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The Jewish Community in Bluetown and Sheerness
The Rise of Provincial Jewry - Sheerness by Cecil Roth, 1950
from the Susser Archives
"The invaluable Jewish Chronicle account of a century ago states that the Sheerness congregation was established about the year 1790, Isaac and Samuel Abrahams being the principal founders. Of the former, who had apparently come from Chatham, we know that he was a subscriber to the Jews' Hospital in 1808, and that his two sons, Abraham and Meir (known in the synagogue as "the sons of Isaac Chatham, of Sheerness") were admitted members of the Great Synagogue in 1807 and 1810 respectively. Solomon Moses, founder of the Jewish community of Goulburn, (Australia) was born at Sheerness in 1800, his parents being Simon and Caroline Moses. The port attained its greatest importance during the Napoleonic Wars; and its Jewish community developed pari passu. From the Navy List of 1816, it is possible to reconstruct a good part of its membership roll, the following names occurring among the licensed navy agents for petty officers and seamen: Joseph Aaron, Levy Alexander, Samuel Abrahams, Hyam Abrahams, Henry Abrahams, Benjamin Foreman (?), Abraham Moss, Samuel Solomon, and Sam. Solomon. (Levy Alexander was a kinsman of the late D. L. Alexander, President of the Board of Deputies, whose father Joshua Levy was left a fortune on condition that he changed his surname).
In 1811 a new synagogue was built. In The Star of May (?) 12th of that year we read:
"On Friday last a new Synagogue was consecrated at Sheerness, which was very numerously attended, and the service performed by Messers Leos and Phillips, who went from London for that purpose. The music was composed by one of the Mes. Leos, and was perhaps as grand as has been witnessed, as Mr. Leo led the band in a most excellent manner. Several persons of distinction were admitted to see the ceremony performed."
This gives a very exaggerated account, I fear, of the Synagogue, which was situated in Blue Town between Sheppey Street and Kent Street, and according to report was a simple wooden structure. And it is perhaps significant that the Reader who came down to officiate was not attached to one of the larger London communities, but to the struggling Westminster Congregation in Denmark Court. Little about the history of the Synagogue is known--unlike its predecessor, which had come into the news once in 1810, the service being disturbed when a wild cat was thrown through the window and a reward of no less than 20 guineas was offered for the discovery of the perpetrator of the outrage. The cemetery was at the rear of what is now 61 High Street. (The title-deeds were exhibited by Dr. Adler at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition of 1887, but I have been unable to trace them). It is a tiny plot, in which only eleven stones are now visible. The earliest legible is that of Hannah Moses, who died in 1804 aged 15 (?). This cemetery was in use until 1855; afterwards, from 1859 onwards, use was made of a Jewish plot in the Isle of Sheppey Cemetery. The Hazan in 1816 was Abraham ben R. Judah Leib, who in that year witnessed the marriage contract between Sarah Myers (daughter of Joel Myers of Maldon, for whom see p.19) and Hyam Abrahams of Sheerness brother of the Abraham Abrahams and Myer Abrahams mentioned above.
According to a record of the London Beth-Din in my possession, that body had its attention drawn in 1812 to an unseemly episode which had taken place in Sheerness. One Friday, a number of members of the community had gone aboard a man-o'-war in order to collect their debts. Since they could not finish before nightfall, most of them went ashore again. But they returned next day, on the Sabbath: and, once on board, they sold merchandise to the crew, and settled up with them, and even wrote down their accounts. The learned Dayanim imposed suitable spiritual penalties--even on those who had remained aboard overnight, as their intentions had not been pure, even though their actions may have been within the bounds of Rabbinic permissibility.
