London's most Jewish neighbourhood? Highgate of course!

Local historian Peter Walton explains why ahead of his two walking tours this month

What’s the most important place in London’s Jewish history? The old East End? Hendon? Golders Green? Think again: it's Highgate. The very first house owned by Jews in England was bought by Alvaro da Costa, who came to London after the readmission of 1657. In 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jewish people from England, so apart from a few ‘hidden’ Jews, there were none here until 1656 when Oliver Cromwell permitted their readmission.

Da Costa purchased Cromwell House (pictured below) in Highgate Village and it's now a Grade 1-listed building. He worked for the wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza and was a very rich man with a big household. Daniel Defoe visited in about 1720 and wrote that "the Jews of Highgate are very wealthy, they live there in good figure and have butchers of their own". So, quite a community – more than one butcher! Cromwell House had a synagogue and mikvah, too. They lived in style and even Voltaire came to visit the da Costas.

Jewish Highgate, Cromwell House © Peter Walton.jpg

The second synagogue was in the house of Hyman Hurwitz, who opened the second ever Jewish school in the UK, in Highgate in 1802. He was good pals with Coleridge, who lived four doors down. They even wrote a few poems together and, with Coleridge’s support, Hurwitz became the first professor of Hebrew at London University.

The next major development of Jewish life in Highgate came in the 1920s when a group of families and ‘lansleit’ (‘neighbours from the old country’) settled there and founded a new shul on the Archway Road. After a bit more wandering and two more shuls later the community is now beautifully housed in a new building, yards away from the famous Highpoint flats, which were designed by a Jew, Lubetkin, for a Jewish client, Gestetner. And it is the only other Grade 1-listed building in Highgate.

Jewish Highgate, Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery.jpg

Add to this a short list of famous Jews connected with Highgate, from Karl Marx (still a resident in Highgate Cemetery) to Yehudi Menuhin. In fact, if you consider just a handful of the neighbourhood's notable Jews – Peter Sellars, George Michael (yes he was Jewish!), Jerry Springer, Martin Gilbert, Julius Elias (Lord Southwood), Sir Robert Waley Cohen, Elizabeth Taylor, and most important of all, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who saved more than 3,500 Jews before, during and after the Holocaust – you'll begin to understand my claim.

This is why I am leading walking tours of Highgate this month (16 & 23 Jun) as part of the Highgate Festival. Join me this Sunday and next to find out much more about the area's fascinating Jewish history.

By Peter Walton

Historic Jewish Highgate tours take place on Sunday 16 & Sunday 23 June. 2pm. £5 suggested donation. Meeting place revealed upon booking.