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Cheltenham

Places of interest

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The Synagogue - St James Square
The Cemetery - Elm Street
Site of the First Synagogue - Shaftesbury Hall Car Park
Site of Corinth House - Cheltenham College, Bath Road
Site of the Montpellier Baths, Bath Road - the 19th Century Mikveh
Sir Francis Goldsmidt - The Rendcomb Estate, Rendcombe


1. The Synagogue - St James Square

St James Square is off St Georges Place and Clarence Street, west from the Art Gallery and Museum on Clarence Street.

The new synagogue was designed by William Hill Knight and the first stone laid on the site in 1837 and the consecration was on 14 May 1839.

The Cheltenham Free Press recorded the opening of the building and described it as follows starting with the ark, "...the body of which is imitation jasper, and the pediment is supported by elegant corinthian columns, the capitals and bases which together with the vases above the pediment are chastely gilded, and the doors are hid by a rich Indian curtain; the reading desk is painted in imitation of bird's eye maple. The synagogue is furnished with two brass chandeliers, eight large candle sticks, besides small sconces, which are filed with wax candles. Besides this there are two frames upon the wall, one containing a prayer in English for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and the other in Hebrew repeated on the days (sic) of Atonement. The dome is one of the principal ornaments of the place and is finished in superior manner with cornice and fretwork."

The synagogue was laid out in conventional style - there is a central bimah and a ladies gallery at the rear of the shule. Some of the furnishings from the Manchester Walk synagogue were reused. However the synagogue was very fortunate in securing the old furnishings from the New Synagogue in Leadenhall Street, London, when it was dismantled in 1838. While the fittings may have been free the carting of the furniture from London cost the formidable sum of £86!

The overall effect of the interior is very handsome and the dominant light and muted colours, of the old bare-oak fittings, creates a distinctive atmosphere. The seats and benches are simple but dignified. Some still retain what may be the original woven rattan backing. The ark is the centre piece of the synagogue. It is a classical piece with painted Corinthian columns at either side, and three decorative urns on the top. There are attractive stained glass windows - probably of a more modern origin - with the menorah and Star of David,

In the 1860s the congregation installed gas lighting (as well as new heating) some of the pipes for which can still be seen incorporated into the structure of the bimah - the pipes are actually part of the original design of the reading desk and gas mantles can still be seen on the bimah. This almost certainly gives the date of the bimah as well as the railings around the ark which are identical.

There is some fine plaster work, especially the ceiling roses for the former chandeliers. The dome is striking and ornate with a central light or cupola. This use of a dome with a glass light or cupola is a copy of distinctive local architectural device to be seen in a number of older properties in Cheltenham.

The prayer boards, with the prayer to the Royal family and a penitential prayer for Yom Kippur, caused a stir in 1997 when it was discover that they were the oldest in the country and not merely Victorian pieces. When the boards were restored in 1997, the prayer for the monarch was discovered to have the names of each monarch painted onto a piece of canvas and then stuck over the name of each royal predecessor. Underneath was the name of George II who was crowned in 1727. The board had been also made by a company, Cole and King of London, who had gone out of business in 1730. It is thought that the board was originally made for the Great Synagogue but that they were taken by succeeding members of the synagogue who formed the New Synagogue of Leadenhall Street in 1761. The boards are then thought to arrived in Cheltenham with all the other redundant fixtures of the New, when it itself moved to a new building in Bishopsgate

One feature of the building not generally known was that underneath it had a low brick-vaulted cellar used to circulate hot air from the heating system. This has more recently had to be filled in with concrete to help preserve the fabric of the building. Another less well known feature of the synagogue equipment was a privy - an item not always mentioned in surveys of buildings at the time. No doubt the 18th century Christian practice of using chamber pots in the pews during services was not an acceptable solution!

The synagogue had to under go series of extensive repairs and improvements in the 1850s and 60s which proved a drain on community finances. It appears that some of the original brick work and joinery had been very defective - the repairs even including completely re-slating the roof, when a good slate roof should last a century before replacement. During this time a new floor was added with the under floor heating as well as the gas-lighting; significant advances in the amenities of the building.

The exterior of the building is in a simple and elegant Classical style, similar to dissenting chapels of the period. The front has a simple classical pediment supported by four columns, two either side of the central main door (which is itself flanked by two columns and a simple pediment forming its frame) and a single upper story window. The whole is stuccoed and painted. While the synagogue is brick built this is not seen as all the walls are surfaced and rendered.

The synagogue is situated off the main street and next to an old fire station.
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2. The Cemetery - Elm Street

The cemetery is situated in what was the poorest area of the town
on the junction of Elm Street and Malvern Street, which is between the main Tewkesbury and Swindon Roads leading north-west out of town. The Tewkesbury Road is a continuation of the High Street.

The cemetery was established between 1824-6 the earliest legible tombstone (to Sarah Rees) dates from 1836.

