Time-capsule from 1870s discovered during renovation at Manchester Jewish Museum
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Time-capsule from 1870s discovered during renovation at Manchester Jewish Museum

Historic item buried in synagogue's walls upon its founding in 1873 contains documents, newspaper clippings and money

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Time capsule discovered by builders at the Manchester Jewish Museum site
Time capsule discovered by builders at the Manchester Jewish Museum site

On June 11, 1873, the cornerstone of the first Sephardi synagogue in Manchester was carefully placed in position — but not before, in the space underneath, a time capsule was concealed.

One hundred and forty seven years later, a team of builders restoring the synagogue, to become a reborn Manchester Jewish Museum, began the delicate work of removing the cornerstone. To their huge excitement the glass jar time capsule was discovered underneath, its wax seal intact.

The jar contains some coins, some contemporary newspapers, (possibly the Manchester Guardian) and what looks like the 1873 minutes of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. But as Max Dunbar, chief executive of the Manchester Jewish Museum, explained: “We don’t know exactly what’s inside, because we haven’t opened it yet”.

Until the building work for the revamped museum, in Cheetham Hill Road, north Manchester, is completed, Mr Dunbar said, there is nowhere to keep the astonishing find. “But our first task is to find a paper conservator so that the jar can be opened safely. The last thing we want is to open it and have the papers disintegrate”.

Though the museum team was unaware of the existence of the buried time capsule until it was found, a check of early synagogue records show that the founders of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue discussed it and its location, next to what was to become the Aron Kodesh, or Ark, of the building.

Time capsule discovered by builders at the Manchester Jewish Museum site

The Manchester Jewish community of the end of the 19th century was mainly centred in and around north Manchester. Asher Myers’ Jewish Directory for 1874 records the beginnings of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the neighbourhood: “It is intended to open the synagogue May 7, 1874. The synagogue will have seat accommodation for 300 persons: 200 gentlemen and 100 ladies. The seat rental will be as follows: Gentlemen from £3.3s. to £10.10s. per annum; Ladies from £1.1s. to £2.2s. per annum”.

Although the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities were very different in Victorian Manchester, Max Dunbar said it was not surprising that the Sephardi worshippers chose to build their synagogue near their Ashkenazi counterparts. “This was the historic Jewish quarter for migration in the city”, he said. “People would arrive at Victoria Station and begin living in this area, in Red Bank and Strangeways”.

Time capsule discovered by builders at the Manchester Jewish Museum site

Red Bank became a hotbed of workers’ radicalism towards the turn of the century, mainly spearheaded by Ashkenazi Jews. But the Sephardi founders of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue were  much wealthier individuals, primarily, says Max Dunbar, “textile merchants, from the Iberian peninsula and from Aleppo in Syria.” These men capitalised on Manchester’s rich cotton trade and became the hinge of the city’s global success in the field.

The discovery of the time capsule, Mr Dunbar said, came “at an apt and symbolic period, a reflective and thoughtful time of year when many observers look backwards as a means to move forwards. We are thrilled and overwhelmed by its discovery and look forward to showing it off in our collection when we re-open next spring.”

The item will become part of the museum’s permanent collection of over 31,000 objects — including a Russian washboard used as a cricket bat, an English/Hebrew teapot and the belongings of a Holocaust survivor who spent the war hiding in a coal cellar.

When the Manchester Jewish Museum reopens next spring, it will house a brand new gallery, learning studio, learning kitchen, café and shop – all built in an extension alongside the existing Grade II* listed synagogue.

Time capsule discovered by builders at the Manchester Jewish Museum site next to the cornerstone it was found in.

 

 

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