Religious History
Other Religious Bodies

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Victoria County History

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W.B. Stephens (Editor)

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1964

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483-485

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'Religious History: Other Religious Bodies', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7: The City of Birmingham (1964), pp. 483-485. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22982 Date accessed: 25 October 2014.


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OTHER RELIGIOUS BODIES (fn. 1)

Serbian Orthodox Church

Middleton Hall Road Church of St. Lazar was registered for public worship in 1955, (fn. 2) and occupied the converted ground-floor of a house, accommodating 100 worshippers. In 1957 plans were approved for a new church, to be built of pre-cast concrete blocks. (fn. 3) The congregation may be said to have been founded at Christmas 1951, when the Revd. Radovan Milkovich conducted a service at St. Martin's Church which was attended by nearly 600 Serbian exiles. (fn. 4) The church serves an estimated 600 Serbs living in the Birmingham, West Bromwich and Oldbury districts, most of whom settled in England in 1947-8, as a result of the 'Westward Ho' scheme. By this scheme, begun by the Ministry of Labour and National Service in 1947, 'displaced persons' were introduced from Europe to help man certain basic industries, to which they were restricted. Since 1950 such immigrants have been free of restrictions on employment, and have tended to leave agriculture and isolated contracting projects for factory work and the towns. (fn. 5)

Judaism

It has been remarked that of the twenty-two cities in Europe with more than a million inhabitants, Birmingham, with an estimated 6,000, has the lowest proportion of Jews. (fn. 6) It is nevertheless the home of one of the oldest provincial Ashkenazi communities, for the existence of which as early as 1730 strong evidence has been adduced. (fn. 7) There was certainly an organized Jewry in 1766, when ground was acquired in Granville Street for a Jewish cemetery. (fn. 8)

Birmingham Jews in the 18th century appear to have been few and poor. In 1780 they were slightingly dismissed by William Hutton, the Birmingham historian, as 'a remnant of Israel' who 'still preserve the faint resemblance of the ancient worship, their whole apparatus being no more than the drooping ensigns of poverty'. There was, however, even then, a synagogue in the Froggery, 'rather small, but tolerably well filled'. (fn. 9) The Jewry was apparently centred on Dudley Street. (fn. 10) The congregation appears to have been largely made up of pedlars and travelling salesmen. Birmingham is described as having, in the Anglo-Jewish economy, 'occupied the position of a port or centre from which Jewish pedlars covered the surrounding country week by week, returning to their homes for the Sabbath', (fn. 11) and even as late as 1851 the secretary of the synagogue observed in completing his return to the religious census, 'The Jewish population here being mostly engaged in travelling . . . the attendance except on holidays is limited'. (fn. 12)

The Jewish community at the beginning of the 19th century comprised only a handful of 20 or 30 families (fn. 13) representing perhaps 130 persons. During the first half of the century there was a rapid increase, and in 1851 there are said to have been about 140 families, embracing a population of about 700. (fn. 14) This numerical advance has continued into the 20th century, though at a slower rate, and the Jewish population, estimated to have been 1,500 in 1864 and 3,200 in 1900, reached 6,300 in 1947. (fn. 15) The 19th-century increase is clearly reflected in the enrolment figures at the Hebrew National School, founded in 1843 on the model of the Jewish free school in London. (fn. 16) In 1851 there were 85, (fn. 17) and in 1869 244 (fn. 18) boys and girls enrolled. In 1904 the numerical strength of the school was more than 600. (fn. 19)

Despite Hutton's sneer of 1780 the earliest records of the congregation show that by 1826 Birmingham Jewry was a closely organized and orthodox community. (fn. 20) The congregation was then worshipping in its third synagogue, for the Froggery had been abandoned for premises in Hurst Street in 1791, and these in their turn replaced by a new synagogue in Severn Street, dedicated in 1809. Apart from a brief interruption caused by damage suffered in the 1813 riots, Severn Street served until 1856 when a large new synagogue was opened in Blucher Street, Singer's Hill, to replace it. Three years before, about 90 worshippers from Severn Street had seceded and established a rival congregation in Wrottesley Street, of which the present Central Synagogue in Bristol Street is the direct descendant. Before the end of the century there was also in existence a Beth Hamedrash in Holloway Head (registered for religious worship in 1894) from which was founded, in 1920, the new synagogue in Hurst Street. (fn. 21)

