23 September 2011
First-time visitors to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus can’t help but notice the seemingly incongruous historical cemetery situated in the centre of the campus, surrounded by sleek modern architecture and busy students rushing by.
With its rows of flat grave stones symbolising the equality of all people in death, The Neuvo, or Novo Beth Chaim burial site, is certainly one of the campus’ more unique features.
It has also, for many years, shown serious signs of natural decay and, as a result, the site is now undergoing landscaping work in order to preserve the site and significantly improve the aesthetic and use of the surrounding area.
The College is working in collaboration with the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Congregation (SPJC) and architect Andrew Abdulezer to replace the old perimeters of the cemetery with new fences and trees. The recently removed, self-sown trees which bordered the plot were in bad condition, and their extensive roots were starting to disturb graves at the site’s edge. The new border will comprise 24 trees planted in a narrow raised box, full of earth and embedded into concrete, to restrict root growth. The trees and a one metre high ivy covered trellis will act as a screen between the front of the Francis Bancroft building and the cemetery.
The planned developments also include the construction of a raised pathway at the southern end of the cemetery, widening the cross-college path behind the Law and Arts Two buildings to 1.6 metres, without impacting on any of the graves. The pathway will feature plaques narrating a history of the site and the East End’s Jewish community.
In partnership with the SPJC, the College has also agreed that a small area of land will be used to create a seating area for quiet contemplation behind the Arts Two building. Again, this work will not disturb any graves.
Significant funds have been allocated to the project and Simon Neale, director of Estates has expressed that “the overriding objective is to treat this area with utmost sensitivity”.
For the past two months, Eiran Davis, a Rabbi with the SPJC, has overseen every aspect of the work being conducted by the contractors, Sykes. Work has been carried out in a sensitive manner to ensure no graves are disturbed in any way, and the recent removal of a line of trees running along the side the library, widening the path to 2.4 metres, has unearthed little more than clay piping and a piece of Roman glass. Any bones found in the earth have undergone testing and all were determined to be those of animals.
With the “light at the end of the tunnel” in sight, Rabbi Davies commented: “We’re extraordinarily grateful to the College for being accommodating and we appreciate the development of their relationship with us [The SPJC], so that this can be achieved.”
Project Manager David Meinck added that the work, a long term ambition for the College, has been a “long and exhausting process”. While it is not a big project in construction terms, it has taken a huge amount of effort, under an extraordinary set of circumstances, to improve campus access while preserving the unique cemetery for years to come.
Dr Caron Lipman in the School of Geography is preparing for publication a history of the cemeteries, The Sephardic Jewish Cemeteries at Queen Mary College, for which she received a Barnett Shine fellowship. She explores the history of the original Velho and Neovo burial grounds and offers case studies of local residents laid to rest there, including the boxer Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) and Benjamin D’Israeli, financier and grandfather of British prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Both men are now interred at Brentwood, Essex.
The work was commissioned by Senior Vice-Principal Philip Ogden and supported by Catherine Nash, Professor of Human Geography. The following brief history is based on Dr Lipman’s text.
QM will be organising a series of events in March 2012 to mark the opening of ArtsTwo and the newly landscaped areas, with a strong emphasis on Jewish history and with a lecture by amongst others Simon Schama.