The Jews of Essex before 1900

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At 10.45 am. on 15 September 1897, a special train steamed out of F enchurch Street Station. On board were 500 East End men, women and children bound for South Benfleet, where Messrs Protheroe and Morris were to auction, for the fourth time that summer, small freehold plots that would fetch a few pounds. apiece, payable on the instalment system. ‘The Jews as Agriculturists’, ran a headline in the Essex Chronicle. ‘A Colony of Israelites in Essex. Extraordinary Scene’.1

Extraordinary it certainly was, but it is an uncharacteristically upbeat note on which to begin this paper, for the story of post-Resettlement Jewish involvement in Essex actually starts in a rather darker key and over a century before the railway age. History, we are often told, is a sceptical science, and members of this Society have long grown accustomed to modifying received ideas about notabilities of past generations to accommodate such findings as emerge from research. Perhaps we should not be unduly surprised to learn that in the last few years of his life, Moses Hart, founder of the Great Synagogue, received a summons to attend the Court of Chancery. He was charged with having concealed from the creditors of his nephew, Isaac Helbut, his ownership of over 1000 acres of Essex farmland. Helbut, a feckless spendthrift, had paid an inflated price for this property just before the South Sea Bubble burst. Eighteen months later and deep in debt, he persuaded his uncle to become the mortgagee. Hart showed great reluctance to do so.2 Unsure of his rights of entitlement, he may have consulted Philip Carteret Webb or another of the solicitors often called on at this period to advise senior members of the community. Whether any advice was given is not known, but it does happen that the act permitting Jewish landowners to take the Oath of Abjuration in its non-Christological form went through Parliament at this very moment.3 So far as Essex is concerned, we need only add that Helbut’s estate remained in family possession for ninety years, and that for much of the 19th century it was owned by a gentleman named Samuel Sampson, who, although he is listed in the directories as a tea broker, stoutly denied the fact in correspondence with the Registrar of Stamps over a tax demand.4

While the immediate consequences of Helbut’s profligacy may have made little impact on anyone apart from his creditors, the case of Henry Simons, a peddlar charged with perjury but acquitted after a second trial at Chelmsford, was Paper presented to the Society on 15 April 1993. undoubtedly responsible for inflaming ill-feeling towards the community of that day.5 ‘The people of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex’, stated the Norwich Mercury in September I7 5 3, ‘will not let the Jews into any of their houses, either public or private, to sell any of their wares, nor suffer them to lie in any part of their outhouses . . . so they are forced to lie in huts and forsaken dwellings by

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