‘The old Jewish cemeteries are small secretive places, a few acres hidden by high walls and locked doors, often cheek by jowl with new buildings and identified from outside only by the trees that overhang walls topped with broken glass. Brady Street is an oasis in a wilderness of East End urban desolation comprised of waste land and forbidding council flat blocks.’
Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons “London Cemeteries.”
I am not at all happy with the photographs I took on a recent visit to at the Jewish Cemetery in Brady Street, they are truly a substandard crop. There are two reasons for my disappointment and I hold Louis Berk responsible for both. Firstly my visit was short, coming at the tail end of a guided walk by Louis through Whitechapel. To be fair he allowed us to wander around the cemetery for much longer than the 20 minutes allotted in the walk timetable but it wasn’t enough for me. I can’t take photographs in a hurry, I need to wander around a site, gradually circling my subject until I find the right angle and then make increasingly miniscule and painstaking adjustments to angle, aperture, exposure etc until I think I might have done enough to get a decent shot. I often end up with 10 almost identical shots of the same subject but that’s the digital revolution for you; only professionals or the extremely wealthy could have afforded to be so meticulous in the age of the film camera. The time available during our visit to Brady Street was too short to indulge in photographic fussiness of this sort and therefore I am convinced I somehow managed to miss out on some great shots. The second reason for the dissatisfaction with my pictures is that last year Louis published a beautiful book of his own photographs taken during a five year project to document Brady Street. Even if I had five years I’m not sure I could come up with anything to rival Louis’ shots so maybe he did me a favour keeping the visit down to a mere 40 minutes.
I was grateful to get into Brady Street at all. These closed Jewish cemeteries in the East End can be difficult to access and I had long wanted to visit here and Alderney Road. In 1761 the New Synagogue helds its first services in hired premises in the Bricklayers Hall, Leadenhall Street. That same year the synagogue trustees leased a former brickfield in Ducking Pond Lane, Whitechapel for the sum of 12 guineas a year and opened the East End’s fourth Jewish Cemetery (the Velho cemetery in Mile End Road was opened by the Sephardi community in 1657, Alderney Road, the first Ashkenazi cemetery, was opened by the Great Synagogue in 1691, and the Novo Sephardi cemetery, also in Mile End Road, in 1733). Demand for burial plots was brisk and despite being extended in 1795 space quickly ran out. The cemetery managed to stay in use for close to a century by adopting the expedient of piling a four foot layer of earth to a large central section to allow additional burials (this solution to the problems caused by high demand and restricted space would also be used by both of London’s Catholic cemeteries). The new area became known as the Stranger’s Mound as many of those buried there were not affiliated to any particular congregation. The headstone from the older burial was placed back to back with the headstone from the more recent one (a precedent not followed by the Catholics).
|The tombs of Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his wife Hannah can be seen at the back of this shot|
The crowded cemetery finally closed for burials in 1857 and remained quietly undisturbed and slowly returning to wilderness for over a hundred years. In the 1980’s Tower Hamlets Council began eyeing up any unused plots of land in the borough that looked like that they may have redevelopment potential. Four acres of walled off brambles, sycamores and crumbling headstones within a stones throw of the Mile End Road were crying out to be cleared, levelled and have apartment blocks built on them. Brady Street was saved by Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, one time Labour party peer who later worked for Margaret Thatcher’s government, ex MI5 man, Cambridge Zoologist, head of research at Shell and old friend of Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby (the rumours that he was the ‘fourth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring were scotched when it became clear that that title belong to Blunt, and the speculation that in that case perhaps he was the ‘fifth man’ similarly died when MI5 belatedly admitted that that was John Cairncross. Eventually it had to be accepted that there might have been at least one person who joined MI5 during the war who didn’t end up spying for the Russians and that that person may well have been Victor Rothschild). L.B. Tower Hamlets were planning to serve a compulsory purchase order to force the United Synagogue to sell the burial ground as it had not been used for 100 years. When Victor Rothschild died in 1990 he became the first burial in the cemetery since 1857 and effectively prevented redevelopment of the site for at least another 100 years. His pink granite tomb stands next to his ancestors Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his wife Hannah.
|The grave of Solomon Hirschel|
Among the prominent memorials in the cemetery is that of Rabbi Solomon Hirschel, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain from 1802 until his death in 1842. He was a great friend of Nathan Meyer Rothschild according to Bell’s Weekly Messenger who ran short piece on the pair in August 1836;
The late Mr. Rothschild’s manner of evincing kind feelings towards Soloman Herschel, the Grand Rabbi of Duke’s-place had something in which was both singular and whimsical. When any good speculation was afloat, Mr. Rothschild deposited on Dr. Herschel’s account a certain sum, proportionate to his own risk, and whatever percentage or profit accrued therefrom was carried by him to the Rabbi, to whom he gave a full and true account, even to the utmost fraction, the Millionaire, on such occasions, invariably dined with the Levite, and the day was usually passed by the two friends in innocent hilarity and pleasing conversation.