The entrance to the Jewish Cemetery in Hope St It is not always well looked after
However sometimes local people do manage to clear the site and tidy it up
The Sheerness community began to decline with the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Ten out of the 47 Jews residing in Glasgow in 1831 were natives of Sheerness; and when in about 1841 the Synagogue was restored only five Jewish families were left and an outside appeal for help had to be made. At this time, the Secretary of the congregation was M. Abrahams; the Hazan from 1837 was a Mr. J. Benjamin, who in 1844 left to take up a similar position in Liverpool; and the Wardens were Isaac Jacobs and Moses Abrahams. In 1850, A. Abrahams (d. 1892) emigrated to Adelaide, where he played a prominent part in communal life. In 1853, there were fifteen seat-holders, and the President was John Jacobs (probably Isaac Jacobs' son). By the end of the century, the Congregation was in full decay. In about 1887, the Synagogue was in such a deplorable condition that, on the advice of the Chief Rabbi, it was dismantled: but it remained standing until about 1935, when it was pulled down. The last Trustees were G. M. Abrahams and M. Russell, who died between 1890 and 1900; thereafter, interest in the affairs was taken only by W. Telfer Leviansky, a well-known London solicitor and communal worker, on behalf of the estate of a Mrs. Jacobs, widow of a former trustee. Some of the appurtenances were sent to the Stroud congregation--itself now extinct--and others to the Norwood Jewish Orphanage; the Candelabrum for Hanukah, of a type common in English synagogues, went to the Mocatta Museum, London.
The most distinguished scion of the Sheerness community was Henry Russell* (originally Levy), the song-composer, whose Cheer, Boys, Cheer and Life on the Ocean Wave are still popular English songs. He was father of William Clarke Russell, famous as author of sea-novels and biographies, of Sir Herbert Russell the war-correspondent, and of Sir Landon Ronald the composer.
* The Rev. M. Rosenbaum suggested that he may have belonged to the Raphael family, which supplied beadles to the Western Synagogue for three generations: several of the Russells were members of this Congregation."
13. Sheerness and Blue Town
The Jewish heritage and history of Sheerness and Blue Town is fascinating and virtually unknown in this still remote part of England. The Jewish community in Blue Town grew up alongside the Naval Dock Yard during the Napoleonic Wars and echos of this past can still be detected in the western part of Blue Town next to the old Dock Wall.
14. Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey seems as unlikely a place for a Jewish community as one might encounter in England. The Isle was (and still is to some extent) remote and isolated. Yet the Island supported a community for about a century. What is more the community while small made its mark on the place. The community became an accepted part of the character of the place not only is a street in Sheerness named after a Jew but also it produced one of the town's, literally, most sung celebrities.
The community is thought to have arisen as an off-shoot of the Chatham community. A slacking of trade in Chatham seems to have lead to some of that community trying their luck on remote Sheppey on the other side of the Swale.
They were attracted by a major military installation, the Naval Dockyards and garrison of Sheerness - one where the fledgling Nelson spent time as a midshipman.
The date of foundation was about 1790 and the key figures in the start of the community were Isaac and Samuel Abrahams. Samuel was a silver smith and Navy Agent. The Abrahams were to remain a prominent family in the history of the Sheerness community. The new community was largely a local affair in that the census of 1841 records that the vast majority of the Jews residing in Sheerness were born inside the County of Kent and by this it is probably correct to infer that many if not most of these came from Chatham in the first place.
It is easy to assume that Sheerness Jews lived in what we now assume to be Sheerness proper, that is the district of Mile Town. However from those early days the Jews lived not in Mile Town, the present center of Sheerness, but around the Naval port in Blue Town.
Blue Town was not a nice place to live. It was a small self-contained community built on a very, damp and wet place reclaimed out of the marshes. Its reason for being there was purely to serve the Naval Dock close by. The settlement was prone to both flood and fire. What was more it was a packed and teeming suburb heaving with the varied and unruly life such as gathered around Naval installations.
The community lived in the same sorts of housing as the dock workers. These were in the beginning small wooden cottages, painted with blue naval-paint, hence "Blue Town". Later these were cleared away and replaced with better houses.
The community rapidly reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars. The community had a synagogue before 1805, and signed a lease on its tiny cemetery at Hope Street by 1806, though oddly enough they seem to have made a first interment in the ground in 1804 before signing their lease.
Descendants of the Jewish families still live in Sheerness, and Chasidim holiday on the empty beaches of Minster.
16. 1935 circa
The synagogue is finally dismantled.
Mrs Jacobs dies aged 87 at Southend, a well known member of the Jewish community - one of the last. Deaths of former Sheerness Jews are reported in London, for example at Victoria Park, Hackney. Henry Russell brother of Frances Jacobs dies at Willesden Terrace.
The synagogue and the community are in complete decay. The Chief Rabbi advises the synagogue is dismantled.
Henry Jacobs is a founding board member of Blue Town Elementary School.
Another Jewish wedding takes place.
