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1. Touring Jewish Sheerness and Blue TownSheerness is of genuine interest to the Jewish visitor. The Isle of Sheppey still wears a distinctive and remote aspect that is attractive if sometimes bleak. One could typify the landscape as being of sheep, ships, marshland and open countryside. The superficial unlikelihood of a Jewish community here in the past is very much part of its interest.
Also, most importantly the principal Jewish quarter of the western side of Blue Town still survives surprisingly intact. Here more perhaps than any other place in the country, it is possible to get a feel of what it was like to be a Jew in a small port town last century. Blue Town has been preserved by its deprivation and while it has been "environmentally improved" and partly redeveloped in recent years, it has a gritty and potent atmosphere, similar in some ways to parts of the old East End around Brick Lane that has escaped the worst of redevelopment and maintain their industrial actuality.
With its dominating Dock Wall along the High Street and prominent old Court House and dock buildings, old pubs and hotels, remnants of Georgian housing with timber fronting and brick Victorian housing in varying states of renovation or continuing dilapidation, this is not a conventional venue for visitor, but it is all the better for it.
The surviving area of Blue Town is quite small and compact and it can be wandered around without following a specific route as all the main landmarks will be passed by a wander of an hour or less. However a more methodical route would be to walk westwards along the High Street along the dock walls up to the Old Court House and then to walk through a minor maze of the lanes and passages around West Lane and behind the "Lord Nelson Inn" and the "Jolly Sailor". This latter area as well as the High Street, is where most of the Sheerness Jews lived and is the best preserved part of Blue Town.
Mile Town itself is well worth seeing if only to see the Hope Street cemetery, which is remarkable for it diminutive size and concealment in such as central location Also Russell Street, named after Samuel Russell is worth reflecting on.
2. Blue Town (Sheerness)The origins of Blue Town lies in the collection of timber cabins built by dockyard workmen in the open area around the docks and stores. The name Blue Town derives from their use of blue-grey Naval paint to paint their crude houses.
The dry docks at Sheerness date back to 1708. The first "Blue Houses" had appeared by 1754. By 1792 there were 130 of the painted cottages or cabins. Additionally old naval hulks were used as accommodation for the workers.
In 1802 many of the workers were forced to leave the Blue Houses in order to move to the barracks and the term Blue Town became the general term for the place rather than Blue Houses.
A serious fire in the yard in the 1820s removed the rest of the old workers houses. The high dock yard wall along the High Street was also completed by 1827 along with other installations.
While much of the early housing was renewed in the 19th century Blue Town would have remained a cramped uncomfortable place to live. The street plan from the early days was apparently not rationalized or improved, with much of the poorer housing being around cramped alleys, lanes and courts, the courts being a sign of slum type housing. The Victorian maps show that many of the blocks of housing had rows or block of outside latrines in shared yards with a shared single tap as a water supply.
These features, combined with several slaughter houses, and stables would have made the area if not insanitary then smelly. Added to this, the pubs, numerous skittle alleys, smithies all in the small area would have made it a noisy quarter as well.
3. The Site of the Synagogue - Kent StreetToday the area of Blue Town has been reduced by modern development and the site of the synagogue lies on the very south side of the triangular block that makes up Blue Town. The site is just north of the modern Brielle Way - the main road - which has carved into Blue Town, just north-west of the junction of Brielle Way with Kent Street in a car park (the precise location for those with GPS is 51°26'28.80"N 0°45'5.92"E ).
In 1856 the synagogue was described in detail in the "Archaeological Mine". It relates that it was built in wood at the cost of thirteen hundred pounds. "...It is stated to have been constructed after the model of a synagogue in London, but the style of architecture is of no peculiar order, like all structures built during the Georgian era-the dark ages of architectural design-it may be described as of debased gothic-amalgamated with the Grecian.
The structure is oblong-east and west. The entrance is at the west-end. A gallery for women, on the north side of the entrance. Above the door is a three-light window, with gothic crockets and finial, on each side is also a lancet-headed window, surmounted with a circular window with stained glass.
