Complex of Funerary Buildings at Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery)


Heritage Category: Listed Building

Grade: II

List Entry Number: 1448718

Date first listed: 01-Aug-2017

Location Description: The funerary buildings are the three buildings surrounding the Willesden Jewish Cemetery Prayer Hall. The buildings can be reached by coming through the main cemetery entrance and following the concrete road down to the prayer hall.

Building 1 (West): TQ 22015 84538 Building 2 (South): TQ 22035 84532 Building 3 (East): TQ 22038 84552

Statutory Address: United Synagogue Cemetery, Beaconsfield Road, London, NW10 2JE


Ordnance survey map of Complex of Funerary Buildings at Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery)
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Statutory Address: United Synagogue Cemetery, Beaconsfield Road, London, NW10 2JE

Location Description: The funerary buildings are the three buildings surrounding the Willesden Jewish Cemetery Prayer Hall. The buildings can be reached by coming through the main cemetery entrance and following the concrete road down to the prayer hall.

Building 1 (West): TQ 22015 84538 Building 2 (South): TQ 22035 84532 Building 3 (East): TQ 22038 84552

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Greater London Authority

District: Brent (London Borough)

Parish: Non Civil Parish

National Grid Reference: TQ2203184537


Complex of funerary buildings in Gothic Revival style, built in 1872-73 by Nathan Solomon Joseph as part of the United Synagogue Cemetery.

Reasons for Designation

Architectural interest: * as a distinctive group of Jewish funerary buildings in a well-detailed Gothic style, by the prominent Jewish architect N S Joseph; * the buildings survive essentially intact, with two harmonious and balanced additions;

Historic interest: * the buildings form the central focus of the cemetery, designed by Joseph as the first venture of the newly formed United Synagogue; * the scale and quality of the buildings reflect the status of the cemetery, which served Anglo-Jewry’s most established communities; * Jewish ohels, or funerary prayer halls, survive in relatively small numbers, and a group of this size, illustrating the complete process of Jewish burial practice, is a rarity.


The United Synagogue was established by Act of Parliament in 1870, granting formal recognition to a union of five London Ashkenazi synagogues (the Great, Hambro, and New Synagogues, together with the newer Central and Bayswater synagogues), under the guidance of Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler. Three years later, the United Synagogue opened its own cemetery, having purchased twelve acres from All Souls College, Oxford, in the village of Willesden, to the north-west of London. At first, only 5 acres of the plot were used for the cemetery, which then comprised a rectangular walled area approached from Pound Lane to the north-east by a drive, with a lodge by the entrance. To the south of this a group of funerary buildings was constructed, with a central avenue leading southwards, from which a grid of subsidiary paths soon grew, delimiting rectangular grave plots. Described as ‘the most important and prestigious Orthodox Jewish Cemetery in Britain’ (Marks 2014, 153), the United Synagogue Cemetery (more generally known as Willesden Jewish Cemetery) was intended to serve London’s most established Anglo-Jewish communities. Prominent within these communities were families who also originally purchased the site: the Rothschilds, Montagus, Waley-Cohens, and Beddingtons; whose often lavish tombs reflect long associations with the cemetery.

The designer of the cemetery, and of its funerary buildings, was Nathan Solomon Joseph (1834-1909), the most prominent of the first generation of Anglo-Jewish synagogue architects, which included Davis and Emanuel, Hyman Henry Collins, and Edward Salomons. Joseph set up in private practice in 1860. Between 1871 and 1886 he was in partnership with George Pearson, and afterwards with Charles James Smithem. Joseph’s career was advanced by the fact that he was brother-in-law to the Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler (son of Nathan Adler), and by the boom in building the great ‘cathedral synagogues’ of North and West London which coincided with the formation of the United Synagogue, of which Joseph became architect-surveyor. His first commission was for Bayswater Synagogue (1862-63), designed in conjunction with Edward Salomons, followed by those for the Central Synagogue (1868-70) and Dalston Synagogue (1884-85); none of these survive, though the construction of the New West End Synagogue (George Audsley, 1877-79, listed at Grade I) was overseen by Joseph. A champion of small independent immigrant congregations, Joseph also remodelled the former Huguenot church at Sandys Row, Bishopsgate (listed at Grade II), as a synagogue for the newly-arrived Dutch community in the late 1860s. Besides synagogue building, Joseph was much involved in philanthropic work, particularly in early progressive housing projects, both as an architect and administrator. Joseph’s sons Charles and Ernest continued their father’s architectural practice; his nephew Delissa designed numerous surviving synagogues. Twice married, Joseph is buried in the cemetery, together with his two wives.

