The Mile End cemeteries
In 1656, the presence of Jews in England became tacitly accepted even if it wasn’t formally recognised. A small and discreet synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the City of London was opened that year. But the tiny Sephardi community, numbering around 100 people, needed a burial ground as well as a place of worship. For this purpose, a plot of land was leased in Mile End, then a rural hamlet about a mile-and-a-half east of the city limits.
The cemetery was inaugurated in 1657. Over the following decades, it was extended on a piecemeal basis to cope with growing demand. But, by the end of the century, it was clear that an additional site would be needed. At that point, the Jewish population in London was around 600-700, mostly Sephardi but with a small Ashkenazi community, too, The latter had opened its own adjacent cemetery in 1696. Consequently, a new and larger three-acre plot of land, about 400 metres to the east of the original site, was leased in 1726. This became known as the Novo (‘new’ in Portuguese), as opposed to the Velho (‘old’), as the original cemetery was now designated. The first burials at the Novo took place in 1733 and, for more than 150 years, virtually all Sephardi burials in London were carried out there. Eventually, space there ran out, too, and in 1855, the Novo was expanded with the acquisition of a further 1.7 acres to the east of the site.
Resting place for the good and the great
By the end of the nineteenth century, the enlarged cemetery comprised over 9,000 graves. Eminent individuals buried there included Diego Pereira, Baron Aguilar (1699-1759), financier and adviser to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa; the merchant Benjamin D’Israeli (1730-1816), grandfather to the famous Victorian Prime Minister, and Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), the celebrated prizefighter. Those who were laid to rest in the newer, post-1855 expansion included the comic actor David Belasco, alias David James (1839-93); Joseph Elmaleh (1809-86), chief rabbi of Mogador and Austrian consul in Morocco, and several prominent members of the wealthy and prestigious Montefiore family.
Eventually, demographic changes caught up with the Novo. By 1900, wealthier members of the Sephardi community had migrated away from the City and the East End. A new Sephardi cemetery was opened in 1897 in Hoop Lane, Golder’s Green, effectively superseding the Novo. Until 1906, a section of the Novo remained open for adult burials. Children’s burials continued until 1918. There was a dwindling trickle of occasional interments continuing into the 1970s.
A lost cemetery
Today, all that remains of the Novo is the post-1855 section, consisting of about 2,000 graves. With their characteristic absence of headstones, less than a quarter of these have fully or partly legible inscriptions. Mile End has long ceased to be a rural area, and in the 1960s, Queen Mary College – now Queen Mary University of London – was occupying much of the area to the west of the Novo, and was looking to expand its campus. In the early 1970s, a deal was reached between the Sephardi community and the College, whereby the pre-1855 part of the Novo (two thirds of the site) was sold to be built over. The remains of the deceased were disinterred under religious supervision in 1973-74, with around 7,000 coffins reburied in a mass grave on college-owned land near Brentwood in Essex. Memorial plaques with the names of the deceased were displayed there, but the actual gravestones were not relocated.
What is left of the Novo is now marooned within the campus, overlooked by modern buildings including the University library. It is an eerily quiet area: surrounded by the bustle of academia, very mineral in appearance, with little vegetation. The boundary of the site was re-landscaped in 2011 to make it more accessible and welcoming. In contrast, the Velho remains intact, in a much lusher, greener setting, though hidden from view behind walls and closed to the public.