The Rabbi presided over his friends funeral obsequies when he died of an infected abscess in 1836. Rothschild was fabulously wealthy (some estimate his fortune to be worth the equivalent of around $450 billion today – though these estimates always have to be taken with a pinch of salt) and his funeral was spectacular. According to the newspapers “among those present on this solemn occasion was every Hebrew of any respectability in the metropolis, as well as several merchants of eminence in the City, “ and “at least 10,000 persons assembled during the procession.” This set off from St Swithins Lane, close to the Bank of England, at 1.00pm on Monday 1 August, headed by a party of city police 4 abreast with a mounted inspector bringing up the rear. Next came the beadles of the various synagogues and the hearse and forty mourning carriages containing members of the extended Rothschild clan and their Jewish associates. There were a further 35 carriages belonging to the Lord Mayor and Sheriff of London, foreign ambassadors and British noblemen. As the procession reached the East End it was joined by numbers of silent children from the Jews Orphan School and the Jewish Free School, staff and patients from the Jew’s Hospital. At Brady Street the funeral service was conducted by Mr Aarons, the burial ground rabbi and by Solomon Hirschel who delivered a eulogy in English. According to the Bucks Herald:
The body was then removed towards the grave, which near the North West corner of the burial-ground. It is built of brick, is only five or six feet deep, and nearly square. The outer coffin is considerable size, and somewhat different in shape to those generally made in this country. It is made of fine oak, and so handsomely carved and decorated with silver handles at both sides and ends, that it appeared more like a cabinet or splendid piece of furniture than a receptacle for the dead. A raised tablet of oak on the breast is carved with the family arms of the deceased. From its great weight (it was said nearly a ton,) some difficulty was experienced in lowering it into its resting place. This, however, was accomplished, and the four sons of the deceased, performing the last melancholy ceremony of acknowledging the judgement death, which is done throwing three handfuls of earth into the grave and on the coffin, were very much affected, so much so that they were obliged to be supported in its performance.
The Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Fashionable Weekly Gazette of Monday 28 November 1842 carried a quite detailed account of the funeral of Rabbi Herschel:
On Monday, Oct. 31st, Rabbi Solomon Herschel, Chief Rabbi of the German and Polish Jews in England, expired at his residence in Bury-court, St. Mary-axe, after a long and severe illness. He had been confined to his house for the greater part of the two last years of his life, in consequence of an accident which he met with about two years ago, by which his thigh was dislocated…. his mortal remains were deposited in the Jews' Burial ground, in North-street, Mile-end-road. At ten o'clock the body was removed from his late residence, and conveyed on a bier to the synagogue adjoining, where it was received by the Rev. S. S. Ashur, the principal reader, attended by the several readers of the different synagogues of the metropolis. The synagogue was crowded to excess by the most wealthy and influential members of the Jewish persuasion, all of whom were most anxious to offer this last tribute of respect to the worth and talents of the deceased. On the entrance of the hearers with the body, the Rev. S. S. Ashur, commenced the service by saving "This the gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter," and preceding the body towards the holy ark, chanted the 15th Psalm. The bier having been deposited front of the ark, the Rev. gentleman, assisted by the choir and the congregation, read the following Psalms, viz., 17th, the 23rd, the 49th, and the 44th Psalms. At the conclusion of this part of the ceremony, the bearers commenced removing, the body for conveyance to the burial ground, during which the reader pronounced several verses from the Old Testament, and as they drew near the door of the synagogue, said, " Behold his bed, which Is Solomon’s, three-score valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel, they all hold swords being expert in war, every man hath his sword upon his thigh, because of fear in the night" and concluded with, "The Lord bless thee, and ke ep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious onto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." ….The hearse, containing the body , was followed by upwards of 100 carriages filled with the friends of the deceased, and other members of the Jewish persuasion. The private carriages of the Lord Mayor, Mr. Baron Rothschild, Sir Moses Montefiore, and several other gentlemen, closed the mournful cavalcade. On the arrival of the procession at the burial-ground, the body was deposited on a bier at the centre of the synagogue, attended by six boys, holding lighted wax tapers, three on each side the coffin. The Rev. S. S. Ashur, with the other readers, then placed themselves at the feet, and when the whole were commenced reading extracts from the Old Testament after which they performed various circuits round the bier, chanting the 91st Psalm after every circuit. The body was then conveyed to the burial-Ground, preceded by the readers, and the boys holding the lighted candles, and finally deposited in a brick grave, about seven feet in depth, situate about the centre of the ground, and the ceremony being completed, the whole of the friends and attendants retired.