The history of the Jewish people in the UK is long, complicated and at times, not very pretty. The records available today are affected by the community’s history. The first Jews came at the invitation of William, the Conqueror, who needed their financial expertise, but the Church put restrictions on their ability to earn a living in other ways, such as trade and agriculture. They were Sephardic Jews, who are from Spain, Portugal and other places in the Mediterranean area. Jews were expelled from England in 1290.In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return, and a small group of Sephardic Jews were allowed to lease a building for a synagogue and land for a cemetery in London. The congregation still exists and will host the annual conference mentioned above. A fascinating history of the Spanish and Portuguese community is found at www.sandp.org/history.html. For this group, records are written in Portuguese from 1657 to 1819 and then in English. The oldest, 1657 records are for burials.
Ashkenazi Jews from northern Europe spoke Yiddish and began arriving in the 17th century. There was some friction between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi who opened their first synagogue on Duke Street, London in 1690. Generally, they were poor but reasonably well educated when they arrived. After 1880, new Ashkenazi immigrants settled in the east end of London and were the driving force in the clothing industry. Jews were in trade and established retail stores in many UK cities, not just London.The records of the Ashkenazi community are usually handwritten in Hebrew using a person’s Hebrew name. Further complicating matters is the fact that the earlier arrivals were still using patronymic names, such as Rachel bat Ezra. However the records are ‘modern’ enough to make searching worth the effort.
North Americans are probably surprised to note the Sephardic community still intact today in the UK. We have an overwhelming number of Ashkenazi Jews on this side of the Atlantic. Now the Ashkenazim are the majority group in the UK as well.
©2012, Susan Lewis Well