For several years, when the Heritage Open Days come round, I’ve wanted to see inside Princes Road Synagogue. But tickets for guided tours go so fast that I’ve always been disappointed – until this year. This time I got a place, and I was dazzled by what I saw.
The synagogue is a Grade II listed building which was completed in 1874. It was designed by two architect brothers, William and George Audsley, who created an unusual confection of Oriental, Moorish and Gothic features after they had travelled around Europe to gain inspiration for the design with its richly painted and gilded interior. The brothers went on to pioneer some of the first skyscrapers in New York.
The building cost £13,000 to build, a huge sum – over £100m in today’s money – entirely funded by members of the congregation, which, as our lively guide pointed out, was far removed from the image some might have of one composed of impoverished refugees from eastern Europe. The synagogue is a testament to the wealth and social position of Liverpool’s nineteenth century Jewish magnates, a group with wealth and taste that included David Lewis, founder of Liverpool’s once-famous Lewis’s department store.
We gathered in the vestibule, just inside the massive wooden doors, still locked with the original giant-sized key, to hear our guide run through a brief history of the community for whom this would be a new place of worship to replace an earlier synagogue in Seel Street. The Jews who worshipped at the Seel Street synagogue were known as the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, since by then a split had emerged between more liberal and more orthodox strands of Judaism.
The oldest congregation in the city, the history of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation is inextricably intertwined with that of the wider Jewish community in Liverpool. According to the Merseyside Jewish Community website, for over a century it was the largest Jewish community in the north of England, and the most influential:
Its middle class of merchants, bankers and shopkeepers also achieved a very early and remarkably complete integration into the upper echelons of Liverpool society, developing a mutuality of respect emulated by other provincial communities during the Anglo-Jewish struggle for recognition and emancipation. A continual nurturing of these links rendered Liverpool relatively free of anti-alien and anti-Semitic sentiment.
The earliest record of Jews settled in Liverpool was in 1753, when a synagogue with burial ground was opened in Cumberland Street (off Whitechapel), though little is known about members of that group, and the community which grew up thirty years later appear not to have had any knowledge of their predecessors.
In 1789, a new community established a synagogue in a house at 133 Upper Frederick Street. The street, now in the Chinatown district, is still there, but the house, whose garden was used as the community’s burial ground, has long since been demolished. The house was believed to hold between 50 and 70 worshippers.
In 1806, the foundation stone was laid for the first purpose-built synagogue in Liverpool. It was situated in Seel Street and opened a year later, seating 290 worshippers.
In 1838 tensions within the congregation at Seel Street resulted in one group breaking away to form an entirely separate congregation, under the name of the Liverpool New Hebrew Congregation. The split does not appear to have been doctrinal, and pre-dates the emergence of Reform Judaism in Germany. It may have been a local quarrel of some sort, though according to the gate-keeper at Deane Road Cemetery (see below) the subject merits further research.
Following the split, the Seel Street community became known as the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, while the New Congregation went on to found a synagogue in Hope Place in 1842 – in the building which now houses the Unity Theatre.
By the mid-19th century Liverpool’s Jewish community had become second only to London’s in size and prestige, with the Old Hebrew Congregation attracting an elite membership of upper and upper-middle class gentlemen and businessmen and their families.
By the 1870s, the Old Congregation had outgrown the Seel Street building and decided to build a new, bigger, more impressive synagogue, to reflect their wealth and status. A competition was held to appoint an architect, with the commission being awarded to William and George Audsley, a pair of Scottish Presbysterian brothers with no previous experience of building synagogues.
In 1872, a plot of land on the east side of Princes Road was purchased from the Earl of Sefton and the foundation stone of the new synagogue laid. The building was completed and consecrated at a ceremony in September 1874. The new building seated 824 worshippers and was handed to the congregation entirely free of debt – though, as our guide pointed out, the sum raised by the community, whilst enough to pay for the building, fell short of the sum required to decorate it internally.
Nevertheless, as our guide explained, the women of the community set to immediately and organised a bazaar and luncheon in St Georges Hall, inviting important city dignitaries and arranging for the band of the Coldstream Guards to play. The event raised the massive sum of £3,000 (£750,000 in today’s money) with some change which paid for the decoration of the interior: ‘Some bring and buy sale!’ as our guide observed.
With this, she pulled open the great doors to the synagogue, and were able to see for ourselves the stunning decoration to the interior which the money raised by the women of the congregation had paid for. We gasped at the sight before our eyes: brightly-painted columns and pilasters, a blue and white painted ceiling, and gold-leaf everywhere.
