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The Central Synagogue, London

The Rothschild family have traditionally been strong supporters of London's synagogues. Although the United Synagogue only came into existence in 1870, the roots of the movement toward unification can be traced back to 1835.  This year saw the signing of the treaty between the Hambro', Great and New synagogues which centralised the distribution of aid to the poor affiliated to all three synagogues.  The proposer of the treaty was Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836). Nathan served as warden of the Great Synagogue in 1818 along with his brother-in-law Solomon Cohen. He first proposed the idea in 1823 and hosted negotiations at New Court in 1824.  

The Central Synagogue

The Central Synagogue has been in Great Portland Street, London, in one form or another for over 150 years. In  1848, authorities at the Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place in the City of London, decided to establish a branch Synagogue in the West End area for the many Jews who had begun to migrate there since the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, and in 1850, the Committee of the Great Synagogue agreed to fund a new branch synagogue in the West End. The site selected lay behind 43–47 Great Portland Street, and in 1855, the branch Synagogue was consecrated, the Great Synagogue remaining responsible for the administration and the supervision of religious services. However, the building soon proved too small and could not be extended.

In 1866 a Great Synagogue subcommittee headed by Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s son, Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876) was appointed to find a new site nearby and build afresh for 800 worshippers, with two ministers’ houses attached. They promptly secured the houses at 133–141 Great Portland Street. In 1868, Sir Anthony presided over a meeting which approved the funding to erect a new building. A sum of £12,000 was allocated; N M Rothschild & Sons had promised £4,000, a third of the total. The committee decided against a competition and chose as architect Nathan Solomon Joseph, son-in-law to Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi and creator of the United Synagogue, the federation to which the Central, as the congregation was by now called, adhered from 1870. Joseph presented a Moorish design, arguing that Gothic and Classical styles were both unsuitable, whereas the Moresque was well adapted to an ecclesiastical building yet had advantages of elasticity and economy. He was asked to present an alternative Italianate version, but the original was preferred, with modifications.

On 18 March 1869 the foundation stone of the first Central Synagogue was laid by Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879). Construction of the ornate building was completed in a year. The Central has been described as the first thoroughly Oriental-style synagogue. The Great Portland Street front was an eccentric confection in brick and two types of stone, culminating at the north end in a tower-like feature over an entrance porch with a horseshoe arch. The interior, spacious, high and light, faced south, culminating in a richly decorated apsidal space for the ark. Windows and arches were round-headed, with a horseshoe profile above the arches over the galleries, and round clerestory lights incorporating Star-of-David tracery. Cast-iron columns, painted at first, marble-clad from 1876, carried the galleries and roof, which was divided by ribs. Embellishments took place over the years, the grandest being the replacement of the central almemar with an elaborate new one in marble, presented in 1928 by the 2nd Lord Bearsted in memory of his parents; Joseph’s original almemar (or bimah) was relegated to the Margate synagogue.

On 7 April 1870, the completed Central Synagogue was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi, Dr.Adler, in the presence of a large congregation. The Ark was opened by Sir Moses Montefiore, then eighty-five years of age. A few months later, on July 14, 1870, the synagogue received the Royal Assent and the Central Synagogue became an independent constituency no longer under the aegis of the Great Synagogue. The first wardens elected were Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) and Mr. B. Meyers.

The Synagogue quickly became prosperous and in the first year had let 365 gentlemen’s seats and 269 ladies’ seats. By 1872, the Synagogue boasted membership of five MPs, six Barons, two Aldermen of the City of London, the Solicitor-General, and one member of the Royal Academy. In 1881, HRH the Prince of Wales visited the Central Synagogue to attend the wedding of Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917) to Marie Perugia (1862-1937). He visited again in 1898 for the memorial service for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild.

Destruction of the Central Synagogue

This beautiful building was destroyed during the London Blitz on 10 May 1941; only the rabbis’ houses at the back along Hallam Street (Nos 36–40) survive, with their two-tone brickwork and Moorish detail. Due to difficulty obtaining a building license for a permanent Synagogue suitable to replace the former building, a temporary Synagogue was built instead and consecrated on September 30, 1948. When the licensing restrictions were lifted in 1955, the question of rebuilding was considered. The United Synagogue authorities were pressing for a fresh place of worship at Marble Arch and the abandonment of the Central Synagogue, but Isaac Wolfson and his son Leonard, resident in Portland Place, offered £25,000 towards rebuilding, and it was decided to rebuild a new Synagogue in keeping with its earlier history and dignity. From a short-list, the architect C. Edmund Wilford (a noted cinema architect) was chosen; his design, built by Tersons Ltd between 1956–1958, was a conventional, dignified building with close correspondences to its predecessor but an internal touch of cinematic glamour. Part of the cost was covered by the War Damage Commission, but most of the funds were raised by the members of the congregation. The new building would have a minimum seating capacity of 500 on the ground floor and 400 in the Ladies’ Gallery, as well as a 2000 square foot assembly hall below the synagogue. The rebuilt Synagogue was consecrated on March 23, 1958.

The Central Synagogue, London: publications, 'The Central Line', 2004; 2006

000/1523, 000/1689, 2 items

The Central Synagogue: sundry publications

  • The Central Line, The Central Synagogue Magazine, September 2004. The magazine contains an article about the restoration of the Candelabrum which commemorates those members of the synagogue who died in the First World War, including Evelyn Achille de Rothschild (1886-1917). The article features a brief biography of Evelyn Achille and illustrations, including a reproduction of a painting of Evelyn in uniform on the back cover;
  • The Central Line, The Central Synagogue Magazine, September 2006. The magazine contains an article about the campaign of Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) to enter Parliament in 1858.