Norwich has had a Jewish community since the arrival of the Normans, except for a break of 350 years following their expulsion from England in 1290.
Prior to the Norman Conquest following the invasion of 1066 there are no records of Jewish settlement in England. The Jews invited to England by the Normans seem to have come from Normandy or the lower Rhineland. There is evidence of a settled Jewish community in Norwich by 114 which may have been in existence 10 years earlier. By 1159 Norwich was recorded as second only to London in the list of Jewish communities contributing to the tax levied by Henry II.
It is not surprising that Jews should be in Norwich. It was the centre of the most heavily populated part of England and the market for a fertile agricultural region and Jews may have been told where to settle by the crown. Equally important it was the seat of royal power in the east with a castle and sheriff to offer protection to a vulnerable minority such as the Jews. It seems clear that ‘a majority of Jews in medieval England lived in or were associated with a limited number of organised communities in the major urban centres‘ - this would have included Norwich. Jews lived together for their own safety and to worship, in the 13th century residence outside established Jewish communities required special royal license and by 1275 Jews were prohibited from living outside cities where there was a chest for the registration of bonds.
The occupation of the wealthier Jews was the lending of money - they were effectively prohibited from engaging in the trading of goods due to the restrictions on travel the likelihood that they may not be paid for their goods and their exclusion from the trade guilds and other social and commercial networks accessible to Christians.
The first Jewish community in Norwich lived in around the Market Place in an area known as the ‘Jewry‘ bounded by the castle, the market and the churches of St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen - close to the various markets the castle and Guildhall. It seems likely there was a synagogue there from 1154 until the latter part of the thirteenth century. Initially there was no compulsion on Jews to live in a specific quarter but the evidence for the existence of the ‘Jewry‘ is conclusive. Indeed, the most important and impressive Jewish house, which still exists, was Jurnet‘s House in King Street.
Isaac, the son of Jurnet, bought the house in 1225 from John Curry. Isaac was a moneylender and at the time one of the wealthiest men in England. He died 10 years later and the house passed to his sons who were to share the property.
The population of medieval Norwich was in the range of 5,000 - 15,000 but the Jewish community is unlikely to have been more than 200 and by the time the Jews were expelled it was probably around 50. The community appears to have consisted of a few who were very rich- like Jurnet or Isaac, a more numerous middle class and larger numbers of poor Jews.
The relationship with the Christians was ‘never very good and became worse during the century and a half of the community‘s existence‘. The citizens may have resented the Jews because they were not subject, unlike the other citizens of Norwich, to the Mayor and Corporation but only to the Crown and its local agent the Sheriff. The Jews were subject to attacks on themselves and their properties such as those in 1235 when houses were set on fire and in 1238 when, following disturbances 31 people were detained. There was also the accusations of ritual murder by Jews of a boy named William - probably the first so-called ‘blood libel‘ of this nature in medieval Europe.
The relationship with the Crown, the nominal protector and direct governor of the Jews was not an easy one. Jews were subject to taxes on estates being passed to children, forfeits should Jews be convicted of a capital offence and ‘tallage‘ - an arbitrary tax levied at intervals often a substantial amount.
In 1290 Edward I decide to expel the Jews from England. The reasons are not completely clear but the official version was that the Jews had continued to lend money despite legislation banning it. It seems more likely that the attraction of the property held by the Jews lead the king to order the expulsion to replenish his exchequer. An inventory of Jewish property was compiled in October and the Jews were told they had to leave England by 1st November 1290. It is unclear where they went - possibly to France where they would have been an impoverished group facing further harassment.
One of those expelled could well have been Meir ben Elijah the poet. His poem ‘Put a curse on my enemy‘ describes the conditions of economic, communal and spiritual devastation that characterise thirteenth century English Jewery‘.
The Jews were re-admitted to England in 1656 after Oliver Cromwell encouraged them to return promising they would be allowed to practice their religion and trade. He took this decision in the face of opposition from his colleagues in government and merchants. However, their assimilation was gradual and it took another 200 years before Jews were enfranchised.
It is unclear when the Jewish community in Norwich was re-established. But by the late 18th century there is evidence of Jews trading as apothecaries, upholsterers and silversmiths - the latter, one Levy Isaac, described in the ‘1780s as ‘long resident in this city‘. And by 1776 there was an established Jewish cemetery. In 1818 a room in Gowing Court off St Stephens Street was being used for worship.
The community took a step forward when the first post-medieval synagogue was opened in Tombland Alley in 1828 - thanks to the efforts of Barnett Crawcour a Magdalen Street dentist, and the President of the Norwich Congregation Joel Fox who was to become the first Jewish member of the Norwich Corporation. The building was in use until a larger more imposing synagogue was built in the 1840s. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Jewish community was well established in Norwich with many of its members prominent in business - including Fox who was a furrier and went on to become a leader of the community following his arrival in 1832 and establishment of his business at Leipsic House on Gentleman‘s Walk at the junction with Davy Place.
The new synagogue in St Faith‘s Lane was opened in September 1849 at a cost of some £1,250 with a mortgage taken out to meet the shortfall. At the time of its construction the Jewish community in Norwich was small - comprising some ‘28 families consisting of 104 souls, they also beg to remark that during the Festivals very many travellers (between 40 and 50) make Norwich their home‘. The minister who lived in a house next door was the Rev. Simon Caro who served until his death in 1870. The synagogue itself stood until being destroyed by German bombs in June 1942.
It is known that a Jewish Burial Ground existed in Mariner‘s Lane, Ber Street, in the early part of the 19th century, but unfortunately no records are extant.
In 1813 a Burial Ground, situated in Quaker‘s Lane, St. Martin‘s. at Oak, Norwich, was acquired in the names of Barnett Crawcour (Dentist), Henry Carr (Merchant), Israel Jacobs (Optician) and Colman Michael (Merchant) of Wymondham. Dr. Cecil Roth notes that in 1837, the title deeds were deposited with the Great Synagogue, London. Four years later after a narrow escape from total loss, it was recovered for the Community by the payment of arrears of rent and in 1853 was regained by the president, Joel Fox. In the next year however, the Burial Acts Forbade intramural internment and fresh ground had to be acquired. Since then Jewish burials have taken place at the municipal cemetery on Earlham Road.
Prominent amongst the Jewish community during the latter part of the nineteenth century were the Haldenstein family - shoe manufacturers whose Queens Street factory later passed to the Bally shoe company and the Samuels - one of whom, Arthur, was to be Norwich‘s first Jewish Lord Mayor and to be knighted as Lord Mancroft
There appears to have been little increase in the size of the Jewish community in Norwich during the second half of the nineteenth century - in 1900 it consisted of ‘33 members and 147 souls‘. However, they were prominent in the life of Norwich and included Archie King the scrap dealer and a family of solicitors - the Brenners. The size of the community remained stable - by 1960 there were ‘68 members and 130 souls‘
The Jewish community in Norwich remains a small but important part of the life of the city and worships both at its synagogue on Earlham Road and at the reform services held at the Old Meeting House in Colegate.