Jacob Rey (aka John King), a Jewish Money Lender in George III’s England

In A Touch of Love, book 6 in my highly popular Realm series, I  ventured into territory many Regency era writers avoid: the question of religious practices during the Regency. Georgette Heyer’s portrayal of Jews during the reign of George III has often been met with criticism as perpetuating stereotypes. [Note! This piece originally appeared on English Historical Fiction Authors in 2013.]

Over the years, the “backlash” regarding Georgette Heyer’s depiction of the Jewish faith in Regency England has become better known (See http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/jewish-stereotypes-in-georgette-heyers-novels/

and

http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/authorial-intrusion-and-reader-response-my-georgette-heyer-experience/ for examples of the reported offending passages and the changes the current publisher of Heyer’s works has made to those passages).

As I considered adding several Jewish characters to this book, I wished for a more honest portrait of not only the prejudice practiced against the Jewish race, but also the prejudice existing between the two “nations” occupying Georgian England. I sought the assistance of many of my Jewish friends and acquaintances for accurate portrayals of the Jewish experience. My novel addresses the question of conversion to the Church of England’s tenets.

250px-BoD_Master_Logo_CMYK.jpg That said, today, I mean to speak of the Jewish “influence” I avoided in this latest novel: the life of Jacob Rey, the “Jew King” and those like him. “Jewish money lenders” were the source of the criticism directed upon Heyer.

In 1800, London was the most populated city (900,000 people) in Europe. It offered an exceptional opportunity for the advancement of motivated Jews who had shed the limitations of traditional Judaism. At the time, there were few legal barriers to success in both the social and economic realms. London’s complex and largely unfettered patterns of municipal life permitted those ambitious enough to succeed a step up. There was a certain mutability present among those of various groups in the arena of social interactions. The wealthy landowners’ self-indulgent moral values resting in pleasure and entertainment made London a sanctuary for those who knew how to satisfy patrician needs and manipulate their weaknesses.

Jacob Rey (later known as John King, 1753-1824), a moneylender and radical writer well known in London society,  flourished as a non-interventionist moneylender during late-Georgian London. Although he was far from being a leader of the Jewish community, Rey was one of the more well-known Jews of the period (1780-1820). Truthfully, I do not think of King’s career as being representative of the period, but I do see his “maneuverings” as indicative of the culture perpetuated by English society.

Rey’s father, Moses, was a self-effacing street merchant. According to several sources, Moses referred to himself as “Sultan” and dressed in “Turkish” garb, leading to the assumption he was of North African ancestry. Other sources claim the elder Rey misspent his fortune and was forced to peddle “bawdy” wares across the English countryside. Unlike many of his fellow tradesmen, however, Moses continued to see to Jacob’s education, an advantage, which assisted Jacob’s efforts to move within English Society.

In 1764, Jacob entered the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish charity school. This Sephardic school offered its students instruction in both religious and secular subjects. English, for example, was taught and many of the traditional Hebrew writings were translated into English. When Jacob departed the school in 1771, the wardens of the charity paid a premium of five pounds to apprentice him as a clerk in a Jewish house in the City. Within a few years, Rey anglicized his name, going by John King. Such name changes were not usual business among the Jews of Georgian England, which indicates Rey meant to leave behind both his Jewish and his Spanish ancestries.

Following his clerkship, King became articled to an attorney for a short period. Attorneys were “men of business.” They were not attorneys in the modern sense in the U.S. They drew up wills, bills of exchange, mortgages, etc. They also operated an informal credit system, which brought creditors and debtors together. Remember there were no well-developed credit and investment institutions present at the time. King learned his lessons well with in apprenticeship.

By the age of one and twenty, King was a very active moneylender. In Profiles in Diversity: Jews in a Changing Europe 1750 – 1870, Todd Endelmann writes, “The association of Jews with money-lending was hoary, dating back to the High Middle Ages, when it was the single most important pursuit in the Jewish communities of England, northern France and Germany. Long after money-lending had ceased to play a critical role in the Ashkenazic economy, the myth of the Jew as grasping and usurious, hard-hearted and hard-dealing, remained alive. Even in so commercially sophisticated a society as Georgian England, critics of Jews continued to view them en bloc as usurers, sometimes literally but more often in the sense that they transferred the standards of usury to other trades in which they had become active.”

Whatever the “stigma,” King rose quickly as one of the Jewish communities most identifiable citizens. In 1775, he sent a donation of 100 pounds to the Sephardic charity school in appreciation for his education. In 1776, he married Sara, daughter of Benjamin Nunes Lara and sister of Moses Nunes Lara, future patron of the Sephardic synagogue.