A new cemetery plot is established in the Isle of Sheppey cemetery
There are 15 seat-holders in the synagogue.
The community gain opprobrium due to their involvement selling off of the effects of the dead from a plague ship.
A Jewish wedding takes place.
The community gain their cemetery in perpetuity.
26. 1841 circa
The synagogue is restored but there are only five Jewish families left in Sheerness. In trade directories they are all Abrahams, Levys and Jacobs (excepting one Benjamin (the furrier)) - slopsellers, pawnbrokers / silversmiths, haberdasher / milliner / dressmaker, furniture-broker.
After the Napoleonic War the community declines - many are found to have moved to Glasgow.
Pigots' Directory lists the following Jews and profession; Levi Alexander (Navy Agent), Isaac and Michael Abraham (Pawnbrokers and Silver Smiths), Michael and Isaac Abraham (Tailors and Drapers, Daniel Cohen (Watchmaker).
Samuel Abraham (founder of the synagogue) has his navy agents' license revoked for the abuse of his position.
The list of Navy Agents shows nine licensed Jewish navy Agents.
A Jewish marriage is contracted between Sarah Meyers and Hyam Abrahams.
Jonas Abraham and Aaron Moss have their Navy Agents' license revoked for abuse of position.
Sheerness congregants are punished by the London Dayanim (Rabbinical judges)for doing business onboard a Man-O'-War on the Jewish Sabbath.
Henry Russell, the famous songwriter is born in Sheerness.
A new synagogue is built.
Asher and Rosa Nathan are attacked by navy officers.
A cat is thrown into the synagogue to disrupt the service. A reward of 20 guineas is offered for the culprits.
Abram Abrams (gentlemen)is promoted to Ensign in the local volunteer force.
J. Abrahams and M. Asher are pawnbrokers.
The cemetery is leased for 99 years.
A fracas occurs in the synagogue and a Jewish constable is assaulted. The miscreants are apprehended, fined and jailed.
The first burial takes place in the tiny Jewish cemetery
Isaac Levy, a slop seller gives evidence against ordinary seaman John Levy who is then flogged round the fleet.
44. 1790 circa
The community is established in the navy-dock area of Blue Town, Sheerness, as an off-shoot of the Chatham community, by Isaac and Samuel Abrahams.
45. Touring Jewish Sheerness and Blue Town
Sheerness is of genuine interest to the Jewish visitor. The Isle of Sheppey still wears a distinctive and remote aspect that is attractive if sometimes bleak. One could typify the landscape as being of sheep, ships, marshland and open countryside. The superficial unlikelihood of a Jewish community here in the past is very much part of its interest.
Also, most importantly the principal Jewish quarter of the western side of Blue Town still survives surprisingly intact. Here more perhaps than any other place in the country, it is possible to get a feel of what it was like to be a Jew in a small port town last century. Blue Town has been preserved by its deprivation and while it has been "environmentally improved" and partly redeveloped in recent years, it has a gritty and potent atmosphere, similar in some ways to parts of the old East End around Brick Lane that has escaped the worst of redevelopment and maintain their industrial actuality.
With its dominating Dock Wall along the High Street and prominent old Court House and dock buildings, old pubs and hotels, remnants of Georgian housing with timber fronting and brick Victorian housing in varying states of renovation or continuing dilapidation, this is not a conventional venue for visitor, but it is all the better for it.
The surviving area of Blue Town is quite small and compact and it can be wandered around without following a specific route as all the main landmarks will be passed by a wander of an hour or less. However a more methodical route would be to walk westwards along the High Street along the dock walls up to the Old Court House and then to walk through a minor maze of the lanes and passages around West Lane and behind the "Lord Nelson Inn" and the "Jolly Sailor". This latter area as well as the High Street, is where most of the Sheerness Jews lived and is the best preserved part of Blue Town.
Mile Town itself is well worth seeing if only to see the Hope Street cemetery, which is remarkable for it diminutive size and concealment in such as central location Also Russell Street, named after Samuel Russell is worth reflecting on.
46. Blue Town (Sheerness)
The origins of Blue Town lies in the collection of timber cabins built by dockyard workmen in the open area around the docks and stores. The name Blue Town derives from their use of blue-grey Naval paint to paint their crude houses.
The dry docks at Sheerness date back to 1708. The first "Blue Houses" had appeared by 1754. By 1792 there were 130 of the painted cottages or cabins. Additionally old naval hulks were used as accommodation for the workers.