The Audsley brothers described their design as being ‘with enough of the eastern style to render it suggestive and enough western severity to make it appropriate for a street building in an English town’. Everywhere you look, that blend of Occident and Orient is apparent: Gothic arches frame the upper windows, while Moorish-style arcades house the downstairs seating areas to each side of the nave (originally reserved for the men, while the women sat upstairs). At the eastern end, above the sanctuary, is a beautiful Gothic rose window, whilst the sanctuary is framed by a cusped horseshoe Moorish arch supported on red and green marble columns.
That blend is echoed in the colourful tiled floor which depicts the star of David and roses – symbolising that this is an English synagogue, for Liverpool residents of Jewish faith. Outside, the same metaphor is picked up in the stonework star of David embraced by a Tudor rose.
The arcades are supported by octagonal cast-iron columns – another example of the use of cast-iron in the construction of local churches at this time (compare St Michael’s in the Hamlet on the ‘Cast-Iron Shore‘ or the Church of St James at the bottom of Upper Parliament Street, for example).
A tiled Hebrew inscription in front of the central door translates as ‘Blessed are you on your coming’. Around the Prayer hall elaborate polychrome and gilded decorations in marble, gold leaf and plaster incorporating imagery including roses and pomegranates (Jewish tradition teaches that the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness because it is said to have 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 commandments of the Torah, while in the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, the Jewish nation is likened to ‘a rose among the thorns’.
Sweeping stone stairs with rich mahogany rails lead up to the ladies balconies and the Choir loft. Dominating the eastern end of the building is the extremely ornate 25 feet high, multi-coloured marble Ark ((containing the Torah or Old Testament scrolls) in the Byzantine style, set on a marble platform and with five domed cupolas painted in lapis lauzili blue with gilded decoration. The large central dome is supported on a Moorish arcade which features an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah 2:5: ‘O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’
Flanking the Ark are the original brass gas light fittings for the Bimah lamps, and the pendant Ner Tamid (the perpetually-lit light in front of Ark representing ‘everlasting light’) and the two Menorah. The Bimah, or reading platform, was presented by David Lewis in 1875.
With us all seated in the pitch-pine pews, our demonstrative guide treated us to a short demonstration of certain elements of synagogue ritual and Jewish domestic traditions. She noted that there is no preaching in a synagogue – simply the reading of sacred texts, declaimed in a singing voice by members of the congregation or by the cantor. She described the simple domestic rituals of breaking bread and sharing wine on a Friday evening, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. She made a hearty attempt at blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn, explained the origins of its symbolism with the ram caught in the thicket by its horns and sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son Isaac, and told how it is blown during services on Rosh Hashanah: a call to return to the Lord – and as King David wrote, since finding God is the greatest joy, ‘happy is the people who know the shofar blast’.
After the tour I walked across Princes Road to take some photos of the exterior – now sadly missing the minarets of the Audsley brothers’ original design. They were ordered to be taken down in the 1970s by the local council, for reasons of health and safety.
Later I visited the Deane Road Cemetery, Liverpool’s oldest-surviving Jewish burial ground – opened for burials in 1837 – which is also owned by the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation. Here was another surprise: in a run-down part of the city where we once lived immediately after leaving university, hemmed in by a branch of Aldi and streets of dilapidated housing is a window on Liverpool’s past that has now been restored, with its striking entrance wall built of brick with stucco and stone rendering and gateway in the Greek Revival style popular in the 1830s restored to its former glory.
When the cemetery first opened this was a rural area of on the outskirts of Liverpool, which much of the land owned by Edward Falkner (of Falkner Street and Square renown) from whose son, Edward Deane Falkner, the Congregation bought the plot which now accommodates the burial ground.
There were regular burials here through the Victorian period , but by the early 20th century the cemetery was close to full capacity, and a new burial ground was established on Thomas Drive in Broad Green. The very last burial here was in 1929. What makes the cemetery so interesting for anyone interested in Liverpool’s history, Jewish or not, is that many eminent Jews who made a significant contribution to the city are buried here.
Gallery: Deane Road Hebrew Cemetery
For nearly a century the cemetery lay derelict, the graves desolate, overgrown by trees, choked by weeds and plants, defaced with graffiti and surrounded by refuse. Then, in 2002, a restoration project run by volunteers began which gradually improved the physical state of the cemetery. In 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £494,000 to enable full completion of the restoration work, including renovation of the cemetery entrance, boundary walls, gates and railings, and the resurrection of nearly all of the tombstones.
Now, walking around the burial ground, those now-upright tombstones offer dramatic testimony to the power and wealth of the 19th century Jewish community, and its contribution to the city. The Jewish businessmen who belonged to the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation changed the face of Liverpool’s economy: among them were watchmakers, silversmiths, bankers, entrepreneurs, clerics, artists, politicians, doctors and musicians. Their wealth and civic contribution helped Liverpool develop into one of the most thriving cities of the Victorian age.
