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Merthyr Tydfil - South Wales
Marcus Roberts

Places of interest

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The Former Synagogue (1877) - Church Street
Abe Sherman's Home, Park Lodge - Queen's Road, Thomastown
Remains of the Synagogue of 1852, off Church Street and Temple Street
Sherman Betting Shop and Ben Hamilton Office, 8 - 9 Glebeland Street.
OP Chocolates - High Street Dowlais
Merthyr Jewish Cemetery - Cefn-coed-y-cymmer

1. The Former Synagogue (1877) - Church Street

[Care! Please note this is a potentially dangerous structure and the exterior is littered with biological hazards - there is high-risk of needle-stick injury. Visit at your own risk.]

The synagogue was built on Church Street, Thomas Town, Merthyr Tydfil, between 1872-7 and responded to the great expansion of the community over the quarter century before 1874, as the old synagogue was only 16m x 8m. As the need for a new synagogue was realized, an appeal was raised to garner the required funds. The article below, describes something of the origins of the new synagogue and the appeal.

'JEWISH SYNAGOGUE, MERTHYR. APPEAL- THE Synagogue in which divine worship is now performed was built about a quarter of a century ago. At that time the Congregation consisted of only Six Jewish Families; there are now upwards of Sixty Jewish Families resident in Merthyr and Suburbs, attending divine Worship at the Merthyr Synagogue. The Congregation, being painfully aware of the inadequacy of the means now existing for attendance at the Synagogue on Sabbath and Holidays; also the necessity of providing School accommodation for the Jewish Children, who number about Seventy, has by its own strenuous and unassisted exertions raised amongst its own members the sum of £200. The sacred edifice, with all necessary fittings, including the school room, will cost an estimated sum of £1800, and the Synagogue will be so constructed as to provide seats for 200 persons, in addition to a reservation of free seats. The total further amount required to meet the expectant outlay will be about £1,600, and the Jews of Merthyr believe, and hope, that the pious zeal of their co-religionists will enable them to obtain this sum without difficulty. It may be stated that so insufficient is the existing Synagogue for the requirements of the Merthyr Congregation, that on-Festival days many persons are obliged to absent themselves from public worship, for want of the necessary accommodation.' (Merthyr Telegraph, October, 1874).

Once sufficient sums had been raised, the synagogue contract was offered up for tender, to build the Synagogue, School and Minister's House (16 April, 1875). The next big step was the laying of the cornerstone, marked with a big celebration, to commence the building project, an event fulsomely described by the local press.

