Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery)
- Heritage Category:
- Park and Garden
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Statutory Address:
- United Synagogue Cemetery, Beaconsfield Road, London, NW10 2JE
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- Statutory Address:
- United Synagogue Cemetery, Beaconsfield Road, London, NW10 2JE
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Greater London Authority
- Brent (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery), established by the United Synagogue in 1873, and designed by Nathan Solomon Joseph; the cemetery was expanded in 1890, 1906 and 1925-6. The latest addition, Pound Lane Field, is excluded from the registration.
Reasons for Designation
Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery), established by the United Synagogue in 1873, and designed by Nathan Solomon Joseph, with later extensions, is registered at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: as London’s pre-eminent Victorian Jewish cemetery, established in 1873 as the first venture of the newly formed United Synagogue;
* Historic interest: for its associations with the many influential families and individuals buried here;
* Design interest: for the overall design of the cemetery, the original section (the Old Cemetery), together with the funerary buildings, being by the prominent Jewish architect N S Joseph;
* Survival: the Old Cemetery remains intact, whilst the subsequent evolution of the cemetery is well-documented and legible;
* Design interest: for the quality, opulence and variety displayed by the monuments as a group, reflecting both Jewish traditions and English influences;
* Group value: with the complex of funerary buildings, which forms the focal point of the cemetery, and is listed at Grade II; Roundwood Park, an 1890s municipal park which borders the cemetery to the south-west, is registered at Grade II.
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. One of the first concerns of the new synagogue was to find more burial space towards the west of London; in 1872 the United Synagogue purchased twelve acres from All Souls College, Oxford, in the village of Willesden, to the north-west of London, where rapid development was underway following the opening of Willesden Junction railway station in 1866. Jewish law, like Roman law, forbids burials within the walls of a city, and Jewish burial grounds had tended to be separated by some distance from the communities with which they were associated. By the mid-C19, space in the old Jewish cemeteries in the East End of London had dwindled – including at the West Ham cemetery, used by the New and Great synagogues – whilst many members of London’s Jewish communities had migrated from the City to the west and north. However, the establishment of the cemetery at Willesden long preceded the development of a Jewish community in Willesden itself, where a synagogue was not built until 1926.
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 illustrious Anglo-Jewish communities, notable within which were families including those who originally purchased the site – the Rothschilds, Montagus, Waley-Cohens, and Beddingtons – sometimes referred to as the 'cousinhood', whose often lavish tombs reflect long associations with the cemetery. The first burial, of Mr Samuel Moses, took place on 3 October 1873, the event being hastily arranged in response to the dying wish of an eminent member of the community; the cemetery had not yet been consecrated and the building and landscape works were only nearing completion.
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 (1862-3), designed in conjunction with Edward Salomons, followed by those for the Central Synagogue (1868-70) and Dalston Synagogue (1884-5); none of these survive, though the construction of the New West End Synagogue (George Audsley, 1877-9, 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.
Three extensions have been made to the cemetery since it was first established: northwards in 1890, southwards in 1906, and north-eastwards in 1925-6. Today, the cemetery can accommodate only a very limited number of new burials.
DEVELOPMENT AND EXTENT: of the twelve acres originally purchased, the cemetery established in 1873 occupied only a 5-acre plot, 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. The area now known as the Old Cemetery was soon not large enough 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 create a Southern Extension. The main entrance was moved to the junction of Beaconsfield Road and Glebe Road in 1909-10; the original lodge was demolished and a replacement constructed by the new 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 1926, and not used for burials until 1943, in which year land within the Front Lawns was also pressed into this service.
