Saving the past – Novo Nuevo Sephardic Cemetery, Mile End

We frequently receive comments from excited researchers who have found the tombstone of their great great ancestor on the CemeteryScribes web site.

And we regularly get comments from our family and friends asking why we do it: why we spend endless hours photographing, cataloguing, researching and inputting all these tombstones. And, sometimes, we wonder why, too!

It’s actually quite hard to give a simple explanation and keep friends’/family’s attention while doing so! It’s a mixture of so many reasons but, if pushed, we would probably say that our prime motivation is our wish to keep for future generations the information stored on the tombstones   And, a close second to that, trying, through our photographs, to capture the atmosphere of the cemeteries in which our ancestors were buried; to record the changes over time in the forms and materials of the tombstones – from box tombs and pillars to simple headstones; the variety of caligraphy – from Gothic flourishes to the plainest of typefaces; and, beyond the basic information of names and dates, to show the variety of language and sentiment, from the most flowery of eulogies to the most simple and telling farewells.

But, if we ever needed reminding, if ever the mountain of unprocessed material threatened to overwhelm us, we would only have to look at these photographs to re-ignite our enthusiasm and spur us on to complete our self-imposed task.

To the left is an aerial photo of the Novo Cemetery in Mile End as it looked in 1945 and, alongside it, the present day Novo cemetery.  The third, composite, picture brings into stark focus exactly how much has been lost.

Above is an aerial photo of the Novo Cemetery in Mile End as it looked in 1945 and, alongside it, the present day Novo cemetery.  The third, composite, picture brings into stark focus exactly how much has been lost.

In 1972 the site was bought by Queen Mary College and the oldest parts of the cemetery were cleared.After well over 200 years, this historic site was reduced to less than a third and an enormous amount of information lost. The remains were moved to Brentwood where initially there were plaques to remember the 5,000 that were moved. The plaques are no longer there.It is not the only ‘Lost cemetery’ Hoxton Jewish Cemetery and Gloucester to name a couple were also sold and each no doubt with good reason but, nevertheless, they are lost.

Worse still is the fact that no one seems to have taken photos before these cemeteries were cleared!

Compulsory purchase is not the only threat to our history, tombstones erode over the years and become  illegible losing the inscriptions.  Let us, at the very least, record them before it is too late.

For further information on Spanish and Portuguese cemeteries, see The Novo cemetery burial register (Bevis Marks Records Part VI ) contains about 10,000 entries (about 40% of them children) between 1733 and 1918.

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7 Responses

  1. TomPier says:

    great post as usual!

  2. CNA Salary says:

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  3. cna certification says:

    Thanks for the very good explanation! Well done.

  4. Nick Abrahams says:

    Unfortunately the SPJC have brought shame on themselves and the whole of British Jewry in general. We all know that Under Jewish Law, it is essential that human remains should lie undisturbed in perpetuity. Witness all the campaigns to repossess and restore various Jewish Cemeteries across Europe and we cannot protect our own backyard. For the sake of financial gain the SPJC have sold our heritage.(Incidentally the funds lie untouched in a special account as each time they are accessed a misfortune occurs amongst the trustees.) The remains were exhumed and unceremoniously dumped in a large mass grave at Brentwood, Essex under supposedly rabbinical supervision however no orthodox Rabbi was allowed near the site at the time. QMC are constantly attempting to develop further portions of the remaining site, however this is being met with strong opposition from the Orthodox Jewish Community in the UK.

  5. CemeteryScribes says:

    Thanks for your comments. Photos of Brentwood cemetery can be seen on CemeteryScribes main site here and we also have some will extracts from those who were buried at Nuevo and subsequently moved to Brentwood on our sister site with more being added soon.

  6. CemeteryScribes says:

    Please Mr Abrahams go visit Novo again!

    I was there today and, far from condemning Queen Mary College, would like to offer my sincere congratulations on the work they have done. The area surrounding the remaining stones has been attractively and sensitively landscaped and the original outer wall of that once vast burial ground has been retained, at some inconvenience, one would imagine, to the architects and planners. Gone is the high, unsightly wire fence. There was not a single scrap of litter. No discarded cans. And no weeds – unless you count the bluebells which, on a rare sunny day, added a pleasant touch of colour to the somewhat monochrome area of simple horizontal stones.

    I am evidently not alone in welcoming this transformation

    An interesting and informative piece, although the illustration, concentrating as it does on the stones themselves, does not do full justice to the overall landscaping of the surrounding area.

    So, congratulations QMC! Now perhaps the Sephardi Community will finish the job the University has started and expedite the installation of the new memorial at Mile End. At the same time, let them waste no more time in replacing the missing plaques at Brentwood, and put their collective minds to finding some way of ‘humanising” that soulless, desolate spot. How a community that worships in the magnificent beauty and grandeur of Bevis Marks could have permitted such a barbarism is beyond me!

  7. D Taylor says:

    I was on a tour of the East End recently with a guide and he took us to the Novo Cemetery which I knew nothing about. As we stood looking at the graves I was shocked to see a name I knew on one of the gravestones. I asked if I could go and take a photograph and this was agreed. When I got home and looked at my family tree I was shocked to see that the grave was the resting place of both my great grandparents who I never knew. This was a wonderful surprise and I have contacted the college and they have agreed that I can go and look around the site as well as another cemetery which is nearby. I only hope to find some more relatives which may not have been moved when the land was bought. What a same this was done and no records kept.

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