It has been argued that an increase in numbers during the 20th century has been more than counterbalanced by a decline in the distinctness of the identity of the Birmingham Jews as a religious and national group. Thus in 1949 'hardly 10 per cent.' of Jewish families are said to have sent a representative to the synagogue services. More directly measurable is the decline in influence of the Hebrew school. While, in 1898, an estimated 65 per cent. of Jewish children attended, in 1949 the figure had fallen to 16 per cent. (fn. 22) There has also been a geographical dispersal of Birmingham Jewry away from the 'self-imposed ghetto' in the vicinity of Holloway Head in which most families lived during the 19th century. (fn. 23) Religious unity has suffered considerably since 1900. In the early years of the century the influence of the Reform movement was strong, culminating, in 1910, in the proposal to erect a Reform synagogue in Hagley Road, affiliated to the West London Synagogue of British Jews. Although the Reformers were reconciled to a compromise service in 1915 (fn. 24) a later breach caused by a secession of Liberal Jews in 1935 was never healed and resulted in the founding of a separate congregation, affiliated to the London Liberal Synagogue, which met at first at a synagogue in Wellington Passage and subsequently in Sheepcote Street.

Against these arguments for a decline ought to be set the reconstruction of Blucher Street synagogue in 1937, and the opening of new synagogues in Bristol Street (1928), Pershore Road (1948), and Park Road, Moseley (1954). (fn. 25) The Hebrew school, after a period of crisis in the 1940s has been successfully reorganized as a nursery and primary school, and there were, in 1956, 247 children in attendance, of whom 191 received special religious instruction. There was also a religious instruction class of 23 at Shirley. (fn. 26) Local Zionist organizations have been in existence at least since 1902, (fn. 27) and in 1956 there were numerous other cultural, religious, and communal organizations vigorously resisting assimilation. (fn. 28)

Blucher Street, Singer's Hill synagogue was completed in 1856 at a cost of £10,000, and replaced Severn Street, q.v. It was designed by Yeoville Thomason with an interior divided into nave and aisles by arcades of seven arches on either side, and two galleries. (fn. 29) During the first 20 years the congregation grew rapidly, and in 1874 (fn. 30) and 1877 (fn. 31) it was decided to add seats in the body of the synagogue and the galleries. A check in the increase of worshippers and a chronic financial crisis in the eighties was attributed to 'depression of trade, removals from town, and deaths', (fn. 32) but in 1887 there was a record number of 500 seat-holders. (fn. 33) In 1892, although sittings were available for 1,450, there was a Sabbath attendance of only 270. (fn. 34) The synagogue, which was extensively reconstructed in 1937 for £10,000, (fn. 35) is an Italianate building of red brick with stone dressings. Between the two projecting front wings is a central gable with a rose window and a portico of three arches supported on marble columns.

Bristol Street Central synagogue and Talmud Torah was registered for public worship in 1928, (fn. 36) and replaced the Wrottesley Street Beth Hamedrash, q.v. It had previously been used as the Primitive Methodist 'Bristol Hall'. (fn. 37)

'Froggery' synagogue was mentioned in 1780. (fn. 38) It was replaced in 1791 by a newly-built synagogue in Hurst Street, q.v.

Holloway Head old Beth Hamedrash was registered for public worship in 1894. (fn. 39) It was replaced in 1920 by the new synagogue, Hurst Street, q.v.

Hurst Street synagogue, opened to replace the 'Froggery' synagogue in 1791 (fn. 40) was itself replaced, in 1809, by Severn Street, q.v.

Hurst Street new synagogue was opened to replace the old Beth Hamedrash, Holloway Head, in 1920, (fn. 41) and remained in use until 1954, (fn. 42) when it was closed at the same time as the opening of Park Road synagogue, q.v.

Park Road, Moseley synagogue, at no. 11 Park Road, was opened in 1954. A synagogue at the home for aged Jews, no. 22 Park Road, was opened in 1926. (fn. 43)

Pershore Road synagogue is mentioned from 1949, but was preceded by the Rose synagogue, which consisted of rooms in Pershore Road registered for public worship in 1936. (fn. 44)

Severn Street synagogue was opened in 1809 (fn. 45) to replace Hurst Street, q.v. It was damaged by rioters in 1813 (fn. 46) but was restored and reopened in 1817. Mutually contradictory accounts indicate further alterations in 1823, (fn. 47) 1827, (fn. 48) and 1833. In 1851 there were 360 sittings and an estimated congregation of 200. (fn. 49) In 1853 there was a secession of 90 members to form a rival congregation in Wrottesley Street, q.v. (fn. 50) In 1856 Severn Street was closed on the opening of the new synagogue in Blucher Street, q.v. and since that time the building has been in use as a masonic hall and, for a time, as a Welsh Baptist chapel. (fn. 51) Traces of its original early-19th-century 'Greek' detail survive internally.

Sheepcote Street synagogue was registered for public worship in 1938. (fn. 52) It replaced the synagogue in Wellington Passage, q.v.

