Willesden Jewish Cemetery reveals heritage site plans

By Rosemary Collins, 13 July 2017 - 1:29pm

The heritage project will involve connecting with descendants of the 26,000 people buried there


Monument to Samuel and Gilbert families at Willesden Cemetery. (Credit: United Synagogue)

The history of one of Britain’s largest Jewish cemeteries could be brought to life in a new heritage project.

The United Synagogue, the charity which owns and operates Willesden Cemetery, is seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources to conserve the cemetery and make its story more accessible to the public.

Proposals include creating a Welcome Centre in the Lodge building at the entrance; introducing guided tours, digital tours and a website; building up teams of volunteers; and connecting with the families of those buried there.

“It’s a heritage site now but people don’t really know about its heritage”, Hester Abrams, the project development manager, told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. “The overaraching story is the story of Jewish settlement in London over 200 years.”

The United Synagogue, which today is Europe’s largest cemetery body, was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1870.

It brought together five synagogues, who began work on establishing a cemetery at Willesden, which was opened by permission of the Home Office in 1873.

At the time, there were about 40,000 Jews in London, mostly living in the City of London and nearby in places like Islington.

Willesden Cemetery covers 21 acres and now holds over 26,000 graves. Famous people buried in the cemetery include Lionel de Rothschild, the UK’s first Jewish MP, and his son Nathan, the first Jewish peer; Rosalind Franklin, the co-discoverer of DNA; and four former chief rabbis of Britain.

It is also believed to hold more than 300 Commonwealth War Graves and the first national Jewish war memorial in Britain.

The United Synagogue has already received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop its conservation plans.

By September 2017, it will submit a follow-up application for a £1.7 million grant. To qualify for the criteria, it is seeking to raise £200,000 from other sources, including trusts, foundations and individuals.

The goals of the project include bringing people from the local community and national and international visitors into the cemetery, sharing the histories of Jews in Britain and explaining and interpreting Jewish burial custom and practice around death and mourning.

Ms Abrams added that she was hoping to hear from descendants of people buried in the cemetery.

“We don’t know what family stories are latent in the ground, waiting to be discovered, and as the project gets going we want people to share their stories,” she said.

She explained that some descendants of people buried in the cemetery might not realise they have Jewish ancestry because subsequent generations assimilated and became Christians.

Anyone who thinks they might have an ancestor buried in the cemetery can email Hester on HAbrams@theus.org.uk.

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