Thursday, 1 December 2011

Sale of the Novo Cemetery (2), London, 1972

I hope it is OK to quote at length from this Museum of London report on the cemetery wall. One might contrast the care that a museum shows over the wall to the behaviour of the Mahamad and Board of Elders of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation in selling part of the cemetery.

The report contains useful historical background, Section 4.9 deals with the sale of the cemetery in 1972. The precise location of the reburials are not given below. For the record, our ancestors reside in a mass grave (no gravestones) at Coxtie Green, near Brentwood, Essex (GPS Coordinates: Latitude: 51.64206, Longitude: 0.24887)


Assessment in February 2007 of a brick wall in the grounds of Queen Mary, University of London, at 331-333 Mile End Road, London E1, has determined that this was originally built to enclose parts of a cemetery, known as the ‘Betahaim Novo’ or ‘New Cemetery’, of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation. This cemetery was established on the site in 1726 33, was extended in 1849 53, and was last used early in the 20th century. The stretch of wall examined, originally around the south-east corner of the cemetery, was accessible only on its inner face, towards the cemetery. This stretch of the wall contains fabric apparently belonging to both the 18th and 19th-century periods of use of the cemetery, and can be seen to be directly related to a portion of the cemetery, with about 2,000 burials, that is still in place forming an open space within the campus of the college. The wall clearly merits its statutory listing as a building of architectural or historic interest, which would require the wall to be archaeologically investigated and recorded before any of it was demolished or substantially altered, at a suitable time when both faces of the wall were accessible.

4 Outline description and history of the wall

4.1 Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, Sephardim, settled and practised their religion in London after being readmitted to England during the Commonwealth. They established a burial ground for their community in 1657, on the north side of the Mile End Road, about 2.5km from their synagogue in Bevis Marks on the eastern edge of the City. By the early 18th century more land was required for the community’s cemetery, and in 1726 a separate plot of land about 2.5 acres (1ha) in extent, called ‘Cherry Tree’, was bought a short distance further to the east along the north side of Mile End Road. At first this was kept as an orchard until the first burials took place there in 1733. This was thereupon called the Betahaim Novo or ‘New Cemetery’ while the earlier was called the Betahaim Velho or ‘Old Cemetery’; some interments continued to be made in the latter, in family graves.

4.2 When the New Cemetery was opened in 1733 a brick wall is documented as having been erected around the site. The wall in lengths (1), (2) and (3) is on the line of the earliest wall around the cemetery shown on a map of 1799-1819 (Fig 3). The southern boundary of the cemetery is not shown so clearly on an earlier map of 1746, by Rocque, and possibly either the boundary was changed slightly during the 18th century, perhaps as more ground was occupied by graves and less by fruit trees, or alternatively the 1746 map was not surveyed very precisely. Of the surviving walls, (1) and the base of (2) and (3) are possibly of 18th-century origin, containing, for the most part, dark red hand-made bricks, laid rather irregularly but generally to English bond and set in crumbly cream yellow lime mortar (Figs 5 and 6). Much of this wall face has been repointed and there are many signs of patching and alteration.

4.3 In 1733, according to Barnett (1955), a ‘fine mortuary hall’ was also built, which remained until it was demolished in 1922. The plot of land for the New Cemetery had cost £450 to buy and a much greater sum, £2,000, was spent on its buildings, walls and so on (Rodrigues-Pereira et al 1997, ix xi). The only building shown on the 1799 1819 map is in the centre of the southern half of the cemetery, and this could have been the ‘mortuary hall’.

4.4 In the late 18th and early 19th centuries grave-robbing was much feared. A newspaper advertisement of 1786 offered a reward of £50 for assistance in apprehending and convicting robbers of recent graves in ‘the Portuguese cemetery’, by which must be meant the New Cemetery. A watchman’s hut on wheels was set up over newly-filled graves, and the contemporary rules for the watchmen included the injunction to see ‘that no tree grows near the walls surrounding the burial ground, or near enough for its branches to help anyone trying to climb [the walls]’ (translated and quoted by Barnett, 1955). This indicates that the cemetery had walls around it, and they were high enough to have to be climbed with the help of overhanging tree-branches, if there were any.