One must understand lending money to aristocrats was a dangerous and very risky business. Gentlemen of the ton thought speaking and handling money matters quite disdainful. They also thought nothing of abandoning their commitments. Therefore, King contracted debts in an atmosphere which encouraged both borrower and lender to take advantage of each other’s weaknesses. We know little of King’s business practices other than the accounts of some of his “borrowers.” Charles James Fox, the Prince of Wales, the third Earl of Orford and the fourth Earl of Sandwich were among the well-known clients of Jewish money-lenders.

King frequently functioned as a money broker, rather than as a lender. Those with money to lend often wished a higher than legal interest rate (above 5%) in their transactions. King served as a middle man, who bargained loans for others, taking a fee for himself. To be successful in the role, King aggressively developed the social contact of members of the haut ton. He entertained copiously and regularly. King also had made a meticulous analysis of the peerage. He learned the names and connections of each family, the value of the associated properties, the mortgaged estates, and the impediments on the title.

King also operated money-lending offices and even advertised his business in the London newspapers, all under assumed “Christian” names, for example, Messrs John Dear and Company, an office in Three Kings Court.

King acquired a despicable reputation early on and was never able to shake it. He was known to take advantage of certain clients. He became entangled in numerous lawsuits stemming from his business ventures; his name appeared frequently in newspapers and journals, usually in an unflattering context. On two occasions, once in 1784 and again in 1802, he fled the country to avoid imprisonment. 

On Christmas Day 1790, The Times described King, with heavy-handed sarcasm, as “without any matter of doubt one of the most respectable characters in this country, and until the later attack on him, the breath of infamy never blew on his reputation. In all his dealings with mankind he has been the strict, upright, honest man. He never took advantage of the distresses of a fellow creature , in order to rob him of his property – he never extracted exorbitant interest for discounting a bill – he was justly paid every debt he contracted to the uttermost farthing; and in a domestic line of life has proved himself a fond – faithful – loving husband – a tender affectionate and praiseworthy parent, and a feeling steady and sincere friend. Chaste in all his actions – virtuous in every sentiment – and unsullied in his reputation as a Man, a Money Lender, a Jew, and a Christian.”

Although an unsavory reputation clung to King, he never suffered from a lack of clients. Gentlemen and ladies of the beau monde clamored for his services. Surprisingly, King’s Jewish background played little in his public persona. His ancestry was not held accountable for his wickedness. “Similarly, attacks on King did not degenerate into condemnations of Anglo-Jewry as a whole, nor did they call for the imposition of special laws to restrain Jews as a body, as had happened earlier in the century. Of course, King’s carryings-on reinforced the popular image of the Jew as untrustworthy in money matters, but they did not provoke generalized discussions of Jewish avarice or misanthropy. This may have been due, in part, to the relatively high degree of tolerance already enjoyed by English Jews, at least in comparison to conditions on the Continent, and, in part, to the absence of a rigorous code of commercial ethics at many levels of society. In short, King may have been thought of as a rogue among many, his Jewishness as incidental to his shortcomings, or, at least, as not responsible for them.”

CharlotteDacre.jpg

Note! King’s daughter, Charlotte Dacre, was an English author of Gothic novels, who first wrote under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda. Her father divorced her mother, Sara, née Lara, under Jewish law in 1784 before setting up home with the Dowager Countess of Lanesborough. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~
 The Realm has returned to England to claim the titles they left behind. Each man holds to the fleeting dream of finally knowing love and home, but first he must face his old enemy Shaheed Mir, a Baloch warlord, who believes one of the group has stolen a fist-sized emerald. Mir will have the emerald’s return or will exact his bloody revenge..

Aristotle Pennington has groomed SIR CARTER LOWERY as his successor as the Realm’s leader, and Carter has thought of little else for years. He has handcrafted his life, filled it with duties and responsibilities, and eventually, he will choose a marriage of convenience to bolster his career; yet, Lucinda Warren is a temptation he cannot resist. Every time he touches her, he recognizes his mistake because his desire for her is not easily quenched. To complicate matters, it was Mrs. Warren’s father, Colonel Roderick Rightnour, whom Sir Carter replaced at the Battle of Waterloo, an action which had named Carter a national hero and her father a failure as a military strategist.

LUCINDA WARREN’s late husband has left her to tend to a child belonging to another woman and has drowned her in multiple scandals. Her only hope to discover the boy’s true parentage and to remove her name from the lips of the ton’s censors is Sir Carter Lowery, a man who causes her body to course with awareness, as if he had etched his name upon her soul. A cruel twist of Fate has thrown them together three times, and Lucinda prays to hold off her cry for completion long enough to deny her heart and to release Sir Carter to his future: A future to which she will never belong.

“The first fully original series from Austen pastiche author Jeffers is a knockout.”

