Walking around the depressed Ramsgate of today, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that when the financier Sir Moses Montefiore purchased a country estate here in 1831, this seaside settlement was considered the height of sophistication and chic.
Located on a far easterly point of the Kentish coast of England, bereft of the holidaymakers that would have kept the place alive before the age of the package holiday, Ramsgate has a feeling of neglect and decay about it now — shuttered shop fronts and dank arcades. It is the sort of place that Morrissey had in mind when he sang of the coastal town that they forgot to close down.
But during the late Georgian period when Montefiore was establishing himself in Ramsgate, England’s coastal towns were beginning to take off, a trend hastened by the coming of the railways. Among the well heeled, the idea that taking dips in England’s forbidding waters or gulping down the cold, salty sea air could be restorative became a health fad. Ownership of a seaside pile, meanwhile, was an essential sign of status.
Montefiore’s residence, East Cliff Lodge, was demolished in 1954 after it fell into rack and ruin, yet what remains of his presence in Ramsgate is quite extraordinary. In August 1831, construction began on a synagogue on the grounds of his estate, a personal synagogue in the manner of the estate chapels built by the Christian aristocracy, where Montefiore appointed the rabbi and chose the psalms.
Inaugurated in June 1833, the synagogue — situated in the middle of a thicket — is small and simple in structure, rectangular with a semicircular space made to accommodate the Ark. Its exterior walls are whitewashed, and on the front of the building is a blue clock with golden hands and numbers, under which is inscribed a motto: “Time flies. Virtue alone remains.” As English Heritage, an organization responsible for the preservation of historic landmarks, asserts, it is the only such example of a chiming clock in an English synagogue.
Inside, the hall lined with granite, marble and plush red fabric is lit by way of an octagonal dome made of red and clear glass, with stained-glass windows of blue, red and green at the level of the gallery (a later addition), as well as a single chandelier and several candelabra. Above the Ark is a small, circular window depicting the Ten Commandments, and on either side are plates displaying the family coat of arms. Upon one of the walls is a plaque inscribed with a prayer to “our most gracious Sovereign King George, our gracious Queen Mary,” as well as to the Queen Mother and Edward, the Prince of Wales.
Adjacent to the synagogue is Montefiore’s final resting place, a white, square mausoleum with a domed roof, built to replicate the appearance of Rachel’s Tomb on the road to Bethlehem, a site his wife, Lady Judith Montefiore, had restored and repaired in 1839. Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore are buried side by side in the mausoleum — she on the left, he on the right — facing east toward Jerusalem in identical tombs clad in marble.