Walter Besant's Sympathetic Discussion of Judaism

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Dickens's Fagin established an unfortunate stereotype for Anglo-Jewry, one which was to be greatly reinforced when thousands of Jewish exiles began pouring into the East End of London from Europe in the late nineteenth century. But the persistent stereotype and the later influx only tell part of the story. There were well-established communities of Jewish people in the wealthier parts of London as well. In fact, "Rev. John Mills, a sympathetic observer, thought in 1853 that only about half of London's Jews were 'lower class,' a far smaller proportion than among Londoners as a whole" (White 152). Rich and cultured Jews continued to make their homes in England during the period, among them, for example, the art patrons and benefactors Ludwig and Frida Mond, who settled here in 1867, and had a fine mansion in St John's Wood. The synagogue in Abbey Road, St John's Wood, bears witness to this important element of Anglo-Jewry. Impressively solid but finely ornamented, it is a Grade II listed building, the work of one of the main architects working for the United Synagogue in the later part of the period. Sadly, it is the only one of H. H. Collins's eight London synagogues to have escaped demolition (see Kushner 156).

The author Walter Besant lived nearby in Hampstead, and could have had this very synagogue in mind when he wrote:

For my own part, I like sometimes to sit in the Synagogue on the Sabbath and listen to the service, which I do not understand. For it seems to explain the people — their intense pride, their tenacity, their separation from the rest of the world. Their service — I may be mistaken; I have no Hebrew — strikes upon my ears as one as one long grand hymn of praise and gladness. The hymns they sing, the weird, strange melodies of the hymns, are those, they allege, which were sung when Israel went out of Egypt; they are those which were sung when in the Red Sea the waters stood up like a wall on either side to let them through; they are those which were sung when Pharaoh's hosts lay drowning and the walls of water closed together. The service, the reading, the hymns, the responses — they are all an assertion that the choice of the Lord has fallen upon this people; the Lord their God hath chosen them. Let no one speak of Jews till he has listened to their service. By their worship the mind of a people may be discerned. (202)

Besant was obviously intrigued and moved by these religious observances; but the advice in his book about the East End ("let no one speak of Jews till he has listened to their service") hints at the growth of anti-Semitism in the period, triggered by the great waves of destitute immigrants. Negative feelings can be sensed even in one of the illustrations for this section of the book — a sketch by the normally sympathetic Leonard Raven-Hill of "A 'Schnorrer' (Beggar) of the Ghetto" — though it is important to see the picture in its context. It is worth remembering that the big synagogues made great efforts to help these new immigrants.


Besant, Walter. East London. London: Chatto & Windus, 1901.

Endleman, Todd M. "German-Jewish Settlement in Victorian England." In Second Chance: Two Centuries of German-Speaking Jews in the United Kingdom, ed. Werner E. Mosse. Tuübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991. (For the Monds, see pp. 44-45.)

Kushner, Tony. The Jewish Heritage in Britain: Englishness and Jewishness. London, Frank Cass, 1992.

"London: Synagogues (Listed Buildings)." Viewed 24 May 2008.

White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God." London: Cape, 2007. See White's "The London 'Ghetto'" (152-9) for the complexities of this subject.

Last modified 29 March 2013