Luton History: Exploring the town's historic Jewish community - which dates back to the 1880s

Local historian Jackie Gunn is on a mission to share stories of Luton's yesteryear. Join her to revisit the past as she researches the town's buried secrets…
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In the later part of the 1880s, we see the arrival of the first Jewish community to the town of Luton.

Solomon and Etta Rosenthal and their four sons take up residence in High Town Road in 1891. All the boys were born in London, the eldest being eight years old in the 1891 census of Luton.

Solomon was a ‘general dealer’, meaning money-lending and investments, while his wife Etta concentrated on drapery. Eventually her family were proprietors of three shops including two market stalls in the old Plait Hall in the town centre.

Jewish ex-servicemen outside Luton Synagogue in the 1950sJewish ex-servicemen outside Luton Synagogue in the 1950s
Jewish ex-servicemen outside Luton Synagogue in the 1950s

Etta was very much involved in helping other new Jewish arrivals moving to Luton, and with the increased population of Jewish families, she saw the necessity for a meeting house to allow the Jewish community to follow their faith.

In 1897 Solomon died, however Etta or Ethel as she was now called, married again to Abraham Cohen in 1902. They moved to John Street and continued with the expanding tailoring and drapery business.

Ethel was still determined to seek adequate premises for the Jewish Community, and was eventually rewarded with a small room above a factory in John Street in 1912. This was a start, but her intentions were to work towards a Central Synagogue for the town.

Then the First World War broke out. Sadly Ethel’s son Isaac, who was a 3rd class air mechanic with the RAF, finished his service but never survived the trauma of the war. He died as a patient in Three Counties Asylum in Bedfordshire in 1921.

116 Bury Park Road when it was the Empire Cinema116 Bury Park Road when it was the Empire Cinema
116 Bury Park Road when it was the Empire Cinema

Moving towards the 1930s, Ethel and Abraham were still tirelessly supporting the need for a Central Synagogue. Various small buildings and empty houses were being used as temporary meeting halls, but it wasn't enough.

Abraham died in 1933 and Ethel followed in 1939, one week after retiring from her market stall in Market Hill. She was 77 years old and tributes poured in from around the community.

It wasn't until 1953 that Ethel’s dream was fulfilled. That year saw the opening and consecration of the new Luton Hebrew Congregation Synagogue at 116 Bury Park Road, formerly the Empire cinema. It had taken the community ten long years to raise the funds, and a further four to convert the space, which could originally seat 1,200. At the opening, the Chief Rabbi left the main hall, and toured and consecrated the rest of the rooms as he went along, one being named the Ethel Cohen room, and very richly deserved.

The 1950s were a boom time for Luton's Jewish community, whose numbers were swelled by the exodus of British Jews from Egypt in 1956, as part of the Suez Canal crisis. One of the true tales in Luton's new Museum of Stories is from Jackie Edelstein, whose mother Claudia was among this migration. Claudia met Jackie's father Alf in the Luton Synagogue, without which Jackie wouldn't be with us today!

Local historian Jackie GunnLocal historian Jackie Gunn
Local historian Jackie Gunn

There is just one unexplained detail surrounding Abraham Cohen, Ethel's second husband. When he died his age was stated as 77 years in 1933. However, on his naturalising paper in 1912, he was born October 14th 1872. This makes him only 58 years old when he died... A mere 19 years difference! My suspicion is he raised his age to match his wife’s in the 1911 census, a secret they both appeared to take to their graves.

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