Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation is the oldest congregation in the city and its history is inextricably intertwined with that of the wider Jewish community here.
The earliest record of Jews in Liverpool was in 1753, when a synagogue was mentioned in Cumberland Street, but no mention of any members of that community has survived and the community which grew up thirty years later appeared not to have any knowledge of their predecessors.
This latter community established a synagogue in a small house in Turton Court in the city centre around 1780, before acquiring the premises of 133 Upper Frederick Street in 1789. This street is now in the city’s Chinatown, although the house, whose garden was used as the community’s burial ground, has long since been demolished. The house was believed to hold between 50 and 70 worshippers.
In 1806, the foundation stone was laid for the first purpose-built synagogue in Liverpool, in Seel Street, in the city centre. It was designed by Thomas Harrison of Chester and opened in 1808, seating 290 worshippers.
By the 1810s, the congregation had gained a reputation for having particularly liberal views. As a consequence, after much passionate debate, the first English sermons in a British synagogue were delivered at Seel Street, with a pulpit finally installed in 1827.
The exterior of Seel Street synagogue, the home of LOHC 1808-1874
In 1836, the congregation was the first in the country to appoint a regular preacher, Rev David M Isaacs, who would go on to be one of the most well-respected ministers in Anglo-Jewry.
By 1838, one group of congregants had embraced the new ideologies more than the others and they broke away, forming an entirely separate congregation, under the name Liverpool New Hebrew Congregation. The Seel Street congregation became known from then on as the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation (LOHC).
In the days when Liverpool’s Jewish community had become second only to London’s in size and prestige, LOHC attracted an elite membership of upper and upper-middle class gentlemen and businessmen and their families.
By the 1870s, the congregation had outgrown the Seel Street building and decided to build a new, bigger, more impressive synagogue, to reflect their wealth and status. A competition was held to appoint an architect, with the commission being awarded to William and George Audsley, a pair of Scottish Presbysterian brothers with no previous experience of building synagogues. In 1872, a plot of land on the east side of Princes Road was purchased from the Earl of Sefton and the foundation stone of the new synagogue laid. It was completed and consecrated at a ceremony led by Chief Rabbi Dr Nathan M Adler in September 1874. The new building seated 824 worshippers and was handed to the congregation by the building committee entirely free of debt.
The exterior of Princes Road synagogue, the home of LOHC from 1874
The synagogue on Princes Road survived both World Wars with only minor damage, although the six decorative minarets had to be removed in 1960 as they were considered unsafe.
In May 1979, the synagogue was the victim of an arson attack and suffered terrible damage. The Torah scrolls were destroyed and massive repairs to the beautiful internal decor were necessary. The choir gallery had to be rebuilt and new Ark doors were constructed by the Dorfman brothers. The original stencil patterns for the ceiling were used to make the repairs and, within a year, the synagogue was re-consecrated and life moved on.
There is, of course, much more detail that could be included in an exhaustive history of the congregation, but restrictions of space necessitate this abridged version. Today, the congregation is proud to continue Shabbat and Festival services, as well as running tours of the synagogue building and holding regular concerts and events.
Many people contact LOHC with enquiries as to whether their ancestors were part of the congregation or the wider Liverpool Jewish community. Please feel free to contact us if this is the case.