In 1802 many of the workers were forced to leave the Blue Houses in order to move to the barracks and the term Blue Town became the general term for the place rather than Blue Houses.
A serious fire in the yard in the 1820s removed the rest of the old workers houses. The high dock yard wall along the High Street was also completed by 1827 along with other installations.
While much of the early housing was renewed in the 19th century Blue Town would have remained a cramped uncomfortable place to live. The street plan from the early days was apparently not rationalized or improved, with much of the poorer housing being around cramped alleys, lanes and courts, the courts being a sign of slum type housing. The Victorian maps show that many of the blocks of housing had rows or block of outside latrines in shared yards with a shared single tap as a water supply.
These features, combined with several slaughter houses, and stables would have made the area if not insanitary then smelly. Added to this, the pubs, numerous skittle alleys, smithies all in the small area would have made it a noisy quarter as well.
47. The Site of the Synagogue - Kent Street
Today the area of Blue Town has been reduced by modern development and the site of the synagogue lies on the very south side of the triangular block that makes up Blue Town. The site is just north of the modern Brielle Way - the main road - which has carved into Blue Town, just north-west of the junction of Brielle Way with Kent Street in a car park (the precise location for those with GPS is 51°26'28.80"N 0°45'5.92"E ).
In 1856 the synagogue was described in detail in the "Archaeological Mine". It relates that it was built in wood at the cost of thirteen hundred pounds. "...It is stated to have been constructed after the model of a synagogue in London, but the style of architecture is of no peculiar order, like all structures built during the Georgian era-the dark ages of architectural design-it may be described as of debased gothic-amalgamated with the Grecian.
The structure is oblong-east and west. The entrance is at the west-end. A gallery for women, on the north side of the entrance. Above the door is a three-light window, with gothic crockets and finial, on each side is also a lancet-headed window, surmounted with a circular window with stained glass.
At the eastern end, as usual, is the Ark, in which are three scrolls of the "The Law," parchment. The Ark is severed from the main body of the building by a curtain, it is almost entirely of Grecian design; above it is a portion of the ten commandments.
On the south wall is the following prayer in Roman character..." [recites the prayer for the Royal family, in this case Queen Victoria]
The synagogue was evidently a simple structure, its most unusual feature, from this description, being its small women's gallery over the north side of the door.
48. King Street
Birth place of Mrs Frances Jacobs - King Street
Mrs Jacobs, the niece of Henry Russell was born in Blue Town, during 1817 "in a wood built cottage in King Street, Blue Town, which was destroyed some years ago in "Monk's fire", which cleared the corner of King Street and Union Street. Mr Monk was a grocer on the corner of Union Street. The site of the cottage in which Mrs. Jacobs first saw the light of day is now occupied by No.3, King Street."
The 1841 census also records that Frances Levy aged 67, born in the county, lived in the street.
49. Druids Arms, High Street
A Russell residence - the Druids Arms, High Street
The Druids Arms was sited close to the eastern end on the High Street, north of the midway point on East lane. This had been the site of three cottages and the birth place of a Henry Russell - not the song-writer but a relative.
Mrs Jacobs' husband, Samuel Russell a clothier, "was born in a house opposite No. 56 High Street, Blue Town, on the site of the present Dockyard wall". A brown stone in the wall in the past denoted the site of the doorway of this house.
In 1841, Isaac and Katherine Jacobs, slopsellers, and three of their children (aged between 7-28 years) resided in the street. With them were two other children, Elijah Levy (13) and Morris Philips (7).
Of interest is Nore Levey, a hawker (35). The name "Nore" is unusual, it might be explained by the fact that "The Nore" was a both the name of a local sandbank and a naval command - thus it could be an original English forename used by this Jewish resident for its patriotic and local associations.
Abraham and Rachel Abrahams (66 and 53 respectively), a silversmith, lived on this street with their six children.
In the 1810s Benjamin foreman, Navy Agent, Tailor and Draper is listed on the street.
Sam Jacobs, one of the Jacobs' clan, was born one of a family of 17, born in a single cottage on what is now the site of the Dockyard wall, directly opposite Taylor's Alley.
