Skip to content

At Bancroft Rd Jewish Cemetery

January 25, 2014
by the gentle author

Neglected for over a century now, this was the cemetery for the congregation of Maiden Lane Synagogue in Covent Garden from 1811, where more than five hundred souls rest peacefully. Surrounded these days by housing and enclosed by tall iron railings, it as an enigma to many in Mile End who have known it their whole lives. Lacking any sign to specify the nature of the place, only by peering through the railings and recognising the Hebrew upon the broken stones might the curious passerby discover it was a Jewish cemetery.

In 2008, architect Susie Clapham walked past and became fascinated to uncover the cemetery’s history and learn why it has been abandoned. After she unlocked the padlock and removed the chain to take me around the cemetery one rainy day recently, I was alarmed when a woman leaned out of a first floor window opposite and began haranguing us for being there, but – to my surprise – Susie was pleased by this reaction to our presence. “It shows that somebody cares about this place,” she said to me, reflecting her own mission to see the cemetery tended and cared for once more.

Just a couple of hundred yards west from Bancroft Rd is the Velho Cemetery, London’s oldest Jewish Cemetery, established in 1657 in the corner of an orchard. By 1724, this was full and became superceded by the Novo Cemetery on the eastern side of Bancroft Rd. Interestingly, these names reflect the high proportion of Portuguese among the Jewish community at that time. Thus when the Maiden Lane Synagogue chose the site for their cemetery, this area one mile east of the City was already established as a suitable location.

Since the demise of the Maiden Lane Synagogue at the beginning of the twentieth century, their cemetery has fallen into neglect and suffered bomb damage in 1944, scattering stones into disarray. Yet the Board of Deputies of British Jews steadfastly refused requests to redevelop the site either as a public park or housing, even though a pile of correspondence and reports stretching back over the last hundred years testifies to the many attempts to quantify the decay and unsuccessful initiatives to restore dignity to the forlorn cemetery.

In this densely populated area of the East End, the cemetery offers a rare patch of green. Susie Clapham would like to see a shelter built that would permit visitors to appreciate the contemplative nature of the location and where they could learn of the significance of the site and history of the long-forgotten who rest there, thus restoring the meaning of the cemetery to the fabric of the city.

“It does not seem right that today, in the dark shadow of so much desecration and total destruction of cemeteries in Eastern Europe, and after the utter annihilation of our ancestors’ graves, this little place should be allowed to fall into such desolate abandon,” Susie told me, confirming that the Board of Deputies of British Jews has given its approval to her endeavour.

If you would like to support Susie Clapham in her project to take care of Bancroft Rd Jewish Cemetery, contact sclapham@flasc.co.uk

The cemetery in the sixties

There are a series of events in the East End marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

18 Responses leave one →
  1. January 25, 2014

    Beautiful. A wordsmith as well as a photographer.
    I love the first photo of the apples like natures own Christmas decorations.

  2. January 25, 2014

    Another great post very interesting .There are some great cemeteries in this country. I was particularly struck by the one in West Brompton .The work and dedication given to such a place of peace.They even have catacombs.I am surprised the coffins are still there.Thanks for your work keep them coming good luck.
    Phil Bailey

  3. sheila hillier permalink
    January 25, 2014

    When the new Medical Sciences building for Queen Mary’s School of Medicine( the official title of Bart’s and the London Schools of Medicine) was constructed at Mile End in the 1980′s, it was partly built on a section of a Jewish burial ground. The stoneswere moved and cleaned, as were the bones and the remains reburied in the small section that remains. Since it is within the College grounds it is not officially open to the public but I am sure it would be possible to go and look. If I remember correctly the burial ground section lies between the existing building ( which I am not sure is still Medical Sciences) and the Law building. There may even be a sign, but I think at the time signs were discouraged because of fears of vandalism.

