Discover north London’s ‘lost’ synagogue
- Credit: Andrew Whitehead
Mention to even devout local Jews the "Kentish Town synagogue", and you are likely to get a bemused look.
But there was one – built for the purpose, used for worship for 70 years, and still standing. It’s in Caversham Road, alongside the rail lines – the sort of building you can walk past hundreds of times and barely notice.
The North West London Synagogue was established in 1890 in leased rooms in York Way. 10 years later, it moved into purpose-designed premises – the land was bought from the Midland Railway – in Caversham Road, just a three-minute walk from Kentish Town’s high street.
The building was more modest than many north London synagogues – single storey, with room for at most 200 worshippers.
The “new building has no pretence to architectural beauty”, the Jewish Chronicle declared rather harshly.
The drawing it published, reproduced here, suggests a neat, simple structure – with four small corner pinnacles each bearing a Star of David, and an eye-catching square glass dome with larger Star of David aloft.
The opening merited a two-page report in the Jewish Chronicle, and the Chief Rabbi spoke at the consecration – though not entirely comfortingly.
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“It must be admitted, I fear,” he declared, “that hitherto the Jewish residents of Camden Town have evinced but scant interest in public worship.”
There were at that time at least 15 Jewish shops and businesses on Kentish Town Road – probably the nucleus of a congregation which measured a respectable 152 at the religious census conducted over Passover/Easter 1903.
Peter Renton, in his book The Lost Synagogues of London, records that “the congregation consisted mainly of shopkeepers who came early to Sabbath prayers, then returned to their business, occasionally having to be dragged back to keep the quorum going”.
One of those businesses was given special mention by the celebrated poet John Betjeman in his verse account of childhood tram journeys to his home on Highgate West Hill.
He recalled how he:
“Rocked past Zwanziger the bakers, and the terrace blackish brown,
“And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.”
Albert Zwanziger’s bakery was at 385 Kentish Town Road. The business changed its name to Cordingley’s during the First World War because of jingoist anti-German sentiment.
By the 1920s their store in Kentish Town had become a fish and chip shop.
We don’t know whether the Zwanzigers were members of the Caversham Road congregation, but the closure of their local bakery was part of a pattern.
Over the years, attendance at the synagogue dipped. By the early 1970s, the congregation had all but gone and the synagogue fell into disuse. A combination of vandalism and neglect saw the building reduced to what the Jewish Chronicle described as “a dripping, roofless, rot-infested wreck with everything of Jewish interest smashed or removed”.
A saviour came in the form of architects who designed, among other things, synagogues. They restored the building for use as their offices, took down the now unsalvageable dome, and built what designers would call a mansard roof, allowing both more space and lots of light. 69 Caversham Road later became the office of a concert management company, and more recently it’s been taken over by a furniture business.
There’s nothing about the building today which reveals its origins as a synagogue, though aspects of the initial design, particularly the curving brickwork above some of the windows, are still evident.
The few worshippers who saw out the last days of the Caversham Road Shul transferred to the Highgate Synagogue, which was then on Archway Road. That has since relocated to a splendid new building just to the north of Highgate village which opened in 2016.
As for Kentish Town, it’s funny how history repeats itself. There’s a new bakery on the high street: Kossoffs. That business was established in the 1920s by Wolf Kossoff, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine. It’s just down the road from the spot where Zwanzigers baked their bread a century and more ago.
Andrew Whitehead is the co-author with Martin Plaut of Curious Kentish Town.