again evident that this was not universally true in the Victorian era and the Victorian preoccupation with social class and respectability has etched itself into the fabric of the Jewish cemeteries.

Moving inside the synagogue, its interior is exceptionally lavish - even gaudy by modern tastes - compared to the exterior which despite its flourishes is unpretentious. The vestibule is generous though still in key with the modesty of the exterior and forms a transition to the main part of the building. The main hall of the synagogue is impressive and its recent restoration brings it close enough to its original state to see why it was regarded as an exceptionally beautiful building. The local press at the time stated, "The synagogue proper is at first awe-striking in its beauty and richness of colour. Lovely tinted windows, beautiful green and red marble (scaglio) pillars." The columns and capitals in the building are highly detailed and ornate carrying the weight of the decoration.

The synagogue has a central Bimah with wooden surrounds and attractive if slightly heavy wrought iron work, the same ironwork being repeated in the ladies gallery at the rear.

The Ark is again highly decorative and has fine mahogany doors with delicately worked grill and decorative details. The area of the Ark is fronted by an elaborate stone balustrade with light ironwork.

To complete the original appearance of the synagogue one would need to add its original guilding (which was far too expensive to restore at present) and two large chandeliers as well as a large ner tamid suspended from the ceiling before the ark. One of these original chandeliers fell spectacularly from the ceiling in 1874, but fortunately without causing injury.

The craftsmanship is excellent throughout, all the woodwork is of a high order and decorative detail is applied on most surfaces in the main hall. Most of the decorative motifs are of plant and flower forms. There is attractive tile and glasswork (some of the glass is grissaile glass replacing earlier glass damaged in the war). One charming section of decoration is a frieze of tiles decorated with snowdrops at the bottom of the windows.

The synagogue largely escaped damage in the war, though recently a keystone in one of the main arches had to be replaces at 2,000 pounds cost. It is supposed it was originally displaced by the shock waves of a wartime bomb falling close by.

The ladies gallery is comfortable, well lit from its skylight and has a large and no doubt useful vestibule.

The basement of the synagogue is of some interest. Apart from containing the boiler and heating system of the schule, the base of the tower seems to provide what was intended as a synagogue strong room. There is a heavy, reinforced iron door into a windowless brick room with but a single ventilation grill to the street.

Its interest lies in whether this was once the mikveh or ritual bath of the congregation. The community had possessed a mikveh in 1845, during the time of the previous synagogue. The location and fate of this is unknown. The oral history from the older generation of the synagogue, now deceased is that this strong room was indeed the ritual bath.

There is evidence that the room could have been adapted for use as a mikveh. Under the stairs just adjacent to the room are remnants of what was probably a small boiler or water heater and perhaps water tank inserted into the under-stair space - some of the original brick is cut back to allow this. Other remnants of a water pipe leading up to the old scullery/kitchen area are still there.

A rain water supply from the roof, necessary for a rain-fed mikveh, may be evidenced by a modern rainwater pipe (no doubt replacing an original) from the roof gutter which leads down from the roof to the right of the main entrance into this precise part of the cellar well below street level. This pipe is elbowed down to its destination and thus would fulfill the requirements of Jewish law of an uninterrupted flow of water.

Within the brick chamber, which is now completely empty, there is nothing to suggest that there was ever any tank or bath let into the floor. However there are three rectangular holes which held wood supports for a structure projecting into the room - perhaps a bench or low cupboard? - which has left marks along the length of the wall.

The balance of evidence suggests, though by no means conclusively, that this was a feasibly a rain-fed mikveh or at least a washroom. However if it was it could not have been a very comfortable arrangement for the women concerned in what was a vitually unventilated underground brick cell adjacent to the old coal boiler and bunkers!

The synagogue has preserved a number of significant artifacts which can be seen. These include a wonderful sefer torah cover from the previous schule, dating from 1820. It is an example of a Kent and Northern French style called "stump work" and shows Aaron and Moses with the tablets of the decalogue between and the crown of Torah above with G-d represented by an all seeing eye surmounting all.

The synagogue also has its hand-scribed Hebrew service book from the previous synagogue, dated 5595 (1835). The names of the Montefiories, and the Magnus' are added into the margins of the book with the other benefactors to be mentioned at the Yizkor service. Additionally one of the sepher torah scrolls is thought to be of North-African origin and some 500 years old. This is feasible as last century refugees came to England and Kent from African Mogador (Morocco); this could have been a source. The scroll is contained in a very attractive cover with embroidered rampant Lions of Judah with tulips around a Star of David. It is around a hundred years old or more and donated by Soloman(?) Gergel a clothier of early this century on the High Street.

