The Jerusalem Post

London and Winchester: A tale of two British Jewish communities

 The bronze statue of 13th-century Jewish entrepreneur Licoricia of Winchester  (photo credit: EINAT BLUMFIELD)
The bronze statue of 13th-century Jewish entrepreneur Licoricia of Winchester
(photo credit: EINAT BLUMFIELD)

Winchester was once home to a Jewish community, but World War II put an end to it.

On a recent visit to England with some of my family, we made a pilgrimage to the neighborhood of Spitalfields in London’s East End, where my grandparents had lived until much of the area was destroyed in the Blitz of 1941. 

On a previous visit with my brothers several years ago, I was depressed by the desolation, the neglect of the streets, the old homes, and the market which stood in an empty shell of Victorian glass and iron. However, an old synagogue had been excavated on Princelet Street, and an architect working on the site told us that there was a movement to “Save Spitalfields” and prevent the demolition and development of the high-rise office blocks that had risen on the bombed sites over the years.

This time, I was overjoyed to see the results of public protest and crowdfunding which have saved this historical site and restored it to a thriving community. As much for its architecture, the area has a rich social history.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, traders began to operate in what was a rural hamlet beyond the city walls, eventually growing into the overcrowded bustling location, home to generations of immigrants. Trumans Brewery opened in 1669, and its pub Truman’s Ales & Stout is still the corner meeting place for the locals.


During the 17th century, the Huguenots fled France and settled in Spitalfields, bringing their silk-weaving skills, followed by the immigration of Irish weavers.

 Jewry Street in the heart of Winchester, Hampshire  (credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
Jewry Street in the heart of Winchester, Hampshire (credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)

However, from 1880 Spitalfields was overwhelmingly Jewish as refugees escaped the Russian pogroms and persecution in other Eastern European countries.

These were the tailors and cutters, the furniture manufacturers. More than one major retail business in England today was started by a barrow-boy who had traded in the markets. With the growing but impoverished population, there was a demand for inexpensive but fresh produce, and the Spitalfields Market, as well as Petticoat Lane and Borough Market, was where the Jewish housewives bought their herrings and pickles from the barrels and took home the chicken which would feed the entire family over Shabbat. 

While the first generation worked under crowded and difficult conditions, the community survived on self-help. There were no social services, free housing, or healthcare, and Jewish charities were funded by the wealthier Sephardi Jews who had arrived in England much earlier. Neighbors helped one another, providing food if a mother was sick, a father unemployed, caring for each other. Of course, such overcrowding and poverty caused feuds and conflicts; but in general, their own resources and community support gave them hope for the future.

Education was a priority for this community. The state education was very poor at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Jews Infant School and the Jews Free School had an excellent record. Unfortunately, children left school at age 14, and it was only a decade later that some could graduate and attend university. One of these boys recorded that he and his friends went to the library on the way home, where they could do their homework in a warm, light space. He and several of his siblings became well-known writers and artists.


As they prospered, the Jews moved out to the suburbs and by the 1970s were replaced by the Bangladeshi immigrants. However, long before that, much of the East End was destroyed by the bombing in WW II. My grandfather had settled with his wife and older sons at 51 Wilkes Street as early as 1888. He was a master tailor and had his workshop at the top of his house. At the turn of the century, three more children were born, including the youngest, my mother.

My grandfather was a lively and generous man, involved in the community, a founder of the Plotzker Synagogue. When the ships came into London docks from Eastern Europe, he would search for his landsmen and help them find jobs and homes. Sometimes he employed them himself even if he did not have enough work to give them.

Until a tragic night in May 1941 when much of the East End was razed to the ground by German bombing aiming for the docks. By that time, the children had moved out and, of course, were anxious when they heard the news. The grandparents had a shelter in their cellar so when the family got no answer to the telephone in the house, they assumed that they had stayed in the shelter.

However, their concern grew, so my father and oldest brother set off for the East End to look for them. The Underground rail stopped running at Tottenham Court Road, so they made their way on foot. They found the East End on fire, streets covered with rubble and broken glass. My father had also grown up in the East End, and my brother reported later that this was the first time he ever saw him weep. When they arrived at 51 Wilkes Street, the front wall was standing, the telephone attached – and ringing. The rest of the house was demolished. A Home Guard warden reported that my grandmother had been wounded in the blast and subsequently passed away, but that my grandfather had survived unscathed.

I was an infant at the time and had no connection with the East End, but these two visits – first with my brothers and then with my own children – aroused my curiosity.

