At The Velho & Alderney Rd Cemeteries
Lilacs at Alderney Rd Cemetery
A warm afternoon in April is a poignant time to visit cemeteries and remember the long dead, when the new grass is flourishing, fresh and green, and the scent of spring flowers hangs in the air. Yesterday, I spent a contemplative few hours exploring the Velho Sephardic Cemetery in Mile End, which is Britain’s oldest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1657, one year after the readmission of the Jews to this country in 1656, and the nearby Alderney Rd Ashkenazi Cemetery which has inscriptions dating from 1697.
A gothic door in an old wall opens to reveal the Velho Cemetery, sequestered from the public gaze just yards from the Mile End Rd. In 1657, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, a Portuguese merchant, and Simon de Cacares, an Amsterdam-born merchant, leased an orchard plot on this site next to an inn called The Soldier’s Tenement for fourteen years at an annual rent of ten pounds, which was about ten times its market value. Yet, in spite of the financial opportunism of landowner Henry Clowes, the Jewish community was treated with respect by many others – as reflected in the tolling of church bells from Aldgate and along the Whitechapel Rd when bodies were carried out here from the City of London.
Today, you step into a large walled space approaching the size a of football pitch, with slabs placed in neat lines, yet overturned in places by trees sprouting and overgrown with thick grass and bluebells. Almost all the stones have lost their inscriptions, worn away over time, with just a few images discernible and enough lettering to distinguish Hebrew and Portuguese, reflecting the continental origins of many of those buried here.
An unmarked area contains the remains of plague victims from 1665 and 66, while the high levels of child mortality demanded that infants were buried in closely-packed rows of three foot graves. Between 1708 and 34, six hundred and thirty children were buried here, almost half of all those interred in that period. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Jewish population in London had grown to between six and seven hundred, with around five hundred Sephardim but, testifying to significant numbers of Ashkenazim, Benjamin Levy purchased adjoining land in Alderney Rd in 1696 for an Ashkenazi Cemetery. And the Velho itself was superseded in the eighteenth century by the Nuevo Cemetery, occupying land to the east purchased in 1724.
Entering the gate in the wall in Alderney Rd, you enter another of the East End’s secret sacred places and the atmosphere is quite different from the Velho. In this smaller, more domestic enclave sheltered by tall trees, you discover elaborate table tombs surrounded by vertical stones, like lines of broken teeth, erupting from the recently cut grass where lilac and fruit trees bloom. A twentieth century monolith lists those famous in death and a handsome warden’s cottage both reflect the recent care expended upon this site, which received burials until 1852 and where the devout still attend regularly to light candles for the most worthy of the departed.
Yesterday, the warmth of the sun and the depth of the shade rendered both cemeteries as welcoming tranquil places – where grief and sadness and loss have ebbed away, and the peace that is unique to the grave prevails.
The door to the Velho Cemetery
Tomb of David Nieto – born in Venice, he came to London be Rabbi at Bevis Marks Synagogue and established the first Jewish orphanage in 1713
Plaque of 1684 commemorates the laying of the foundation stone of the boundary wall
Entrance to Alderney Rd Cemetery
Tomb of Samuel Falk, the Cabbalist who died in 1782 and was known as the “Baal Shem of London”
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