Hidden in plain sight: Chelsea’s Jewish cemetery

Last week, on Friday, I was on the 211 bus heading home with a bag of shopping when I saw that  there had been some damage to a brick wall on the corner of the Fulham Road and Old Church Street. A whole section of the wall had been knocked inwards possibly as a result of some kind of impact. I thought I should take some photographs but when I went out on Sunday the area was surrounded by workmen and equipment, with a temporary set of traffic lights. On my way in this morning I took a few pictures, as the breach in the wall was still there.

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Not only is there a hole, but behind it a pile of bricks.

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Beyond that you can see the gravestones themselves.

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It’s not the first time this wall has been disturbed. Back in 1989 I was also there with a camera when the whole wall was partially demolished and there was the opportunity to take some pictures of an obscure corner of Chelsea. In normal circumstances you only get the chance to see the area behind the wall if you’re sitting on a passing bus. This corner, between the Institute of Cancer Research and a short row of shops devoted to antiquarian books and interior design, is the location of Chelsea’s Jewish Cemetery.

Jewish Cemetery Oct 1989 04

The wall, as you can see, was then short enough to look over. The original wall was tall enough to completely conceal the cemetery.

Jewish Cemetery Oct 1989 01

It was a bright day for October. The pictures were taken with an Olympus pocket (film) camera so they look a little grainy.

Jewish Cemetery Oct 1989 02

But you can make out the Hebrew inscriptions.

The cemetery, or burial ground appears on Thompson’s famous Chelsea map of 1836.

Copy of Thompsons 1836_Chelsea 4006 - Copy - Copy

The area was called Queen’s Elm after the Queen’s Elm tavern which was right opposite. On this detail you can see Trafalgar Square (later Chelsea Square) and Bath Lodge (later Catharine Lodge along with a number of houses with large gardens on the west side of Old Church Street,

George Bryan, in his 1869 book “Chelsea in the olden and present times” tells us the burial ground was “erected in 1816 by the individuals whose names are inscribed on the wall of the entrance building” (visible on the map).

Hugh Meller, in the third edition of his London Cemeteries (an invaluable book for London historians) which has details of 14 Jewish cemeteries in London says: “The impression given by this tiny cemetery is more typical of Prague than London.”. I can see his point. The 300 gravestones are in a comparatively small area, almost hermetically sealed behind a brick wall and “a rusty iron gate“. I imagine the burial ground fitting into a Bruno Schulz story (or a film by the Quay Brothers for that matter) especially as modern Prague is often used as a location for Victorian London in recent films and TV dramas.

Jewish Cemetery in Fulham Road c1896

The picture comes from The London Burial Grounds (1896) by Mrs Basil Holmes. Mrs Holmes called it “a dreary place” and remarked on the lack of proper paths between the graves. By the time she wrote her book the prayer hall and office had been replaced by the parade of shops. The last burial was said to be in 1913, although Meller gives the date of closure as early as 1884. He also notes the presence of mulberry trees. (That is actually another story altogether, associated with the estate called Chelsea Park which was on this side of the Fulham Road. Parts of it still survive in Elm Park Gardens and so what he says is possible.)

These pictures, from one of our scrapbooks are also dated 1896.

Jewish Cemetery Queen's Elm 1896 CM142c

In this one, possibly taken from one of the shops you can see South Parade and beyond it Trafalgar Square, and the tower of St Luke’s Church.

I’m not so sure of the angle in this picture:

Jewish Cemetery Queen's Elm 1896 CM142

In the 1970s the cemetery was under the threat of redevelopment and there was a plan reported in local newspapers in 1974 to have the ground deconsecrated, and any surviving remains removed to Israel.

cutting 1974

This never occurred. I was told that a benefactor paid for some restoration work to keep the cemetery secure. It remained an obscure corner of Chelsea, safe behind its walls. A place of absolute stillness beside a busy road, its continued existence a source of satisfaction for those who like the quiet places of the city.

Whether in 1989,

Jewish Cemetery Oct 1989 03or 2016

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The hole in the wall is now boarded up, which you can almost see in this picture but the main point of it is to show that even with the wall breached the cemetery is well hidden by the abundant trees.

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Postscript

I promised you a new post by my colleague Isabel this week but she has gone to ground in Kent, somewhere near here:

Old Road Chatham - Copy

Hugh Thomson steps in to help again. The picture is from Highways and Byways in Kent (1907). Isabel will be back soon.

It was fortunate this subject presented itself to me out of nowhere. I’ve noticed that I’ve written posts about almost every point of my journey to work, with very few gaps and this is a further addition to the psycho-geographical trail. I’ll work on those gaps in the future.

 


6 responses to “Hidden in plain sight: Chelsea’s Jewish cemetery

  • Jim Shield

    Wow, what a fantastic find which I never new existed.

    Thank you for yet another gem.

  • woofbarkyap

    In the 1950s, my mum worked in one of the two taller shop buildings (now the antiquarian bookshop), she said you could still see into the graveyard from the window at the back upstairs so maybe you still can. It would be perfect for the view towards “trafalgar Sq” (surely you meant Chelsea Sq or did it change its name at some point?) so maybe if you asked nicely…

  • cboot

    Had to drag my drunken dad out of the Queens’s Elm on several occasions!

    I often, as you mentioned, looked down over the wall into the Cemetery from the top deck of the 14 bus, returning back down the Fulham road from South Ken, or further afield. As a child I wondered why it was so tiny in comparison to the mighty Brompton Cemetery.

    It was also a useful reminder to turn right on the way to the Children’s Library in Manresa road (1960s and very early 70s); it’s now ‘Gems Hampshire School’ apparently! Years later, when we were finally leaving Fulham Road, I found an unreturned Children’s Library Book; expecting a huge fine I entered fearing the worst. They passed it off very kindly saying that they were only grateful to see an old friend; I don’t know whether they were referring to me or the book!

  • chris worsfold

    i lived nearby in Evelyn Gardens in the 50s and early 60s for around 15 years and never new the cemetery existed. In the early 60s i used to deliver newspapers to the flats in Trafalgar Chambers, in the early dark winter mornings the stairs were unlit and it used to freak me out climbing to the top flats, i used to take a deep breath and deliver all my papers before running out of the building with my heart pounding in my chest, it was a scary building, had I known it backed onto a cemetery I would have left them at the bottom door. Another memory as a child was a lane that is now gone and was opposite the Queens Elm pub called Elm Mews. it was an unmade dusty lane with wooden buildings which I think may have been a Blacksmiths, it always struck me as being like somwhere out in the countryside but in reality you were only a few hundred yards from the busy Fulham Road.

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