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Working to preserve lost Jewish history in Penwith

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: February 12, 2010

  • The Jewish cemetery in the early 1970s. Note the overgrown grass and the crumbling wall in the far corner.

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YOU could be forgiven for not knowing much about the old Jewish cemetery in Penzance.

Tucked in among rows of terraced housing, on side-streets which run away from the town centre, it is easy to miss. Its walls are tall and thick, made of stone and built to last, with only a window in the gate giving a glimpse of what is inside.

This has proved fortunate for the cemetery and those buried in the grounds as their height and security have helped preserve the plot since the last of Penzance's Jews left town in 1913.

Custodian of the cemetery, Keith Pearce, said: "It's extremely unusual – an almost perfectly preserved Georgian Jewish cemetery."

He explained: "There are 25 extant cemeteries outside of London and this is recognised as the finest of them. There's also one in Falmouth which is surrounded by trees and the root systems have damaged the site. This one is grade two listed as it's unique in the sense of the quality of its preservation."

Being situated on a natural incline has allowed water to drain away and the strong, high walls have saved it from the worst of our weather.

For the last 12 years Mr Pearce has supervised the site having taken on the duties when his friend Godfrey Simmons, a descendant of a former minister at the Penzance synagogue, moved from the area after 25 years as the cemetery's custodian.

Since taking the role his interest in the cemetery and community has seen him co-edit a book on Jews in Cornwall. He explained how the prosperity of the region during the industrial revolution drew Jewish families to Penzance with the first settlers arriving in the 1720s.

They came from the Rhineland, Germany and the low countries to England before moving on to the south west.

"They came here when the economy was booming, mainly in the 18th century when mining was flourishing, fishing was a healthy industry and the packet boats stopped here.

"The Jewish community never grew very large in total population and even at its height there couldn't have been more than 15 to 20 families."

High regard

Once they were settled, developing a burial ground became a priority. In the 1750s it wasn't entirely certain whether Jews could own land in Britain. Leases often required a Christian signatory.

Mr Pearce said the Rogers Estate leased the land straight to the Jews at a time when it could easily have been sold for building.

This, he explained, was a testament to the regard with which Jews were held in Penzance and the ease with which they were received by people.

Among the prominent early settlers was the Hart family. Abraham Hart possibly arrived as early as the 1720s and the Hart name is recorded, trading as silversmiths and shippers, from the mid 18th century.

Lemon Hart was perhaps the most famed. He developed the family's shipping concerns, building links to the West Indies and establishing a successful wine and spirit business.

As the community grew, so did the cemetery. Land was extended and additional leases were brought. In 1811 work began on the walls, completed in 1845, which would prove so helpful in preserving the site.

Fresh water ran near the cemetery which is essential for cleansing and ritual purification of the deceased. At the entrance a chapel of rest or Bet Tohorah was built for the body's preparation for burial and is a rare surviving feature.

Families in the congregation bought plots but space was retained for the burial of the poor and this was carried out by the community.

Mr Pearce said: "Everything surrounding the funeral would be as simple as possible but the one thing allowed to be elaborate is the headstone."

The slate headstones were worked by local, Christian masons who extended their skills to engraving in Hebrew.

Preservation

As local industry declined from the middle 19th century many Cornish families moved up country or abroad to Australia, South Africa and to America. The Jewish community would follow.

Limited opportunities to marry within their religion in such a small Jewish community meant many of the younger generation were already moving on and as the local economy shrank, the service industry struggled.

By 1906 congregational life had finished and in 1913 the last Jew left Penzance, the settlers had moved on to the cities where cultural facilities were found in abundance.

They were gone, but not forgotten. The site was maintained and when a bomb destroyed part of the cemetery in the Second World War the people of Penzance saw it was restored.

Mr Pearce noted this was once more a sign of the tolerance and appreciation the Jewish community had experienced here.

Its historical importance has been recognised locally by the Royal Institution of Cornwall and the Cornwall Archaeological Society and nationally by the Jewish Historical Society of England, the Jewish Memorial Council, the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments and the Council for British Archaeology.

Despite the site's defences extensive work is needed to the walls to keep it in condition.

Penlee Museum and the Town Council act as guardians to the site and the museum organises visits for schools, groups and individuals to the cemetery.

You should contact Penlee Museum on Morrab Road to arrange a tour and the Board of Deputies can be contacted on 020 75435400 with fund-raising ideas or donations.

● Keith Pearce co-edited a book with Helen Fry called The Lost Jews of Cornwall and is available through Redcliffe Press.

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  • johnpaull2011  |  February 19 2013, 2:13PM

    Brilliant! Thank you. You've just helped an old Cornishman find out more about his playspace: the Jewish cemetery in Penzance, home of grass snakes, grass hoppers and spiders (and other tiny, wonderful creatures that fascinated a pre adolescent). John Paull

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    Tele Tubby, Penzance, Cornwall  |  February 15 2010, 9:36AM

    Whereabouts in Penzance is this cemetery?

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