BOUNDARIES AND APPROACHES: the site is now bounded by Glebe Road to the north and Pound Lane to the east. To the west is Willesden Cemetery, opened in 1891, and to the south is the Liberal Jewish Cemetery, opened in 1914; the south-west corner of the cemetery abuts Roundwood Park, a public park opened in 1895 on part of an early C19 estate, and registered at Grade II. The present entrance, to the north, at the junction of Glebe Road and Beaconsfield Road, dates from 1909-10, and is marked by a red-brick lodge of that date in a restrained Queen Anne Revival style by Lewis Solomon (1848-1928), Joseph's successor as architect-surveyor to the United Synagogue. There were inner and outer gate piers, linked by low quadrant walls, also of red brick with Portland stone capping, and a central pier, creating two openings; the inner piers have been rebuilt, without caps, the central pier has been lost, and the gates have been replaced by security gates. To the west of the main entrance the cemetery abuts an industrial estate, the boundary now being formed by hedge. To the east of the entrance the boundary with Glebe Road is formed by a stock brick wall of varying height with a tiled capping, dating from 1926; this wall continues southwards along Pound Lane, and encloses the southern edge of Pound Lane Field (Pound Lane Field is not included in the registration). An entrance on Pound Lane with plain brick piers has been blocked. Further south, the majority of the 1872 boundary wall to the Old Cemetery remains, with two lost sections filled by fencing. South again, the brick wall forming the eastern boundary of the 1906 Southern Extension also largely survives. A new entrance installed by Solomon in 1913, matching the Beaconsfield Road entrance, has now been blocked, but two of the piers to the outer entrance on Tower Road survive, now separated from the cemetery by a housing development of circa 2001. The 1906 brick wall forming the southern boundary with the Liberal Jewish Cemetery is intact; a doorway connecting the two cemeteries was introduced in 1933 but later blocked. The boundary with Roundwood Park was originally formed by railings, now replaced by modern fencing. To the west, the boundary with Willesden New Cemetery is partly formed by the brick wall of circa 1890, though large sections have been demolished and replaced by fencing.
PRINCIPAL BUILDINGS: the complex of funerary buildings standing at the head of the central avenue forms the focal point of the cemetery. The Gothic Revival buildings, in Kentish Ragstone, were built in 1872-3 by N S Joseph, as part of the cemetery’s original design. 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; the room 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.
LAYOUT AND MONUMENTS: Willesden Jewish Cemetery can be divided into four sections, each of which has a distinct character – the Old Cemetery dating from 1872-3, the Front Lawns, created in 1890, the Southern Extension of 1906, and Pound Lane Field, which became part of the burial ground in 1926 (though it was not used for burials until 1943), and is excluded from the registration. The outline of the Old Cemetery remains legible, following Joseph’s original 1872 layout, the complex of funerary buildings being to the north, with a central avenue leading southwards from the rear door of the prayer hall, and four burial sections to either side. Some of these sections have now been subdivided by additional paths giving access to the central areas. The avenue is planted with pollarded London planes; Joseph intended to plant the avenue, but it is possible that the present trees were not planted until the early C20. The eastern and western boundaries were lined with Lombardy poplars, which perhaps also marked the northern and southern boundaries of the Old Cemetery before these walls were demolished; only two trees survive to the eastern boundary. The Front Lawns, although taken into the cemetery in 1890, was not immediately used for burials. The central approach, leading from the main entrance to the funerary complex, retains its 1910 form, slightly diverted from the original 1872-3 route to accommodate the new entrance. Until the Second World War, the cemetery’s nursery, which provided plants for the cemetery, and for mourners to purchase for graves, ran along the western edge of this area, with greenhouses against the western wall. Following the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission established an enclosure to the west of the main approach, and thereafter burials occupied the area to the west, moving to the eastern area in the 1970s. The layout of the Southern Extension relates clearly to the original design: the central plane-lined avenue is continued from the Old Cemetery, with a roundabout (formerly a shrubbery) at the north end of the extension, from which cross routes lead west and east, the eastern path originally corresponding with the blocked entrance. A second north/south route runs from the western side of the Old Cemetery. The network of paths spread as burials extended to the south and south-west portions of the Extension. The Extension was largely full by the 1930s. This section contains the greatest density of monuments, with very little planting, other than the rows of Lombardy poplars along the western, and formerly along the eastern, boundaries. A complex layout was proposed for Pound Lane Field in 1941, including a central shelter, but whilst the path configuration resembles the plan, the intended features were never realised. The area remained separated from the rest of the cemetery by the original western wall, which was removed between the late 1960s and the 1980s and has been replaced by hedging.