'THE NEW JEWISH SYNAGOGUE AT MERTHYR. LAYING THE CORNER-STONE. Yesterday, in the presence of a large number of persons, the corner-stone of a Jewish synagogue and schools was laid at Merthyr, by the Rev. A. L. Green, of London. The building, when finished, will be of an imposing character. It is situate at the top of Church Street, and will command a splendid view of the surrounding hills. The architect is Mr Charles Taylor, of Merthyr, and the contractor. Mr John Williams, Castle Street. The style of the building will be ancient Gothic, the approach being by a handsome double flight of steps. On the first floor will be a school-room and a class-room, the synagogue will be reached by a flight of stairs on the next floor. The ceremony of laying the corner stone was performed at three o'clock, at which hour a large number of Jewish brethren and members of various Christian denominations had assembled. Amongst those present were the Rev. A. L. Green, Mr G. Freedman (president of the Merthyr Hebrew congregation), Mr M. Goodman (treasurer), Kev. A. Ableson (minister), Mr H. Bernstein (secretary), Mr Yantab Lebi (beadle), Mr David Hart (president of the Executive Committee), Mr Charles Taylor (architect), &c. After the ceremony was finished, the Rev. A. L. GREEN delivered an address. He said the laying of the corner stone was a proof that the small Hebrew congregation in Merthyr must have worked hard and anxiously to have brought this to such a happy consummation and result as they now saw. But he was anxious that they should realise what they had done that day, so that they might not fall into the great mistake of so many religionists who regarded places of worship in general with spirit almost idolatrous. The rev. gentleman went on to observe that for centuries the Jews suffered much from contumely. The Jews had been deprived of advantages obtained by others, by exceptional and unjust laws, framed by those who were animated by bigotry and prejudice. They had been deprived of filling those callings which led to distinction and fame. They had been perforced by circumstances, and limited to special callings which required a large amount of industry, a large amount of self-control, and still they were very, very low in the social grade. This, however, had been no fault of the Jews, and now that the education and general intelligence of the country had improved, the Jews must prove that they were worthy of the alteration and the change of circumstances, that they were able to make their way in defiance of all adversity. They were to know that they were capable of competing with the highest of the land for every seat of dignity and honour. In these days, when the Master of the Rolls was a Jew, they could no longer excuse themselves on the ground that prejudice existed against them. Prejudice existed only in the minds of the uneducated, for the educated man was ashamed to know that prejudice and bigotry existed in the heart of any man. They, the Jews, must prove themselves worthy of all distinction. They must not be satisfied with being Jews in synagogue, but they must take part in all local affairs. It was in these outlying provincial towns where the Jews were put on their trial. In large towns the Jews were the merchant princes of the land, and could maintain their position, and even if they could not break down prejudices and ignorance, they could conquer by the sheer force of circumstances. In conclusion, the rev gentleman said he trusted that the new synagogue and schools would be the means of doing good in Merthyr. He hoped God would bless the new synagogue and schools. A Hebrew prayer was then offered, after which Mr David Hart presented Mr Green with a silver trowel and mallet. In doing so he said Reverend sir, I have much pleasure in presenting you with this trowel in the name of the Merthyr Hebrew congregation, and I trust that it will be the means of spreading brotherly love and unity throughout the world. A prayer for the Royal family having been read, the proceedings ended. In the evening a banquet was given at the Bush Hotel. There was a large company present. The chair was occupied by the Rev Mr Green, and he was supported by the Rev Mr Ableson. Cloth having been removed, the Reverend CHAIRMAN, in proposing the toast of The Queen, "said that in all assemblies of British subjects this was the first and greatest toast. He was sure that among her subjects there were none more loyal than his co-religionists the Jews. They were told in Scripture first to honour God, and then to honour the Queen, and in this and all other countries where Jews resided there was not a more loyal wish existing than that which animated the hearts of the Queen's Jewish subjects. (Cheers.) The toast was heartily drank. The CHAIRMAN, having given the other Royal toast, proposed, Our Christian Visitors." This toast, he said, would be most gratifying to the Jewish brethren. Thank God that time had arrived when Jews and Christians could meet each other, either in the House of Commons, in the Common Council, at all board meetings, and in meetings to promote education, and, what was still more interesting, at their festive gatherings. He hoped they would not underrate this great majority of improvement, for it was only a few years ago when Jews and Christians eye each other, in active life, as if they were different beings, fashioned by different gods but with the intelligence of the present age they had learnt to know and respect each other in their various avocations in life. Their duty now was to work together for the general amelioration of the condition of society. (Cheers.) He coupled with the toast the names of Drs Thomas and Ward. Dr THOMAS briefly responded. The CHAIRMAN next proposed the Town of Merthyr and its Commerce." In doing so he said that if the masters and men showed more consideration both capital and labour would be much better than it now is. The next toast was Prosperity to the Jewish congregation of Merthyr." The Chairman said that in this toast he was naturally more at home than in the others; but the prosperity of the Merthyr Jewish congregation would not depend on the wine they drank or on the acclamations with which they received the toast. The prosperity of the congregation depended entirely on themselves. It was necessary that peace and harmony should exist among their members. He coupled with the toast the name of Mr Freedman. Mr FREEDMAN, in responding, said the Jewish congregation had always received help from their Christian friends in Merthyr when appealed to. He concluded by proposing the health of the contractor, Mr John Williams. The CHAIRMAN next gave the health of Mr Chas. Taylor, the architect, and remarked how much indebted the Jewish congregation would be to Mr Taylor for the admirable synagogue he was about to erect, at so comparatively small a cost. This toast was heartily drunk. The health of the Rev Chairman was proposed by Mr David Evans. In responding the Chairman remarked that only recently he accepted the position of vice president in one of the London Hospitals, simply to show that in his Jewish ministry ha seemed not to know any difference between Jews and Christians. (Cheers). Other toasts followed...

