Sussex Hall (1845-59) and the revival of learning among London Jewry*

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'[I]n the history of the Jewish people, no circumstance can be more signifi? cant and worthy of record than the formation of such an Institution', trum? peted the Hebrew Observer in 1854, while Grace Aguilar, a young Jewish novelist, painted the same 'Institution' in equally glowing and optimistic terms: Sephardi and Ashkenazi 'Jews meet on common ground; classes, lec? tures, and an excellent library are open alike to the artisan, the tradesman, the merchant, the professor, and the idler; and from the eagerness with which all classes avail themselves of the advantages afforded by the Institution, it would appear that its value [is] duly appreciated.'1 The insti? tution to which both writers referred was the Jews' and General Literary and Scientific Institution (hereafter JGLSI), generally known as Sussex Hall, which was strategically located on Leadenhall Street. For many contempo? raries, including the two writers just cited, Sussex Hall was the focus of Jewish intellectual life in mid-nineteenth-century London and provided its members with a unique opportunity for education and self-improvement.

However, despite the enthusiastic support it received from some quar? ters, Sussex Hall survived for only a decade and a half. Moreover, with the exception of Arthur Barnett's incisive analysis, which appeared in the Society's Transactions in the late 1950s,2 it has almost faded from Anglo Jewish history. The aim of this paper is to analyse its foundation in 1844-5, its activities and the reasons for its collapse in 1859. As Barnett also engaged with these questions I should make explicit two points on which I diverge from his interpretation. Like a number of subsequent historians, Barnett portrayed Sussex Hall as a 'Mechanics Institute'.3 However, by setting the

1 Hebrew Observer (hereafter HO) 3 Feb. 1854, 249; [G. Aguilar], 'History of the Jews in England', Chambers' Miscellany XVIII (1847), section 153.

2 A. Barnett, 'Sussex Hall - The First Anglo-Jewish Venture in Popular Education' Trans JHSEXIX (1955-9) 65-79.

3 Ibid; D. Cesarani, The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Je wry, 1841-iggi (Cambridge 1994) 10 11; T. M. Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000 (Berkeley 2002) 87.

JGLSI within the context of the many contemporary societies, I shall argue that it fulfilled a much wider role than that of a Mechanics' Institute.

Secondly, Barnett subsumed the history of Sussex Hall to the narrative that has dominated Anglo-Jewish historiography of that period - the strug? gle for political emancipation. On his account Sussex Hall was founded to help advance the civic and political rights of Anglo-Jewry. But he evoked this specific framework in order to explain why Sussex Hall closed in 1859, the year after Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in Parliament. 'Emancipation was born, so Sussex Hall was dead. A familiar axiom has gone into reverse; the Sussex Hall invention was the mother of Emancipation necessity. The long looked for child had arrived but the mother had suc? cumbed to the birth-pangs. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that many of the former benefactors of Sussex Hall had been using the Jewish masses for their

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