The Jews at Portsmouth

Transcribed from the "The Illustrated History of Portsmouth" by William Gates (1900)
For nearly two hundred years Portsmonth has been the abiding place of a numerous Jewish colony, which has ever maintained the most friendly relations with the other townspeople and cheerfully borne its share of local burdens and responsibilities. In the old disability days, when England, to her shame, refused the full rights of citizenship to some of the most orderly and law abiding strangers within her gates, the Jews of Portsmouth had perforce to live a life apart and confine their energies within the four corners of their dwellings ; but with the grant of full political liberty, they at once displayed all the qualities that make for good citizenship, and have ever since taken an active part in the government and development of the town. Among the local pioneers of progress the names of several Jews are to be found, and Portsmouth gladly bears testimony to the loyalty, the zeal, and the camaraderie of the entire community.
The date of the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Portsmouth is not known. but it is probable that after Cromwell's invitation a few of the Spanish refugees and safety and shelter here, as there are some unmistakeably Spanish names among former members of the congregation. But the Colony cannot be said to have been formed until early in the eighteenth century. Upon the accession of George I. a large number of German Jews emigrated to this country, and some of them found their way to Portsmouth which at that time was rapidly developing as a naval and mercantile port. One of the first things they did was to provide a burial ground for their dead. A piece of land in Southsea was purchased, and until quite recent years the public pathway that skirted it was known as Jews Lane. The next step of the little community was to provide a synagogue, which they did in Oyster-street, Portsmouth, and the place of their worship is still to be seen though it is now put to the mundane use of a spirit store. The congregation next moved to Daniel-street, Portsea, in consequence probably of the exceedingly rapid growth of that district and the better chances it afforded them of prosecuting their peculiar industries. After a time the congregation outgrew this second synagogue which is now included in the electrical works of Mr. Grossmith, and in 1742 a new building was erected in White's Row. This lasted until 1780 when further extension being needed the synagogue was taken down and rebuilt in much the form in which it appears to-day, except that the entrance from Queen Street was provided at a later date.
Here at the appointed times the worship of Jehovah is reverently conducted and from this centre radiate those charitable agencies that bring so much honour to the Jewish race. By means of the Hebrew Benevolent Association, established in 1804, the poor of the community are so provided for that none have ever to appeal for assistance from the rates ; another Association has for its object the visitation and care of the sick ; while yet another provides help for the wandering Israelite. The present Rabbi, the Rev. Isaac Phillips, who has filled the sacred office for 33 years, is a man who has gained the warm esteem of Gentile as well as Jew, and under his ministrations the community today is filled with peace and contentment. His predecessors for a century past have been the Revs. Sander, Issacher, Heilbron, Levy, A. Davis, now of Sydney, New South Wales, Elkin, Ornstein, now of the Cape, Isaac Hart, Harfield. The present congregation numbers about 500 souls, but in the old war-time the Colony was much more numerous, and for a time two synagogues were in use. At the close of the French War in 1815, business in Portsmouth naturally declined, with the result that a number of Jewish families emigrated, and it is worthy of note that where they pitched their tents there they built synagogues that are models of the one at Portsea. At St. Thomas, at New York, and at Barbados, such buildings are to be found, telling at once of the unchanging faith of the builders and the pleasant associations they must have carried away with them from Portsmouth.
Lewis Aria, a rich Jewish merchant from Kingston, in Jamaica, who died at Scarborough in September, 1858, bequeathed a large property for the foundation of a Jewish college at Portsea, where he was born of poor parents. The college was to be known as Aria College, and its object was for the training and maintaining of young men, natives of the county of Hants, as Jewish divines on orthodox Judaical principles, with a reasonable stipend. It was further stipulated that these young men should expound and explain the Old Testament Scriptures on orthodox principles, and give theological discourses illustrative thereof at the morning services, and in the afternoon of every Jewish Sabbath and Jewish festival during the year, with free admission to the public.
The College, which was established in St. George's Square, was opened with befitting ceremony on January 6th, 1874, and Ministers who have received their training there are now to be found in various parts of the world. At East London, South Africa, there is the Rev. F. A. Stern ; at Port Elizabeth the Rev. J. Phillips, a son of the Portsmouth Rabbi ; at Sydney, New South Wales, the Rev. Landau ; at Kingston, Jamaica, the Rev. Jacobs ; at Liverpool the Rev. S. Friedeberg ; and at Camden Town the Rev. W. Levine.
