SUSIE CLAPHAM has a mission: to overturn 100 years of neglect of an important East End landmark and establish a permanent yahrzeit for the dead of Bancroft Road

It started as a walk; it has become a quest to put right 100 years of neglect. Two years ago I was taking the time to discover my local area, an area of so much interest from a historical and Jewish perspective, and passed the old cemetery in Bancroft Road, off Mile End Road.

All that could be seen as I walked past the railings were shattered remains, stones and names strewn. Individuals lay forgotten. I launched myself on a mission: to try to find out as much as possible about this place – a place that holds the lives of so many long forgotten personalities and dreams. It does not seem right that today, in the dark shadow of so much desecration and total destruction of cemeteries in eastern Europe, and after the utter annihilation of our ancestors’ graves, this little place should be allowed to fall into such desolate abandon

From that has come my desire to provide a permanent yahrzeit; a commemoration of the long forgotten people who rest there. They should not be forgotten, and neither should the history of Bancroft Road Cemetery. I am hoping to erect a memorial that will bring Bancroft Road back into its rightful place as an important part of Jewish history and culture – and commemorate all 500 souls who lie silently buried in its overgrown grounds. The Board of Deputies of British Jews has given approval for funds to be raised to erect a pavilion on the site of the old lodge for education purposes, and I shall be launching a campaign to achieve this.  

The cemetery’s history is as colourful as it is sad.  Opened in 1811 and closed a little over 100 years later, it was the property of the Maiden Lane synagogue in Covent Garden.  Court documents from April 24 1928 found at the London Metropolitan Archive say: “The cemetery was established in 1811 and was (with the Caretaker’s house) the property of the Maiden Lane synagogue, the members of which were for a long period buried in the Ground.  There are about 500 graves and the last burial is stated to have taken place about 5 years ago.”

The cemetery’s demise was due to the small Maiden Lane synagogue’s problems. A circular to the congregation in 1906 said: “For a long period the income for support of this Synagogue has been, through removals from this district, and deaths of its members, declining, with the result that the amount received is considerably below the expenditure.”

The synagogue’s executive went on to announce the synagogue’s forthcoming merger with the nearby Western Synagogue in St Albans Place. But they promised: “All the rights and the privileges of the members of the Maiden Lane synagogue would be maintained at the existing charges, and the upkeep of the cemetery provided for.”

The amalgamation happened a year later. However, the Western Synagogue’s minutes book states that one of its terms was that the synagogue would take no responsibility for Bancroft Road.  As a result, I am led to believe that is when the deterioration of the cemetery began.

In 1928, a court case occurred between the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the alleged owners (of what is described as a lodge on the site) of no. 70 Bancroft Road, who had sold the leasehold of the site. At that time the deeds could not be traced

The court record says: “The minute book of Maiden Lane synagogue was lost it is said in a fire which occurred many years ago.  The land registry shews a conveyance to Isaac Levy, S. Joseph and Abraham Collins of a piece of ground 218 feet by 85 feet in the Bancroft Road which had for many years been used as a place of interment for Jews.”

Nothing later could be traced with regards to ownership.  Documents I uncovered say: “The caretaker states that after the amalgamation he was paid by the Western Synagogue.  It may be that this is a misapprehension, and that he was paid by the Trustees of the ground, or, as is more likely, by the trustees of the will of the late Mr. Henry Harris, referred to in the following paragraph.”

The caretaker claimed that Mr. Harris, a distinguished City solicitor who died in 1899 and was President of the Maiden Lane synagogue for many years, left a bequest of £25 a year to the caretaker of the cemetery.   Mr. H. H. Harris, Henry’s nephew, said that the caretaker lived in the house rent free, despite doing nothing with regards to the upkeep of the cemetery.

Despite the Western Synagogue’s disavowal of any responsibility for Bancroft Road,  the Western Synagogue’s 1918 balance sheet shows “Edmonton, Brompton and Bancroft Rd Cemeteries” as a heading on both credit and debit columns. As a result, in 1919 a Mr. N. S Lyon wanted to have his sister’s headstone consecrated by a rabbi from the Western Synagogue but was told “that the minster could not act officially, the Western Synagogue having no ‘loci standi’”.

Throughout the years, numerous appeals for funds for the cemetery were launched in the Jewish Chronicle. One, made by the Rev Morris Joseph in 1920, resulted in a donation of 10 guineas (£10 10s –  £10.50 in today’s terminology) from the Western Synagogue, another 10 guineas from Sir Arthur L. Lever, who promised a further 5 guineas (and was shortly to become MP for Hackney Central), and from a Morden. S. Levy. The Rev Joseph failed, however, to raise enough funding for his appeal and returned the money to the donors.

On July 15 1940, it was reported in a statement from a gardener, a Mr Campkin, that the lodge was in a terrible state: dirty, unkempt and structurally unsafe.

It was also stated: “We have taken the opportunity of meeting our gardener who has recently made an inspection of the above and has reported to us [that] 2 or 3 of the box tombs have had the tops taken off and the supporting bricks inside removed.  Evidence of the works of vandals and neglect is everywhere here.  He also reported a number of monuments and stones unsafe.

