I’m not particularly familiar with the East End of London. I’ve passed through it a few times for the seminal Brick Lane Curry and for a look around Spitalfields, but I’m not particularly au fait with the the area. If you asked me where Stepney Green or Bromley by Bow were, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I could vaguely identify them from the London Underground tube map but wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly where they were, unlike my regular haunts of Turnham Green and Chelsea.
Admittedly I think I had a kind of snobbery towards the area – I knew little about it and didn’t really have the drive to change that and go exploring. However with the Olympic bid gaining pace, its successful bid and the subsequent redevelopment, it all drew my attention to see what I could before it was glammed up for the onslaught of global tourists and Olympians, which despite all attempts to be sympathetic with the history of the area would have robbed a little something of its unpolished charm.
It also helps that Steve Roberts was until last week a student at the University of Queen Mary, which is in-between Stepney Green and Mile End tube stations – one of the few Uni’s in London that has a full on campus within one area. On my first visit there he was rather keen to show me one part of it and remained tight lipped as to what it was.
In what seems a bizarre bit of planning, in the middle of the campus remains the last quarter of Novo Cemetery, an old (and now disused) Jewish Cemetery. Surrounded on all four sides by tall academic blocks, in amidst the hubbub of the students bustling to lectures or the student bar, is this little oasis of death.
The Cemetery that has been preserved is only a fraction of its original size. The burial ground opened in 1733 for the Sephardi Jews who arrived in the capital in 1650, encouraged to settle here by Oliver Cromwell who saw the economical advantage of having such a prosperous group of people in the City doing trade and business. Novo Cemetery reached capacity in 1936 and was then abandoned: in 1972 Queen Mary College (as it was known then) acquired the site and slowly built on it piece by piece, burials being exhumed to Brentwood in Essex. The tombs are mostly low level blocks, representing in the Jewish faith how everyone in death is equal.
Even though only a fragment remains, recently the University realised its importance and undertook a restoration programme to preserve and aesthetically enhance what was left. This was completed in February 2012 and involved creating a new perimeter and a floating walkway across the southern edge, with steps leading down into the cemetery itself. It’s lovingly done, with a nice motif on the rusted southern edge on the size of the cemetery over the years, each expansion (and contraction) highlighted with the year the change happened in the Stencil font. Privet Hedges set in low level granite-like walls enclose the west and northern sides: the original brick wall of the eighteenth century runs along the east. To get a sense of scale as to how big this place was originally, a portion of the old western wall runs alongside the Hive student bar and Octagon, with salvaged headstones mounted onto it.
The University worked closely with the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation during the process of restoration: several strict rules were observed during building work which is elaborated on here. It’s incredibly satisfying to see the care and attention that’s been done here, and rightfully, it seems the University is proud to hold the remains of these East End Jews in the very heart of its location, however from what I’ve read when researching this place, that wasn’t always the case. Thankfully changing attitudes and a pride in the importance the Cemetery has to the social history of the area has attempted to undo the decades of neglect and desecration. There was an awful lot of grass that’s sprung up though which slightly undoes what they originally wanted to achieve.
The cemetery held the remains of a very famous boxing champion of the late 1790’s until his exhumation to Brentwood, a man by the name of Daniel Mendoza. His illustrious career involved being part of the first sporting event which charged admission and also paved the way for boxers having shaven heads (as a result of a match with Gentleman John Jackson, who defeated Mendoza by picking him up by his long hair with one arm and battering him senseless with the other). The National Portrait Gallery has an image of the fight which makes you realise people back then were made of stronger stuff – bare knuckle fighting!
Jackson, who gave boxing lessons to Lord Byron, resides in Brompton Cemetery under a large marble lion, evoking memories of George Wombwell’s grave in Highgate. A notable descendent of Mendoza’s was comedian Peter Sellers, who acknowledged his ancestor by having a picture of him behind Clouseau’s desk when he starred in the Pink Panther films. Another famous (and again, former) resident was Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin D’Israeli’s grandfather, who shared his grandson’s name.
It’s a nice place to visit though I’m unsure if you’re allowed to wonder around it freely. I timidly went down the steps and looked at the graves three deep, not wanting to venture any further – this may me being overly respectful or because the layout of the Cemetery is quite removed from its surroundings. To have such a vital part of East End History preserved and encased in a place of learning is inspiring and certainly a nice diversion from the usual cemeteries/places of interest we usually have a look at.