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SIMON MAGNUS.

 

 

 

 

The Medway Jewish Community, which serves a large part of Kent, is centred on the Chatham Memorial Synagogue, situated in Rochester High Street, whose beautiful baroque interior is becoming known to the wider Jewish community, with the growing popularity of group outings, visiting historic Kent centres, such as the Ramsgate home of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, Canterbury, Chatham Dockyard and Chatham Memorial Synagogue

 

It seems likely that the community assumed some importance during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when some members were listed as Naval or Admiralty Agents, deriving profit from the purchase of prize money shares from Royal Naval ships' crews, when captured enemy vessels were sold off, as recorded in Geoffrey L. Green's book, "The Royal Navy and Anglo-Jewry, 1740 - 1820". Amongst those listed for Chatham, Lazarus Magnus and his son, Simon Magnus (builder of the present synagogue) both appear. When the practice ceased, these people tended to become ships' chandlers, or military tailors, some of their companies still being in existence today, in naval dockyard ports

 

Simon Magnus had the present Byzantine Synagogue built as a memorial to his son, Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus. It was formally opened and consecrated in 1869. The site was in an unadopted area on the High Street between the two towns Chatham and Rochester , referred to on old maps as "Chatham Intra", or "Chatham Without", which was taken into Rochester about ten years after the building opened.  The land originally belonged to the Trustees of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which was founded by Bishop Gundulph (or Gandolf) in about 1090, after building Rochester Castle (to the instructions of William the Conqueror) starting to build Rochester Cathedral and designing the Tower of London.  When the freehold was purchased by Simon Magnus, he was not allowed to buy the freehold of a strip of ground, one yard wide, running up the west side of the plot, which purported to be the passageway used by lepers and other incurables. between the river landing place opposite the- plot and the hospital.  The rent of that strip is now 5p per annum, payment of which is, of course, a legal necessity, although any lepers landing there now would have to negotiate a high brick wall between the cemetery and the hospital

 

Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus was a highly respected man, active in local and communal affairs. He was a captain in the 4th. Kent Artillary Volunteers, a member of the Board of Management of the Synagogue, a director of the Chatham Railway and a Mayor of Queenborough, a town on the Isle of Sheppey in 1858 , 1859 and 1862 (apparently as a mark of gratitude for his having been instrumental in bringing the railway to Sheerness and Queenborough). He died accidentally at the early age of thirty nine years of age and his death was reported in the local paper of January 11th 1865 . when he was still unmarried. He died at Adelaide Gardens , London Bridge. He suffered from a severe headache and to relieve his suffering he covered his face with a cloth and poured chloroform onto the cloth , passed out went to sleep and then never recovered .

 

His grave memorial dominates the cemetery and it is conditional in the Deed of Trust that it shall always be visible from the road.  A beautiful Memorial Book, handwritten in classical Hebrew, dated 5595 (c.1835) includes a list of earlier benefactors to be prayed for when Yizkor is recited. Amongst others, it is possible to read the Hebrew names of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, who were (and, indeed, their descendants still are) inter-related by marriage with the Magnus family.

When it became necessary, around 1972, to incorporate a classroom and social hall into the building, the Trust Deed condition concerning visibility of the Magnus Memorial caused some difficulty.   However, the Charity Commissioners were good enough to arrange for a Parliamentary Bill to vary the Deed, by allowing the new social hall to be built across the sight line of the Memorial, whilst maintaining the spirit of the Deed.  By this time the Minister's house had been condemned and had to be demolished and, since a benefactor provided large quantities of glass, the architect was able to incorporate large windows in the new building, leaving the Memorial stilI visible from the High Street.