50. West Street
West Street is an extension of the High Street. An 18 year-old, Betsey Featherstone, was recorded on this street. She was probably Jewish as Featherstone is a Kent Jewish surname, probably an Anglicization of Finkelstein.
A Henry Jacobs (born 1822), son of Isaac Jacobs, lived in 19 West Street, until his death in 1883.
51. West Lane
Mrs F. Jacobs spent her married life in West Lane, where her husband died. Afterwards she moved to 11 West Street where she ran a fruiter's. An attractive feature of the street is its surviving cobbles and its pubs - survivors of the numerous pubs and hotels of the 19th century dock area. West Passage cutting across the lane wears a distinct air of dereliction, but the narrow alley with it clutter of buildings including its wooden faced Georgian buildings convey a good impression of how the Jewish quarter would have been like in the nineteenth century.
52. Fountains Hotel and Passage
Fountains Passage probably ran behind the Fountains Hotel and remnants of this presumed passage still survive at its either end.
In 1841, Nathan Jacobs (aged 35) lived in the passage, as did Harry Levy (19) a slop seller and also a Lyon(?) Levy also a slop seller. The passage remains to be located but was probably in the vicinity.
53. Kingshead Alley
A Mary Samson (20) was recorded in the 1841 census and was possibly Jewish.
54. Union Street
In 1841 the census states that Isaac Levy, aged 50, a watchmaker born in Sheerness, lived in the street with his wife and family of six children.
Along the length of Union Street is a most unusual and unlikely war memorial from the First World War. An old brick built workshop has a course of blocks of stone, individually inscribed to the memory of the fallen under the window level. Included is the following to a member of the Jacobs family.
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
THIS STONE WAS LAID
IN MEMORY OF
BY HIS MOTHER
55. Chapel Street
In the 1820s the Navy Agents Levy Alexander and Samuel Abrahams (the latter one of the founders of the synagogue) lived here, though it has been noted that there were three Chapels Streets at various times in Sheerness, but this was most probably the one running across the centre of Blue Town.
56. Charles Street
Off the western end of Charles Street is the site of Blue Town Elementary School (1876-7). The foundation plaque of the school has been preserved on a corner of a car park set prominently upright in granite sets. The plaque records the founding members of the school board and included is Henry Jacobs, one of the Jacobs' clan.
57. High Street - the Birth Place of Henry Russell
Mile Town is a short distance along Brielle Way and Bridge Street from Blue Town. Henry Russell is said to have been born in the High Street, opposite Russell Street. Henry Russell also kept a furniture-broker's shop opposite Russell Street, in what was probably the same property. Russell Street is at the western end of High Street; the Blue Town end of the street. The street is stated to have been named after him, it having previously been Chapel Street one of three in Sheerness. However it may in reality have been named after Samuel Russell who actually lived in the street and was named in his honour after a tragic and fatal accident aboard a naval Ship.
58. The Jewish cemetery - Hope Street
The Jewish cemetery - Hope Street, the rear of 61 High Street (Mile Town)
Hope Street runs parallel to Russell Street and comes directly off the High Street. The cemetery is doubtlessly one of Mile Town's best kept secrets, even though it is just yards from the main street of the town. Unless you know about it and where to look you would almost certainly never stumble across it.
To find it, look down Hope Street from its junction with High Street. It is on the left about 30 yards down in the gap between the second and third buildings on the street. It is fronted by a seven foot high, anonymous concrete rendered wall, with a small decrepit wooden door on the left. The ground is 60 x 25 feet.
It appears that the key for the cemetery might not be held locally - it used to be in a nearby shop. I was given a view of the cemetery through the rear window of a shops W.C. which looks onto the ground! NB It is now kept by the Estate Agent just past the wall
The tombstones, all uprights, rest against the far wall in varying states of decay. When I visited only one tombstone was visible in the sea of brambles. A blocked in window in the south perimeter wall may be evidence for a small former ohel (burial hall) for the cemetery.
Professor De Lange's survey of the cemetery confirms that the earliest burial was that of Hannah Moses in 1804, she died at 15 year old. There are eleven tombstones in the cemetery of modest style inscribed in Hebrew.
The memorials, where surnames are given, are to the Moses, Jacobs, Levy and probably the Abrahams family. Mrs Jacobs was also buried in this cemetery in 1904, even though it had been officially out of use since 1855.
