Novo Cemetery: East London’s Secret Jewish Burial Ground
Behind the busy Mile End Road, hidden within the Queen Mary University of London Campus you can find the extraordinary sight of Novo Cemetery.
Distinctive with its mass of flat gravestones, representing equality of all people in death, Novo cemetery gained Grade II listed status in 2014.
History of Novo Cemetery
The East End has a long history of immigration and has throughout history been home to those fleeing persecution in their home countries. Jewish arrivals reached a peak in the 19th century, but many were living in London after Jews we admitted back into the city in the 1650s.
Built for Sephardi Jews in 1733, what’s left of this cemetery dates from the 1855 extension and it’s one of only two exclusively Sephardic cemeteries in England.
The story goes back further though, with London’s first Sephardi Jewish cemetery thought to have been built near this site in 1657. The Velho & Alderney Road Cemetery is a little trickier to find, but there’s a great post about it here.
In nearby information panels, Rocque’s 1746 Survey of London shows the old and new cemeteries in Mile End Road, backed by fields and orchards.
When Velho & Alderney Road cemeteries were full, a new – Novo Beth Chaim – cemetery was proposed and built.
Notable burials included Benjamin D’Israeli, (Grandfather to the Prime Minister of the same name) and Daniel Mendonza, famous prizefighter of the 1830s.
By 1895 the Novo Cemetery was almost full and they formally closed for burials in 1905 for adults and 1918 for children. At that time most of the Sephardi community had moved out of the area and though the space was cared for, it suffered damage from bombing in WWII.
An exceptional last burial was allowed in 1974, when John Gervase Lang, who worked at the nearby Beth Holim home for the elderly died at the age of 93. He was allowed to be buried next to his father.
The area visible today is a small percentage of the ‘newer’ (1855) graves. The ‘older’ section (1733) was carefully cleared with around 7,000 graves moved to Brentwood in Essex.
Close to the cemetery entrance you’ll spot a wash basin and cup.
It’s customary at Jewish burial sites to wash your hands after a visit, leaving them to dry naturally so as not to ‘wipe away’ memories of the deceased.
Novo Cemetery is free to visit every day, you just have to walk into through the Queen Mary campus, but there’s clear signage to find it. The address is Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS.
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