What Did The Jews Do For Us? A History Of The Jews In Norwich

By Sarah Morley | 27 February 2006

"Norwich has a rich Jewish heritage, dating back to medieval times, with several parts of the City Centre having historic links to the Jewish community. Today, this community is pleased to be able to contribute to a cultural diversity of which Norwich can be justly proud." Byron Simmonds, The Progressive Jewish Community of East Anglia

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Norwich; a city that boasts a vibrant Jewish heritage. © Norwich City Council

Explore the history of Norwich and you'll discover one of the most diverse and culturally rich cities in England - just take a quick stroll through its centre and you’re likely to encounter a range of architectural influences that reflect this.

If you have spent any length of time in the city it will probably not surprise you to learn that there is a fascinating Jewish history dating back to medieval times. It’s a history that in many ways has helped the city become the place it is today. Norwich even has a Synagogue Street, the only so-named street in England.

Jewish settlers first arrived in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They came from Rouen in Normandy and Norwich was one of the first cities, along with London and York, where they took up residence.

show a sign with a star of david on it together with the words Synagogue street, together with some further writing

Synagogue Street, the only such named street in England. © Norwich City Council

Some of these early settlers began to work as moneylenders – an important and integral role as in England at the time Christians were forbidden to charge interest. Economic necessity meant that Jews were practically forced to take work lending money to the Christian community.

Although this was perhaps not their chosen profession it is undeniable that Norwich’s Jewish community became highly successful as moneylenders and their loans funded some of the greatest civil engineering projects of the day. One such example is Norwich Cathedral, which bears the same masonry marks as those found on Priory Infirmary, Carrow Priory and Jurnets House in the city.

One of the oldest standing houses in Norwich, ‘Jurnets’ or ‘The Music House’ on King Street, belonged to a Jewish family that lived in Norwich in the thirteenth century. Isaac Jurnet, thought by many to be the wealthiest Jewish buisnessman in England at the time, was also the chief moneylender to the Abbot and monks of Westminster and most of the city owed him money.

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Jurnett's or the Music House is one of Norwich's most important buildings. © Norwich City Council.

Jurnet is immortalised in a cartoon, now held by the National Archives, dating to the 13th century. It is one of the oldest known caricatures and depicts the Jewish merchant with three heads, with attendant demons frolicking above the castle. Figures brandishing weighing scales and a devil figure in the foreground tweaking the noses of local Jewish residents Abigail and Moses Mokke complete this remarkable piece of medieval anti-Semitic propaganda.

In spite of the prejudices of the time, the presence of Jews in Norwich meant that trade was revolutionised and without them there would not have been the financial impetus to fund the projects envisioned by the power figures of the time. Jews in Norwich at this time were scholarly and powerful and their traditional role as moneylenders allowed for much more financial freedom of trade. Inevitably, this created debt and, in turn, prejudice.

But Jews were not simply the city’s moneylenders. They also established a reputation during the early medieval period as doctors. In fact, the first recorded private herb garden in the city was that of a Jewish apothecary.

By the mid 12th century Norwich’s Jewish Community was thriving and established. Norwich was England’s second largest city at the time and already had a diverse and relatively cosmopolitan population.

The Jewish community lived close to the Castle when they first began arriving in the city, since they were under direct Royal protection. If you take a walk around the Haymarket you can see a bronze plaque indicating the original Jewish quarter, which was called the ‘Jewery.’

Shows a photograph of the exterior of Norwich Castle. It is a vast stone building, shown under a blue sky.

It is thought that the early Jewish settlers lived near the castle walls. © Noriwch City Council

An archaeological excavation during the 1960s identified the Jewery area whilst further evidence for the size of the Jewish population came from tax and financial documents held by the Exchequer.

Amongst the finds from the excavations in the Haymarket was a 13th century bronze jug inscribed in Hebrew. Now known as the Bodleian Bowl, it is thought by historians to have been used by Rabbis to wash their hands during rituals. The fact that this jug was bronze, an expensive material, perhaps illustrates the wealth that the community of the time must have possessed. The site where it was found may represent an early Synagogue, or a Jewish home.

Things became harder for the Jewish community in the later 13th century and there is evidence that there was a period of decline. In fact, hardships suffered by the Jews of the city are described in the lengthy poem ‘Put a Curse on my Enemy’ by Meir ben Elijah (also known as Meir of Norwich).

Written in the late 13th century, the poem (currently in the Vatican archive) highlights the constant struggles of Jewish people living in the city.

“The land exhausts us by demanding payments, and the people’s disgust is heard.” Translated from the Hebrew, the poem paints a vivid picture of Medieval Norwich, and the hostility towards the Jewish community at the time.

a photograph of black bowl with handles

The Bodleian bowl is now held by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. © Trustees of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Mier speaks of an inner turmoil: “When I hoped for good, evil arrived, yet I will wait for the light.” It is remarkable not only for its survival, but also for being the only piece of medieval Hebrew writing known to have been produced by an English Jew.

Norwich Jews were not alone in their hardships. The medieval period was a difficult time for Jews all over Europe and there was a rise of ‘blood libel’ accusations in the early 1100s.

A popular prejudicial myth, the 'blood libel' accused Jews of murdering Christian children in rituals. The myth spread from the Middle East and across Europe and it reached Norwich in 1144 with the story of St William of Norwich.

William was a tanner's apprentice who was found murdered in Thorpe Wood near the city. The process by which local Jews were accused of this murder and William was canonised is a complex one, but it seems his murder was used as a lever to attack the Jewish population of the time. As the accusations worsened the atmosphere between Jews and non-Jews became tense and hostile.