Also preserved is a shofar horn which in all probability dates back to the time of the previous synagogue. It has the most sweet and melodious sound.

Out in the cemetery there are a number of memorials and tombstones of interest. Most notable is that of Simon Lazarus Magnus himself. The memorial dominates the foreground of the cemetery and is veiled urn on an ornate stepped pedestal. A frieze depicts lightening striking and riving a tree in half. The symbolism is conventional Victorian iconography, used extensively in Christian cemeteries, for mourning and loss as well as a life cut short by tragedy.

The memorial is fully inscribed in both Hebrew and English. The lengthy English inscription bears witness to his excellence as a son and brother, his attachment to Judaism, and to helping Jewish progress as well as being "an enlightened and patriotic citizen"
It also bears witness to his intuition, knowledge, perceptiveness and vision, that inspired confidence and esteem. The latter part of the inscription details his career and the impression he had made on his volunteer regiment who accompanied him to his graveside.

There are a number of gravestones of interest in the cemetery, among the 200 or so to be found there. Starting at the back, on the terrace are two tombstones (Row A, 11, 13 (against brick buttress)) to Ellah Barnard, and Lewis Isaacs both drowned in the Medway in 1844 - probably in the same incident? In the next row is a tomb (B, 2) of Elizabeth Lyon, "of Albany U.S.". Further along is the grave (B, 18) of Michael Levy who died in 1802(?) aged 103. Here again is another example of the great crop of Jewish centenarians in Kent, also if the date is correct he would have been born in 1699, only around 40 years after the restoration of the Jews to England, and would have lived in three centuries.

Simon Magnus' memorial is the left-hand of a pair of prominent white obelisks (C,11, 12) and records his death in 1875 and the right-hand of the pair is to his wife, who died comparatively young, aged 48. These paired memorials are obviously part of the overall design of the synagogue and cemetery, as they fall directly in line and behind the memorial to his Simon Lazarus Magnus - denoting the link and the relationship of parents and son.

In the next row (D, 2) is the grave-memorial to Daniel Barnard with an interesting inscription as to his life, works and pivotal role in the local fire brigade.

Moving forward there is a gravestone 1857 to (F, 15) Samuel Russel, a 59 year old of Sheerness, "...who departed this life through and unfortunate accident received on board H.M.S. Colossus." He was most likely pursuing business aboard the naval vessel when tragedy struck.

Nathaniel Isaacs' grave, who committed forgery and later suicide, is in Row G close to the right-hand wall.

2. Chatham High Street

On leaving the Memorial synagogue, and turning right, a walk along Chatham High Street is of interest in that the sites and sometimes buildings of the following businesses of the Jews in 19th Century Chatham can be located, including those of the Isaacs' and Magnus'. These are based on a local historians (F. Sanders) detailed survey of the High Street.

These are mostly to be found strung out along the very long High Street of Chatham - though most of the important ones are between the synagogue and the area of the Sun Pier, which is where the principal members of the Victorian community, the Magnus's and the Isaacs' had their businesses. A list for the more enthusiastic to look out for are as follows: up to number 87 is within a reasonable walk of the synagogue.

As a note take care to ensure that you do not confuse Chatham High Street with Rochester High Street. The official start of Chatham High Street is indicated not far east of the synagogue!

Modern Street number; name, date, occupation.

18 - Solomon Harris (1847) clothes broker; Asher Lyons (1858) silver smith.

20 - Jonathan Zachariah (1832) slopseller and salesman; J Jacobs (1847) greengrocer.

34 - Magnus and son (1858) Coal Merchants

60 - E Davis (1838) furnishing ironmonger. Probably the original premises, as it is an earlier Georgian building, noting the simpler design and the division of windows into 16ths. Number 60 to 64 were also known as Hammond Place, and are close to the end of Hammond Hill. It is likely that before there was a continuous line of buildings fronting the High Street these Georgian dwellings formed a distinct cluster of buildings, in fact a little Jewish "enclave" for the Isaacs family.