59. New Road
New Road runs south west, a direct ext
59. New Road
New Road runs south west, a direct extension of Hope Street. Samuel Solomon, Navy Agent, was here in the 1810s as well as having a residence in High Street Chatham.
60. Russell Street - Named after a Sheerness Jew
A street Named after a Sheerness Jew - Russell Street
Russell Street was originally known as Sun Street but the name was changed to Russell Street out of respect to the Russell family when Samuel Russell (husband of Yitta Russell) was killed on board the HMS Colossus on June 10th, 1859, when he fell from the main deck into the spirit room, striking his head on a cask. Samuel Russell was the father of Mrs Jacobs, who was their eldest child.
Samuel Russell also named a street in Sheerness. He was the first to give the name "Crimea" to present day Marine Town as building operations were going on their during the time of the Russian War. This name later fell out of use.
61. The Second Jewish Cemetery
The New Cemetery - The Isle of Sheppey Cemetery, Halfway Road, Queenborough
The new cemetery was first used in 1859 and is a separate hedged section visible from the road at the Sheerness end of the cemetery. It was originally ran by a private company, the Isle of Sheppey cemetery Company to 1945, then the District Council.
Professor De Lange has recorded eleven stones in the new section. The majority are for the Jacobs family and some three for the Levy's. The latest he records is in 1899 for Esther Jacobs. The tombstones all imitate the general local styles seen elsewhere in the cemetery.
Simon Magnus had the present Chatham memorial synagogue built as a memorial to his son, Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus. It was formally opened and consecrated in 1869. Captain Lazarus 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 Chatham Synagogue, a director of the Chatham Railway and a Mayor of Queenborough, a town on the Isle of Sheppey (apparently as a mark of gratitude for his having been instrumental in bringing the railway to Sheerness and Queenborough). In fact he was the first Jewish mayor of any municipality in the United Kingdom. He died accidentally, at the early age of thirty nine years, when he was still unmarried,from using too much chloroform to cure a toothache.
Memorial to Captain Magnus in the garden of the Synagogue at Chatham
Text of a speech given by Irina Shub at the Civic Service on 16th March commemorating Lazarus Magnus being elected for the first time as Mayor of Queenborough. It took place in the Chatham Memorial Synagogue in the presence of the Mayors of Medway Queeborough and Ramsgate
The inscription reads;
Captain Lazarus Simon Magnus
4th Kent Artillery Volunteers
late Mayor of Queenborough
7th January 1865
Aged 39 years
Lazarus Simon Magnus (1824-1865)
Speech given during the Civic Service, commemorating 150 anniversary of his election as
the Mayor of Queenborough
Lazarus Simon was born in Chatham, in 1826 to the family of Simon Magnus, a coal merchant. His family had settled in the town for quite some time – Lazarus’s grandfather, also Lazarus, having moved to Chatham from Portsmouth.
The only son and the firstborn child of a successful merchant, Lazarus was educated in the well established Leopold Neumegen Academy in Highgate, London. Here the teaching of traditional Jewish education was combined with the more down-to-earth and useful subjects of that time aiming to help young Jews to earn a living and also integrate into English society. It was the time of Jewish Emancipation in England. With the abolition of discriminatory laws and the recognition of Jews as equals, they were no longer oppressed, or overtly excluded from public service. This led to active participation of Jews in civil society. They identified themselves with the national spirit, and while preserving their Jewishness, considered themselves English.
Lazarus Simon Magnus was an outstanding representative of that sector. He was a forceful example of how to combine and harmonise Judaism with Englishness. His major strength was his talent for public work. He was a successful businessman, whose main aim in every project he took part in was the promotion of the public interest. During his short, but intense life – he died when only 39 years old; he managed to achieve so much, that it’s rare to find someone of the same age repeating his success today.
Magnus was esteemed as a conscientious and enlightened magistrate; he was also a promoter and Director of the Lodging House for Poor Jews, and generally known to be a very generous, hospitable and charitable man.
He was involved in the North Atlantic Telegraph project, and was lobbying for a new telegraph route to connect Britain with America via the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland (the previous route was a failure and the confidence of public and scientists at the time had been shaken in the practicality of a long direct line between England and America).
Magnus was a personal friend of Brunel – one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. In 1858, picking up a Brunel project, which was on the point of collapse due to a financial crisis approaching bankruptcy, it was Lazarus Magnus, who was instrumental in re-organizing the Great Eastern Ship Company and in bringing the project to completion. The Great Eastern – a giant steam ship was not to be equaled in size for another 50 years.
