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Merthyr Synagogue (Third), Church Street, Thomastown, Merthyr Tydfil

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Map ReferenceSO00NE
Grid ReferenceSO0520006250
Unitary (Local) AuthorityMerthyr Tydfil
Old CountyGlamorgan
Type Of SiteCHAPEL
PeriodPost Medieval

Merthyr Tydfil was one of the two main centres of the Jewish community in Wales, the other being Cardiff. At it's peak, the community numbered around 400 Jews, being made up of a mercantile class of shop-keepers, clothiers, jewellers, watch-makers and pawn-brokers and a sizeable community of Russian Jewish labours working at the Dowlais Ironworks. Many came from Eastern Europe and Russia during the 1880's and left Merthyr for the US and Canada in the early to mid 1900's when the iron and steel industries were in their final decline and there were high levels of unemployment.

The Merthyr Hebrew congregation was established in 1848 with the first synagogue built on Bethesda Street, and the second on Tramroad Side North in 1852 (NPRN 423990). A few years later the Jewish burial ground was opened at Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer (NPRN 406441). In the early 1870's it was decided that the Tramroad Side North synagogue was too small for the congregation and an appeal was put out to raise funds for a new building. An article in the Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser, 23rd October 1874, stated that there were upwards of 60 Jewish families living in Merthyr, including upwards of 70 children, in need of a new synagogue and school accommodation. The estimated cost of the proposed building was £1,800, providing seating for 200 and a number of 'free seats'. The tender for the building of a synagogue, school and ministers house was awarded to the architect Charles Taylor of Merthyr and the builder Mr John Williams of Castle Street, Merthyr.

On the 16th March 1876, the South Wales Daily News reported the laying of the corner-stone by the Rev. A L Green of London, and described the proposed building as 'when finished, will be of an imposing character... and will command a splendid view of the surrounding hills... The style of the building will be ancient Gothic, the approach being by a handsome double flight of steps. On the first floor will be a school-room and a class-room, the synagogue will be reached by a flight of stairs on the next floor.' On the 1st April 1876 The Cardiff Times reported that Baron Rothschild had donated 200 guineas to the building fund, while another £400 was raised by the congregation. The outstanding £1000 was taken out on a mortgage.

The synagogue was opened at the end of June 1877, the ceremony described as 'One of the most interesting ceremonies ... ever witnessed here' and the building 'Classed as one of the finest and boldest looking buildings in the town.' The report goes on to describe the building:

'The building is approached from two flights of steps rising from the entrance gates to the centre, or principal entrance, and is surmounted by a telling cast-iron railing and lamps. On entering the Synagogue, one is struck with the abundance of light provided, and the staircase, which is of pitch pine, is handsomely designed and substantially carried out. On this floor is a lofty and well-lighted School-room with class-room adjoining, to accommodate sixty children; the former, although under the main building, is admirably lighted, cheerful in appearance, and the means for securing thorough ventilation well provided for. On this floor is also a lavatory, and good entrance-hall. On ascending the principal staircase one cannot but admire the workmanship, the filling-in of the ballustres, which have a quatrefoil in the centre of each panel, and sinkings at each angle. On arriving at the summit is the large entrance-hall, forming the main entrance to the Synagogue proper, and between the doors into it is a niche fitted with a wash-hand basin, and towel rollers on each side, for all good Jews wash before they enter their Synagogue. At the south side of the Hall is the ladies' staircase to the gallery. The Synagogue is 50ft by 27ft inside dimensions, and has a gallery on three sides, and provides accommodation for 210 persons. The principal seats are divided, so that there can be no crowding, and under the book-boards are provided book boxes, for the convenience of the occupants. Internally, the building has an open timber roof, ceiled at the rafters, and. the whole of the fittings are of pitch-pine varnished. The lighting is beautifully diffused, the building; thoroughly ventilated, indeed the architect appears to have given this science especial study.

On the Gallery level, there is a large platform-hall, ladies' cloak and retiring-rooms, & etc. Every convenience appears to have, been provided and well thought out, for we find on the basement floor a bath-room (presumably the Mikvah), a waiting room a boiler-room, and a coal cellar. The building is in the Gothic style of architecture of an early date, and the visitor is struck with its substantial and pleasing appearance. (Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser 29th June 1877). On the 3rd June 1878 the South Wales Daily news reported that the opening of the Jewish Collegiate School 'beneath the recently erected synagogue, has accommodation for about 60 children, and is provided with a classroom'.

The final cost was in the order of £2,300 and the Evening Express on the 16th March 1894 reported a ball held to raise money towards essential repair to the synagogue.

The exterior of the building is constructed of snecked rubble-stone, the central, narrow, entrance bay flanked by wide staircase turrets all set forward from the main gabled pediment. There are inscriptions, now illegible due to erosion, over the entrance door and perhaps the most unusual feature is the red sandstone dragon which adorns the apex of the entrance bay pediment. Both the turrets and the steeply pitched main roof are hung with Welsh slate, while the windows, flat-headed sashes to the majority of the building, lancet windows to the upper floor housing the synagogue, are set with leaded glass, those to the upper floors having roundels set with the Star of David furnished in coloured glass. The stone Ark is located on the ground floor, now whitewashed, but originally painted brown and with a large Luhot painted in black and gold. The remainder of the building interior has undergone extensive alteration, including the floor-levels, and the other main surviving features are the staircase newels and roof beams.

The building was listed as a Grade II in 1978 but due to the declining numbers of the congregation, the synagogue was sold in 1983 with many of the sacred items removed to a yeshiva in Gateshead. It was subsequently used as a Christian Centre and a gym, but by 2009 was empty and starting to deteriorate. A site visit by the Royal Commission in March 2017 confirmed that the building had deteriorated badly, and recent photographs have shown that there are now large holes in the roof. The building is currently for sale (February 2019).

S Fielding RCAHMW, February 2019

application/pdfWAP - Wessex Archaeology Project ArchivesPDF of digital front elevation from a Wessex Archaeology laser scan survey of Merthyr Synagogue. Project No. 241370.
application/pdfWAP - Wessex Archaeology Project ArchivesPDF of digital second floor plan from a Wessex Archaeology laser scan survey of Merthyr Synagogue. Project No. 241370.
application/pdfWAP - Wessex Archaeology Project ArchivesPDF of digital first floor plan from a Wessex Archaeology laser scan survey of Merthyr Synagogue. Project No. 241370.