4.5 By the 1840s the new cemetery was going to have to be enlarged, and more land adjoining it to the east, covering some 4.5 acres (1.8ha), was bought in 1849 and used for burials from 1853. The burials were always in very orderly rows, being successively laid out and filled from the rear of the cemetery going towards the Mile End Road. ‘The numbers of the rows were to be “conspicuously painted in White letters on a Black Ground on the Wall with a line marking the width of each Carreira [or row]”’ (Barnett 1955, x).

4.6 By the time of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey large-scale map, in 1870, the cemetery had clearly been extended to the east, and the line of the wall at (4) (8) is shown on this map as well as (1) (3); these wall-lines continue to be shown on subsequent maps, such as the revision of 1893 4 (Fig 4). The junction of the two parts of the cemetery can be seen in the existing walls (Fig 7), and it is marked by a change in the level of the ground, the extension to the east being at a slightly higher level than the initial area of the cemetery to the west.

4.7 A small rectangular building, one corner of which adjoins the junction of (1) and (2), was possibly a watch-house, referred to in documentary sources. On the 1870 and later maps, such as that of 1893 4, this is shown as having a small garden attached, which suggests that it was where a watchman could have lived. By 1961, the possible watch-house at the junction of (1) and (2) appears to have been the only building left connected with the cemetery, despite the watch-house being documented as having been demolished in 1892 or 1922. A map of 1962 shows the rectangular plot as existing but empty, as if the corner building had gone by then, and thereafter not even the plot appears.

4.8 By the end of the 19th century the community’s cemetery moved to north London. In 1895 unused land on the east of the New Cemetery at Mile End amounting to 2 acres (0.8ha) was sold to the Great Eastern Railway, and another cemetery, at Hoop Lane, Hampstead, was in use from 1896. The New Cemetery at Mile End was closed in 1936, and the superintendent’s lodge and mortuary hall were demolished. According to Rodrigues et al (1997, x) ‘paths were levelled and the boundary walls and gates rebuilt’. The walls to the east, (7) and (8), retain their original top courses intact, as the coping still rises and falls to accommodate former changes of level in the adjacent ground (Fig 8). This area of the cemetery seems to have been fairly level, so the changes of ground level must have been immediately outside the cemetery. The latter ground, according to a map of 1938, was occupied as in 1893 4 (Fig 4) partly by houses and partly by open areas, such as gardens, yards and Govey’s Place, adjoining the cemetery wall. Almost all the latter ground had been built up by about 1947, according to a map of that date.

4.9 In 1972, when a compulsory purchase order was likely to be made in order to rebuild and enlarge the adjacent Queen Mary College, the major part of the cemetery, to the west, was cleared and the land sold to the college. About 7,000 bodies were exhumed and reburied near Brentwood, Essex. ‘A small section containing graves from 1865 to 1916’ [about 2,000] was left intact in the eastern part of the cemetery (Fig 9), the part which had been added in 1849. In 1975 listed building consent was obtained to reduce the boundary wall on the street frontage to 6ft (1.83m).

4.10 The New Cemetery fronted directly on to the Mile End Road, except for two rectangular plots of land on the south-east, one of which was owned in the 18th century by Richard Govey, hence the name of the short side-road into it from Mile End Road, and the other, even smaller, to the west, which contained until the mid 20th century a public house called the ‘Three Mackerels’. It is the acquisition of these two plots and the proposed demolition of the buildings on them, which abut the cemetery wall to their rear, which has given rise to the present assessment.

Museum of London Archaeology Service. Author: Andrew Westman; Project Manager: David Lakin. WALL OF THE NEW CEMETERY (BETAHAIM NOVO) OF THE SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE JEWISH CONGREGATION. QUEEN MARY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON. A standing building assessment

1 comment:

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