    It is interesting to consider the extent of these burial grounds and what may be learnt about the demography of the Jewish population of London’s east end. As you say, the earliest populations were Sephardic, from Portugal ( Dr Barnado graduated from The London Hospital Medical college) and Holland, whereas later groups were from driven from Russia and Eastern Europe.

  4. January 25, 2014

    What a shame to let this place fall into such disrepair. I know Jewish Law does not allow burial places to be removed or built over, but it should be cared for. Great intiative, wish I lived nearer, I would have loved to help. Well done Susie Clapham! Valerie

  5. sheila hillier permalink
    January 25, 2014

    to add to my comment above, more information can be found here:

    http://www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/newsevents/news/56343/html

  6. January 25, 2014

    Very impressive. I like cemeteries and also to go there. Here in Kassel/Germany we also have a Jewish one. See the interesting photos at this site:
    http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/kassel_friedhof.htm

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 25, 2014

    Pterry was right:
    “Cemeteries are for the living” – from “Johnny & the Dead”

    And it looks as if Susie Clapham is about to mke it so – good for her.

    [ Pterry = Sir T. Prachett. ]

  8. Gareth permalink
    January 25, 2014

    I frequently walk past on my way to visit wards at Mile End Hospital and have often thought to myself “This is one of those places that blog should mention”, so was pleased to see this.
    It has such a melancholic air about it.
    I’m glad that somebody is thinking about those that rest there.

  9. January 25, 2014

    Beautiful apples photo

  10. January 25, 2014

    Your photo of the cemetery with apples is so good – thank you for posting this

  11. January 25, 2014

    Lovely article. Thanks.

  12. Sonia Murray permalink
    January 25, 2014

    Love the picture with the apples! I do hope someone has photographed each stone and written down the name or names on it, put the information on CD, and given copies to libraries in the area – or that someone will be kind enough to do so, if it has not already been done. This would be a wonderful source of information for those who have ancestors who lived there, and are struggling to trace their families farther back in time. The people buried there should not be forgotten.

  13. January 25, 2014

    This small Jewish cemetery (as well as the Old and New Spanish-Portuguese Cemeteries also referred to) is one of the many cemeteries included on London Gardens Online, the website that makes publicly available the Inventory of the London Parks & Gardens Trust – now covering over 2,500 parks, gardens, squares, churchyards, cemeteries and other green/open spaces of historic interest across the whole of London.
    The Inventory is constantly updated as changes take place and new sites emerge, so I’ll look forward to updating the information on Bancroft Road Cemetery as Susie’s project takes shape, which I very much hope it will.

  14. Sheila DerMarderosian permalink
    January 28, 2014

    This picture of the Jewish burial grounds broke my heart! I can not imagine why the people who pass this place don’t do something to restore it to it’s former dignity. Is there no shame in your country? Did our world learn nothing from what happned to the Jews.

    In my country we respect all people, dead or alive, no matter what nationality. Hope a hero comes along and rights this wrong.
    Sheila

  15. January 28, 2014

    Thank you gentle author, these images are wonderful a I see the graveyard everyday from the upstairs window of my house in mile end place. I remember Layla the old lady who was caretaker until a couple of years ago. These images remind me of her

  16. Barbara Rieck permalink
    March 1, 2014

    You are so right Sheila, … already as I saw the picture with the apples I thought, why people just forgot to pick the apples. Not long now and they will be completely gone! …. Please it does not let this happen that the graves completly fall into oblivion.
    Barbara

  17. ben permalink
    April 9, 2014

    please contact me re. this cemetery I would be glad to help out to restore this ancient cemetery

  18. April 21, 2014

    Susie is to be applauded for her efforts. Of course, this beautiful piece of Jewish history, also part of London’s history, should be protected & restored. The mystery is why the Board of Guardians has not taken up the challenge to do so. Perhaps some of the wealthier North London synagogues can be persuaded to raise funds and/or labour to prepare the site for restoration. We are all guardians of our environment & shared history. I’d love to help with this project.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS