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First published on JCR-UK: 2003
Latest revision or update to this page: 27 July 2014


Tombstone Inscriptions


Section 2


After their expulsion in 1290, Jews returned to England, qua Jews, in 1656. They settled in London and gradually began to spread out through the country, so that by 1725 there were isolated communities in a few provincial towns, as well as a large number of individuals not sufficiently numerous to form communities.

It is known that in 1734 there were a handful of Jews in Exeter who maintained ad hoc religious services. By 1745 there were sufficient Jews in Plymouth to hold regular services, though they did not have their own Synagogue until 1762.

Long before that date, however, one of the small community must have passed away, and burial was required. The nearest cemetery for practical purposes was London. The expense of transporting a corpse was prohibitive, and in any case it took anything up to three weeks, even by ship, which was the general mode of transport for heavy and bulky objects. In such circumstances it was traditional for Jews to be buried in a garden belonging to a fellow Jew. There is no obligation for Jews to be buried in a cemetery which has been religiously consecrated, the main consideration being a desire to avoid burial next to a person of ill repute. According to Jewish Law, therefore, a person may opt for burial in a private garden rather than be buried in a Congregational cemetery.

In these circumstances it is almost certain that about 1740 a Jew died in Plymouth and Sarah Sherrenbeck (a Mrs Ann Sherenbeck, widow of Joseph Sherenbeck died in London and was buried in the Brady Street Cemetery on 16 June 1820), in an exercise of 'charity of loving kindness' which characterizes Jewish women, allowed him or her to be buried in a plot of land belonging to her on Plymouth Hoe. This plot was utilized again for a similar purpose and ultimately Mrs Sherrenbeck transferred it to the Plymouth Jewish community.

In 1752 this land was held in trust for her by her husband Joseph Jacob Sherrenbeck. In 1758 another quarter acre of ground and a summer house with its garden, near to, and probably adjoining the garden owned by Sarah Sherrenbeck, was sold to three prominent London Jewish merchants. It is clear that by now the community was sufficiently large to need a proper burial ground with a small Ohel, and that Sarah Sherrenbeck's original garden was no longer large enough. On the other hand the community was still not sufficiently well established for its members to be certain that the Congregation was a permanency.

They, therefore, arranged for London merchants, who may have advanced some of the necessary cash, to be nominal owners, to ensure that if the Congregation disbanded, the cemetery would be looked after and the graves cared for.

At some time, this lease made out to the London Jewish merchants must have been transferred to the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation, but there is no record to that effect in the Congregation's surviving archives.

Even this new acquisition of land was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of the rapidly growing and ageing community, and in 1811 a further piece of ground was required. This time the land was conveyed to three Plymouth Jews, Abraham Emanuel of Plymouth Dock (shopkeeper), Michael Nathan of Plymouth (shopkeeper), Benjamin Levy of Plymouth (optician) and John Saunders of Plymouth (gentleman), a non Jew. The last was added in case Jews were not legally entitled to hold land, a point which was held to be doubtful in the eighteenth century. It is typical of the early development of Anglo Jewry that there were a series of de facto situations which time legalised. In the same way as there was never any formal declaration by Cromwell permitting Jews to resettle in England (and hence no legislation about them for Charles II to repeal), so too there was no formal application for permission to establish a cemetery for Jews in Plymouth.

It was not until 1758, i.e. some fourteen or fifteen years after Sarah Sherrenbeck's ground was first used for burials, that the purpose for buying more ground was openly disclosed in the lease.

The lease of 1758 relates that in consideration of £40 the London Jewish merchants were to have a garden and summer house about 55 feet in length and 35 feet in breadth 'to permit and suffer all and every such persons as profess the Jewish ceremonies and religion and who now reside in or near the Borough of Plymouth or at any time thereafter ... to be used as a place of burial ....'

This burial ground on Plymouth Hoe, the result of a number of separate land purchases, served the community until the middle of the nineteenth century when a new cemetery was bought in 1868 in Compton Gifford near Central park. Presumably there was no more land to be purchased on Plymouth Hoe because of road works and extensive building which today surround the old Jewish cemetery.

It appears that an attempt was made, possibly as an emergency measure, to re use the old cemetery. There is an indication in the minutes of the Plymouth Congregation that the cemetery was covered with earth sometime at the beginning of the nineteenth century. According to Jewish law coffins may be interred one on top of the other provided that six hand breadths of earth intervene between them. In London, the Great Synagogue seems to have added earth in this way in its Alderney Road Cemetery, and the Liverpool community resorted to a similar expedient. From the close proximity of certain tombstones in the Plymouth Hoe Jewish cemetery it seems that the Jewish community in Plymouth added earth to parts of the cemetery and used it a second time.

There is a large stone set into the wall which commemorates the gift of Joseph Joseph of £157 to the Plymouth Congregation in 1796 to complete the purchase of the ground, though the inscription which was barely legible in the 1960s is now in the 1990s virtually illegible.

The Ohel which once stood in the cemetery has vanished. It was at one time used not only as a place to perform the last rites of washing the body, dressing it in shrouds and placing it in a coffin if indeed a coffin was always used, but also as a shelter for the members of the Congregation who took it in turn to guard a newly interred body to prevent it being 'snatched'.

Some 90 years ago the Revd Dr M. Berlin made a transcript of 95 inscriptions, by no means all of those which were then extant, and his son kindly gave this to me. He may have made the transcript purely for historical purposes, or possibly because the Congregation, wished to contact surviving relatives perhaps to raise funds for the repair of the cemetery.

Of the 95 inscriptions which Revd Dr M. Berlin noted down in his notebook, 45 have totally disappeared, i.e. nearly half, and in a comparatively short space of 70 years. After a careful study of the surviving tombstones in the old cemetery I deciphered in all 146 inscriptions. It is highly likely that most of these will disappear in the course of the next half century. It is, therefore, a labour of love and gratitude to generations gone by to record at least those which were extant in the 1960s so that they may be available to future generations.

At some time after the cemetery was closed, perhaps in the early part of this century, the then standing tombstones were numbered in three sections; A1 133; B1 116; C1 7; but not all the stones were numbered. Some 19 stones were missed. Revd Dr M. Berlin had a different notation, and his has been given where a tombstone has now disappeared.

The "C" plot was apparently a private one for the well known Joseph family of Plymouth which dominated the affairs of the Congregation for over a century from before 1760 until 1860, although it may have been full when Abraham Joseph II was buried (B68) in the "B" section.

The privileged members, the Baalei Batim, had the right of burial on the 'high ground' in the cemetery, probably corresponding to the "B" numbers.

Inscriptions were mostly in Hebrew, occasionally with the English name on the reverse, and there are many mistakes due to masons who were ignorant of Hebrew.

It is possible that attempts were made at certain times to reserve certain rows for ladies, but, unlike the situation in the Alderney Road and Brady Street, London, cemeteries, there is no evidence that apostates or those who married out of the faith were buried 'at the side' or' beyond the boards'.

The headstones were simple stelae. There are no chest tombs. The stones bear little ornamentation, other than hands spread out in blessing (for priests), or a simple ewer (for Levites). There is nothing remotely corresponding to the folk art of Jewish tombstones in the Ukraine and Moldova. On the other hand, a standardised Hebrew abbreviation (aleph, yod, aleph = A Godfearing man) paying tribute to the religious qualities of the deceased, which occurs frequently on eighteenth century tombstones in Central and Eastern Europe, was used.

