Converting the Jews 1809-1813

FreyThe Rev Frey ( above)

The conversion of the Jews to Christianity was seen by many of the Regency period as an important charitable act, similar to the help given to fallen women and the industrious poor. The main engine of this philanthropy was the London Society Promoting Christianity Amongst The Jews. It was proposed in August 1808 and was inaugurated on February 15th, 1809.

Its aim was “the benevolent purpose of rescuing the unhappy Jews from the state of moral degradation in which they find themselves”. They were a missionary organisation. One of their key members was William Wilberforce, the most famous proselytising evangelical of the time. They were mostly from the Church of England, with the addition of a few token dissenters.

By 1810, they had purchased a French Protestant Church in Church Street, Spitalfields, which had originally been built by the Huguenot community in 1743. Their newspaper advertisement said that they had produced 8000 pamphlets and opened a school in the East End, a printing press and a House of Industry.

Their leading light and founder was  the Reverend Joseph Samuel C.F Frey, a Church of England Minister who was a Jewish convert. In April 1810, the Rev Frey was in Oxfordshire and in October he was in Scotland. It seems that the whole message of the London Jews’ Society was quite conciliatory in an age where Jews were held under the greatest of suspicion. While the society stressed the necessity for conversion, they asked their lecture audience to realise the importance of the first five books of the Torah as a foundation of Christianity. Jews had been a positive boon to civilisation, despite their error 1700 years ago. “Gratitude” says one of their newspaper reports “demands our assistance and commiseration” The Society pointed out that the treatment of Jews in Christian had been  historically appalling and was not likely to encourage them to repent. They also praised Napoleon, a dangerous thing to do in Britain in 1811.

“Whatever the rapacity and injustice of the French Emperor, his enlightened policy towards the Jews deserves the imitation of every European power”

A letter to the Chester Courant (31.12.1811) supported the work of the society and the writer equally keen not to slur the Jews; the author was Michael Collin, a Jewish Rabbi convert. However there was a whiff of condescension; the Jews were in a lethargic slumber from which they need to be wakened; their ancestors had made the errors and had put the modern Jews under terrible, untenable obligations.

By 1811, the Society had set up an auxiliary branch in Carlisle and Dublin. The Carlisle Branch used mass subscriptions of 1 penny a week to raise £50 per year and the Dublin branch did the same, with the added help of donations from the enlightened yet pious members of the Irish “bon ton”. Both organisations raised money for a House of Industry for Jewish Women in the East End. The Dublin Branch, meeting for the first time in November 1811, noted with concern that there were 400   Jewesses in London, in “a debased state of human wretchedness”.

The Rev Frey was still sermonising around Great Britain. In 1811 he was in Chester and North Wales, at ten places in 12 days, including one day when he was in  Conway at 11am and Bangor at 6pm.

In April  1811 the society boasted a new Hebrew –Christian  Chapel in Bethnal Green, an increase in Jewish Children at the school from 36 in 1810 to 51, many thousands of more tracts in English, German and Hebrew and 24 baptisms. From our point of view, this may be a low number, but when the Society  was formed  in 1809 it was noted that there were no more than 30 converted Jews in the whole of the country.

A Jewish printing house had been established with many converted Jews employed; the implication was that they were being provided with jobs after losing them when they converted- to quote the Sussex Auxiliary Society formed in 1814-those persecuted for righteousness sake”. Cotton weaving equipment was purchased for a group of converts who had been pushed out of their synagogue and were now the deserving poor. Frey was in constant danger from the working class Jews of Spitalfields too; his early convert Bernard Jacob was attacked with his children in 1809. Frey  was a hard working and brave man.

In May 1812 the Rev John Hutchins was in Colchester and Ipswich. In July he preached to 2000 people crowded into St Mary’s Bungay. They were now up to 35 baptisms with 70 children at two schools (slightly ominously)they were pleased to   add that 55 of the children were “entirely taken from their parents” .

In many ways this seems to be a real achievement; although the number of new baptisms seems disappointing poor. Indeed most of the audience for the sermons were Christian. Most of the lectures and sermons were held in Church of England places of worship; but dissenter chapels were also used; there were no visits to purely Jewish audiences.

