The Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation of London was founded in 1657 as a consequence of the famous petition to Cromwell in 1656. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel from Amsterdam and six Jews living in London (ostensibly as Catholics) sought permission from the Lord Protector to worship freely and to acquire land for a cemetery. In response, they received a verbal guarantee, and Jews were able to profess their faith openly for the first time since their expulsion by Edward I in 1290.
The first Synagogue, in a rented building in Creechurch Lane in the City of London, was replaced half a century later by the fine Synagogue of Bevis Marks nearby (opened in 1701 and still in regular use). The Congregation had grown; and 400 souls were recorded in the 1680s.
In the early 1700s, many Marranos came to London directly from Portugal, escaping from the Inquisition. This movement was facilitated by the increase in trade resulting from the 1703 Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal. The Congregation helped the poorer refugees by paying ships' captains for their passage.
Gradually, during the 18th and 19th centuries, more immigrants joined the Congregation, though it was never to become very large, and the sister Ashkenazi community expanded more rapidly. The newcomers came from Holland, Italy, France, North Africa and Gibraltar. In more recent times, they have come from Middle Eastern Countries.
From the earliest days, the leaders of the Congregation, most of them merchants, took their responsibilities very seriously and regulated activities not only in the religious sphere but also in everyday life. They provided care for the needy, the old, widows and orphans and set up schools and medical care for the poor. Generous individual gifts and bequests funded several charitable institutions. Much of this welfare provision continues to this day.
The archive records of the administration and organisation of the Congregation (Minute books and Account Ledgers) are almost complete from the mid 17th to the late 20th century but those of the ancillary organisations dealing with education and welfare, schools, colleges, alms houses, hospital/old age home, orphanage and charities date in the main from the early to mid 18th century. Portuguese was the language of record until 1819.
Genealogical registers of marriages, births, circumcisions and burials (17th century to end of 19th century) have been published as Bevis Marks Records Parts II - VI with informative introductions and are obtainable from the Congregation. They are also accessible in genealogical centres. The register of the first cemetery 1657 - 1735 was published by the Jewish Historical Society of England in 1962.
The archives also contain:
- Hebrew marriage contracts (Ketubot) from 1680s to end of 20th century.
- Large quantities of papers (17th – 20th century) in over 100 boxes or loose, partly sorted and catalogued.
- Photographs, Plans, Diagrams.
Petition to Oliver Cronwell (click image to enlarge)