You may be interested to know, a couple of years earlier, in connection with an important project much nearer to home, it was Lazarus Magnus, who became involved. when the Sittingbourne and Sheerness Railway Company became incorporated by an Act of Parliament in June 1856, he became the Vice-Chairman of the Company. In spite of the world-wide financial crisis that hit England among other countries in summer 1857, it was his drive and energy that pushed the project ahead. His belief in the usefulness and enormous benefits that the railway line could bring to the people of Queenborough, connecting Sheerness with Woolwich, Deptford, Portsmouth, and the whole of the south coast from Margate to Weymouth, inspired him in his struggle against robust opposition – there were doubts whether there was enough money to finish the line, whether the line was ever going to make any profit…But as he said at the opening ceremony on the 18th July 1860 with terrific optimism: “Whether we do or we don’t have money, we definitely have the line!”
Lazarus Magnus remained the Vice-Chairman of the Sittingbourne and Sheerness Railway Company until his death. And one of the first steam engines used on that line bore his name “Magnus”.
Yet another important project found him as the Chairman of the Buenos Ayres and San Francisco Railway Company.
In spite of what some cynics may say today, Magnus was one of those, who fervently believed in the advantages that spring from the English municipal system, which he considered to be the foundation of English liberties. His involvement in public welfare was rewarded in 1858, when he was unanimously elected to the Office of Mayor of Queenborough. His success in office was such, that he was re-elected a year later, and for the third time in 1862.
Going back a little bit, on the 12 of May 1859 due to nationwide scare over the possibility of war with France, the War Office gave sanction for the formatting of volunteer corps out of concern for home defence. Lazarus Simon took up this call – an early version of Dad’s Army, perhaps! Hopefully minus the laughs - and on the 29 November 1859 the 4th Corps of the 1st Brigade of the Kent Voluntary Artillery was formed. The target was 30 names: in fact 64 got to sign up. The same day he was proposed for and accepted the office of the Captain. Lazarus Magnus proved to be a caring and generous leader, much respected by the volunteers. And just the opposite to Captain Manwaring, Captain Magnus played the major part in bringing the Corps to efficiency, which was commended on various occasions. He was the leading force behind this Corps, and his tragic death in 1865 fatally affected the Corps – in January 1867 it was merged with the 13th Corps as their 3rd battalion.
In 1860 he became a member of the committee of the so named New Gas Company at Chatham.
As we can see then his commercial main interests were threefold: communication, transport and energy.
On Friday 7 January 1865, Magnus developed a toothache. Despite an invitation from his brother-in-law to stay with him and his family Lazarus went back to his offices in London Bridge. He exchanged greetings with the housekeeper and asked her about the best remedy to the problem. The housekeeper suggested some laudanum on a piece of lint, but Magnus replied: “That is no use. I will try chloroform.” Unfortunately, this was a fatal mistake, that cost him his life - he died from inhaling too much of it.
The local newspapers record that during the funeral many shops closed their shutters for the day out of respect to Lazarus Magnus. A year later during the stone-setting ceremony Rev. Prof. Marks, the minister of the West London Synagogue, in his speech suggested that Lazarus Simon Magnus should be commemorated by building a synagogue, which would serve 2 purposes – it would be a permanent place of worship for the Jews in the area – a symbol of stability and settlement in this country, and secondly – it would improve and enhance the facade of this part of the High Street.
Throughout his life Magnus acted according to his name – grand and noble, great in reputation and authority, distinguished and skilled, of bold and generous spirit.
In his will Lazarus Simon Magnus left legacies to 10 different charities. But I believe, and I think you will agree with me, his greatest, permanent, eternal legacy is the railway which many thousands of people use today, and which connects the Isle of Sheppey with the whole of the south coast. And the Sheppey Crossing, the high-speed carriageway which opened in July 2006, is only a continuation of his pioneering achievement.
by Irina Shub
One of the headstones in the Jewish section of the Halfway Cemetery
See Churches used and disused to see photos of the Jewish headstones in the Jewish cemeteries in Sheerness and Halfway and the site of the Synagogue in Bluetown
For help reading Jewish headstones see http://www.thorngent.eclipse.co.uk/susser/TR.pdf