On this recent visit, we noted that the historic Huguenot homes which had housed entire families in each room had now been restored, keeping their original features but with a strengthened infrastructure and brightly colored front doors. Sadly, the space where the houses that were bombed had stood, including No. 51, was now a parking lot. The nearby area was set out with tables and food trucks. My daughter, who talks to everyone, bought some vegetarian dumplings from a Tibetan woman, who gave us a more detailed history of the preservation process of recent years.

The next surprise was the extended Spitalfields Market. Originally a site of ramshackle sheds and stalls, it was purchased by Robert Horner, who built the beautiful Victorian structure that opened in 1893.

Left as an empty shell after the war, the Save Spitalfields project completed its restoration in 2005 together with the surrounding area. Several synagogues were discovered, such as Sandys Row, founded by Dutch Jews who specialized in diamond-cutting and polishing, and the manufacture of cigars.

For me as a descendant of that Jewish history, it was closure: to see the neighborhood and market, now thriving, crowded with locals and tourists, looking for fashion, household items, and enjoying the multi-ethnic eateries

A historic area, still in living memory and visible in the evidence of dwellings, markets and places of worship only needed vision, determination, and funding to restore it to a viable community.

However, going back several centuries, little evidence remains of the Jewish population in the Hampshire cathedral town of Winchester. It was the news of the unveiling by then Prince Charles in 2022 of the bronze statue of Licoricia of Winchester that persuaded us to include this on our itinerary.

A helpful guide in the Tourist Information Office directed us to Jewry Street, which had been the center of the Jewish population in medieval times. It was a nondescript busy thoroughfare; although a few Victorian buildings had been identified as properties belonging to Jews as early as 1280, there were no excavations of Jewish homes or synagogues. Nevertheless, the remains of Jews from that period were found when the Jewish cemetery was excavated in 1996.

It was William the Conqueror who invited Jews to England in 1070 to help the economy. They were restricted in their occupations; nevertheless, there were Jewish advocates, doctors, midwives, and food providers. During the reign of Henry III, when the Jewish population numbered over 200, they suffered persecution and intolerance. From 1253, they were required to wear a strip of yellow felt in the shape of the two stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. A grisly fact, for perhaps it was this that inspired the Nazis to force Jews to wear yellow Stars of David. Throughout the city there are reminders of the Jewish presence in those years – a tower in Winchester Castle where Jews were held for not paying taxes, a mural in Winchester Cathedral. In 1290, Edward 1 demanded that the Jews convert or go into exile. They were only allowed to return at the time of Oliver Cromwell.

So who is Licoricia and why was her statue located at the end of Jewry Street in Winchester and honored with its unveiling by the future King of England?

It was partly because of Licoricia (her name means “sweetmeat”) that the Jews of Winchester were tolerated during her lifetime. She was a highly influential and brilliant businesswoman in the 13th century. She was especially successful after her second marriage and was a leader of her community. With her connections, she raised funds for Henry III and for national projects. In spite of her support of royalty, she did suffer persecution in later life and was tragically murdered in her Jewry Street home.

The beautiful bronze sculpture is by Ian Rank-Broadley, one of the foremost sculptors working today. Licoricia is depicted with her five-year-old youngest son, Asher. He is holding his mother`s hand, while in the other hand he is holding a dreidel. The plinth on all four sides is engraved in English and in Hebrew: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Rank-Broadley commented: “Apart from the name Jewry Street, the actual Jewish quarter has been entirely erased over time, so this work indicates that there was a significant and very important community here. Through this, people also recognize the contribution the Jewish community made to this country.”

According to Jewish Communities and Records-UK, from that period there were no synagogues or recorded Jewish communities in Winchester until an influx of evacuees during World War I. In 1939, Aria College was moved from Southsea near Portsmouth to Winchester, aiming to continue its Jewish Orthodox life and studies. Services at the college during the High Holidays welcomed local Jews.

Families taking refuge from London, as well as the American Jewish Forces, formed a congregation for festivals and social activity. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the few Jewish families already living in the city hosted these Allied Forces and evacuees. In 1944, some 500 Allied Forces received hospitality for Passover in private homes. At the conclusion of the war, the soldiers and the evacuees mostly returned home, and 1949 saw the end of Jewish community life in Winchester.

So Licoricia stands, elegant and beautiful with her son, a reminder of an erstwhile Jewish presence in this quintessential English cathedral city. ■