Past Remains

A view of yesterday from today

Jewish Cemetery, Exeter, Devon

The Jews cemetery is situated at Bull Meadow just below Magdalen Road, opposite Wynards Almshouses and a short distance outside the city wall. I first came across this cemetery in 1991, when a friend who was giving me a lift home had to make a stop nearby. I had some time to walk around and found the cemetery, which was very overgrown and looked abandoned, but quite entrancing. I had no idea where I was at the time, but having been reminded of it in 2009 I found it's whereabouts with the use of maps and research and decided to pay it another visit. I was surprised at how different it looks to how I remember it, which I put down to the vaguaries of memory, and because it has since been well cared for. However, I've since discovered why...more about that later! A delightful place although, unfortunately, not accessible for a wander around.

After the Jews were expelled from England in the late 13th century, it wasn't until the 18th century when the Hanoverians had acceded to the throne that Jews of German origin began to settle in Exeter. Thirty-three years later the Jewish community took out a lease of the burial ground in 1757. The Synagogue was later built on land leased in Mary Arches and subsequently consecrated in 1764, and is the third oldest Synagogue in Britain.

The first lease for the plot was issued for 99 years within the traditional Devonshire 'lease for three lives', then was revised and reissued in 1803. The lease was reissued several times, with the addition of further leases for extra plots, until 1951 when they completely expired. This went unnoticed, along with the non-payment of any rent, until the proposal to build an inner bypass would have meant compulsory purchace of the cemetery and exhumation of the graves. The scheme was eventually abandoned and the burial ground was sold outright to the Jewish Synagogue congregation in 1977. 

Although another cemetery at Exwick is now used for Jewish burials, the ground is still used for the occasional burial, and is maintained and opened for specific visits by relatives and descendants.

The 18th century wall is Grade II listed, and was repaired in the 1980s, at which time the chapel (Ohel) was rebuilt and new gates were fitted.

Further up the lane leading to the Jewish cemetery there is another, separate cemetery, which was used for the burial of dissenters who refused to worship under the Church of England, and weren't allowed to be buried within Anglican cemeteries and churchyards. The photo below shows a glimpse of it through a gap in the wall.  The building behind it is the erstwhile West of England Eye Infirmary, now an hotel.

As for my memory playing tricks, I discovered why when editing this article in 2015. At the time of my first glimpse in 1991 I took a couple of photos from across Magdalen Road (and now regretting that I hadn't taken photos of the cemetery itself). I wasn't sure of the exact year so I dug out my old photos to check the date. Much to my surprise I realised that the photos were of the Dissenter's Cemetery and I hadn't seen the Jewish one at all. That too looks very different as it's no longer overgrown, and the lovely brick arch is boarded up with wood, so my enchanting old cemetery is in essence no longer there. Mystery solved!

One of the 1991 photos (above) and finally, an overall view of the cemetery below, including a small building which cannot be seen through the gate...and which I think might be the Ohel, although it seems quite small from this view.

A few more photos can be seen in the Photo Gallery album, along with these.

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