The lost Jews of Cornwall

Jews first came to West Cornwall in the early 18th century and would stay for the best part of 200 years. Now, only their headstones endure.

Cornwall 521 (photo credit: Chris Richards)
Cornwall 521
(photo credit: Chris Richards)
Cornwall is better known for pasties, scones, clotted cream and surfing than it is for its Jewish heritage. Yet in the southwestern coastal towns of Penzance and Falmouth, two finely kept cemeteries bear testament to two forgotten, but important, Jewish communities.
The Jews first came to West Cornwall from Europe in the early 18th century and would stay for the best part of 200 years. Now, only their headstones endure, a silent reminder of a diaspora that contributed so much to the county’s economy during the boom years of the Industrial Revolution.
But although the men and women themselves have gone, their legacy is certainly not forgotten, thanks largely to the efforts of a handful of local volunteers.
The Penzance cemetery, which has been described as one of the best preserved Jewish burial grounds in Britain outside of London, is currently looked after by volunteer Keith Pearce with assistance from the town council.
Meanwhile, the graveyard in Falmouth is maintained by Eric Dawkins, another volunteer who was awarded an MBE in January for his community work.
However, their contributions alone are not enough, which is where the Board of Deputies of British Jews steps in. Colin Spanjar, director of community issues at BOD, said that the cemetery in Penzance, for example, is in need of refurbishment.
“We have already done some work on the walls, as can be clearly seen by the capping and railings that were placed on them about a year ago,” he said. “That said, the walls will require restorative work because, over the centuries, they have been affected by the weather and the type of work that is required is highly specialized.
“The cost, we believe, will be in the region of £20,000 and, in the current economic climate, this has been difficult to raise.”
But Spanjar, 51, believes that it’s definitely a sum worth collecting.
“The cemetery in Penzance is a very unique place to visit and is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the country,” he said. “I have now visited it twice and when you do you realize how unique and important it is to the history of the local community.
“The key to the cemetery is the high walls – which are Grade 2 listed – and the fact that it is hidden away within the local area yet, when you walk inside, it is very serene.”
AND ACCORDING to its custodian Pearce, it’s not just the cemetery itself which is peaceful.
Looking back at those who made the county their home from around 1720 onward, he said: “The Jews of Cornwall lived in a climate free from persecution and one of acceptance by their Christian neighbors. They didn’t involve themselves in mining, fishing or farming; they were not in competition with the local people and so were not a threat.”
Pearce, 62, a retired lecturer, said those Jews who came to the county worked in a variety of jobs, including as tailors, jewelers, silversmiths, clockmakers, pawnbrokers and wine dealers.
Pearce, who has coedited a book entitled The Lost Jews of Cornwall alongside historian Helen Fry, said that these specialist skills were both welcomed and needed by the Cornish as the economy boomed around them.
Many of the Jews that came to Britain, he explained, were fleeing from discrimination and persecution on the continent.
Yet there were also a number of other reasons why Cornwall seemed such an attractive destination for them.
“There was no ghetto system here,” Pearce said.
“There was a Hanoverian [Protestant] dynasty, which was relatively tolerant.
The trade union movement never really took off in Cornwall and most of the miners, fishermen and farmers were Freemasons. The Jews were welcomed into the Masonic lodges, which were places where they were free from discrimination.”
Pearce, who is currently working on an extended version of his book, added that although the Penzance community was founded first, Falmouth’s Jewish population was larger at its peak.
“At its peak, we are probably talking about 12 to 15 families in Penzance and probably about 20 in Falmouth,” he said. “That peak would have been in the early 19th century, around about 1820.”
PEARCE’S PREDECESSOR was Godfrey Simmons, who kept watch over the cemetery for many years until he left Cornwall in 1996.
The 91-year-old, who now lives in Worcestershire, first visited the cemetery in 1947 when it was, in his own words, in a “pretty desperate situation.”
But after moving to Cornwall in 1978, Simmons started to look after the burial ground and even met all the costs from his own pocket.
“Either you care for them or you make them into car parks,” he said matter-offactly.
“It is important to preserve the past; it is part of the national history.”
He also paid tribute to the ongoing work of his friend and successor.
“The amount of work he has done is amazing,” he said. “I am full of admiration for the job that Keith has done.”
As the 19th century passed and the 20th century dawned, the Jewish communities in Penzance and Falmouth dwindled sharply. There were a number of factors, including cholera epidemics, a gradual decline in mining and fishing and improvements to both road and rail connections.
Yet the decisive factor for the Jews was the insufficient influx of new families into the duchy to allow marriage to fellow Jews.
“The Jewish communities of Cornwall were by their very nature transitional,” Pearce said. “In Falmouth, congregational numbers fell drastically after 1850 and by 1880, and by 1906 in Penzance, Jewish congregational life had ended.”
The last Jewish family, the Bischofswerders, left Penzance in 1913, bringing an era spanning the best part of two centuries to an end.
But fast forward to 2011 and, once again, a small but growing Jewish population calls Cornwall its home. Called Kehillat Kernow, the community’s title mixes both Hebrew and Cornish; a telling sign as to how accepted its members feel in the county.
“Cornwall is a very welcoming community,” chairman Harvey Kurzfield, 65, said. “We have gradually grown and grown from about 10 people to our present number of around 60 worshipers.”
As for those Jews who had called the county their home more than 100 years ago, he said: “Almost all the members down here bought a copy of The Lost Jews of Cornwall when it came out. We look back on those people with a certain amount of fondness and respect and in many ways we are helping to revive that tradition of Jewish life here in Cornwall.”