At the eastern end, as usual, is the Ark, in which are three scrolls of the "The Law," parchment. The Ark is severed from the main body of the building by a curtain, it is almost entirely of Grecian design; above it is a portion of the ten commandments.
On the south wall is the following prayer in Roman character..." [recites the prayer for the Royal family, in this case Queen Victoria]
The synagogue was evidently a simple structure, its most unusual feature, from this description, being its small women's gallery over the north side of the door.
4. King StreetBirth place of Mrs Frances Jacobs - King Street
Mrs Jacobs, the niece of Henry Russell was born in Blue Town, during 1817 "in a wood built cottage in King Street, Blue Town, which was destroyed some years ago in "Monk's fire", which cleared the corner of King Street and Union Street. Mr Monk was a grocer on the corner of Union Street. The site of the cottage in which Mrs. Jacobs first saw the light of day is now occupied by No.3, King Street."
The 1841 census also records that Frances Levy aged 67, born in the county, lived in the street.
5. Druids Arms, High StreetA Russell residence - the Druids Arms, High Street
The Druids Arms was sited close to the eastern end on the High Street, north of the midway point on East lane. This had been the site of three cottages and the birth place of a Henry Russell - not the song-writer but a relative.
Mrs Jacobs' husband, Samuel Russell a clothier, "was born in a house opposite No. 56 High Street, Blue Town, on the site of the present Dockyard wall". A brown stone in the wall in the past denoted the site of the doorway of this house.
In 1841, Isaac and Katherine Jacobs, slopsellers, and three of their children (aged between 7-28 years) resided in the street. With them were two other children, Elijah Levy (13) and Morris Philips (7).
Of interest is Nore Levey, a hawker (35). The name "Nore" is unusual, it might be explained by the fact that "The Nore" was a both the name of a local sandbank and a naval command - thus it could be an original English forename used by this Jewish resident for its patriotic and local associations.
Abraham and Rachel Abrahams (66 and 53 respectively), a silversmith, lived on this street with their six children.
In the 1810s Benjamin foreman, Navy Agent, Tailor and Draper is listed on the street.
Sam Jacobs, one of the Jacobs' clan, was born one of a family of 17, born in a single cottage on what is now the site of the Dockyard wall, directly opposite Taylor's Alley.
6. West StreetWest Street is an extension of the High Street. An 18 year-old, Betsey Featherstone, was recorded on this street. She was probably Jewish as Featherstone is a Kent Jewish surname, probably an Anglicization of Finkelstein.
A Henry Jacobs (born 1822), son of Isaac Jacobs, lived in 19 West Street, until his death in 1883.
7. West LaneMrs F. Jacobs spent her married life in West Lane, where her husband died. Afterwards she moved to 11 West Street where she ran a fruiter's. An attractive feature of the street is its surviving cobbles and its pubs - survivors of the numerous pubs and hotels of the 19th century dock area. West Passage cutting across the lane wears a distinct air of dereliction, but the narrow alley with it clutter of buildings including its wooden faced Georgian buildings convey a good impression of how the Jewish quarter would have been like in the nineteenth century.
8. Fountains Hotel and PassageFountains Passage probably ran behind the Fountains Hotel and remnants of this presumed passage still survive at its either end.
In 1841, Nathan Jacobs (aged 35) lived in the passage, as did Harry Levy (19) a slop seller and also a Lyon(?) Levy also a slop seller. The passage remains to be located but was probably in the vicinity.
9. Kingshead AlleyA Mary Samson (20) was recorded in the 1841 census and was possibly Jewish.
10. Union StreetIn 1841 the census states that Isaac Levy, aged 50, a watchmaker born in Sheerness, lived in the street with his wife and family of six children.
Along the length of Union Street is a most unusual and unlikely war memorial from the First World War. An old brick built workshop has a course of blocks of stone, individually inscribed to the memory of the fallen under the window level. Included is the following to a member of the Jacobs family.