The cemetery has a small, plain, red-brick ohel (burial hall), which is approximately square in shape, which forms the entrance to the cemetery, though there is also a small wicket gate from the adjoining caretaker's house.

The oldest part of the cemetery is the top half running from the side with the ohel and caretaker's house. The oldest tombstones clearly face in two double rows into what was the central path running through the centre of the cemetery. As in other cemeteries this relict boundary also seems to be indicated by a tree. The cemetery like many others was enlarged in stages by the acquisition of small pieces of additional ground in 1844, 1860 and 1892-4.

Unusually the cemetery was not entirely walled in until a late date - some of the cemetery was open to the street or only railed as late as 1872.

The strip of the cemetery directly adjoining the ohel on the Elm lane side, was until more recent times the site of two slum-type of 'one up one down' cottage dwellings, originally called Worcester Cottages and latterly named Jews' Cottages, once they had been acquired by the congregation. These were brought in 1844 by the congregation as part of their cemetery extension, and also provided rents, but were removed in the 1950s to allow an extension of the cemetery.

The tombstones are well generally preserved, the earliest dating from the 1840s. Some of the oldest are in Hebrew only, but most are bilingual. Most of the tombstones are of a high quality but generally simple and unadorned. There are a few horizontal tombstones for Sephardi members of the congregation, including Solomon da Silva and Moses Quixano Henriques.

The cemetery contains the remains of Jews from a wide area around Cheltenham, for example, from Gloucester, Stroud, Hereford, Ross on Wye and Wales.

One interesting feature of the cemetery are the remains of several stone supports in the walls which once held stone plaques, or boards of some kind. Some three of the wall mounted stones still remains in place, two others are now leant against foot of the wall.

The tombstones of a number of the tradesmen noted in the business and residential addresses can also be readily identified - for example the headstone of Elias Meyers, a pawnbroker and silversmith, who died in 1870, can be seen. Also the tombstone of Elias (Lewis), Asher Dight (d. 1852), a local publisher and stationer of 170 High Street, can be seen. Dight also published the laws of the congregation in 1840.

One rather tragic tombstone is to Walter Emanuel Levason, aged 9, of Hereford, who drowned in River Wye in 1852. The same tombstone records the premature deaths of two other sons of Joseph and Rebecca Levason. Not surprisingly the tombstone is concluded with the Biblical quotation, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away..." Elsewhere there is evidence of child mortality and the perils of child-bed - the tombstone of Sarah Bella wife of Benjamin Isaacs recalls that she died in child birth aged 35 years.

There is one "absentee" tombstone memorializing Hannah Meyer, born in Great Yarmouth, but buried in the Willesden cemetery.

The cemetery remains in use and there is still some space left and it is very well kept.
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3. Site of the First Synagogue - Shaftesbury Hall Car Park

The site of the original synagogue is on what is today the Shaftesbury Hall car park, situated close by the junction of Clarence Street (then Manchester Walk) and St Georges Place, not far off the Royal Crecent.

The synagogue was set-up in a rented apartment room rented from a publican's widow, at eight pounds a year. The room was provided with all the usual furnishings of a synagogue including a prayer board with the prayer for the Royal family. This prayer board is preserved and kept in the London Jewish Museum. The synagogue was in Manchester Place by 1826 and used until as late as 1839 when the new synagogue opened.
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4. Site of Corinth House - Cheltenham College, Bath Road

Corinth House, was a Jewish house within Cheltenham College, similar in conception to Polack House at Clifton College in Bristol. Here some 40 Jewish boys could observe the Sabbath and attend the synagogue, as well as conduct the work of Saturday school, on Sunday. The house was presided over by Nestor Schnurmann. It was situated in Bath Road "opposite the present Clock Tower entrance to college."
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5. Site of the Montpellier Baths, Bath Road - the 19th Century Mikveh

From before 1846 the community used the local Montpellier Baths as the communal mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). The Montpellier Baths also produced the famous Cheltenham Salts. These baths were quite luxurious and were fed by good springs. In 1846 it was noted that they had been altered which reduced their suitability for use as a mikveh and there was talk of finding and alternative, but nothing further is known about this. In 1878 there were serious discussions about building a purpose built mikveh on a house next to a local infants' school site opposite the synagogue itself. Once again it is not known what came about from these proposals.
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6. Sir Francis Goldsmidt - The Rendcomb Estate, Rendcombe

Sir Francis Goldsmidt, who was the first Jewish baronet and one of the main benefactors of University College London, was also one of the main benefactors of the Jewish community. He had a house and estate out of town at Rendcombe on the Road to Cirencester (A 435). He brought the estate in 1863 and rebuilt the 17th century Manor House and made a new drive down to the Cirencester Road. Brian Torode states that one of the two bridges that he built has his monogram on it. This is the bridge over the village Road.
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