Buried Treasure

After decades of neglect and vandalism, Liverpool’s Deane Road Cemetery is now being restored its former glory, revealing Jewish roots.

Liverpool cemetary 311 (photo credit: Danielle Max)
Liverpool cemetary 311
(photo credit: Danielle Max)
‘We speak with an accent exceedingly rare. Meet under a statue exceedingly bare...’ goes part of the chorus of “In My Liverpool Home,” a song made popular by Liverpool folk group The Spinners in 1962. The nude statue mentioned in the song adorns the now-defunct Lewis’s department store building in the city.
While sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein named his work Liverpool Resurgent, local residents long ago nicknamed the sculpture “Dickie Lewis” in honor of David Lewis, the Jewish founder of what was once the city’s foremost retail emporium.
Although Dickie Lewis still proudly surveys the changing Liverpool landscape, until recently, the resting place of David Lewis and other notable Liverpool Jews lay neglected and all but forgotten at the nearby Deane Road Cemetery.
Lewis is perhaps its bestknown inhabitant, but the burial ground provides a veritable who’s who of the community in the 19th century. A roll call includes Charles Mozley, the first Jewish mayor of the city; Moses Samuel, founder of the H. Samuel jewelry company; renowned synagogue music composer Abraham Saqui, whose Songs of Israel book of music is still sung by many choirs; Dr. Sigismund Lewis, who dedicated much of his life to improving the conditions of the Jewish poor of Liverpool and who, among his many roles, served as medical officer to the Cunard shipping line and various other steamship companies for 40 years; and Dr. Joshua Van Oven, a surgeon and one of the founders, and later president, of the Jews’ Free School (today known as JFS) in London.
Despite the importance of the people buried at Deane Road, the cemetery has fallen into disrepair since the last burial took place in 1929. In December, however, the cemetery restoration committee, a mixed-faith group of Liverpool residents headed by Saul Marks, a professional genealogist, was awarded a grant of £494,000. This money is earmarked for restoration work that will hopefully see the burial ground restored to its former glory.
FOUNDED IN 1837, Deane Road Cemetery is the oldest surviving burial ground of the Liverpool Jewish community. It was established by the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation – which today worships in the famed Princes Road Synagogue.
Regular burials took place until 1904, when space constraints prompted the congregation to look for a new site. After that, only those with reserved spaces passed through the impressive stucco and stone Greek Revivalstyle archway, which still marks the entrance, on their final journey.
Other than the archway, it takes some imagination to see what mourners of the 19th century would have seen when they entered the gates. What was an enclosed courtyard is now an open space. The prayer hall was torn down in 1952, as was the caretaker’s cottage.
Despite numerous attempts over the years to clear the cemetery and restore some honor and dignity to those buried there, nature has triumphed over human intervention each time. While some of the gravestones have been restored to their original state, many are damaged, leaning and, in some cases, covered by the relentless ivy and brambles that keep trying to reclaim the ground.
With the recent grant, however, it looks as if there will be enough resources invested to ensure that the hard work and good intentions are maintained. The money will be used to make extensive repairs to the boundary wall, entrance archway, path, front gates and railings, as well as to develop a visitors’ center in the hope of having the site added to Liverpool’s heritage trail.
This help cannot come a moment too soon. After decades of neglect, the cemetery is suffering greatly, not only from nature, but also from people.
It is located in Kensington, a tough inner-city neighborhood, and has been a magnet for vandals who have added graffiti to the inscriptions on some of the stones. Despite the location, Marks is keen to stress there is actually surprisingly little vandalism, and that which exists is not anti- Semitic.
“There’s no evidence that any of the fallen stones were destroyed as a result of vandalism,” he says. “It’s just the result of age and the roots of large bushes and trees.”
The open grounds of the cemetery, however, have attracted generations of dedicated trash dumpers who manage to overcome the 3.6- meter-high walls surrounding it. “We found a sofa that had been dragged across an alley that runs alongside the cemetery and then thrown over,” says Marks in disbelief.
Local residents also found holes in the walls to be tempting for dumping their household waste, with little regard for what lay behind. Much of this rubbish, which has now been cleared with the help of the Merseyside Probation Service, landed at the back of the cemetery where some 900 children and infants lie in unmarked graves.
WITH HIS passion for tracing roots, Marks has done extensive work hunting down the descendants of those buried at Deane Road, and has contacted members of more than 40 families.
His research reveals that, perhaps not unsurprisingly, many of the descendants of those buried in the cemetery are no longer Jewish. “The majority of people buried at Deane Road were very assimilated into British society,” explains Marks. “Many were born in England or were educated immigrants who were anxious to be seen as British and took British citizenship. As with any successful immigrant group, many of the children of the Anglo-Jewish families of the first half of the 19th century who had made adequate or even substantial fortunes married out of the Jewish faith.”
Many of those with whom he has been in contact are extremely proud to discover they are descended from Jewish stock, something he has seen in his genealogy work through which he has received many inquiries from people hoping to find out that they have some sort of Jewish heritage. “It’s quite a kudo to have Jewish ancestry,” he explains. “Many are keen to find Jewish ancestors.”
A number of those who have discovered that they do have ancestors at Deane Road have made emotional journeys to visit their relatives’ final resting place.
Marks tells of a non-Jewish family who visited the cemetery after discovering they were descendents of the Yates/Samuels family. Three generations came up from Oxford for the weekend, during which they not only visited the graveyard and saw the family’s houses, which are still standing, but also sat in their ancestors’ seats in Princes Road Synagogue during Shabbat services.
“The family is Catholic, but the grandfather was so intrigued about his Jewish ancestors that he wanted to come and find out more about them. He was absolutely thrilled,” says Marks.
While discovering lost descendants is always exciting, Marks is pragmatic about the importance of tracing family members of those buried in Deane Road. Often once they are found, they are willing to pay for the restoration of their ancestor’s burial stone.
For Louise Baldock, Labor councillor for Kensington and Fairfield and a member of the Cemetery Committee, the restoration is significant for the regeneration of the Kensington neighborhood. “The project is vitally important to the local community in many ways,” she says. “It puts Kensington on the map in heritage terms, something which is unusual in a ward with such high scores in terms of deprived statistics.”
Regarding the mixed-faith committee restoring a Jewish cemetery, she points out that while it is a Jewish cemetery, no one within the local community sees it as a “Jewish” project.
“Most of the committee members are not Jewish, neither are local residents, although clearly the Liverpool Jewish community is delighted that the project has been taken up,” she says. “For local people this is all about preservation of our local history, respect for our dead and a really wonderful and fascinating opportunity to learn more about something that has been secret for so long.”