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.
Not only is there a hole, but behind it a pile of bricks.
Beyond that you can see the gravestones themselves.
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.
The wall, as you can see, was then short enough to look over. The original wall was tall enough to completely conceal the cemetery.
It was a bright day for October. The pictures were taken with an Olympus pocket (film) camera so they look a little grainy.
But you can make out the Hebrew inscriptions.
The cemetery, or burial ground appears on Thompson’s famous Chelsea map of 1836.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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,
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.
I promised you a new post by my colleague Isabel this week but she has gone to ground in Kent, somewhere near here:
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.