Twenty eight pounds were raised from both poor and rich at Bungay; like all advertisements and propaganda from the Society, it was made very clear that ladies were very welcome and would be accommodated. They used the same techniques of taking money from both rich and poor, creating elite fundraising   events and penny societies for the poor. Cheshire had its own separate gentlewomen’s Society, were the lowest  respectable annual subscription was a guinea.

As auxiliary branches sprung up, their success continued.. At Ipswich in March 1813 it was announced that there were 42 baptisms and 104 children in the school and their Chapel in Church Street Spitalfields now had a Congregation of the Hebrew- Christian Benei Abraham (The Children of Abraham)-the first Chapel for Converted Jews in Britain.

The Society expanded into a global missionary organisation and survives today as the The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People, and is one of the ten missionary societies of the Church of England.

My book on the grim reality of Regency Britain is available now .

A climbing boy’s death in Spitalfields 1816


A master chimney sweep  and a new recruit

Little is known of William Moles. Of that which is known, little of it was good. He was one of about 200 Chimney Sweep Masters in London. A small number of these were prosperous Master Sweeps. About 1 in 7 made a respectable living. William was not one of them. He would employ climbing boys to clean the flues of the rich for one shilling a time. We know for a fact that one of his apprentices was a boy called John Hewley (or Hewling or Hasely depending on the source)

John would probably have lived in the same house as William and his wife Sarah. He would subsist in one soot- infested room of their house, sleeping on a black mattress. He may have been on his own or with other apprentices; although there is evidence that he was the only one. There were laws protecting climbing boys that William would have been aware of-these dated from the humanitarian efforts of Jonas Hanway in 1788.Under that law, sweep apprentices had to be at least 8 years old; John was six. They had to attend church every Sunday and be washed every week. Moles almost certainly ignored this part of the law as well, given what happened afterwards

Being a climbing boy was an odd sort of apprenticeship. Most children were indentured at 14; that is when climbing boys started to lose their job, being too large to scramble up chimney flues that were on average a foot square but sometimes less. Undernourished 6 year olds were to be preferred as apprentices-if they were not under size they could be starved. It was believed in the late regency that the Romans would starve hedgehogs to make clothe brushes and that this was a similar type of cruelty. Most came from the workhouses and would end their life there too. They only advantage was that they had money had an early age; Henry Mayhew in “London Street Life” suggested 2pence a day to spend as they wished; however, after 14, penury and unskilled labour was the norm.
By 14 the climbing boy had learnt a trade that had no transferable skills and had stunted growth and physically development so much that other employment was impossible

John Hewley was spared this future when he died at the hands of William and Sarah in April 1816. It seems that John died when he was cleaning a flue on behalf of Mr Moles. On April 2nd Moles and John went to the house of Elizabeth Ware in Fashion Street, Spitalfields. Elizabeth gave evidence that John was beaten about the legs by his master, presumably for his reluctance to go up the flue.

On 23rd April, at Chick-end in Spitalfields, John was sent up the chimney of Ann Chandler. John was already up the chimney when the witness saw him assaulted. He would know that there were ways of making him do so-mostly with beatings to the feet or the use of pins. While up the chimney he might have panicked and cried out that he was stuck. Then the master would try to “buff it”- pushing the boy upwards by using his shoulders on the poor boys feet, forcing the lad to try “slanting”-altering his body to fit the shape of the flue. John clearly got fully stuck; Moles tried to pull him down but in the process the boy fell on to the marble hearth, breaking his legs and dying a few days later. Staff at the London Hospital tried to save the boy by amputating a leg; it may have been in vain anyway; there would have been traumatic damage to John’s head as he was pulled out and that could have been the cause of death.

His legal team was led by Mr Adolphus- of duelling fame- claimed that it was an accident and the judge decided that murder could not be proved. Sarah Moles was dismissed but needed protection from the authorities, as a mob of 200 chased her through the streets. William Moles was found guilty of mistreatment of John. His apprentice’s body had previous marks of abuse, especially around the feet and legs.

He was imprisoned for two years. It was lucky for him that he cheated death by not stealing a horse.

More about the poor and disadvantaged of the Regency in my book.

All new material, different from the blog

A chapter by chapter breakdown here