Probably the best known of the figures buried here is David Lewis (born Levy) who came to Liverpool from London in 1839 to work as an apprentice to a firm of gentlemen’s tailors. He quickly learned the trade and progressed into senior management before setting up his own business in Ranelegh Street. The Liverpool Lewiss’s store (which closed only a few years ago) soon expanded into a nationwide chain of department stores (which at one time included Selfridges).
Lewis was also a man with a social conscience: he was the largest individual financial contributor to the costs of building the Princes Road synagogue, gave large sums to support Jews persecuted in Russian pogroms, and bequeathed almost £500,000 for the erection of hospitals and other philanthropic institutions in Liverpool which still bore his name when I arrived in the city in 1967. They included the Northern Hospital and the David Lewis Hostel and Theatre near to the Anglican cathedral, built initially as a hostel for seafarers. By the sixties it had sports facilities and a theatre, and I remember attending meetings and film shows there. Both buildings have long been demolished.
Many of the gravestones impress upon you how many of Liverpool’s Jews came from afar. Sigismund Lewis qualified as a doctor in Berlin, practised in Hamburg and settled in Liverpool in the 1850s. In the next 40 years, according to the cemetery guidebook, he ‘acted as a one-man health service to the Liverpool Jewish community, [dedicating] much of his working life to trying to improve the conditions of the Jewish poor in the city.’ He performed mass vaccinations and paid for food, clothing and medicines for those he treated himself.
Another migrant was the father of Moses Samuel who had emigrated from Poland and settled in London. In 1805, after the death of his father, Moses and his mother Hannah moved to Liverpool, where he established a business as a watchmaker and silversmith. Not much interested in business, he gained a reputation as a scholar who opposed the growth of the Reform Movement whilst being liberal in his politics. He died a poor man (though with a library of rare Hebrew books). With the business almost bankrupt, his daughter-in-law Harriet took it over and made a success of it, founding what today is a household name: H Samuel Jewellers.
Jacob Prag also came from Poland, born in Gdansk and qualifying as a rabbi before sailing for Liverpool. A learned scholar of Talmud, he was appointed to the Chair of Hebrew at Queen’s College, the forerunner of Liverpool University. He was cantor at the Sell Street and Princes Road synagogues from 1855 to 1881.
Charles Mozley became the first Jewish mayor of Liverpool (there have since been several) in 1863, representing the Liberal party. The Mozley family was the most influential in the Jewish community in the late 18th and early 19th century. With his two brothers, Charles ran a successful bank on Lord Street. He was only able to become a town councillor after the Jewish Disabilities Removal Act of 1845 allowed Jews to stand for public office.
At the centre of the cemetery and towering above all the other graves is the mausoleum of Baroness Miriam de Menasce, local girl made good. Born Miriam Gollin, the second of ten children, in 1869, aged only 18, she married Joseph Levi de Menasce who was from a Sephardi family of Moroccan descent based in Alexandria, and one of the most powerful families in the Egyptian Jewish community. Joseph’s father had been created Baron by the Emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1875. Joseph ran the Liverpool branch of his father’s merchant banking business until it closed in the 1870s and the family moved to Cairo where Joseph died. Though Miriam later made her home in Paris she asked to be buried in Liverpool, and she was laid to rest at Deane Road in 1890, aged only 39.
Speaking to the gate-keeper at Deane Road Cemetery, it seems that the cemetery and Princes Road synagogue may have an uncertain future- for the Jewish community in Liverpool is shrinking, and those who are left are ageing. Back in the 19th century the high level of assimilation of Liverpool’s Jews into Victorian life led to many Liverpool Jews marrying out of the faith.
This trend was counterbalanced with the immigration of large numbers of impoverished Russian and Polish Jews fleeing persecution at the end of the century (a community that established itself mainly in the London Road area), and most of today’s Liverpool Jews are descended from those Eastern European immigrants, rather than the more illustrious families whose gravestones fill the Deane Road cemetery. Many Jews have left Liuverpool for Manchester and other places. The community now left in Liverpool is smaller and increasingly elderly. Who will support the Princes Park synagogue and the Deane Road cemetery when they are gone?
- Look inside Liverpool’s oldest Synagogue: slideshow (liverpool Echo)
- The History of Merseyside Jewry: detailed account (Merseyside Jewish Community website)
- Liverpool’s Jewish community trail: Museum of Liverpool (pdf)
- Deane Road Cemetery: comprehensive website with history, essays and biographies
- Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water (another Heritage Open Day vist, 2016)
- Heritage Open Day visits to a Greek Orthodox church and Liverpool’s oldest building (2010)
- Ullet Road Unitarian Church (2009)
- The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth (2009)