The cemetery soon outgrew its original area and walls were demolished to allow for its expansion. In 1890 the area now known as ‘Front Lawns’ was extended northwards to Beaconsfield Road, creating a more spacious approach to the funerary buildings, and in 1906, an additional ten and a half acres of land was purchased from All Souls to extend the burial ground southwards. The main entrance was moved to the junction of Beaconsfield Road and Glebe Road in 1909-10; the original lodge was demolished and a new lodge constructed by the entrance in a Queen Anne Revival style. Despite having been part of the original plot, the area known as Pound Lane Field, to the north-east of the site, was not incorporated into the burial ground until 1925-26, and not used for burials until 1943, in which year land on Front Lawns was also pressed into this service. Today, the cemetery can accommodate only a very limited number of new burials.

The complex of funerary buildings at the head of the central avenue forms the focal point of the cemetery. Each of the buildings plays a specific role in Jewish burial practice. The central Prayer Hall receives the coffin and mourners for the preliminary prayers; entered from the north, the southern doorway leads to the burial grounds. The Assembly Hall was added to the north of the Prayer Hall in 1929 by the architect Harry Wharton Ford (1875-1947), providing a space for mourners to gather. The Cohanim Room was intended for the use of those men believed to be descended from the High Priest Aaron, who may have the name Cohen, or a related name, and who for reasons of ritual purity must not come into direct contact with a dead body or walk amongst the graves of a cemetery; it therefore allowed the Cohanim to be present at a funeral, though the room is no longer used for this purpose. The Mortuary, for the ritual ablution of the dead, was in use until the 1980s. The building is part of the original complex, as is the attached WC block to the west. The larger WC block, which balances the Mortuary visually, appears to have been added at some time between the surveys made for the 1896 and 1915 Ordnance Survey maps. Behind the Mortuary is a row of basins for mourners to wash their hands before returning to the Prayer Hall for prayers following the interment, or before leaving the cemetery. The buildings remain largely unchanged externally since 1929, and with few internal modifications.


Complex of funerary buildings in Gothic Revival style, built in 1872-73 by Nathan Solomon Joseph as part of the United Synagogue Cemetery. The group comprises a Prayer Hall or ‘ohel’, a Cohanim Room, and a Mortuary or ‘bet taharah’, together with a WC Range (extended in the early C20). An Assembly Hall or ‘Portico’ was added to the Prayer Hall in 1929, to the design of Harry Wharton Ford, and an additional WC block was added to the Mortuary and WC Range in the early C20.

MATERIALS: coursed Kentish ragstone with Bath stone ashlar dressings, and colonnettes of Mansfield stone (red standstone) to the Prayer Hall; each of the buildings has a deep plinth. The roofs are of grey slate with bands of green slate; there are terracotta ridge tiles. The Prayer Hall, Cohanim Room and Mortuary each have an octagonal stack of Bath stone with a zig-zag moulding around the shaft. The buildings retain their original diamond-leaded windows with cathedral glass, and their timber ledged and braced doors with foliate wrought-iron hinges.

GROUP PLAN: the Prayer Hall stands to the south, with the Cohanim Room to the north-east and the Mortuary and WC Range to the north-west. Immediately to the north of the Prayer Hall, and linked to it, is the 1929 Assembly Hall.

PRAYER HALL PLAN: the building has a rectangular footprint, set on a north-south axis, with a porch at either end; the main entrance is now through the Portico, with the southern porch providing access to the cemetery beyond.

EXTERIOR: the three-bay building has a pitched roof with projecting central dormers; the dormers are framed by inset colonnettes of Mansfield stone. The dormers and the southern gable each contain a rose window of coloured glass incorporating a Star of David. The other windows, to the west and east elevations, are grouped in triplets of trefoil-headed lancets, separated by offset buttresses; there are angle buttresses to the corners. The gabled porch to the south has side windows. The doorway has a pointed arch protected by a hoodmould, the arch supported by inset colonnettes, with foliate capitals; the opening retains its double doors. The entrance to the northern porch has been obscured by the portico extension. An octagonal stack, originally connected to a heating stove within the hall, rises from the gable to the north, supported on a corbel over an engaged colonnette.