The site and building of the synagogue was eventually to cost £1,800 pounds of which £400 pounds came from the congregation and included a gift of £200 from the Rothschild family. A mortgage of £1,000 was taken out, still being paid off as late as 1918, and there were additional expenses of £850.

The building was finally completed in late June, early July, 1877 and the local press described (belittlingly) the event thus, 'the lost sheep of Israel have recently erected a pretty little synagogue' and that they had failed to attend the opening, though invited.

At the visit of the Chief Rabbi to Cardiff, and in a long speech, Dr Adler gave a more fitting and accurate summation of the achievement in the construction of the synagogue:

'The pressman made a reference to the synagogue in Thomastown, Merthyr, and this led Dr. Adler to say that it was a splendid stone building, erected on a commanding site overlooking the town. "I may say," he added, "that we have in London absolute halls of marble and alabaster, but, still, having regard to the situation of the synagogue at Merthyr, it is in a magnificent position. There are about 40 families there, including Dowlais, and the officiating minister is the Rev. Mr. 1 Abelson." (Evening Express, 19 Oct, 1895).

With the decline in the community into the 20th century, the synagogue gradually emptied, with community dwindling from 1930 - 1955, but with a smaller congregation attempting to keep the faith. The Synagogue was re-consecrated, after redecoration and restoration, by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie of the Commonwealth, 15 January 1955 and this proved to be something of a swan-song.

Eventually, there was insufficient members to sustain the synagogue which had to be closed and sold off, after being photographed by community members.

'In 1983 the synagogue was sold, its sacred items removed for safe-keeping to a yeshiva in Gateshead, its interior, including the memorial tablets, photographed by Dr. Cairns of Cardiff, and the photographs deposited in Merthyr Library, its Roll of Honour 1914-1918 moved to Cyfarthfa Castle Museum, as was the bimah.

Since 1983, it has been used as a Christian center and a gymnasium [Olympic Gymnasium] but is now redundant and suffers continued vandalism. Previous proposals to revive it as a gym and for offices proved unviable, councillors have been told. The company behind proposals to convert the building into nine flats, Warwickshire-based Choice Circle Ltd, whose director is Valleys-born Ken Evans, is applying for full planning, change of use and listed building consent for the development. Considerable internal alterations would have to be carried out but externally the building, which contributes a significant historic landmark, will remain "largely the same".

A nine-space car park is also proposed, accessed off Church Street, and two off-road parking spaces would be created for the adjoining Primrose Hill, a Grade II-listed house in multiple occupation.

It is proposed to convert part of its forecourt as an access road to the new car park.

As one of 12 conditions attached if planning approval is granted, the synagogue's existing Star of David stained glass window would have to be repaired, rather than replaced with a new design as proposed by the developers.
A roof void and louvre opening would have to be maintained in perpetuity to allow continuing use by legally protected roosting pipistrelle and brown long-eared bats. In his report due before councillors today, planning manager Norman Davies recommends approval of the application.

He says: "The building is in need of urgent renovation and it is considered that bringing it back into beneficial use will not only improve the character of the building itself but restore a key element to the Thomastown conservation area."

He also says the car park scheme is acceptable and work will not affect the setting of the listed Primrose Hill house to a great extent with mitigation measures in place.

Cadw must be notified if the council approves the listed consent application and could call it in for further consideration and reserve the right to alter the decision or conditions (South Wales Echo, 18 November 2009).

This scheme did not come to fruition and the building was purchased by another developer, but these plans have not come to fruition too. Currently the building is derelict, with a very large hole in the roof and much of the interior has gone or is degraded and the building is the haunt of pigeons inside and drug users, outside. The building at the time of writing is being assessed by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage (with JTrails) to see if it can be saved and put to an appropriate new use.


2. Abe Sherman's Home, Park Lodge - Queen's Road, Thomastown

Abe Sherman always lived in Merthyr and was extremely fond of his home at Park Lodge, adjacent and up-hill from the synagogue and where he lived in some style. The seven bedroomed house also has a garden of 1.25 acres, with two greenhouses, terraced lawns, trellised arches, a fishpond - and a shed full of battery hens, then a comparatively new method of keeping poultry. A 1930s home movie, accessible to the public on-line at the BFI, shows Abraham and Annie in their beautiful holding up home-grown produce to the camera and with flower gardens teaming with blooms. [NB This is a private residence not open to visitors]

3. Remains of the Synagogue of 1852, off Church Street and Temple Street

The Merthyr Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1848, with the first synagogue in Bethesda Street, in 1848, with a second in 1852 off Church Street, adjacent to the Temperance Hall. An account given of the community history in CAJEX states, 'By 1852 they [the Jews] built another synagogue, the walls of which are still in existence, behind the Temperance Hall and recently I saw some people who came from London and wished to see the remnants of a synagogue at Merthyr and I showed them that'.

This site is confirmed on the Victorian OS Map, of 1976, showing a very small fabric labelled as 'Synagogue' next to a Temperance Hall and which was only c. 14m x 8m.

These walls still exist adjacent to a car park off Church Street and abutting 1 Temple Street,is not far from the Miner's Hall and the space, or yard, between this former North Wall of the synagogue and the adjacent terrace on Temple Street, is the exact former footprint of the building. It appears not to have been noticed previously that Temple Street could well have been named in regard to the former synagogue.

4. Sherman Betting Shop and Ben Hamilton Office, 8 - 9 Glebeland Street.

Having set up thier bookmaking business, Isaac, Jack and Harry emigrated to America during the First World War. When Harry returned he and Abraham founded Shermans Pools Ltd. The Shermans had betting shops in Victoria Street, Cardiff and also at 8 Glebeland Street, in Merthyr. The latter premises was shared with local solicitor, Benjamin Hamilton, who had his offices upstairs. The two businesses made the brothers a fortune, a significant portion of which they passed on to various charities.

A remarkable home movie of Abe and his business on Glebeland Street survives from 1938. and can be seen on-line at the BFI. It is very rare to have this kind of living view of a Jewish business from the period and is a very important piece of Jewish social history. In the movie Abe can be seen confidently promenading up and down the street, familiar, friendly and at ease with all passers-by - the very picture of Jewish social and economic integration - and there are views of work in the shop, with Abe and other working through receipts at high speed and in clouds of cigarette smoke.

The building now appears to be 'Wrap 'N' Roll', 8-9 Glebeland Street, Merthyr Tydfil CF47 8AU.

5. OP Chocolates - High Street Dowlais

In the 1930s the largest Jewish industrial concerns in Merthyr, was OP Chocolates (know predominantly for the Pischinger Torte and Walnut Whirls, both plain and Coffee flavor) and they also produced seasonal chocolates, along with the Easter and Christmas novelty chocolates. The factory is still in operation, next to Dowlais High Street. There was also the Welsh Button Factory, founded by German Jewish refugees.

6. Merthyr Jewish Cemetery - Cefn-coed-y-cymmer

The other major surviving Jewish heritage site is Merthyr Tydfil Jewish Cemetery, situated to the north of the town at Cefn-Coed and was extended in 1935. As there were only 3 Jewish cemeteries in South Wales, it served a large area and mourners often had to walk large distances behind the hearse, if they were coming from other communities without a cemetery.

The cemetery is on the opposite side of the road to the municipal cemetery and literally clings to the steep slopes of the local mountain and sits on a terrace above the road. It has a dramatic and picturesque location, with a fine brick Ohel at its centre (1898) accessed by a massive low gateway and steps up from the road. The Ohel has some rare Victorian ohel furniture - essentially a raised platform for the reader with a lectern and low bench seating either side for the mourners. There is also a small fire-place which would have been necessary in the Autumn and Winter. There are a variety of wall plaques and some of the plaques from the former synagogue have been stored in the Ohel too.

The oldest section, the Victorian section has a variety of well-made memorials with some on a relatively large scale and individually designed with kerb-stones. Newer burials are at either end and include that of Abe Sherman, at the very south of the ground, nearest the road.

The cemetery helps tell the story of the local community and is of significant interest and well worth visiting. It is on the A405 a quarter of a mile SE from its intersection with the A470, so it is well out of town. From the Merthyr direction, you need to travel NW along the Brecon Road to Cefn-coed-y-cymmer and then carry on travelling along the Upper High Street (the A470) until it is reached on your right, after the gates to the municipal cemetery on the left (coordinates 51.769513, -3.414961). The gates are left open.

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