To the fact that Portsmouth has always been found on the side of civil and religious liberty must be attributed the early entry of the Jews into municipal life. As far back as 1837 Mr. David Levy was invited by the burgesses of St. Thomas's Ward to represent them, but as he considered the religious test would have been a bar to useful work he declined the invitation. Four years later, in 1841, a similar invitation was given to Mr. Emanuel Emanuel, jeweller, of High-street, who, being ready to face the risks, was returned at the head of the poll as a representative of the Ward of St. Thomas. He naturally refused to take the oath of office, which would have bound him on "the true faith of a Christian," and this rendered him liable to a penalty of 500 for every vote he gave, but happily no one was to be found in Portsmouth mean enough or uncharitable enough to inform against him. It was not long before he gave proof of his progressive spirit, and he soon came to the front as one of the leaders of the Corporation. In 1847 he proposed the construction of the Esplanade at Southsea, and succeeded in gaining the cordial co-operation and assistance of Lord Frederick Fitzclarence, the Lieutenant Governor, in whose honour it is named. He was also instrumental in obtaining the use of convict labour for the levelling of the Common, and thus to his efforts Southsea owes its two greatest attractions. At the time he commenced his public labours the Common was a waste, polluted by open drains and frequently swept by the sea ; while the site of the present flourishing district of Southsea was fallow land, with uninviting stretches of swamp where wild duck and other rare game could be shot.
Among the first houses to be erected was one which Alderman Emanuel built for Lord George Lennox. Among other improvements with which his name must be associated is the abolition of Free Mart Fair. Year after year he denounced the nuisance caused by this decadent survival of what was at one time a valuable privilege, and at length in 1847 he had the satisfaction of seeing the reform completed, though it brought him into disrepute with the hawkers, the showmen, and the thieves, whose occupation he had taken away. He also helped materially in securing the Victoria Park for the people ; he was one of the chief promoters of the railway to Portsea ; his successful negotiations with the Government authorities made possible the erection of piers at Southsea ; he was one of the earliest advocates of the municipalisation of the gas and water supplies ; he was among the pioneers of the drainage system ; and was the author of extensive schemes for the conversion of the old Milldam into commercial wharves and docks, and the widening of Queen-street.
In 1857 he was the recipient of a public testimonial ; in 1862 the Council expressed their appreciation of his services by making him an Alderman, and in 1866 he was called to occupy the highest position of all. As the first Jewish Mayor, Alderman Emanuel distinguished himself for charity, hospitality, and the dignity with which he carried out the duties of the office. The entertainments he gave on the return of Lord and Lady Monck from Canada and on the occasion of the visit of the Sultan of Turkey are memorable civic displays. His activity was something abounding and wonderful. He was the first Jew elected to the Corporation, and he proved to be one of the most persistent and successful reformers the town has ever known. He did not accomplish all he essayed, but on the whole his success was marvellous, and the town does well to remember with deep gratitude how many of the great improvements of the last half century are the outcome of his reforming zeal. He died on December 29th, 1888, at the age of 81 years, and Portsmouth gave him the obsequies due to a perfect citizen. On the Parade at Southsea there is a strikingly handsome drinking fountain which was erected to his memory.
The next Jew to enter the Council was Mr. David Levy, who was elected for St. Thomas's Ward in November, 1846, and seven years later he was raised to the Aldermanic Bench as a reward for his services. In 1848 Mr. John Edwards was chosen for St. George's Ward, and in the following year Mr. Moses Solomon was elected as his colleague. So satisfied was this Ward with its Jewish representatives that in 1867 it returned Mr. H. M. Emanuel as one of its members, and he, too, eventually adorned the Aldermanic Bench. Then came Mr. Maurice Emanuel, who was elected for St. Thomas's in February, 1875 ; Mr. Solomon Hart who was chosen for St. George's in March, 1877, and, finally, Mr. A . L. Emanuel, who became a member for St. Luke's Ward in November, 1883. All these gentlemen have done the town good service, but it was reserved for the last named to follow his father, Mr. H. M. Emanuel to the Aldermanic Bench, and then in 1893 to be chosen as the Chief Magistrate. As the second Jewish Mayor he sought to emulate the "excellent deeds of his predecessor, and succeeded so far as opportunities were afforded him. During his year of office the electric light was introduced, and it was peculiarly appropriate that the honour of switching it on should have fallen to the wife of one of the race who have been ever among the foremost and the best and the most faithful of Portsmouth's citizens. Besides those Jews who have served the town as members of the Corporation, many others have taken a deep interest in its public life and institutions, notably Mr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who as far back as 1840 was a member of the Portsea Commissioners, in which capacity he displayed enlightened zeal and sound judgment.
There is a more modern version of this article by Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985) at
Further information about the Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation is available at