At Bancroft Rd Jewish Cemetery
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 By 1724, this was full and became superceded by the Novo Cemetery on the eastern side of Bancroft Rd.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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The cemetery in the sixties