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
THIS STONE WAS LAID
IN MEMORY OF
BY HIS MOTHER
11. Chapel StreetIn the 1820s the Navy Agents Levy Alexander and Samuel Abrahams (the latter one of the founders of the synagogue) lived here, though it has been noted that there were three Chapels Streets at various times in Sheerness, but this was most probably the one running across the centre of Blue Town.
12. Charles StreetOff the western end of Charles Street is the site of Blue Town Elementary School (1876-7). The foundation plaque of the school has been preserved on a corner of a car park set prominently upright in granite sets. The plaque records the founding members of the school board and included is Henry Jacobs, one of the Jacobs' clan.
13. High Street - the Birth Place of Henry RussellMile Town is a short distance along Brielle Way and Bridge Street from Blue Town. Henry Russell is said to have been born in the High Street, opposite Russell Street. Henry Russell also kept a furniture-broker's shop opposite Russell Street, in what was probably the same property. Russell Street is at the western end of High Street; the Blue Town end of the street. The street is stated to have been named after him, it having previously been Chapel Street one of three in Sheerness. However it may in reality have been named after Samuel Russell who actually lived in the street and was named in his honour after a tragic and fatal accident aboard a naval Ship.
14. The Jewish cemetery - Hope StreetThe Jewish cemetery - Hope Street, the rear of 61 High Street (Mile Town)
Hope Street runs parallel to Russell Street and comes directly off the High Street. The cemetery is doubtlessly one of Mile Town's best kept secrets, even though it is just yards from the main street of the town. Unless you know about it and where to look you would almost certainly never stumble across it.
To find it, look down Hope Street from its junction with High Street. It is on the left about 30 yards down in the gap between the second and third buildings on the street. It is fronted by a seven foot high, anonymous concrete rendered wall, with a small decrepit wooden door on the left. The ground is 60 x 25 feet.
It appears that the key for the cemetery might not be held locally - it used to be in a nearby shop. I was given a view of the cemetery through the rear window of a shops W.C. which looks onto the ground!
The tombstones, all uprights, rest against the far wall in varying states of decay. When I visited only one tombstone was visible in the sea of brambles. A blocked in window in the south perimeter wall may be evidence for a small former ohel (burial hall) for the cemetery.
Professor De Lange's survey of the cemetery confirms that the earliest burial was that of Hannah Moses in 1804, she died at 15 year old. There are eleven tombstones in the cemetery of modest style inscribed in Hebrew.
The memorials, where surnames are given, are to the Moses, Jacobs, Levy and probably the Abrahams family. Mrs Jacobs was also buried in this cemetery in 1904, even though it had been officially out of use since 1855.
15. New RoadNew Road
New Road runs south west, a direct extension of Hope Street. Samuel Solomon, Navy Agent, was here in the 1810s as well as having a residence in High Street Chatham.
16. Russell Street - Named after a Sheerness JewA street Named after a Sheerness Jew - Russell Street
Russell Street was originally known as Sun Street but the name was changed to Russell Street out of respect to the Russell family when Samuel Russell (husband of Yitta Russell) was killed on board the HMS Colossus on June 10th, 1859, when he fell from the main deck into the spirit room, striking his head on a cask. Samuel Russell was the father of Mrs Jacobs, who was their eldest child.
Samuel Russell also named a street in Sheerness. He was the first to give the name "Crimea" to present day Marine Town as building operations were going on their during the time of the Russian War. This name later fell out of use.
17. The Second Jewish CemeteryThe New Cemetery - The Isle of Sheppey Cemetery, Halfway Road, Queenborough
The new cemetery was first used in 1859 and is a separate hedged section visible from the road at the Sheerness end of the cemetery. It was originally ran by a private company, the Isle of Sheppey cemetery Company to 1945, then the District Council.
Professor De Lange has recorded eleven stones in the new section. The majority are for the Jacobs family and some three for the Levy's. The latest he records is in 1899 for Esther Jacobs. The tombstones all imitate the general local styles seen elsewhere in the cemetery.