Tracing The First Jews Of Britain

Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK

Tracing the first Jews of Britain
By Hanna White
BBC News website

It is 350 years since Jews were readmitted to England, three centuries after they were expelled. But can any members of the UK's modern Jewish communities trace their roots back to 1656?
Simon Castello is proud of his family coat-of-arms
Simon Castello, a retired stockbroker, sits in the cosy living room of his townhouse in London's Chelsea. He shows me a yellowed parchment which he inherited from his father, a family tree dating back to the 17th century.

Later he retreats into a back room to re-emerge with a colourful painting – the Castello coat of arms.

Mr Castello is every bit the English gent and it is only his surname that reveals his more exotic origins. He is in fact descended from one of the first immigrants to this country, the Sephardi Jews.

A cut above the rest

The community lived originally in Spain and Portugal – hence the Hispanic surnames such as Mocatta, Mendes da Costa, Periera and Nunes – and amid the 15th century religious inquisitions in both countries, they fled to France or the Spanish colonies of the Netherlands and the West Indies.

Their arrival in England came after Oliver Cromwell received a petition in 1656 from Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, seeking permission for Jews to be allowed to live and work freely in the country.

The first Castellos born in London were Jacob and Daniel in 1797 and 1798 respectively.

Some of Mr Castello's ancestors were elders at Britain's oldest surviving synagogue, Bevis Marks in the City of London which was founded in 1698.

(Some famous British Sephardis:

Sir Moses Montefiore (pictured) Sheriff of London from 1837 to 1838, received a baronetcy for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Jews

Benjamin Disraeli
twice British Prime Minister

Sir Basil Henriques philanthropist, founder of youth club for poor children in London's East End

Daniel Mendoza
boxing champion of England 1792-1795)

Pride in this heritage and their role in the faith's development in the UK remains strong among British Sephardi Jews.

While outsiders may think of Jews as a single “community”, the reality is that there are rivalries and cultural differences that remain important to some to this day.

Many of the older established Sephardi families, for instance, think themselves to be quite culturally different to those claiming Ashkenazi heritage, the extremely poor peasant communities who fled persecution in Eastern Europe to arrive in the late 19th century.

“We Sephardim, who've been here [hundreds of] years feel we are better, somewhat different. We are considered to be the best,” explains Mr Castello.

“In the old days it was not acceptable for us to marry Ashkenazim.”

His name, however, could be the last on the Castello family tree in Britain. He is the only living male in this country and has no children.

His sister Susan married into the Henriques family, another prominent name in the community.

Steven Henriques, her brother-in-law, belongs to West London Synagogue – founded in 1841 after some families fell out with Bevis Marks and set up their own congregation.

He, too, fears the next generation will not continue the lineage.

“The Henriques have played a very major part in the synagogue. But it's all in the past and one is a little saddened that there is no future to that, not on my side at least.

“My son lives here in Northumberland and would hardly know the inside of [the West London Synagogue] if he saw it, although he was confirmed there.”

Conversion and integration

This fear of loss of community and identity runs deep among British Jews – and their integration into wider society over the centuries shows how societies can quickly absorb immigrants.

Many of the earliest arrivals to this country eventually left the Jewish community.

For some it was because they wanted their children to get on in the world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was baptised as a boy
In 1753 Samson Gideon, an important member of the community, had himself and his children baptised after a failed bid to gain emancipation for Jews, a campaign to ensure the community had the same civil rights as others in society. Emancipation eventually happened in 1858.

Others converted because they fell out with the community. Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister under Queen Victoria, was born a Jew, but baptised in 1817 by his father, Isaac D'Israeli, after an argument with the family synagogue.

Todd Endelman, an American historian, has another theory. He says the first Jews to settle in England had “a very confused religious identity”.

Even as Menasseh Ben Israel was negotiating with Cromwell to lift the ban on Jews, there was a tiny community of Maranos, or secret Jews, already doing business in London. They were taken for Spanish Christians.

“The fascinating thing is the number of people who go back and forth between religions,” says Mr Endelman.

“Once they have real choice, some choose to actively identify and some don't because they probably were not believing Jews in the first place.”

Sephardi heritage

In fact, there might be thousands of British people out there who have no idea of their Jewish origins.

One keen genealogist has indeed uncovered more than he bargained for about his past.

David Ferdinando: Related to Antonio Carvajal, buried in London?
David Ferdinando, a 49-year-old IT consultant from Kent, has been looking into his family history for the last 20 years.

By studying the origin of his surname he recently traced his family right back to 1679 and the birth of a certain Isaac Ferdinando.

There is little doubt that this 17th century blacksmith was a Sephardi Jew because his children had Old Testament names such as Benjamin and Isaac.

They were all baptised at once, perhaps because in the pre-emancipation days the blacksmiths' guild to which Isaac wished to belong would not accept Jews.

What is even more intriguing is the possibility that Isaac Ferdinando may have been the grandson of Antonio Fernandes Carvajal, the leader of the British Jewish community in the mid-1600s who played a key role in the negotiations with Cromwell.

When he first made this discovery Mr Ferdinando was “impressed”.

“Carvajal was a merchant importing 200,000 worth of goods – that's like 200m worth of business a year,” he says. “We all want to know where the money went!”


The London Metropolitan Archives is holding a Jewish Roots Day on Tuesday September 19. For details call +44 (0) 20 7332 3820 or email