“We have taken the opportunity of meeting him at the cemetery and he informs us that people in the neighbourhood have been stealing the memorials and utilising them to build their air raid shelters.  In fact, he informs us that the tenant of one of the houses adjoining the cemetery has a memorial on one of his shelters.”

It has been suggested over the years that approaching 1,000 people have been buried at Bancroft Road. However, in the 1928 court proceedings, the number was given as close to 500. Whatever the true number, it was definitely overcrowded.

In 1933, a Mrs. Ann Salamans wrote to the secretary of the Board of Deputies asking if the ashes of her husband, a Mr. Willie Salamans, could be interred between the graves of his parents – a Mr and Mrs Salamans – in Bancroft Road. His uncle was Henry Harris, who is reported to have been buried there in 1899.

In its reply, the Board referred to a note from Mr Samuel, the stone mason, who inspected the cemetery in August 1933, and said: “There are different members of the Hart family (relatives of Mr. Salamans) buried near Mrs. Salamans, and Mr. Samuel thinks that there may be space of about 10 inches (outside measurement 12 inches) available for the ashes of Mr. Willie Salamans to be deposited between the Salamans and Hart tombs.”

In 1934 an appeal for £1,000 was launched for the rebuilding of the outer wall on the order of the London County Council. The existing wall constituted a dangerous structure and had to come down. The appeal failed to raise enough and a corrugated iron fence, expected to last 20 years, was put up instead.

One donor – of £100 – was Tress Hart, and I found out that his son, Henry Jacob, aged 6 months was buried at Bancroft Road.  The £100 was later returned to Mr. Hart as the appeal was unsuccessful.

Sadly on July 23 1944, the cemetery was badly damaged by a doodlebug or buzz bomb, as the V1 flying bombs were known.  

Mr Campkin, the gardener, writes about the damage in a letter of March 27 1945 to the secretary and says: “From July 30th 1944 no work done, except to tidy up fence, and remove debris from sidewalk, etc. The cemetery was visited occasionally and tided as far as possible in the time available, but no report was thought necessary.  Demolition men have removed a lot of the debris as far as was practicable, but damage to still more stones has been done by trespassers. Several box tombs are in a very dangerous condition.  Especially as the cemetery is used to cut off the corner of two streets by pedestrians.

“A new fence is urgently required, including new supports and angle irons.  Part of the wooden fence is torn down.”

Three years later, a letter dated April 29 1948 from the United Synagogue’s property department says:

“1. There are signs to show that at some places attempts have been made to wrench open the corrugated fencing erected just over a year ago, but this is still sound.

“2. There is a breach in the boundary wall adjoining the back gardens of the rebuilt homes.

“3. The boundary wall to the former site of the public house has an opening broken through of approximately 3’ wide and 5’ high.”

It goes on to say:

“5. Only 22 headstones are now standing upright.  None of the tombs or composite memorials which were existing in 1947, although damaged, have now been left upright.”

And then comes the most interesting point:

“6. Generally, the place appears to have been a meeting place or playground for hooligans.  Many memorials appear to have been deliberately destroyed and the pieces scattered about all over the Cemetery, or used for building some sort of ‘strongpoint’.”

The letters ends by saying that barbed wire would be put in place in the meantime and the money claimed back from the War Damage Commission.

In 1950, an estimate dated May 30 was prepared for West Ham council for the exhumation and re-interment of 250 bodies but this was never undertaken.  The council wrote to the Board of Deputies saying it would like to increase the green space in the borough. Another proposal came in 1972 from the council and the United Synagogue for the council to take ownership of the cemetery, to re-inter the bodies and to make the plot a green space.

The entrance to the cemetery used to be through the door of the house, and leads to the mortuary chapel where part of the funeral service was performed before the coffin was taken to the grave.

In 1928 it was claimed that an Arthur Barnet was in possession of the old burial register from the Western Synagogue.  A later note found in the letters claims that a Mr. Lyon is in possession of the burial book from 1865 to 1907, and that it was lent to him from the Western Synagogue. This burial book seems now to have been lost or at least never to have been seen since – perhaps it is in someone’s personal collection.

The last burial at Bancroft Road is noted to have taken place in 1921 – an Amelia Lyons.

Documentation from as far back as 1900 shows many letters of complaint to have been written about this neglected place, continuing into the present century.  I believe Bancroft Road to have been a victim of synagogue politics, as a result of which no one has really appeared to own it since Maiden Lane’s loss of independence in 1906/07.  The Western Synagogue seemed to shrug off Bancroft Road’s existence. To accentuate the problems, the cemetery’s neglect covers a period that includes two world wars, when young men were being sent to the front line to fight for their lives. As a result, it was, understandably, not high on anyone’s agenda. Furthermore, the war effort meant there was a lack of funds to do anything. And after the last war, gravestones slowly began to disappear; left to ruin and terrible neglect.

I believe the time has come to start putting all this to right.

Donations to the Bancroft Road Cemetery Fund can be made by cheque payable to JEECS and  marked Bancroft Road on the back, sent to JEECS, PO Box 57317, London, E1  3WG.  

  • Susie Clapham is an architect. Her practice’s website is www.flasc.co.uk 
  • Susie has had much help in her research from Cemetery Scribes whose fascinating website is here:  www.cemeteryscribes.co.uk

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