 

The community has no resident minister at present but is fortunate in having capable lay readers, who officiate at services, together with occasional visits from the Minister for SmaII Communities, the Rev. Malcolm Weisman, O.B.E. Since the former Orthodox communities of Gravesend, Sheerness and Canterbury ceased to exist, the Chatham Memorial Synagogue has become the only Orthodox one in mid-Kent. Members are drawn from a large area, although the majority live in the pleasant environments of the Medway Towns and Maidstone. Newcomers are quickly drawn into taking an active part in communal affairs - a benefit of life in a small Jewish community! A friendly and co-operative spirit is also evident towards the Kent Liberal Jewish Community, which is based in Maidstone and some joint meetings and services are held with the small Jewish community, which was started in Canterbury, a few years ago

 

During the 1939/45 war years and later, during the time of National Service, hospitality was extended to the many Jewish forces personnel passing through the Medway Towns. In our own day, the ladies designed the Centenary Hall kitchen, to meet the criteria of the Beth Din and they ensure that the rules of Kashrut are strictly adhered to, in its use. 

Members of this independent, Orthodox Jewish community continue to play an active part in local life, being District Judges, J.P's, school governors,

Local councillors, chairing the local Racial Equality Council and Advisory Councils for Religious Education, amongst other activities. The writer and others, address local schools and accept many school groups at the Synagogue, covering the whole county, including the outskirts of London, in accordance with current religious education curriculae and carrying out teacher training to this end. As mentioned earlier, Jewish social groups are  finding that a visit to Chatham Memorial Synagogue provides historic interest, as well as pleasant refreshment

 

And has been reported many times in many forms the cemetery in Hope Street is the last visible , but yet hidden sign of the once large Jewish population of Sheppey and it was in use until 1855 but from 1859 onwards the dead were buried in the Jewish plot at Halfway Cemetery.

The Jewish Chronicle reports that the Sheerness congregation was established about the year 1790 Isaac and Samuel Abrahams being the principal founders . And a new synagogue was built in 1811 and in Bluetown between Sheppey Street and Kent Street and was a simpler wooden structure costing 1.300 and built mostly of wood.

The Sheerness community began to decline with the Napoleonic Wars and it was noted that 10 out of the 47 Jews residing in Glascow in 1831 were natives of Sheerness and when the synagogue was restored in 1841 only 5 Jewish families were left they included pawnbrokers watchmakers silversmiths and those who sold clothing and equipment to sailors. And in 1853 there were only 15 seat holders. In 1887 the synagogue was in such a bad state the Chief Rabbi ordered it to be dismantled but it remained a skeleton of a building for years and was finally pulled down in 1935 .

It was interesting to note that Solomon Moses -another Son of Sheppey !! the founder of the Jewish community in Goulburn in Australia was born in Sheerness in 1800 his parents being Simon and Caroline Moses

 

A tale was told to me as follows ;- You may know that the Jews of York were expelled and massacred in the 12th Century Apparently at this time a ship was bound from York to Europe full of Jewish people and had moored off Queenborough .The Captain ,presumably to avoid what he may have considered to be a wasteful journey put the folk off the ship at low tide on the mud from Deadmans Island .As the sea rose he refused them back aboard and they all drowned .

From Hobarts historic shul by Mark Franklin

Judah Solomon left 10 children and a pregnant wife in England when he was deported to Van Diemens Land with his brother Joseph in 1819. the two were convicted of hiring burglars to steal goods that oddly enough , had already been stolen from someone else . The Jewish community in their hometown of Sheerness must have felt a twinge of pity at their unhappy exile because they sent the brothers a large sum of money which enabled them to open a large store in the main street of Hobart with the blessing of colonial authorities who wanted to develop a local infrastructure

The bothers prospered Judah built himself a large mansion ,found a mistress and fathered a child but then his wife arrived from Sheerness with several of his children and took very unkindly to here husbands unfaithfulness and after failing to live under one roof kicked him out.

Judah then decided to offer the grounds of his large mansion which his wife Esther had usurped but and which he still legally owned to the emerging Jewish community and it was there that Hobarts first Jewish synagogue was built .

Hobarts synagogue now houses the oldest functioning congregation in Australia .A census in 1842 showed that 259 Jews were living in Van Diemens Land most were convicts or emancipists many of whom opened small stores and scraped together a meagre living. In the 2001 census only 163 Tasmanians identified themselves as Jewish and the Hobart congregation numbered 70.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See www.chathamshul.fsnet.co.uk for more data and a complete history.

And www.jewishgen.org