As a consequence there was a backlash against Jews and some were murdered. In the mid twelfth century the Jewish population was still under the protection of King Henry II but when he died in 1189 Richard I did little to help. There were mass murders all over the country, which the King turned a blind eye to.

shows a detail of a medieval cartoon with a figure of a king and two people witha demon stood between them

One of the earliest known political cartoons shows Isaac Jurnett as a Jewish Moneylender and is evidence of anti-semitism in Norwich during the medieval period. © National Archives

In Norwich a massacre took place, according to the historian V.D Lipman, in 1190. His book, Jews of Medieval Norwich can be found in Norwich Library and contains the assertion that: “Accordingly on February 6th, [1190] all the Jews found in their own houses at Norwich were butchered, some had taken refuge in the castle.”

The attacks ushered in a terrifying era for the Jewish population of Norwich and of England as a whole. Under King Richard and later King John, they were forced to wear badges identifying themselves, and anti-Jewish laws were stacked up against them. This came to a head when King Edward I expelled all Jews (about 16,000) from England and Wales on July 18, 1290.

This effectively ended the first period of Jewish settlement in Norwich, although Lipman writes that a few may have converted to Christianity in order to stay in the city.

The ban on the Jews was not lifted until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell responded to an appeal by Dutch Jews led by The Great Rabbi, Manasseh ben Israel. However it was not until 1789 that a small Jewish settlement was re-established.

By 1813 this had grown to a community with its own burial ground. In 1848 a new synagogue in what was then called St. Faith Lane was dedicated. During this period there is some evidence for a Jewish cemetery near Ber Street and another in Mariner’s Lane, though both became disused at various times.

The Jewish community in the city had however clearly put down roots again, even though by 1896 The Jewish Yearbook put the number of Jews in the city at a mere 50.

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Bally the shoe manufacturers was originally a Jewish business. © Sarah Morley/24 Hour Museum

In London in 1833 the first Jew was admitted into the criminal Bar and shortly after, in 1837, Benjamin Disraeli, son of a Jewish apostate, entered parliament as an MP and later became Prime Minister.

It was during this period that a French Jew named David Soman passed his Norwich shoe making business to his son-in-law Philip Haldinstein in 1853. The business thrived over the years with premises in a large building between Queens Street and Prince’s Street. In 1933 the firm became part of the popular Swiss shoe-manufacturing group, Bally.

Though knocked down and re-built, part of the building where this successful shoe business operated remains on the corner of Queens Street.

It is thought that at its peak in the 1930s, 450,000 Jews resided in England – many of them seeking refuge from Nazism. In Norwich the small community grew to about 130. This was, of course, a period in which violent anti-Semitism took root in Central Europe. With the coming of war in 1939 Great Britain closed its borders to most Jewish refugees not already here. Despite this the Jewish Yearbook of 1945 records a modest growth during the war years with 150 Jews in the city by 1945.

a photograph of a metal, ornamental Jewish Star of David

The entrance to the Synagogue in St Faith's Lane. © Sarah Morley/24 Hour Museum

During the war in 1942 German bombs destroyed the Norwich Synagogue in what was then St Faith Lane. A pre-fabricated Synagogue was built in 1948 in its place, which was replaced by the existing Synagogue in 1968.

Today, the lives of the Jewish community in Norwich are far more peaceful. There has been a small but vibrant community here since the late 18th century and there are now two congregations in the city.

During the nineteenth century Norwich boasted a Synagogue Street, the only one in England, named after the Synagogue built there in 1848. The plaque still remains, and will soon be replaced, as there are plans for new development there. There are also plans for a new ‘Synagogue Walk’ to be named in honour of the old Synagogue Street.

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The Synagogue on Earlham Road. © Sarah Morley/24 Hour Museum

There have been many Synagogues and rooms used by the Jewish community for worship all over Norwich through the ages. Below is a simple chronology of them.

1087 – Holtor Lane Synagogue (now Dove Street.) It is thought that the Synagogue sited on the south-west corner of the Street survived until 1154 when a new Synagogue was built.

1154 – The Haymarket Synagogue. It is unsure when or how this Synagogue was demolished, it may have been when Edward I expelled the Jews and their land was seized by the king.

Early 19th century – Growing’s Court Synagogue. This was the first Synagogue in Norwich since the Jewish expulsion. Little is known except it was set up in a room in a house at Gowning’s court or a passage off St Stephen’s Street.

1828 - the funds had been raised to build a new Synagogue in Tombland. Though the congregation was small (around 28 people) it was soon re-built to accommodate the growing congregation. In 1848 it was evacuated as a new purpose built Synagogue was opening.

1848 – Synagogue Street Synagogue. Mountergate now runs along the line of what was once called Synagogue Street and prior to that St Faiths Lane. This Synagogue was destroyed by the German bombing in World War Two in 1942.

1948 – Norwich Synagogue. After the Second World War a pre-fabricated Synagogue was built on Earlham Road. It was replaced on the same site in 1968, and has remained the traditional Orthodox Jewish Synagogue for Norwich.

1990 - A Reform congregation, The Progressive Jewish Community of East Anglia, also hold services in Norwich. They meet at The Old Meeting House Congregational Church on Colegate.

(Source Anj Cox, The Forum Trust Norwich)

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Sarah Morley is the 24 Hour Museum/Norwich HEART Student Writer in Norwich. Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust is the groundbreaking initiative to regenerate, manage and promote one of the most remarkable heritage resources in the UK and in Europe.

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