Warren Lane, Witton Beth Chaim is a chapel built on a Jewish cemetery acquired in 1907. It was consecrated in 1937. (fn. 53)

Wellington Passage synagogue was opened in 1935, (fn. 54) and was used as the synagogue of a branch of the London Liberal synagogue, affiliated to the Jewish Religious Union. (fn. 55) Its members were largely inspired by the teachings of Claude Montefiore (1858-1938). (fn. 56)

Witton Beth Chaim, a chapel on the north-east portion of Birmingham city cemetery, was consecrated in 1871. (fn. 57)

Wrottesley Street synagogue was founded in 1853 by a secession of about 90 members from Severn Street led by H. T. Louis and I. Blankensee. (fn. 58) In 1901 the meeting place was described, on registration, as being in Ladywell Passage, Wrottesley Street. (fn. 59) It was replaced in 1928 by Bristol Street Central Synagogue, q.v.

Islam (fn. 60)

The Moslem community in Birmingham dates substantially from the 1930s, and in 1939 numbered about 400. In 1957 there were said to be in Birmingham alone some 4,000 Moslems, with many more in the suburban districts. Two places of worship had been opened for their use.

Edward Road, Balsall Heath mosque was registered for public worship in 1943 (fn. 61) by Zania Islamia Allonia, an organization formed for immigrants from Arabia, and particularly from the Yemen.

Speedwell Road, Edgbaston mosque was bought in 1944 by Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, for £800. The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin was formed in 1939 primarily to serve the needs of immigrants from India who form the larger Moslem group. In 1957 an average of 200 attended the weekly Friday congregational service, but a special festival was said to attract as many as 1,000 attenders.

Sikhs

A temple was opened for the small Sikh community in Birmingham in 1958. It occupied the ground floor of a terraced house in Cannon Hill Road, Balsall Heath, and the average congregation was said in 1959 to be fifteen. (fn. 62)

Footnotes

1 This section was completed in 1957 with some additions up to 1959.
2 Worship Reg. 65009.
3 Ex. inf. Radovan Milkovich, Priest of the Church of St. Lazar, 1957.
4 Birm. Mail, 7 Jan. 1952.
5 Ex. inf. Radovan Milkovich.
6 S. Y. Prais, 'The development of Birm. Jewry', Jewish Monthly (1949), ii. 665.
7 H. Levine, Singers Hill Synagogue Centenary, 1856- 1956 (Birm. 1956), 1.
8 Ibid. 4.
9 Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1780), 122.
10 Morning Chronicle, 21 Dec. 1787 (on the apprehension of Lord Geo. Gordon).
11 Jewish Year Book (1956).
12 H.O. 129/16/394.
13 M. Berlyn, Birm. Hebrew Congregation Golden Jubilee Souvenir (Birm. 1903).
14 Jewish Encyclopaedia (1902), s.v. Birm.
15 Jewish Monthly (1949), ii.
16 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 5; see also p. 517.
17 White, Dir. Warws. (1850), 18.
18 Ret. of schools for the poorer classes in Birm. H.C. 91 (1870), liv.
19 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 5.
20 Jewish Monthly (1949), ii.
21 See below.
22 Jewish Monthly (1949), ii.
23 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 7.
24 Ibid. 16.
25 See below.
26 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 7.
27 Jewish Encyclopaedia (1902), s.v. Birm.
28 Jewish Year Bk. (1956).
29 Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1908), 8.
30 Annual Rep. of Birm. Jewish Congregation (1874).
31 Ibid. (1877).
32 Ibid. (1881).
33 Ibid. (1887).
34 Birm. News, religious census, 1892.
35 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 23.
36 Worship Reg. 38675.
37 See p. 462.
38 See above.
39 Worship Reg. 38817.
40 Jewish Encyclopaedia (1902), s.v. Birm.
41 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 33.
42 Jewish Year Bk. passim.
43 Ibid.
44 Ibid.; Worship Reg. 57095.
45 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 2.
46 Jewish Year Bk. (1956).
47 White, Dir. Warws. (1850), 13, where the writer states that the synagogue was erected in 1817 and enlarged in 1823.
48 Jewish Year Bk. (1956), which states that the synagogue was 'extended' in 1809 and 1827.
49 H.O. 129/16/394. Phil. Abraham, sec. of the congregation, states in his census return that Severn St. was 'erected' in 1833.
50 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 8.
51 Jewish Encyclopaedia (1902), s.v. Birm.; see p. 443.
52 Worship Reg. 58191.
53 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 4.
54 Worship Reg. 5600.
55 A. Cohen, An Examination of Liberal Judaism (Birm. 1935), 6.
56 See D.N.B.
57 Levine, Singers Hill Synag. Cent. 4.
58 Ibid. 8.
59 Worship Reg. 38675.
60 Information mainly from Hon. Sec. Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, 1957.
61 Worship Reg. 60519.
62 The Times, 16 Oct. 1959.