62 - Isaac Isaacs (1832, 1838) Slopseller and salesman, army clothier and fancy repository. This building and adjoining no. 64 are probably the original buildings and business premises of the Jewish occupants. They are designed as an adjoined pair of later Georgian buildings, the period being denoted as they have classical embellishments and the windows are divided into larger 12ths as glass panes could be made larger.

64 - Sam Lucas (1838) Army and navy clothier; Saul Isaacs (1849, 1852) cabinet maker, furniture maker.

71 - John Isaacs (1845, 1847, 1852)) Army and Navy outfitter etc., Samuel Isaacs (1845, 1847), Isaac, Campbell & Co. (1859, 1862) Army contractors, military outfitters etc. The site of the famous Isaacs' family business would have been almost directly opposite across the road from numbers 62-4 (on the north side of the street) as described in a local news report. It is of interest that the family had their businesses clustered together, suggesting that they worked cooperatively as an integrated family firm.

87 - Samuel Isaacs (1838) Army & Navy Clothier. This site stands on a junction leading down to the Sun Pier, the original center of port and commercial activity in Chatham - a prime site.

97 - Samuel Silvester (1847) China Glass and Earthenware dealer.

101 - Lewis Isaacs (1828) furniture broker

103 - John Isaacs (1832) Slopseller and Salesman.

107 - S & L Solomon (1838) Slopsellers, Barnard's palace of Variety (1890). The latter was Daniel Barnard's music hall, which was a substantial building now gone.

150 - Dan Barnard (1847) hardware dealer

264 - M Goodman (1877) jeweler, outfitter; Solomon Gergel (1919) clothier.

304 - M Jacob (1847) tailor, draper.

3. Historic Dockyards Chatham

The Georgian Navy Dockyards are also well worth a visit to gain an insight into the Naval background and port activity that was the very backdrop of Jewish life in Chatham. The heritage site is a very large one and could readily justify a whole day's visit.

4. Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral contains two depictions of Jews. The most important is a 15th century sculpture representing the victory of Church over synagogue. This is at the entrance to the Chapter Room and flanking either side of the door.

On the left is victorious Church, a crowned and serene female figure - a regal figure - depicted with a staff of authority in her right hand and a representation of a church in her right. Opposed to her on the right of the door is Synagogue - she is beautiful, blindfolded maiden, with a calm dreamlike appearance, she is nearly expressionless. Her crown has fallen from her head just to one side. In her left hand is a broken staff, and in her right the tablets of the ten commandments are turned downwards to the ground, all symbols of dejection, the loss of authority of the covenant of Moses and the triumph of the "New Covenant" over the blindness of the Jewish faith in the Law.

It may be debated whether such figures are merely anti-Judaic rather than anti-Semitic or whether one is tantamount to the other. One may argue with justification that to reject the basis of someone's' identity is to reject them as a human being. Church versus Synagogue cannot just be a "theological statement".

The other Jewish depiction is in the entrance to the main door (1160) of the Norman Cathedral, considered one of the finest in England. On the outside corner of the decorative capital completing the top of the first column on the right flanking the central door is a depiction of a medieval Jew.

He is recognisable as the little man with a pointed cap looking out to the street, holding on to the convoluted stalk of what may be corn. These types of decorative figures usually have specific meaning, representing among other things spiritual types or Biblical stories. This doorway (the tympanum and the figures on the columns of 1175) depicts Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The main interest is that a Jew in medieval dress is shown at exactly the time there was a Jewish presence in Rochester.

5. Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle is directly opposite the Cathedral. Despite its age it is still an impressive structure whose tower keep is still able to cause vertigo in visitors. Both castle and cathedral were largely built by Bishop Gundulf a warrior Bishop, hence their proximity. Jews are reputed to have sheltered in the outer bailey area of the castle which can still be visited. The importance of medieval castles as Jewish heritage sites should not be underestimated, as castles were very important to the daily lives of medieval Jews.

6. Rochester Museum

Close by to the Castle, towards the conclusion of Rochester High Street, is the Guildhall Museum. This museum has several exhibits of Jewish interest. The museum displays the mayoral chain of the Jewish mayor of Rochester, Lewis Levy, presented to city in memory of his father, John Lewis Levy.

The museum also has in its store the 18th Century Jewish tombstone found on a cinema site. The tombstone can generally only be seen by prior arrangement.

Also in store is the copy of Revd. Nobbs anti-Semitic poster against the election of Sir Julian Goldsmid.

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