History - The Old and New Spanish and Portuguese Cemeteries - off Mile End Road
With kind permission of Marcus Roberts Jtrails.org.uk© Marcus Roberts, www.jtrails.org.uk
The Old and New Spanish and Portuguese Cemeteries - off Mile End Road
The original Spanish and Portuguese burial ground was opened in 1657 with the consent of Oliver Cromwell. It was an expression of the successful establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation in 1656, then titled the Sha'ar Hashamayim, the "Gate of Heaven” It lies directly behind Beth Holim about a mile from Bevis Marks. Its claim to note is that it was the first Jewish burial ground to be established after the readmission and that its burial include just about every Jew of note, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi, until 1696, when the Alderney Road Ashkenazi cemetery was established.
The ground was established by Antonio Fernado Caraval a murrano Jew, settled in London since 1633. He obtained through sub-lease, two out of three strips of a garden and orchard that had been the site of a pub, the "Soldiers Tenement". The first burial was in 1657 of Mrs. de Brito and the second was of the founder himself after a failed gall-stones operation in 1659. In 1670 the site was extended when the third connecting strip was brought by Jacob Gomes Serra and Isaac Lopes Pereira. In 1684 the cemetery was expanded again across the rest of the orchard up to the Mile End Road on land purchased by Alvares de Fonseca who was to leave the cemetery in his will to his congregation. The community only gained decisive control over their property in 1737 when they were finally granted the freehold of the property for a very exorbitant sum of two hundred pounds. However the old cemetery was by this point full up.
The Velho Cemetery now lies behind the Beth Holim Hospital on the Mile End Road. There are 1,706 recorded burials on site. Access is through the college but the key is held an official caretaker of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues. Today the site is a rather cheerless wasteland largely bounded by walls. Since all of the Sephardic tombs are horizontal, the flatness of the site is only relieved by a scattering of trees in the southern half of the site that have seen better days. The large site is maintained at a minimal though adequate level. At the turn of the century photographs reveal a more pleasing aspect. The grounds and paths were better kept and the trees then alive and healthy, presented a pleasing summer-time glade.
The oldest burials start at the furthest (north-western) corner away from the entrance and Caraval's is the second one in. His tomb was restored in 1925, the original being worn away by time, and is readily identifiable. The rows are numbered on the wall, though identification of individual graves is often difficult. The more determined can use a published register of the burials to help locate tombs. However not all the burials have memorials and those that do are often worn and deciphering the Hebrew or Portuguese, if it is a bi-lingual memorial, is a painstaking process. The middle of the north wall holds the commemoration stone of 1684 preserved under Perspex. Some masonry pieces with skull and cross bones motifs (probably end pieces of old tombs) on them are leant against this wall too. The use of this Christian influenced motif also occurs in the old Ashkenazi cemetery at nearby Alderney Road.
The cemetery contains 15 victims of the plague of 1665 in a row of unmarked graves. One special and touching feature of the site are the children’s' or "El Angelitos" ("little angels") graves. There are 631 and many have a sweet little winged cherub at the top of their tombstone. It is notable that a surprising number of these graves are expensively made and crafted of marble, suggesting a special tender-heartedness towards children.
Celebrities include Dr. Fernado Mendes, the physician to Charles II, Rowland Gideon, the first Jew to be admitted to a City Company. Jacob Coen Henriques (d. 1674) one of the earliest Jewish residents of New Amsterdam later to be New York. Isaac da Costa Villareal, founder of the Villareal School. Also David Abravanel, Isaac Lido (a leader of the synagogue) and Moses Athias (the first rabbi of the community) are there.
Some of the tombstones are sophisticated and expensive some being of marble and highly ornate. The use of Portuguese is a special feature in the cemetery. A number of memorials also have coats of arms and crests on them. There are several recurring sculpted motifs that stand out in the cemetery. The depiction of an axe striking a tree is common - a life cut down in its prime is common.
The south west corner contains a small area of tombs raised above the rest. These are of distinguished rabbis such as Haham Raphael Meldola, of London (d. 1828). Mendola was buried at his request near the feet of Haham David Nieto even though the cemetery had been closed since 1753. His tomb is still well visited by the faithful who leave candles and stones on the grave. These tombs were renewed in 1980 but are already seriously decayed.
For most of the year the cemetery is very little visited. A look at the visitor’s book shows that on average less than ten people visit in the main part of the year. However a rush of visitors occurs annually before the High Holy Days, when two or three hundred of the more devout visit the graves of the rabbis. Surprisingly, among the more general pilgrims, are few of those who are direct relatives of some of the more distinguished inhabitants of the cemetery, who go to visit their ancestors from as far away as the north of England. Thus in this case it is technically wrong to state that the cemetery is disused - it still fulfills a significant spiritual and ritual function in the community which deserves preservation for the future.
Entry to the cemetery can be obtained by application to the offices of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation. At the time of my visit there was a caretaker who lived off site who held the keys. The cemetery and its small entry gate is not easy to find on the college site.
The New Spanish and Portuguese burial ground, of three acres, was opened in 1733 when the old one became full. The purchasers were Gabriel Lopes and Joseph da Costa, both merchants. This site when purchased in 1724 was called the "Cherry Tree" or "Hardy's Garden", but became called the "Novo" cemetery. It was not needed until 1733, when it was enclosed so until this time it continued as an orchard of cherry, apple and pear trees. The cemetery suffered from the body snatchers, in April, 1786 several bodies were stolen. A regular watch was held, the watchmen were armed with blunderbusses and had a special wheeled wooden hut, equipped with alarm bells, places over each new grave. The danger of body snatching only ended with the Anatomy Act of 1832.
Burials in the New Cemetery included those of the D'Israeli and Montefiori families. For example Jacob Montefiori (1801-95) is there and he was the last surviving commissioners appointed by William IV for the colonization of South Australia.
It was expanded in 1849 and remained in use until 1899, though we were shown an extra grave squeezed in 1988. It was replaced by the Golders Green Cemetery. In 1941 three large bombs fell in the cemetery destroying or damaging 80 graves and leaving huge craters. In 1972 the Novo was brought by Queen Mary College. The remains of this later cemetery now lies within Queen Mary and Westfield College ground which brought the entire site - in fact the new college buildings are largely developed on the older part of the cemetery which was unceremoniously sold and swept away for this development. All 5,000 graves were moved from their eternal rest, amidst amply justified protest, to a new site in Brentwood in Essex. There they were reburied in treble tiers. Those moved included Samson Gideon the financial advisor to Walpole, who caused religious perplexity when it was found that he was interred in an (unhalachic) lead coffin. Burials in lead were the norm for high status Christian burials in the period. However Gideon was moved separately from the common mass, to Golder's Green Sephardic Cemetery "as an experimental reburial", which led to allegations that the congregation were going to "cherry-pick" the celebrities from the burial ground.
As to the reason for the sale of the site, the official account is that the college obtained outline planning permission in 1969 over the burial site to build a pre-medical school. The sale of the cemetery was then effectively forced under the threat that the site might otherwise be subject to a compulsory purchase order and the terms of the sale might be more disadvantageous. However those less charitably inclined might argue that the lucrative sale of burial grounds in development areas has proven too much a temptation to some congregations, for example the attempted sale of the Kingsbury Road (Reform) cemetery in Dalston in the mid 1990s.
The old boundary wall still stands on the western side in an unsafe state. The college agreed at the time to retain the surviving part of one acre (1/4 of the original site), as a garden, on a lease of 999 years.
However it is related in the "official" guide to the cemetery that it has purely been kept because of the rule that protects burials for 100 years. Since another last burial was squeezed in 1988, this means that the remainder of the cemetery will be most likely removed and redeveloped in 2088, if the college does not maintain their agreement.
According to our informant the majority of tombstones were cleared away and reburied in a small enclosed area that stands opposite the entrance to the remains of the cemetery, though the official guide suggests that "the grave markers were destroyed". There appear to have been no record made of these tombstones; thus yet another invaluable source of Jewish historical and genealogical information has been lost to future generations.
Within the remains of the New Cemetery two thousand tombstones are left standing in a sea of gravel mulch, which solves the weed problem, even if it makes walking an exhausting proposition. Another foundation plaque is preserved in a Perspex case in the middle of the wall on the eastern side. While the boundary wall is now very low, the site is made very secure by over-looking surveillance cameras.
The foundation stone of the Novo is preserved at the side of the grassed area mentioned earlier at the entrance of the cemetery.
The remaining memorials cover many of the good and famous of the Sephardic community. I was also able to track down the resting place of Manuel (d. 1905) and Emma Castello of Jew's Walk, Sydenham Hill and Chatham who have been described elsewhere. Rebecca Levy, the daughter of Alderman Davis Levy, of Portsmouth, rests at the cemetery. There is also the pathetic memorial to those who died in the Spanish and Portuguese Orphanage fire in 1882.