First-time visitors to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus can’t help but notice the seemingly incongruous historical cemetery situated in the centre of the campus, surrounded by sleek modern architecture and busy students rushing by.
With its rows of flat grave stones symbolising the equality of all people in death, The Neuvo, or Novo Beth Chaim burial site, is certainly one of the campus’ more unique features.
It has also, for many years, shown serious signs of natural decay and, as a result, the site is now undergoing landscaping work in order to preserve the site and significantly improve the aesthetic and use of the surrounding area.
The College is working in collaboration with the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation (SPJC) and architect Andrew Abdulezer to replace the old perimeters of the cemetery with new fences and trees. The recently removed, self-sown trees which bordered the plot were in bad condition, and their extensive roots were starting to disturb graves at the site’s edge. The new border will comprise 24 trees planted in a narrow raised box, full of earth and embedded into concrete, to restrict root growth. The trees and a one metre high ivy covered trellis will act as a screen between the front of the Francis Bancroft building and the cemetery.
The planned developments also include the construction of a raised pathway at the southern end of the cemetery, widening the cross-college path behind the Law and Arts Two buildings to 1.6 metres, without impacting on any of the graves. The pathway will feature plaques narrating a history of the site and the East End’s Jewish community.
In partnership with the SPJC, the College has also agreed that a small area of land will be used to create a seating area for quiet contemplation behind the Arts Two building. Again, this work will not disturb any graves.
Significant funds have been allocated to the project and Simon Neale, director of Estates has expressed that “the overriding objective is to treat this area with utmost sensitivity”.
For the past two months, Eiran Davis, a Rabbi with the SPJC, has overseen every aspect of the work being conducted by the contractors, Sykes. Work has been carried out in a sensitive manner to ensure no graves are disturbed in any way, and the recent removal of a line of trees running along the side the library, widening the path to 2.4 metres, has unearthed little more than clay piping and a piece of Roman glass. Any bones found in the earth have undergone testing and all were determined to be those of animals.
With the “light at the end of the tunnel” in sight, Rabbi Davies commented: “We’re extraordinarily grateful to the College for being accommodating and we appreciate the development of their relationship with us [The SPJC], so that this can be achieved.”
Project Manager David Meinck added that the work, a long term ambition for the College, has been a “long and exhausting process”. While it is not a big project in construction terms, it has taken a huge amount of effort, under an extraordinary set of circumstances, to improve campus access while preserving the unique cemetery for years to come.
Dr Caron Lipman in the School of Geography is preparing for publication a history of the cemeteries, The Sephardic Jewish Cemeteries at Queen Mary College, for which she received a Barnett Shine fellowship. She explores the history of the original Velho and Neovo burial grounds and offers case studies of local residents laid to rest there, including the boxer Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) and Benjamin D’Israeli, financier and grandfather of British prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Both men are now interred at Brentwood, Essex.
The work was commissioned by Senior Vice-Principal Philip Ogden and supported by Catherine Nash, Professor of Human Geography. The following brief history is based on Dr Lipman’s text.
- The cemetery provides a visible link to one of the oldest immigrant communities to settle in the local area. It opened in 1733 after the community of Sephardic Jews (immigrants from Spain and Portugal) and their descendents grew too large for their original cemetery- the Velho, or Old Cemetery, now hidden behind the Albert Stern Hall of Residence.
- By 1895 the Neuvo was also almost full, which coincided with the gradual drift of the London Sephardi community away from the local area. Although formally closed for adult burials in 1905 and in 1918 for children, the site was reopened for the burial of eminent members of the community in several of the decades following.
- After 1936, the cemetery’s paths were levelled, the boundary walls and entrances rebuilt and trees planted following advice from the then curator of Kew Gardens. World War II bombing saw 80 gravestones and 200 graves damaged.
- The last burial to take place at the site occurred in March 1974, when John Gervase Lang, warden of the neighbouring Beth Holim home for the elderly died at the age of 93 and was buried next to his father.
- What currently remains at the site is only a portion of the original cemetery, following QM’s expansion in the 1970s and procurement of three quarters of the site for the building of much needed facilities, including the Library in 1985.
- Following the passing of a bill through Parliament, the College paid £399,000 for the land, of which £210,000 was paid to the London Sephardi trust and the rest used to oversee the reinterment of the oldest graves to a site in Essex. By October 1984, the College had doubled the size of its campus.
- A restricted area containing 500 of the most recent gravestones continues to be held by Queen Mary on a 999 year lease from the Spanish and Portugese Jews’ Congregation (SPJC) and maintained by the College’s estates department on behalf of the local community.
QM will be organising a series of events in March 2012 to mark the opening of ArtsTwo and the newly landscaped areas, with a strong emphasis on Jewish history and with a lecture by amongst others Simon Schama.