Slap bang in the middle of an East London university can be found an old and rather unusual graveyard. This is the Novo Beth Chaim, the remaining part of a Jewish burial ground that dates back to the 18th century.
Jews had been in England since the time of William the Conqueror, but were expelled by Edward I in 1290, for a lot of reasons, but mainly as the King need to raise taxes and expelling Jews was a vote winner with the landed gentry.
Jews were finally allowed — officially — back into England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, and then settled mostly on the eastern edge of the City of London.
Forbidden to be buried in Christian cemeteries, the first Jewish burial ground opened in the countryside, in a village called Mile End, for the Sephardic Jews who migrated from Spain and Portugal. That burial ground is pretty difficult to visit, as it’s behind locked walls, but the population grew, and with the inevitability that comes from more births, there were eventually more deaths — and in 1733 another much larger burial ground was acquired – the Novo Beth Chaim.
Although at the time, on English maps they showed up they were the Jews Old Burying Ground and the Jews New Burying Ground.
As the area developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, the burial ground was slowly surrounded, to the West by a People’s Palace, an entertainment park, to the north by the Mile End Workhouses, and to the east, by a railway depot.
The People’s Palace later became the Queen Mary University of London, and in the 1970s, the university campus expanded over much of the burial ground. Some 7,000 graves were exhumed and reburied in Brentwood, Essex in 1974. The university kept expanding, but the remaining, and newest burials, from the late 19th century to when burials stopped in 1918 remain – some 2,000 of them, surrounded by university buildings.
The design looks like a cemetery, but unlike a cemetery you might be used to — no grand monuments, for in death all are (relatively) equal, and for Sephardic Jews, no raised tombstones, just flat slabs.
That makes it harder, in the correct way to locate famous dead people – such as the boxer and author Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) and merchant Benjamin D’Israeli (1730-1816), grandfather of Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
And that’s how it should be, no lording over people in death as they did in life.
Sounded on three sides by high walls, there is a newish entrance added in 2012, with corten steel steps down into the burial ground itself, and dotted around some modest comments about the history of the site and how it has shrunk over the past century.
In April 2014 it was entered into the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by English Heritage as a site of important historic interest.
You are free to walk around the graves, reading the inscriptions from loved ones, often in both English and Hebrew. A hand washing bowl to use after visiting is available to use in line with Jewish tradition.
Near the middle of the cemetery, a circular enclosure marks the landing spot of a World War II bomb. Paving within the circle forms a six-pointed Star of David, and a pedestal in the centre commemorates those whose memorials were destroyed by the blast.
Although in the middle of the University campus, it’s freely open for anyone to wander in and visit.