Ipswich Icons: ‘Hidden’ cemetery reveals story of Jewish population

The Jewish cemetery with the wine rack in the background

The Jewish cemetery with the wine rack in the background - Credit: Archant

If you drive westbound along Fore Street and swing left by Isaac’s Briarbank Brewery, the gap on the right is access to the former R&W Paul office car park, where a black and white half-timbered building is central to the view, writes John Norman, of The Ipsich Society.

Jewish cemetery

Jewish cemetery - Credit: Archant

Beyond this, in the centre of the plot, is Ipswich’s Jewish cemetery, hidden behind a red brick wall.

The cemetery was in use between 1797 and 1850 (the gravestones give us a good clue as to the earliest and latest burial). The burial ground was closed in July 1855 on the order of the Burial Board who had taken on the responsibility of burying the dead from the parish churches. Since then there has been a Jewish plot in the town’s Old Cemetery.

The cemetery neatly fits between two Ipswich parishes; there is a boundary marker for St Clement’s on the east wall and one for St Mary Quay on the inside of the north wall. Similar parish boundary markers can be found across central Ipswich and date from the reign of George II.

The earliest known Jewish population resident in Ipswich were here in the Middle Ages. In 1290 all Jews were expelled from England by Edward the First and the Ipswich contingent left. The Jews returned to England in 1656 under Cromwell’s invitation and settled in the capital. Not unexpectedly, as their children grew they sought opportunity and fortune outside London, mainly in the port towns of the east and south coast, thus they came back to Ipswich and by 1750 there was a sizeable community in St Clement’s Parish.

By 1792 there were some 30 Jewish families living and working in east Ipswich, and they met their spiritual needs by building a synagogue, exactly where is no longer known but it was almost certainly close to the Rope Yard (now Rope Walk), possibly in the grounds of Suffolk College. The Jewish population were predominately shopkeepers, garment workers and watchmakers and while income was steady they were willing and able to contribute to the building.

Once the synagogue was finished they set about finding a suitable burial ground. In May 1796 they entered into a 999-year lease with bricklayer Benjamin Blasby for £28 and a peppercorn rent and a cemetery was established. It is not known how many people are interred here; there are 36 headstones (and three footstones) but most mark family graves. Fortunately the engravings on the headstones were recorded before the ravages of time all but obliterated them.

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The surrounding walls, grade II listed by English Heritage, have protected the site since the 18th Century; the cemetery did however suffer neglect following the demise of the Jewish population and was at one time used as a chicken run. BOCM Paul’s – British Oil and Cake Mills, millers of oil seed and producers of animal feeds (cattle cake) – took on the task of maintaining the site while they were in occupation and the local Jewish community currently carries out periodic maintenance.

R&W Paul, Ipswich agricultural merchants, had offices on the sweeping bend between Salthouse and Key Street, designed by the Ipswich architectural practice of Johns & Slater in the 1930s. The development of the whole of the BOCM Paul’s office site between Slade Street, Key Street, Salthouse Street and Fore Street is likely to be a forthcoming planning application.

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