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25 November 2006

Liverpool`s Jewish Heritage and Urban Regeneration
Colin Miller Reproduced by Rob Ainsworth

Liverpool has an air of regeneration. Once one of the great ports of the British Empire, its fortunes declined during the 20th century and reached an all-time low during the week-long street riots of 1981.

Since then its revitalization has been remarkable, and the 19th-century Albert Dock complex has been dazzlingly restored. Its warehouses now accommodate a northern branch of the Tate Gallery along with fashionable restaurants, pubs and shops. The dock is also home to the Museum of Liverpool Life, one of the finest social-history museums in Britain.

Liverpool has just been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has been chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2008.

The city's Jewish community has not been overlooked. Two years ago, a Jewish Heritage Trail was established, identifying points of cultural, historical and architectural interest. The trail charts the development of Liverpool's Jewish population from its arrival in the mid-18th century to the present day. Jews attracted to Liverpool by its growth as a major port on the River Mersey lived in the area of Seel Street in the city's centre, where they made a living from supplying ship's stores. A blue, wall-mounted plaque commemorates the site of the city's first purpose-built synagogue, long ago demolished, which was consecrated in 1808.

A five-minute walk from Seel Street, on the corner of Ranelagh and Renshaw streets, stands a Liverpool icon, Lewis's department store. Dwarfing its neighbours in the heart of the city, this enormous, regal building, made of Portland stone, was the result of rebuilding after World War II bomb damage.

It was established in 1856 by David Lewis (born Levy), an innovative retailer and philanthropist. Across from Lewis's, Copperas Hill Street leads to Pembroke Place, once a thriving Jewish area but now undergoing a period of transition. New buildings are replacing empty lots and derelict housing. Although most Jews have left the area, the original, green-tiled fa ade of the abandoned Galkoff kosher butchers remains. The owner's name is lettered in gold, with the word "kosher" written in Hebrew.

Ashton Street leads off Pembroke Place and passes through part of the Liverpool University campus. A handsome stone building, the Harold Cohen University Library, stands at the far corner and was bequeathed by a great-nephew of David Lewis.

South of Ashton Street lies Mount Pleasant Street, which passes Liverpool's Roman Catholic Cathedral and then leads on to Hope Street. Long and elegant, it comprises row after row of fine Georgian and Victorian houses. One of its side streets, Hope Place, has a Jewish history. A "New Hebrew Congregation" made up of members who had seceded from the Seel Street Synagogue, built a synagogue here, which was consecrated in 1857.

A Jewish school accommodating 300 pupils was opened next door to the new synagogue. The school is now a university building and the synagogue has become the Unity Theatre. Part of the facade is still visible but in the late 1990s the theatre developers implanted a glass-fronted foyer, Spoiling what would have been a fine entrance to an art establishment.

LIVERPOOL'S JEWISH population may have fallen to 3,000 today from a peak of 11,000 in 1914, but it is still a vibrant community. It provides Jewish schooling from the ages of two to 18, welfare services and a residential nursing home. Jews have largely moved out to the leafier, greener suburbs of Wavertree, Allerton and Childwall.

They support five synagogues, which are all on the Heritage Trail. The Harold House Community Centre, which adjoins the Childwall Hebrew Congregation Synagogue on Dunbabin Road, caters for all ages from kindergarten to senior citizens. Hebrew classes are offered and twice week it serves as Liverpool's only kosher restaurant.

Around the corner from the community centre, on Queens Drive, stands the childhood home of Brian Epstein, who discovered those famous Liverpool sons, the Beatles. He became involved in the music business after his father, who owned a furniture retailing business, bought a musical instrument store. The house is not open to the public.

Just off Upper Parliament Street, in the Toxteth area of the city, lies The highlight of the trail, the 19th-century Princes Road Synagogue. Many Jews lived in this area at that time and the "Old Hebrew Congregation" moved here from the Seel Street Synagogue in 1874. The austere exterior in no way prepares the visitor for the delights inside. Only the enormous wheel window, way up above the entrance, offers a clue.

The guide, Dr. Cecil Moss, swings open the massive wooden doors, to allow our small party to enter the modest vestibule. A superb raconteur, he teases us, keeping the inner doors closed as he tells the history of the synagogue. He talks about the architects, of the worthies who donated the funds, of The craftsmanship of the local artisans, tantalizing us wickedly. Then he pushes open the inner doors to reveal the exquisite beauty of the interior.

The architects, W. and G. Audsley, sought to combine the best of Ashkenazi and Sephardi architecture and travelled through Europe and the Middle East before settling on a design. The interior is laid out like a Gothic basilica with a central nave. Six Gothic arches supported by tapered, green octagonal columns flank the seats. The ladies' galleries are on three sides and the synagogue can hold 450 men and 350 women.

The ark is divided from the nave by a scalloped, Moorish arch and is capped by blue domes picked out by golden stars. The ceiling is divided into bays and is richly decorated with stencilled designs with stars picked out in gold.

Princes Road was consecrated on September 3, 1874 and the £4,000 cost ($983,000 today) was met by donations. A one-day bazaar, in a local hall, raised £3,000 ($210,600 today) for the decoration.

The synagogue is Grade II listed - a classification denoting a building of particular historic importance. However, most Jews have moved out of Toxteth and it relies on a hard core of about 60 worshipers who travel some distance for services. It is in demand for television documentaries and appeared in the film of the life of the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Hilary and Jackie. Dr Moss is an excellent guide, with his ready, self-deprecating wit. His tour should be booked well in advance.

Liverpool's Jewish Community continues to make a large contribution to public life. The present Lord Mayor, Ron Gould, is the sixth Jew to hold that office and the community is well represented in the legal, medical and teaching professions. Two High Court judges hail from Liverpool as does the current attorney-general to the British government, Lord Peter Goldsmith.

Information on the Jewish community:

Information on the restoration of Galkoff`s (Liverpool)

Colin Miller

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