Much may be learned from tombstone inscriptions. West country Jewish cemeteries clearly demonstrate the process of acculturation. At first only Hebrew was used on the stones. From about 1825 English began to appear on the reverse side of stones in Plymouth (A13). English appeared on the same side as the Hebrew in the Plymouth cemetery from about 1840 (B4). In the cemetery of the Great Synagogue in Alderney Road, London, English inscriptions were written at the foot of the stone, or sometimes around the front edge of the stone, from the mid eighteenth century, although Lysons says that in the 'Dutch' ie Deutsch or German Synagogue's cemetery all the inscriptions were entirely in Hebrew (Environs of London (1795), p. 475).

In the South-West of England, after 1840 the Jewish name is retained in Hebrew but the secular name as well as the Jewish date appear in English. There were isolated uses of the common era year in the first six decades of the nineteenth century but after 1870 it invariably appears. Surnames themselves may be an indication of the assimilatory process Kennard, Palmer, Harding and Walter in the South-West; Shane in Cheltenham and Gloucester; Brooks in Bath; Campbell, Churchill, Jackson, Morse and Rousseau in Bristol. Hebrew names ending in 'the son/daughter of our father Abraham' indicate a convert to Judaism. Perhaps the ultimate stage in the process occurs in the Torquay Jewish cemetery in Paignton which dates from 1962 and which is a railed off part of the municipal cemetery. There is a stone there which when approached from the Jewish section displays on its front a Magen David but when looked at from the municipal part has on its rear a cross!

Until the third quarter of the nineteenth century religious sentiments are to be found. On the tombstone of Mary Nathan (died 1858) is inscribed: Miriam ... wife of Aaron Nathan. May her pains and poverty which she bore in her lifetime atone for her sins ... (tomb B62, and see B24 for her husband's tombstone). Real belief in the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is evidenced by inscriptions such as: His body lies in the ground, but his soul is in Gan Eden [= the Garden of Eden] on the stone of Woolf Emden, died 1867 (tomb B87); and on the stone of Reichla, widow of Naphtali Benjamin, who died in 1817: ... A woman who fears the Lord she shall be praised. She went to her everlasting world 17 years after her husband, and there they shall delight in honour with all the righteous men and righteous women in Gan Eden, and stand at their portion [i.e. will receive their reward] at the end of days (tomb A56).

Pride in being native born, whether of the city in which the cemetery was situated or elsewhere in Britain, is often evident. On the Penzance tombstone of James Jacob Hart, for example, is inscribed: '...late her Majesty's consul for the kingdom of Saxony. A native of Penzance. Died London 19 February 1846' (Penzance tomb 26). His parents seem to have been born in Penzance. He was a first cousin of Lemon Hart, the rum merchant. The stone of Abraham Emden, a Town Councillor of Plymouth who died in 1872, proclaims: ... and was gathered to the place of his fathers (tomb B112). The stone of Andrew George Jacob who died in 1900 reads: ... born at Falmouth, Cornwall. Died at Exeter (Exeter tomb 101). The tombstone of Julia Abelson in the West London Cemetery, Kingsbury Road, N.1. reads, born at Exeter November 18 1846, died at 55 Warrington Crescent, London, March 4 1889.

A former place of residence in Britain is often given. Thus Miriam Jacobs (died 1850), born in Devon in 1771, is described in Hebrew and English as ' ... wife of Nathan Jacobs, formerly of Dartmouth' (tomb B48). David Moses (died 1812) was from Norwich (tomb S9). He was born in Saarbruck in 1737, landed in Harwich in 1759, went straight to Norwich where he stayed until 1793, and then moved to Plymouth where he spent the last 19 years of his life. Similarly, her tombstone in the Exeter cemetery tells us that Rachel (died 1826), wife of Gershon Levy, was 'of Guernsey' (Exeter tomb 45). The tombstone of Moses Solomon (died 1838) tells us that he was from the city of London which was the city of his birth and formerly of Scotland (tomb A92).

