Bristol was one of the principal Jewish centers of medieval England. Jews accompanied William the Conqueror – the Norman Conquest – and first came to Bristol in the reign of his son, William Rufus, settling in the area of Nelson Street and Quay Street on the banks of the River Frome. The first Synagogue was in the crypt of what was St Giles Church in Small Street. The cemetery was on what is now the site of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, where artifacts with Hebrew script were found when the school’s foundations were being dug.
The Jewish communities of medieval England were effectively the property of the King, providing services in finance because the laws of Catholic Europe forbade the practice of usury among Christians. Jews had few rights and suffered constant discrimination, harassment and periodic violent attack.
Jewish life in Bristol came to an abrupt end in 1290 when all Jews were expelled from England. There were, however, occasional Jewish residents or visitors. A community of Marranos (Jews secretly observing their faith) lived here during the Tudor period.
The modern community dates from before 1743. The first known synagogue of this period was in a house in Temple Street. The first permanent house of prayer was in the former Weavers’ Hall, also in Temple Street, and dating from 1786. It was splendidly fitted out, largely at the expense of Lazarus Jacobs, the famous maker of Bristol Blue glass.
In 1842 the community consecrated a new synagogue in the former Quaker’s Chapel close to Temple Street. The widening of that road necessitated a further move, in 1871, to the present building in Park Row.