SW visits the City of the Dead

When you know a place well, it’s a thrill to encounter a new detail or place you’ve overlooked. The discovery has a dreamlike quality – exactly how did it elude your notice all this time? It’s the stuff of secret gardens and fairy tales.

On Islington Row near Five Ways lies an abandoned Jewish Cemetery. It was known as Beth Olom which is Hebrew for “City of the Dead”. The walled plot of land is bordered by canal, railway and dual carriageway and is now essentially inaccessible woodland (though with excellent transport links). I’d heard about the cemetery earlier in the year and decided to pin point its location on a Sunday afternoon urban stroll last weekend, and to see if it was in any way accessible. I’d probably passed it unnoticed 20 times or more.

Victorian Belmont Row

Five Ways station is the nearest landmark and we headed there to see if the view from the bridge afforded any clues. It seemed not, so Laira suggested asking the staff if they knew about the lost cemetery. “They won’t know,” I thought, and said aloud. But the ticket seller did know and gave us directions. A valuable lesson – it’s worth asking locally, if you want local knowledge, especially of someone in their advanced years.

The bridge spans canal and railway, and from a vantage opposite the station you can see down into a long strip of land. On first glance, this seems to be woodland, But to the right of the plot a box-like headstone emerges from the ground. On the left is a sealed-off doorway to a metal staircase, topped with a spiked rail. Climbing it is not recommended; it’s a sheer drop of 50 feet or so. We went in so you don’t have to do. In fact, I didn’t go in: Laira went over because my left arm doesn’t work at the moment and someone had to look after the bags.

I directed her explorations from my arial position by pointing to peripheral headstones and shouting. It seems nearly everything has been removed but there are one or two headstones still standing, as well as fragments of headstones. Silver birch trees and rampant ground flora have grown since its closure in 1869, so it isn’t immediately clear what remains.

Online, the British Jewry site records those interred here. The entry with the greatest amount of text relates to Simon King Marks, Chairman of the Burial Board. Mark’s wife Elizabeth is also buried here but beside the ashes of her husband – so maybe this is a monument rather than a tombstone. If so, it was merely erected a year before the closure of the cemetery and left behind when the others were moved to Witton Cemetery. A testament to the growth of the railways and a rapidly changing city.

Simon King
September 30, 1868
Erected (a Monument) by the Congregation in remembrance of the zealous and pious services of Simon King Marks, September 30, 1868. Aged 68. During life his services were ever devoted to the cause of humanity. He fulfilled every important office in this community, and for a period of thirteen years charitably discharged his duties as Chairman of the Burial Board.

March 26, 1873
Here, besides the ashes of her beloved husband, Simon King Marks, lie the mortal remains of Elizabeth Marks, March 26, 1873. Aged 83.