The cemetery's monuments collectively portray the full range of middle- and upper-class Jewish society from the 1870s to the present. Many take forms familiar in other funerary monuments of their period, including sarcophagi, draped urns, and obelisks, but here they are frequently inscribed in both Hebrew and English, reflecting co-existent desires to assimilate, and to continue Jewish traditions. Other tombs employ Jewish symbolism, notably the imagery of the Star of David, the pair of Sabbath candlesticks which may mark the grave of a pious woman, the broken branch indicating a life cut short, the open hands making the Birkat Cohanim or priestly blessing, denoting the grave of a Cohen, or the hand and ewer particular to those from the tribe of Levi, traditionally the washers of the hands of the Cohanim. Many burials are delimited by kerb-sets, some with surviving iron railings, to prevent visitors walking on or over graves, in accordance with the teaching that forbids visitors walking on or over graves. The majority of the monuments at Willesden reflect Jewish burial culture, within which ostentation was not encouraged, even amongst the wealthiest, but a number display remarkable richness of design and materials. The Old Cemetery contains the earliest, and many of the most elaborate, memorials. The most prestigious sites were those adjoining the main avenue and the cross paths by the prayer hall. At the south end of the Old Cemetery, just to the west of the avenue, was the Rosebery Mausoleum, built circa 1890 to house the tombs of Hannah de Rothschild, Countess of Rosebery, and her parents Mayer Amschel and Juliana de Rothschild; the mausoleum was destroyed by Second World War bombing, but the tombs survive. To the east of the avenue is a group of tombs commemorating Chief Rabbis, including Nathan Adler (d 1890). Many of the wealthiest families had their own enclosures, bounded by distinctive walls or ironwork; the tombs within frequently share an element of uniformity in their design. Examples include the Rothschild enclosure on the central avenue, and that of the Barnato family just to the west. To the east is the Samuel family enclosure, taking the form of a Corinthian temple, created circa 1908 by Henry van Ryn, stonemason and superintendent of the cemetery from 1873 to 1914. To the east of the prayer hall is the Franklin family enclosure, which contains the tomb of Rosalind Franklin (d 1958), listed at Grade II. Nathan Joseph and his family are buried to the west of the prayer hall. Also to the west is a group of early C20 terracotta grave markers made by the Compton Pottery, commemorating members of the Waley-Cohen family. Other noteworthy graves in this section include that of Max Eberstadt (d 1891), the design of whose tomb is by Edward Burne-Jones, and that of Lewis Emanuel (d 1898), whose wrought-iron memorial celebrates ‘A good Jew and a good Englishman’. The western edge of the Old Cemetery contains an area of children’s graves; at the eastern edge bomb damage led to the loss of some tombs, each burial now marked by a concrete kerb and a name plaque. To the south-west of the Front Lawns section, on a site adjoining that of the original lodge, members of the Duveen family, renowned art/antique dealers and benefactors, are buried in an area enclosed by hedge. Also within the Front Lawns, besides war graves, is a war memorial to the Jewish military dead of both world wars, erected in 1961 by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the first Jewish national war memorial to be erected in the United Kingdom. A modest pair of headstones and footstones, marking the graves of Elliot and Annette Lewis (d 1934 and 1931) are by Eric Gill, and there is a monument in the form of a covered seat, commemorating Alec Alexander (d 1945), by the architect and designer Basil Ionides. The tomb of the artist Simeon Solomon (d 1905) was re-made in 2014. Noteworthy amongst the burials in the Southern Extension is the 1923 Rothschild enclosure to the west of the roundabout, which contains the grave of Lionel Walter Rothschild (d 1937), to whom the document which became known as the Balfour Declaration was addressed in 1917; to the south-west is an undressed monolith with an inscription taken from Beowulf commemorating Sir Israel Gollancz (d 1930), scholar of English literature and one of the founders of the British Academy. Also buried within the Extension are the painter Mark Gertler (d 1939) and Sir Joseph Lyons (d 1917), pioneer of mass catering. The post-war tombs within Pound Lane Field are mainly headstones, and few have distinctive designs – this area is excluded from the registration. Throughout the cemetery Cohanim burials are placed along the wide main paths, allowing access for male relatives.
Books and journals
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)
Pevsner, N., The Buildings of England, London 3 - North West, (2002), 147
Rutherford, Sarah, The Victorian Cemetery, (2008)
Journal article: S Kadish, The Situation, Preservation and Care of Jewish Cemeteries in the United Kingdom (published 2015 via University Library Heidelberg), accessed 16 August 2017 from https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/icomoshefte/article/viewFile/20217/14004
Historic England, Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery: Assessment of Significance (2017)
The Builder, 18 October 1873
The Jewish Chronicle, 10 October 1873
The Parks Agency for the United Synagogue Cemetery, Willesden Jewish Cemetery Conservation Plan (2017)
This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.
End of official listing