The community grew during the C19th and by 1851 the population was over 700. The modestly-located Severn St Synagogue was built in the Greek Revival style in 1827; it now serves as a Masonic Temple. By 1900 the population reached 3,200 and a Jewish area developed around Hurst St and Holloway Head where many historic Jewish buildings can still be seen.
The original and rather "hidden" Severn St Synagogue
The cathedral or choral synagogue tended to emerge in the emancipation era of the C19th, when Jews in Europe burst out of the ghetto and moved up the social scale. The development of the cathedral synagogue was thus rooted in a particular historical era. In France, after the Revolution of 1789 and more irregularly in Germany during the C19th, the acquisition of civil and political rights led to the emergence of the Jewish community into the modern world.
Britain was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and, by the mid-Victorian period, Jewish entrepreneurs were contributing to the development of Britain's growing industrial cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Successful Jewish communities made themselves visible.
Singers Hill Synagogue, out and proud
The architect was Henry Yeoville Thomason (1826-1901) who was a fan of Italian Renaissance architecture. Externally the architecture featured a portico with a rose window to the entrance gable, flanked by to projecting wings to form the entrance courtyard. Note the confident red and yellow brick surface.
The interior combined the Romanesque and Neoclassical styles with Italianate detailing, based on the classic Basilica plan. The mahogany central reading desk and mahogany ark were clearly visible to all the congregants since natural light streamed in over the clerestory. The original cast and gilded gas chandeliers were a delight, hanging between the beautifully gilded capitals of the classical columns. The excellent stained glass, however, was newer (c1922).
women's gallery, Singers Hill Synagogue
In this photo of the women’s gallery, the modern viewer can appreciate the rose window, the stained glass windows along both sides and the gas chandeliers.
Shortly after it was finished in 1856, the synagogue was described in the local press as ‘a glory to the community and an ornament to the town’. A letter written at the time of the opening of the synagogue described the splendid consecration ceremony.
The synagogue itself had seating for 1000. But other facilities were needed since the Jewish population was rising. Schoolrooms were built at the rear of the site in Ellis St for the 350 pupils of the Birmingham Hebrew Schools which operated from 1856 until the 1930s. The school building is now the communal hall. Two houses for the resident ministers were included in the complex, the whole forming three sides of a quadrangle around a courtyard.
In the 1990s, an English Heritage grant helped fund repairs to the major architectural structure and the congregation's own fundraising efforts paid for the smaller repairs to stonework and windows.
Singers Hill Synagogue has recently been awarded the title of 'most improved Place of Worship in the West Midlands' by English Heritage. An English Heritage report, looking at the condition of religious buildings, had found that 200 West Midlands places of worship needed urgent and major repairs. The report highlighted Singers Hill Synagogue as a place that was previously vulnerable but now restored, and definitely not at risk any longer. Nonetheless an architect has now been made responsible for improvements to the building's structure.
main entrance of Singers Hill Synagogue
An excellent read is The 'Cathedral Synagogues' of England by Sharman Kadish, published in Jewish Historical Studies, volume 39, 2004. For an analysis of England's 10 most beautiful synagogues, complete with photos, see Heritage Calling.