Immigrants often had their former or native town or country recorded. Thus we are told that the Revd Moses Horwitz Levy (died 1834) who ministered to the Exeter Hebrew Congregation for 42 years was from Danzig (Exeter tomb 36). In the Plymouth Hoe cemetery David Jacob Coppel (died 1805) was from Bialin in Polin (tomb B22); in 1832 a Ze'ev ben Judah from Shatwinitz in the country of Polin died of the plague (tomb B23); Jacob Phillip Cohen (died 1832) was from Lontschotz (tomb B26); Esther, wife of Lazarus Solomon, who died in 1831, was from the holy congregation of Lublin in the state of Polin (tomb O8). In Bristol, Adam Louis Sametband (died 1883) was from Warsaw (Barton Road, Bristol, tomb 28); whilst in Bath Henrietta Leon, who died there aged 71, was born in Hildersheim on 26 July 1823 (Bath tomb 19). In the Cheltenham cemetery, Samuel Gurnier (died 29 December 1863) was born in Bojanowo, Prussia, in 1825; Solomon (died 30 May 1861) and Sarah (died 31 December 1870) Mendes da Silva were born in 1781 and 1783 respectively, in Jamaica, as was Moses Quixano Henriques (died 2 July 1866), who was born 9 July 1800 (Cheltenham tomb D10, D11, D12).

It is, perhaps, noteworthy that in the Hoe cemetery foreign provenance is always recorded in the Hebrew part of the inscription, whereas British former residence or place of nativity generally appears in the English part.

The stones which record an east European origin are of interest insofar as they indicate an immigration from eastern Europe much earlier in the nineteenth century than has been generally recognized. The trend is corroborated by an examination of the Decennial Census returns for Devon and Cornwall from 1851 onwards.

There are snippets of information to be gleaned regarding the character and activities of some individuals. Thus, we are told that 'Samuel Cohen (died 1860) was of the stock of martyrs ... hastening to his prayers evening, morning and noon' (tomb B71). From the chronogram And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, Moses ben Isaac (died 1780) must have been a mohel (tomb 9/10).. The descriptions of men variously as ha rabbani hamuflag, parnas u manhig, ha nadiv indicate that they were an outstanding scholar, a president of the congregation, and a philanthropist respectively. Yashish is used to describe both bachelors and married men (Yashish occurs in Job 12;12, '...among aged men is wisdom'. In Moed Katan, 25b, the phrase geza yeshishim, offspring of worthy men occurs), though in the Sephardi tradition the term is reserved for elderly bachelors of high repute. Zaken, an old man, was used mainly of octogenarians (O13, 13/17), though a 64 year old and an 87 year old woman are also so described (O18, B27).

The hardships of foreign travel, even post mortem, are brought to light, as the following inscription (in translation) indicates: The bachelor Issachar Behrman the son of the President Joshua Levy the righteous Priest from the holy congregation of London, died Yom Kippur 5565 [= October 1804] in the Island of Madeira and was buried here in Plymouth on Friday, the eve of Sabbath, 6 Iyar 5565 [= May 1805] (R24).

The danger of travelling the countryside is illustrated by another inscription (in translation): 'Joshua Falk the son of Isaac from Breslau. He was slain in the place of Fowey by the wicked man Wyatt and drowned in the waters 14th Kislev 5572 and buried on the 17th thereof [= 30 November 1811]' (Q24).

A characteristic of eighteenth and early nineteenth century tombstone inscriptions in England, apparently not noted by any other writer, is that almost always the date of both death as well as burial are given. So much so that when death and burial were on the same day a standard abbreviation, Nun, Vav, Nun, was devised. The Burial Register of the Great Synagogue, 1791 1823, also has two columns, one for date of death and one for date of burial. At first the dates were entered in both columns, but from August 1795 only the date of burial was recorded. The most likely explanation is that the Burial Society was primarily interested in the date of burial, whereas the individual, in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, was interested in both dates for the purpose of celebrating the yahrzeit of the deceased. According to many authorities the first yahrzeit is celebrated on the Jewish date of burial, and in subsequent years, on the date of death.

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