Skip to content

At Bevis Marks Synagogue

June 13, 2019
by the gentle author

You can visit Bevis Marks Synagogue and Dennis Severs House on the same day as part of the Spitalfields Journey 2019 on selected dates between 1st August and 10th September (Click here for tickets)

Built in 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in this country and it has been continuously in use for over three hundred years, making it – according to Rabbi Shalom Morris – the oldest working synagogue in the world.

Its origin lies with Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came to London in the seventeenth century, escaping persecution of the Catholic Church and taking advantage of a greater religious tolerance in this country under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. When war broke out between England and Spain in 1654, Antonio Robles, a wealthy merchant, went to court to prove that he was Jewish rather than Spanish – establishing a legal precedent which permitted Jewish people to live freely in this country for the first time since their expulsion by Edward I in 1290.

By 1657, a house in Creechurch Lane in the City of London had been converted into a synagogue and the site of Bevis Marks was acquired in 1699. Constructed by Joseph Avis, a Quaker builder who is said to have refused any profit from the work, and with an oak beam presented by Queen Anne, the synagogue was completed in 1701.

Remarkably, the synagogue has seen almost no significant alteration in the last three centuries and there are members of the current congregation who can trace their ancestors back to those who worshipped here when it first opened – even to the degree of knowing where their forebears sat.

On the sunlit morning I visited, my prevailing impression was of the dramatic contrast between the darkness of the ancient oak panelling and the pale white-washed walls illuminated by the tall clear-glass windows, framing a space hung with enormous brass chandeliers comprising a gleaming forest of baubles suspended low over the congregation. You sense that you follow in the footsteps of innumerable Londoners who came there before you and it makes your heart leap.

The lowest bench for the smallest children at the end of the orphans’ pew

Rabbi Shalom Morris turns the huge key in the original lock at Bevis Marks

You may also like to read about

At Princelet St Synagogue

At Fieldgate St Synagogue

At Nelson St Synagogue

At Sandys Row Synagogue

12 Responses leave one →
  1. June 13, 2019

    Many thanks. This was one of my favourite shules in all of the UK and I have seen many! Your photos are amazing, especially when I saw things I had never seen before eg the orphans’ pew and the two dates on the external clock.

  2. Lloyd Adalist permalink
    June 13, 2019

    One of my favourite London places. Gorgeous architecture, glorious furnishings and quietly contemplative atmosphere.

  3. June 13, 2019

    A fascinating place and one, that witnessed the marriage of an ancestor of mine.

  4. Adele Lester permalink
    June 13, 2019

    A jewel of the East! Thanks GA for bringing back so many memories.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 13, 2019

    So glad it has survived in tact and is still in use today….shalom!

  6. Bernie permalink
    June 13, 2019

    As a Londoner long exiled in Scotland your splendidly composed and illustrated posts are the visits my younger self never thought to make and therefore extra precious, this one especially!

    Recent investigations of family history have revealed a central role for Princelet St (formerly Princes St) synagogue, which participated in a long-running “cheap marriage” scheme suited to the struggling inhabitants of the East End. Not as splendid, perhaps, as Bevis Marks, but socially important.

  7. June 13, 2019

    Is there not a plan to build something even taller blocking out all light to it?

  8. June 13, 2019

    As a matter of historical interest in the 19th century the Arbeiter Fraint a socialist Yiddish weekly paper led protests outside Bevis Marks and other East End synagogues in the form of Pork Balls in which there was dancing and pork was eaten and given away to passers by on Yom Kipur. The first one took place in 1888 led by Benjamin Feigenbaum the editor of the paper. It was terrible shock to the community

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    June 13, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the beautiful pics of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in Spitalfields. Great angles on those shots! The building appears so lovingly maintained.

    A few years back I took a tour that included the Dennis Severs House and another nearby synagogue under renovation. The structure had similar “bones,” but was in need of serious restoration. The docent who showed us around was charming. Perhaps it was the one on Princelet Street.

    Missing London today…

  10. Micheal Pyner permalink
    June 13, 2019

    …..”escaping persecution of the Catholic Church and taking advantage of a greater religious tolerance in this country under Oliver Cromwell’s rule…..”

    Unless ironically you were a Catholic for whom Cromwell’s hatred knew few bounds….

  11. Rick Armiger permalink
    June 13, 2019

    I have a very happy memory for Bevis Marks….

    I was contacted by two sweethearts, asking if I’d be their wedding chauffeur using my impossibly nice and impossibly huge 1966 Newport.

    With grace, they encouraged me to join the service (me a gentile) the first time I’d seen Bevis Marks in close-up.

    What stood out still more was how privileged I felt sharing the very first moments, first hour of their newest biggest adventure…

    Wherever you two lovebirds are now, I think of you often and I wish you both well.

    *… when driving slowly across the capital from BM to the reception.

  12. June 13, 2019

    When I took a tour of Bevis Marks about 10 years ago? the chap who took us round said that as much of building echoes Christopher Wren detailing there is a theory he deigned it secretly.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS