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History - Jews Garden Cripplegate

With kind permission of Marcus Roberts Jtrails.org.uk

The site of the medieval London Jewish Cemetery - Barbican and St Giles, Cripplegate, the City, London

© Marcus Roberts

The cemetery of the Jews at Cripplegate was of considerable importance; it was the oldest and largest in the country and remained in use for the longest. Not only this it was for a long time the only one permitted for the Jews in England, until after 1177 when the king allowed others to be set up.

The cemetery appears to have been set up from an early date and is named in the records as the "Jews' Garden", or "Leyrestowe". This latter name is almost identical with that of the old Jews burial ground at York and also means "burial place".

It was located to the west of the Jewry just outside an angle of the old Roman city wall (still surviving) and near the church of Cripplegate. A recent historian has reconstructed the boundaries as being a large irregular rectangular plot bounded by Red Cross Street, Aldergate Street, Barbican and Jewin Street being the southerly of these. South of Jewin street ran a tongue shaped projection, defined in later times by Well Street and Redcross Square. It is this latter much smaller area where all the burials seem to have taken place.

The name Jewin Street is one of several ancient names which are evidence of the Jewish history of the site. There is also in the north of the main plot the name Jacobís Well. This name has not been noted before here at the Barbican, however it is suggestive of a mikveh or spring used on the site for ritual ablutions, and parallels well to the mikveh called Jacobís Well that is at the Bristol cemetery at Brandon Hill. There is also a Crowdís Well on the site (preserved in a modern pub name today at Cripplegate) and for mysterious reasons which I have yet to establish, well names with the prefix "crow-" are often found in conjunction with Jacobs Wells or near medieval Jewish cemeteries. These wells, including Crowder's Well at Cripplegate are also said in folk tradition to be good for sore eyes. Another example is Crowell at Oxford, close to the original medieval Jewish cemetery. At Winchester the medieval cemetery is located on modern day Crowder's Terrace.

The property seemed to cover several acres of ground, but the indications are that the burials only took place in a much smaller section of the grounds - an arrangement that seems to have been reproduced later at Oxford. It is probably correct to think that much of the grounds were garden like (probably the medieval "flowerey mead" with some trees or shrubs, such as Ash and Willow) surrounded by walls or fronted by houses. There is clear evidence that the grounds contained a number of active springs and there may have been a small building for washing the bodies, which survived the closure of the cemetery and survived as a "dovecote". The presence of springs seems to have been another location factor for medieval cemeteries and would have been important to supply the cemetery with the required water for ritual ablutions.

After the expulsion the cemetery survived as a garden still called "Jews' Garden". It had a variety of owners, including a Dean of St Paul's in the reign of Edward I, before it was bequeathed with its "dovecote" to the Goldsmiths Company in 1422. It kept its name when by 1603, Stowe records it became gardens with summer houses. Later in history its history other houses were built in the area. In 1661 the poet Milton rented a house there and around this period there was a cockpit of low repute which also housed a Catholic conventicler. In the 18th century there were amateur theatricals and entertainments for those aspiring to tread the boards.

By the Victorian era the area was well developed and part redeveloped with industrial developments and houses. It was only bombing in the war that erased the heavy veneer of centuries over the site. The bombing in the area was so intense that the old bastion at Cripplegate, which only reared a few feet above ground level, was almost completely exposed by the bombing for the first time in centuries.

At the end of the War it was decided to excavate the site before the area was re-planned and redeveloped. The excavations revealed that burials only seem to have taken place in the area adjacent to the Cripplegate bastion and south of Jewin Street. Seven grave cuts were found in the narrow strip between Well Street and the Bastion/St Giles Church Yard. Remnants of other burials - human bones - were found in the natural soil under cellars south of Jewin Street.

The intriguing aspect of the finds around St Giles was that the while the bottom two feet of the grave cuts were excavated (everything above had been cut away by cellars) no remains were found bar a few tiny human bones. The impression was that the bones had been removed and the graves carefully back filled with made soil. It was thought that this could be best read, not as desecration of the graves but of their careful removal, perhaps by the Jewish community at the expulsion. However the remains of a small dog in the fill of one of the graves could have hinted at desecration.

The most surprising thing about this excavated site is that it appears to have survived untouched by the massive development of the Barbican. The north East corner of the open garden ground running up to the south of the London School for Girls has apparently not been redeveloped.

I also have a report from the late and lamented, Mr. Donald Silk, who once lived in the Barbican, that he could see the excavated grave cuts, after heavy rain and from the top of one of the Barbican tower blocks.

There are two ways of finding the site. The more difficult, but the best, is to follow the official London City Wall Walk from the junction of Noble Street with No.1 London Wall Street to the Cripplegate Bastion, which is no.15 on the walk. This is signed and mapped and can be followed into the grounds of Barber Surgeons' Hall which permits public access. Getting from there into the Barbican requires turning back and cutting through the grounds of Barber Surgeons Hall, and around the front of the hall in to Monkwell Court and thence to the Crowder's Well Pub. St Giles Church is nearby and Wallside which is worth looking at for another view, but an elevator needs to be taken from near the pub up to Wallside and Thomas More Walk high level walkways to get and overall view of the site and to get to the South side of the girl's school building.

The easiest way of getting to the site and remains of the medieval cemetery is to start at the Museum of London at the western end of London Wall Street. From the entrance of the museum the concrete walkway of Wesley Walk can be taken across to the Barbican to Thomas More walkway. Running along the side of the walkway below is an open space backing onto the City of London School for Girls (GDST). The top of this area occupies part of the site of the cemetery (and other parts of the site may be on the site of the school). Going to the end of this walkway there is on the other side an ornamental lake close to the Bastion of the old city wall which also lies on part of the site.

The first route is best for its very picturesque and ancient remains of the Roman and Norman city wall and for taking one to the St Giles Bastion which is a fixed historical reference point for getting ones bearings on the past site of the cemetery. In short the line of the wall you will have walked, if it were continued from the bastion, points directly into the cemetery site from the bastion.


Owner/Source  © Marcus Roberts, www.jtrails.org.uk 
Linked to  Jews Garden, Cripplegate, London 

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