Chatham, ‘the wickedest place in the world’, according to the reminiscences of Robert Hobbes, had numerous public houses frequented by soldiers and sailors. The very words, sailor and soldier, were identified with drunkenness and debauchery and as men had nowhere to go but to the canteen or a pub, street arguments and midnight brawls were a frequent occurrence.1 The need for healthy recreation in the town was evident. The Mechanics Institute in Chatham was established in the early 1850s, and furnished aspiring tradesmen with a possibility of social advancement through its lectures. The foundation and the initial maintenance of the institute were secured by Joseph Pyke, then in his twenties, and a member of the Chatham Jewish community.
Joseph was born on 3 March 1824 in Houndsditch, the sixth of eight children, of Louis (or Lewis) Eleazar, and Charlotte, one of the daughters of Dr Abraham Wolff, who was originally from Frankfurt. His grandfather, Moses Snoek, was born in Amsterdam on 3 January 1724. In 1762 Moses moved to London in pursuit of a better life, and settled in Houndsditch, having translated his name Snoek to Pike. One of his sons altered the spelling to Pyke. From an early age Joseph eagerly engaged himself in communal work. His involvement was not unnoticed – and as a 21-year-old, he was appointed chairman of the committee to welcome the newly elected chief rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus Adler.2
In 1849, Joseph, then 25, moved to Chatham to marry his cousin Sara Magnus, one of the daughters of Simon and Sara Magnus; the wedding took place on 16 January the next year.3 The Magnus family, like the Pykes, put great importance on learning, and Sara had attended Rebecca Norton’s school for girls at Eastgate House in Rochester.
As Pyke recalled later, the idea of establishing an institute started during one morning visit of some ‘respectable men’ to his house on Chatham Hill. The men requested Pyke’s help in obtaining books for their Philosophical Institution, which they circulated between themselves, and for assistance in running the institution, which was in financial trouble. Instead, Pyke suggested that the men paid off the debt to the landowner and establish a Mechanics Institution. The same morning, Pyke obtained the money to pay off the debt of about £90. He then bought the lease of a disused market-place and building, not far from the dockyard.
After that, Pyke secured a meeting with Charles Dickens at Gad’s Hill, with the intention of asking the author to become the president of the institution. According to Pyke’s recollections, ‘He was seated in his morning room… After the animated conversation about what can be done for the workers, in which he was most interested, I proposed to him he should become President of the Rochester and Chatham Mechanics’ Institution, and after much persuasion, he said “Well, Mr Pyke, I become president on one understanding, and that is that you are vice-president, and do all the work.” To this I willingly acceded. Then with characteristic courage I asked him if he could do anything for the opening day, and he said, “No, I don’t think I can.” I said, “Cannot you give us a reading from one of your famous books?” and to the best of my recollection, he said, “I do not think I am capable of doing what you ask.” After much pressing, and my telling him he could be sure to have a sympathetic audience, he said, ”Very well, I will try.” This he did gratuitously, which brought in a very large sum of money on the opening night.’ He read A Christmas Carol. It was a huge success, scarcely a dry eye in the house when he described Tiny Tim on his father’s shoulder.4 It was Dickens’s first public reading.
Soon after Dickens’s death in 1870, his friend John Forster published a biography of him, but omitted the Chatham public reading. Pyke wrote asking him to rectify the omission. Forster sent a word by messenger, with the promise to do so in the next edition but failed to do so.5
Pyke was vice-president of the Chatham Mechanics’ Institute until March 1858. In reply to the testimonial upon his retirement from the office, Pyke replied that ‘he hoped to see the time when the young tradesmen, instead of asking and begging political influence and patronage to obtain for him a government appointment, should by joining their institution, which was in union with the Society of Arts, and by studying, became capable of undergoing the usual examination, and obtaining the coveted appointment, if successful.’6
Pyke and his family stayed in Chatham until 1870, with eight out of their 13 children born and educated there. After this, they moved to London, but their connection with the Medway Jewish community lasted for generations as wardens and trustees of the synagogue.
Joseph and Sara’s grandson, Geoffrey Nathaniel Joseph Pyke, born in 1893, was an English journalist, educationalist and an inventor. As a journalist, he travelled to Germany at the break of the First World War under a false passport but was soon arrested and interned. He escaped and made his way back to England. He is particularly remembered for his unconventional proposals for weapons of war, such as pykrete – a frozen ice alloy, consisting of sawdust, wood pulp and ice, which he saw as prime candidate material for a supersized aircraft carrier for the British Royal Navy during the WW2 (project Habakkuk).
Another grandson, Magnus Alfred Pyke, born in 1908, became an English nutritional scientist, governmental scientific adviser, writer and presenter. He became particularly famous as a television personality in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting science to lay people.
Fridman, I. (2020) Foreigners, Aliens, Citizens – Medway and its Jewish community, 1066-1939. Faversham: Birch Leaf
Irina Fridman - Author “Foreigners, Aliens, Citizens” - charting the history of Jewish people in UK