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At The Velho & Alderney Rd Cemeteries

March 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Lilacs at Alderney Rd Cemetery

Spring is a poignant season to visit ancient cemeteries and remember the long dead, when the new grass is flourishing, fresh and green, and the scent of flowers hangs in the air. 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 1665/66, 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 And the Velho itself was superseded in the eighteenth century by the Nuevo Cemetery, occupying land to the east purchased in 1724.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.

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 graveyard 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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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 28, 2020

    I agree – I have always found graveyards very peaceful.

    I haven’t visited these two cemeteries but I did go to the Nuevo Cemetery last year where there were also a lot of Portugese names, including countless Da Costas. The grave stones there were all flat on the ground and we were told it was because they thought everyone is equal in death.

    There was also a big circle in the middle of the graveyard where it had been hit by a wartime bomb which was a poignant reminder of how random death can be.

  2. March 28, 2020

    Thank you for your postings – always interesting and uplifting. I’m in self isolation at
    present – my choice – no infection – so my day always gets off to a good start because
    of your prose and photographs.

  3. March 28, 2020

    Rather more charming that Willesden!

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 28, 2020

    Another very interesting start to a lonely day spent at home, I really do miss talking to our customers in the bookshop every day but needs must so I now have more time to read and concentrate on your posts. I have enjoyed this one as I love to read history and to have it accompanied by the lovely photographs is a bonus. Thank you.


  5. paul loften permalink
    March 28, 2020

    Each tombstone has an untold story. How did they arrive here and make a new life . What was their life like in London of the 17th and 18th centuries? For many, their history is forever lost. Perhaps a brief mention from a grandparent or Uncle. My father once told me long ago of his family ancestors in Spain who fled during the inquisition rather than renounce their religion or be burnt the stake. That is all I know. From Spain then to in Poland, the names were changed and changed again sometimes to the names of towns or villages where they lived. That is all I know. I have tried to unravel the past but it has proved impossible

  6. March 28, 2020

    I love cemeteries for their peace and calm as well as being a reminder of my mortality. So many life stories. The graves of babies and young children are particularly touching. So much promise unfulfilled. As I write this, Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing on New York’s situation is occurring. Plagues are not some ancient phenomena. Sheltering at home, finding it hard to maintain attention to much of anything.

    Stay well.

  7. March 28, 2020

    I have found great solace in cemeteries and churches, always atmospheric and places for reflection – rather ironic for a life-long atheist!

  8. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    March 28, 2020

    Good news! Physical distancing and self-isolation is working here in Sidney! Our curve is flattening, the good doctor announced yesterday!
    I too miss the customers in our used bookshop but enjoyment is to be found reading and researching the life of my grandfather of Mile End. He was a bit of a clever scoundrel!
    Stay well Gentle Author and readers of this life-enriching blog!

  9. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    March 28, 2020

    Oh grave, where is thy victory…?

    Death is swallowed up in victory, and verdant green lawns, lilacs, and star-like flowers.

    As ever, GA, thank you for sharing.

  10. Paul Shaviv permalink
    March 29, 2020

    Another famous/infamous “resident” of Alderney Road is the notorious rabbinic forger Saul Berlin (1740-1794). He was the brother of Solomon Hirschel, rabbi of the Great Synagogue, also buried there. A stone marking his grave can be easily seen via Google images.
    Either deliberately or innocently, SB is often omitted by those writing about the cemetery, although in terms of Jewish history he is probably the most famous person buried there!
    In 1793, he published a book called “Besamim Rosh”, purporting to be a collection of 392 Jewish legal rulings contained in a hitherto unknown manuscript originating from Asher Ben Yechiel, 13/14 century eminent rabbi. It was quickly noticed that several of these rulings seemed to support policies of the then nascent Jewish Reform movement. A scandal ensued; the book was branded a forgery, and SB fled to London, where he passed away not long afterwards.
    “Besamim Rosh”, which even today has a small number of supporters who maintain its authenticity, was a work of considerable scholarship. It remains one of the best known causes celebre of modern Jewish history.

  11. Paul Shaviv permalink
    March 29, 2020

    Oops! Rabbi Solomon Hirschel (1762-1842), rabbi of the Great Synagogue, and brother of Saul Berlin, is actually buried in another historic East End Jewish cemetery, Brady Street, and not Alderney Road.

  12. Keith Peter permalink
    March 29, 2020

    Two small quiet spaces in the town showing continuity over the centuries, thanks for this.

    Google something like ‘birmingham uk hebrew congregation cemetery’ to see a comparison from outside London.

    The remains of the cemetery were accessible in the early 90s but had to be sealed off later. Now a construction site to be a student hall of residence.

  13. March 29, 2020

    On several nights after returning in the early hours from visiting Mile End pubs I found myself locked out. The only way in was over the back. You had one chance a good run and up onto the wall; then there would be Saber the gaurd dog bitting at your bottom. Once I was so drunk I could not make it and waited with hands in pockets for Saber, but he did not come……..he’d gone deaf! I’m now a completely reformed character and teetotal.
    I was asked by a old professor to photograph all the grave stones in the Sephardic Velho cemetry. It was hard work on a hot summers day. All the stones had to be cleaned and washed and even with a widangle lens I had to use a step ladder. The professor was looking for ‘the black circumciser’. When he found the grave he became very excited and kept shouting “over here, over here photograph this one”. All long ago.

  14. April 6, 2020

    How Beautiful and Peaceful. Thank You So Very Much!!???????

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