Publishers Weekly

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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6 Responses to Jacob Rey (aka John King), a Jewish Money Lender in George III’s England

  1. Katherine Schmitt says:

    As I am fairly affirmatively Jewish, I have often wondered what would happen to a Jewish family looking to settle in Meryton. Sadly I can’t see it happening with any degree of success because I keep thinking about Mrs. Bennet and her circle of “four and twenty families”. I don’t know if Jews existed in Jane Austen’s world. Now, as you indicate, London could accommodate Jews to some extent. I do plan to follow up on your research to learn more. Jacob/John’s experience is not unusual, nor was it exclusive to the time. My own father, born in America of American born parents of Ashkenazic descen, changed his last name from Levy to Leeds. He was always amused when he received solicitations to join “The Leeds Society”, a group of people with roots in Leeds, England.

    • Your personal story is fascinating, Katherine. I wish I had known you better when I was writing “A Touch of Love.” I would have liked to pick your brain.
      In my husband’s very Italian Catholic family, my sister-in-law married into the Jewish faith. It was quite the scandal, but eventually settled down.

  2. JanisB says:

    Very interesting read — a bit of Jewish history that I was unfamiliar with. I have been given to understand that Jewish people became involved in money-lending inasmuch as many other professions were closed to them, even in “enlightened” England. You have also inspired me to do more research on this person and this era. If you will permit me to respond to Katherine (edit this out if not), there is in fact a book titled The Meyersons of Meryton by an Argentinian Jewish author named Mirta Ines Trupp. I am not familiar with your Realm series, Regina; perhaps it is time that I looked into it.

  3. Mirta Ines Trupp says:

    Interesting topic…touchy subject. These tropes of greedy money lenders, dual loyalty, blood libel, etc. were the cause of heinous cruelty and persecution. My grandparents, along with countless others, escaped the ‘pogroms’ of Imperial Russia thanks to the good works of philanthropic (and extremely wealthy) men such as Rothschilds and Hirsch. My ancestors were not aristocrats by any means. Some were educators, others were artisans, and there were a variety of merchants as well. But as their freedoms were taken away, and they were stripped of their livelihoods, they escaped the Pale of Settlement and became farmers on the Argentine pampas. You do what you have to do to survive. And if that means being a money lender or rag merchant on the grimy streets of London, so be it.

    I’ve written two historical fiction novels that are loosely based on my family’s history. While I readily acknowledge I am not in the same league as Regina, and so many other talented and dedicated authors, I was determined to write my own J.A.F.F. about Jews in the Regency period after researching the history of the Montefiores, the Mocattas, the Rothschilds and others. I think it’s important to say that while Anglo-Jews during the Regency and Victorian eras were experiencing some upwards social mobility, it was not all rosy. Jews were not allowed entry into Parliament. It was not until 1858, when The Jews Relief Act was passed, that these barriers were removed. This also included removing the requirement of taking a Christian oath. The bill allowed “any Person professing the Jewish Religion, [to] omit the Words ‘and I make this Declaration upon the true Faith of a Christian'” in their oaths, but explicitly did not extend to allowing Jews to various high offices, and also stated that “it shall not be lawful for any Person professing the Jewish Religion, directly or indirectly, to advise Her Majesty … touching or concerning … any office or preferment in the Church of England or in the Church of Scotland.” Jews were barred from certain universities, professions and social clubs. Most were faced with absolute assimilation and conversion, in order to secure the wellbeing of their families. Whole family lines were lost in this manner.

    I am passionate about combining my love for historical fiction and positive Jewish characters. It’s a monumental task to take on Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Heyer, but the impetus stems from wanting to honor my ancestors. I may not do ‘my people’ justice, but “my courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

    Having said ALL THAT, I am looking forward to reading your Realm series! Thanks to Janis, and to you, Regina, for mentioning me. I didn’t mean to steal your spotlight…

    • I had hoped you would come over to view this post, as well as the one from Monday on “Jews in Austen’s England.” The image created by the great Jim Carter (Carson of Downton Abbey fame) as Mr. Brehgert in Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” (set in the 1870s) always stays with me. His character was a successful banker who was to “save” the Longstaffe family my marrying Anne-Marie Duff’s character of Georgiana. However, her reaction to his family—having to reside with “his” family was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The sensitivity with which Carter’s portrayal displays the reality of the life he hoped to succeed to while she hoped to ignore is breathtaking in its simplicity. If you have not watched this series, I would highly recommend it. Naturally, Andrew Davies adds his own touches, but the series stays close to the book. (I used to teach the tale in an AP Language class. “100 Chapters!” my students would moan. They did not understand that Trollope wrote the tale as a serial and most chapters were only 3-4 pages at length. LOL! Yet, that reality was one of the things they had to learn to recognize.)

      In my Realm series, I cannot say my portrayals are “positive,” for the tale to work as planned, the families involved converted to the Church of England to keep their place in Society. Yet, their actions are, as you say, based in history.

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