There was a thriving Jewish community in Penzance during the 18th and 19th centuries. Lemon Hart, a leading member of that community, was born in Penzance on 31 October 1768 and died in Brighton in 1845. In 1768, the year of Lemon Hart's birth, the first purpose-built synagogue was built in the town. This was constructed to the rear of the Star Inn, on a plot of land in New Street owned by the Branwell family. The synagogue was built behind the cottage at 1 New Street, as at that time, Jews were not allowed to build their places of worship on the main thoroughfare.
Lemon Hart was the grandson of Abraham Hart, who arrived in Penzance around 1720, possibly as a child or young man. The family originated from Weinheim in the Rhineland, Germany, and the family name may originally have been Altstadter, with the name Hart eventually being adopted. Abraham Hart traded in Penzance under the name of Solomon Lazarus, and it is thought that he started trading in the import of rum from Jamaica, which he is believed to have visited during the 1750s. He died in 1784.
Abraham Hart had a number of children including Lazarus Hart who was known as Eleazer, and it was he who developed the family business. He co-owned the ship the Nancy and Betsy, registered in Penzance on 7 April 1787. However the ship was lost in 1793. Nevertheless, in spite of a number of other misfortunes, Lazarus Hart continued to trade until 1803, the year he died, when the estate was passed on to his son, Lemon Hart, who was already working in the family business.
Lemon Hart was, at this time, married to Letitia, with whom he had four children, but double tragedy struck that year, as Lemon Hart lost not only his father but also his wife. Letitia died in a fire at their home on 2 October 1803, when her clothes caught fire from a candle. Mrs Hart was pregnant at the time, and a fifth child was delivered prematurely before her tragic death. The following year, Lemon Hart married a widow, Mary Solomon, no doubt as he needed help in caring for his children.
By this stage, Lemon Hart was already an established businessman in Penzance. He was one of six co-owners of the sloop Amelia, registered in Penzance in 1802. The other owners were John Matthews, Arthur Hampton, Joseph Nicholls and William Richards, all "gentlemen" of Penzance and John McFarland of Plymouth. In 1805, Lemon Hart became the first named partner in another ship, the Speculation, newly built in Penzance. Among the other co-owners was Joseph Branwell, a butcher, and owner of 1 New Street. In 1807, Joseph Branwell leased the land behind his home to the Jewish community, in order for the original 1768 synagogue to be rebuilt. The conveyance document was signed by Joseph Branwell, Lemon Hart, Hyman Woolf, Henry Ralph, Elias Magnus and Lemon Woolf, all of Penzance.
Not only did Lemon Hart continue his father's business which prospered under his direction, but his own wine and spirit trade was well established by 1804. He played an active role both in the religious community as the first president of the Hebrew congregation's new synagogue but also in the wider society of Penzance.... It is also perhaps an indication that Lemon Hart moved with ease and tolerance between his congregation and the wider community that at least three of his children married Gentiles. Lemon Hart's son David (1799-1868) married a Gentile, Cornish girl, Mary Pidwell, on 3 January 1831.....
In the early 1800s Lemon Hart's business affairs had continued to prosper, and by 1804-1807 (or soon after), it is said that the Lemon Hart firm was established with Lemon Hart rum as his own namesake brand, and that he was appointed as a victualler to the Royal Navy. His success as an importer of wines and spirits encouraged him to expand his interest by setting up a branch of his business in London, whilst at the same time remaining in Penzance…. (In) 1806 he drew up a deed of partnership with his nephew, Jacob James Hart (1784-1846).... Jacob was to act as managing partner and to reside at the premises of the London business.... The London business must have been a success because Lemon Hart left Penzance for the capital city around the middle of 1811.... (leaving) his nephew Lemon Woolf to look after his Cornish interests. Lemon Woolf already had his own well established wine and spirit business in Penzance in Market Jew Street....
Lemon Hart and his wife eventually retired to Brighton, where he died in 1845. He is buried in the Brady Street Jewish cemetery in London. The direction of the firm was left in the hands of his son, David. As a measure of his success, by the year 1849 the Royal Navy is said to have been taking rum from the Harts at the rate of 100,000 gallons a year. Lemon Hart's name is not likely to be forgotten as Lemon Hart rum is still produced under its own label.
Quoted from Keith Pearce and Helen Fry, eds., The Lost Jews of Cornwall, Redcliffe Press, 2000, pp 233-236. Much of this article is based on information provided in chapter 7 section 3 of this book.
Evelyn Friedlander, ed., The Jews of Devon and Cornwall, Essays and Exhibition Catalogue, The Hidden Legacy Foundation, 2000
Keith Pearce and Helen Fry, eds., The Lost Jews of Cornwall, Redcliffe Press, 2000
Keith Pearce, The Jews of Cornwall, A History, Tradition and Settlement to 1913, Halsgrove, May 2014
Susan Soyinka, Penzance Synagogue: A Brief History
Bernard Susser, The Jews of South-West England, University of Exeter Press, 1993