A ”lights out” ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, 2014

Bevis Marks Synagogue

Britain’s oldest purpose-built synagogue faces a new, more insidious threat

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Since the 19th century, Britain’s oldest purpose-built synagogue, Bevis Marks in the City of London, has survived multiple attempts at its destruction. One made in the 1880s prompted the establishment of the Bevis Marks Anti-Demolition League, which drew the support of William Morris. It survived the Blitz and, more recently, two major IRA bombings.

Today, the synagogue — Sha’ar Hashamayim, the Gate of Heaven in Hebrew — is in a struggle against a new threat, arguably more insidious than those made before. For some time, it has been attempting to see off the planned development of the nearby site of 31 Bury Street for a super-tall office building. Its trustees, and many supporters from local and national heritage groups, fear it would leave the building’s daylight provision at only one hour a day. Heaven’s gate risks being left in darkness.

The interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue in an eighteenth-century engraving

At first, it seemed the fight had been won. In 2021, developer Welput’s application for a 48-storey building on the site was rejected on the grounds that it “would adversely affect the setting” of the Grade 1-listed synagogue due to its “overbearing and overshadowing impact”, a clear admission of the validity of the fears of the synagogue’s supporters. Since then, however, the plans have been resurrected with superficial changes — five stories have been shaved off the building’s projected 48 — that ostensibly acknowledge the synagogue’s concerns, but do little to change the picture from its point of view.

Attempts to shore up a conservation area surrounding the synagogue have not proved much of a safeguard, as the publication of the City’s draft Local Plan earlier this year has revealed. The plan proposes to define the conservation area surrounding the synagogue so tightly as to exclude the neighbouring Bury Street site, whilst removing a clause preventing the construction of tall buildings in conservation areas. Thanks to this sleight of hand, by 2028 Bevis Marks will, if nothing changes, literally be living in the Bury Street tower’s shadow, with others inevitably to follow.

Entrance door showing its construction date in both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars

It is hard to see this as anything other than an act of gross cultural vandalism against one of Britain’s most important Jewish sites. Sometimes thought of as Britain’s “cathedral-synagogue” for its importance to Anglo-Jewish history, Bevis Marks was one of the very first synagogues to be built in Britain after the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 (its community first occupied a building on Creechurch Lane from the 1650s).

Not only is it now the oldest surviving purpose-built synagogue in Britain, the 20th century’s destruction of continental Jewish places of worship has left Bevis Marks with a claim to being the oldest synagogue in the whole of Europe to be continuously in use. As such, the building tells a story that is both particular to Britain and speaks to events beyond it.

The synagogue overshadowed by City towers

Bevis Marks is also amongst Britain’s most intact 18th century religious buildings. Built under the supervision of the carpenter Joseph Avis and completed in 1701, many of its features are original, including benches that are hinged to enable the storage of prayer books and prayer shawls. To this day, services are often only illuminated by candles placed in the seven great brass chandeliers slung low over the synagogue’s central body.

This building has at times been cast in terms of otherness. A favourite legend has it that its likely architect, Avis, was a Quaker and so from another of London’s marginalised communities. The land purchased for the site, moreover, was tactfully outside of the City’s limits, and its entrance set back from the public highway, leading to the unassuming courtyard from which the building is entered to this day.

St James’s Piccadilly, designed by Christopher Wren

There are undeniable links with the Spanish and Portuguese “mother-synagogue” in Amsterdam, which opened in 1675 and whose congregation paid for one of Bevis Marks’ chandeliers. But, as historian Kenneth Rubens has observed, Bevis Marks, which comfortably seats around 600, is a very different building to the massive, 2,000-seater Amsterdam synagogue. Indeed, its more intimate architecture can be better understood in terms of the architectural language of the roughly-contemporary City churches that neighbour it.

The parallels between Bevis Marks and the City churches are numerous. There’s the unshowy brick exterior (not unlike Wren’s favourite church, St James’s Piccadilly), a galleried interior with rich but undemonstrative woodwork and what looks like a reredos. Of course, these features have been adapted to Jewish worship: unlike in an Anglican church, the galleries were intended to separate male and female worshippers and the “reredos” is in fact the Echal containing the Torah scrolls.

Golden afternoon light illuminates the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam

Other features, such as the platform (or Bimah) dominating the plan, from which the service is led, are sui generis. The points of commonality, though, are striking and speak to a close cultural dialogue. Indeed, Avis, like virtually all the other craftsmen who worked at Bevis Marks, had also worked on these churches. Moreover, the institutions’ needs were similar. Wren’s belief that churches ought to be “auditories” applies just as well to a synagogue, whose services often focus on reading from the Torah.

Bevis Marks is unique, but the threat it faces is not.

It speaks to a far broader concern about the pace of change being allowed by a City prioritising profit over preservation. When Foster+Partners’ 30 St Mary Axe, alias “the Gherkin”, was finished just over 20 years ago, it was seen by many as being out of scale with its surroundings. Now, it is but a junior — even diminutive — member of the so-called “eastern cluster” of skyscrapers surrounding it.

The candlelit interior of the synagogue, which was refurbished in 2023

If today’s cities really do need high-rises, then they have to be built with consideration for more than simply return on investment. The City Corporation’s apparent skewing of the pitch at Bevis Marks shows no such concern, revealing instead an ignorance of what truly makes London a world city. The Corporation could do well to reflect upon the wisdom of those who, with some courage, built Bevis Marks and went to such great lengths to harmonise it with the buildings around it.

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