INTERIOR: internally, the hall forms a single open space, below a hammerbeam roof, ceiled with diagonally-set matchboarding; the trusses rest on engaged columns with stiff-leaf capitals. The windows are set in segmental-arched embrasures with bead-moulding. To either side of the doors are shallow pointed-arched niches; those to the south hold timber prayer boards dating from the 1950s. Beneath are a number of memorial panels in metal. Along the west and east sides of the hall is simple bench seating with matchboarded uprights.

ASSEMBLY HALL PLAN: the rectangular footprint is set on a west/east axis. Entered from the north, the Assembly Hall gives access to the Prayer Hall to the south via a covered way.

EXTERIOR: the details of the Assembly Hall were designed to fit harmoniously with those of the existing buildings, though the roof is sprocketed, with wide eaves, rather than pitched; this and the timber colonnade to the north, entrance, elevation give the building a slightly Arts and Crafts flavour. Chamfered, square-section columns rest on the plinth to either side of the entrance opening; the spaces have been filled by diamond-leaded glazed screens, which can be opened completely. To either side the stone walls are pierced by paired pointed-arched windows. To the east elevation is a pointed-arched doorway. On the south elevation, paired windows reflect those on the north elevation. Between these, the covered way meets the northern porch of the prayer hall; the columns here have also been infilled with double doors and lancet glazing.

INTERIOR: the open, stone-flagged interior is very simple, with bench seating against the south wall. The arched doorway leading to the prayer hall is framed by engaged colonnettes. On the east wall is a Boer War memorial moved here in 1960 from the closed synagogue at Aldershot; this is a replica of the 1905 memorial at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, lost to bombing in the Second World War. There is a First World War memorial, commemorating members of the United Synagogue and their sons, to the west wall.

COHANIM ROOM PLAN: the building has a rectangular footprint, set on a west/east axis, with an entrance porch to the west.

EXTERIOR: the two-bay building has a pitched roof with an octagonal stack to the apex of the eastern gable, as on the Prayer Hall, but supported on a foliate corbel; there is a wrought-iron finial to the western gable. There are diagonal buttresses to the corners, and paired pointed-arched windows to each bay. The gabled porch, also buttressed, has a pointed-arched doorway with a hoodmould, and side windows. The eastern elevation is blind.

INTERIOR: a false ceiling currently (2017) obscures the roof of the Cohanim Room, and the floor is covered with lino. The windows are set in segmental-arched embrasures with a bead-moulding. The fireplace is blocked and no chimneypiece remains.

MORTUARY AND WC RANGE PLAN: a linked group of three buildings, set on a west/east axis, with the Mortuary to the east, the original WC block to the centre, and a second WC block to the west, added in the early C20.

EXTERIOR: the buildings now form a symmetrical composition, with the gable ends of the Mortuary and western WC block facing south, to either side of the lower, recessed, central block. Each of the outer blocks has a pointed-arched doorway with a hoodmould. The north elevations are otherwise blind, relieved by the cill band which runs around both buildings, and by the stonework to the plinth and quoins. To the apex of each gable is a wrought-iron finial, except to the south of the Mortuary, where an octagonal stack is supported on a foliate corbel. The buildings have diagonal buttresses, except to the eastern side of the Mortuary, where the buttresses have been removed to allow a passageway to the west of the Assembly Hall. To the rear (south) of the Mortuary is a late-C19 or early-C20 timber awning, sheltering a row of porcelain basins for ritual hand-washing. To the rear of the western WC block is a linked pair of pointed-arched openings, with a narrow door to the east and a window to the west – possibly a modification of an original two-light window. The central block has a pyramidal roof topped by a lantern with its own pyramidal roof. The north elevation has three pointed windows beneath a parapet decorated with recessed roundels; the building is entered through a four-centred-arched doorway to the rear.

INTERIOR: the interior of the Mortuary retains its original white tiling throughout, and its stone-flagged floor with drainage holes. The roof is ceiled and plastered. To the south is the chimneybreast, with its fireplace, though the chimneypiece has been removed. The interiors of the WC blocks were not inspected, but are understood to contain modern fittings.


Books and journals
Cherry, B, Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: London 3 North West, (2002), 147
Kadish, Sharman, Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland: An Architectural Guide, (2015), 63
Marks, K (author), The Archaeology of Anglo-Jewry in England and Wales 1656-c1880, (2014)
Rutherford, Sarah, The Victorian Cemetery, (2008), 34
Historic England, Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery: Assessment of Significance (2017)
The Builder, 18 October 1873
The Jewish Chronicle, 10 October 1873
Willesden Jewish Cemetery Conservation Plan (2017)

End of official listing