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The Jews’ Free School, London

The Jews' Free School (now JFS Comprehensive) is the largest Jewish school in Britain. It was founded by Moses Hart, who paid for the restoration of the Great Synagogue where the school opened as a Talmud Torah for 15 boys in 1732. It was originally a charity school for orphaned boys with priority given to those of German parentage. By 1788 the school had moved to Houndsditch and in the late 1790s moved again to Gun Square where the number of pupils increased to 21. In the nineteenth century Dr. Joshua Van Oven found a permanent site for the school in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, London. The new school opened in 1817, to provide basic education to the poor Jewish community in London's East End. 

Founded on the philanthropic initiative of the more wealthy members of Anglo-Jewry, the School was supported and financed by benefactions and subscriptions, notably from the Rothschild family. Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) was an early benefactor, and his widow, Hannah (1783-1850), established an accumulating fund for the permanent endowment of the school in memory of her husband who had been so closely interested in its progress. Hannah also gave a benefaction of £500 for providing a new outfit of clothing for the 500 boys and girls each year, from 1822 until her death in 1850. In the early years, this gift was given anonymously through Messrs. Moses, Levy & Co. Account books in the Jews' Free School archives at the London Metropolitan Archives show that the school's investment account was held with N M Rothschild & Sons from 1841-1906. The Rothschild family provided four active Presidents of the school, covering 115 years: Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876) (President 1847-1875); Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) (President 1876-1915); Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917) (President 1915-1917) and Anthony Gustav de Rothschild  (1887-1961) (President 1917-1961). 

Between 1880 and 1900, one third of all London's Jewish children passed through its doors; by 1900 it had some 4,000 pupils and was the largest school in Europe. The School provided Jewish children with a refuge from poverty, a religious and secular education and in the spirit of the times ‘anglicised’ them. For 51 years the headmaster was Moses Angel, one of the most influential figures in Jewish education in the nineteenth century. Female members of the Rothschild family also exerted an influence on the curriculum; Louise, Lady Anthony de Rothschild (1821-1910), together with her sisters-in-law Juliana, Baroness Mayer de Rothschild  (1831-1877) and Charlotte, Baronmess Nathaniel de Rothschild (1825-1899), sat on the Ladies' Committee, supervising tuition in the school. Baroness Charlotte and the daughters of Lady Louise, Constance, Lady Battersea (1843-1931) and Annie, Mrs Eliot Yorke (1844-1926), taught classes, all three subsequently publishing the texts of their lessons.

The school remained in Bell Lane until 1939 when it was evacuated to Ely. The Bell Lane building was destroyed during enemy action and after the Second World War the school remained closed until a new site was found on the Camden Road. In 1958 the school reopened as JFS Comprehensive, based in Kenton, North London.

Archive sources

The Rothschild Archive holds few records of the Jews’ Free school. In addition to the items listed below, sundry correspondence concerning the Jews' Free School will be found in the Correspondence Department sundry Correspondence series. An illustrated testimonial to Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) from the Jew's Free School on the occasion of his 70th birthday will be found in the Rushbrooke Collection. Some correspondence mentioning the school will be found in the papers of members of the Rothschild family, together with copies of published texts. 

A collection of administrative records dating from 1791-1998 of The Jews’ Free School is held by the London Metropolitan Archives. (ref LMA/4046). These include papers of the Governors' Committee, Ladies Committee, Education Committee, Executive Committee, Managers' Meetings and School Council; papers relating to scholarships and prizes; correspondence; financial accounts; pupil admission and discharge records; papers relating to pupil discipline; records of the Headmaster; magazines; programmes; publications; newspaper cuttings; and photographs of pupils, staff, important visitors, school facilities, charity activities, sports and buildings.

Published works (available in the Reading Room)

  • J.F.S. The history of the Jews’ Free School, London since 1732, Gerry Black (London: Tymsder Publishing, 1998)
  • 'The Origins of the Jew's Free School', by Salmond S. Levin from The Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, vol. XIX, (1955-1959).

The Jews' Free School, artefacts, undated

000/2585, 1 item

Lapel badge manufactured by E.B.A. London, showing a hand grasping five arrows and the motto 'Concordia, Integritas, Industria' with Hebrew inscription above and the word 'Prefect'. Presumed to be a Prefect's badge from the Jews' Free School.

The Jews’ Free School, press cuttings, 1897

000/1671/5, 1 item

Copy of the Daily Graphic, 27 January 1897, containing an article on the presentation to Mr. Frederic David Mocatta by Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild at the Jews’ Free School, 1897.

The Jews’ Free School, publications, 'A manual of Judaism', 1835

000/1215, 1 volume

A manual of Judaism detailed in conversation between a rabbi and his pupil; being an introduction into the knowledge of the principles of the Jewish faith for the use of the juvenile members of that persuasion by Joshua Van Oven. (London: Wertheimer (printers), 1835). Sold at the Jew's Free School, and with a dedication to Mr and Mrs de Rothschild (Nathan and Hannah Rothschild). Note: this is a modern reproduction of the original volume.

The Jews’ Free School, publications, 'Presentation to Mr Frederic David Mocatta', 1897

000/1604/2, 1 item

Presentation to Mr Frederic David Mocatta at a public meeting, held at the Jews' Free School, London on January 26th, 1897 (London: Zaehnsdorf , 1897). Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild, in the chair at this meeting, gave the address, which is reproduced in the pamphlet. Frederick David Mocatta (1828–1905) was an English financier and philanthropist. He was a partner of the London bullion broker, Mocatta & Goldsmid. Aftter he  retired from the business in 1874 he devoted himself to works of public and private benevolence, especially in the deprived East End of London. He was a patron of learning and himself was an author of historical works. The Mocatta Library was founded in his memory, London.

The Jews’ Free School, Annual Reports, 1841; 1858; 1917

000/653, 000/1941, 3 items

The Jews’ Free School, Annual Reports. A small collection of Annual Reports published by the Jews' Free School. The reports concern the work of the school, listing staff and academic achievements, together with administrative and financial information.

  • Twenty-fourth Report of the Jews' Free School, (London: J. Wertheimer & Co., 1841);
  • Forty-first Report of the Jews' Free School, (London: J. Wertheimer & Co., 1858); 
  • Annual Report of the Jews' Free School, for year 1916-1917. The report includes a special note concerning the death of Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917).