Holiday county that was a haven for Jews

Christopher Richards discovers Cornwall's fascinating Jewish heritage.

April 28, 2011
Custodian Keith Pearce at Penzance Jewish cemetery which needs £20,000 worth of repair work

Custodian Keith Pearce at Penzance Jewish cemetery which needs £20,000 worth of repair work

Thousands of tourists will have descended on Cornwall during the holiday season, a fair few Jews among them. But what the visitors may not know is that the county which is famous for its pasties, beaches and clotted-cream teas, is also home to a fascinating Jewish heritage.

In the south-western 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 extant Jewish burial grounds outside London, is currently looked after by retired lecturer Keith Pearce, with the assistance of the town council.

Meanwhile, the graveyard in Falmouth is maintained by Eric Dawkins, a 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 steps in.

Colin Spanjar, the Board's director of community issues, says 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 18 months ago.

Here, they lived in a climate that was free from fear

"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 specialised. 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 he believes it is a sum worth collecting. "The cemetery in Penzance is a unique place to visit and is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the country," he says.

"I have now visited it twice, and when you do, you realise 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 is not just the cemetery itself which is peaceful.

Looking back at those who made the county their home from around 1720 onwards, he says: "The Jews of Cornwall lived in a climate free from fear and persecution and one of acceptance by their Christian neighbours.

"They didn't involve themselves in mining, fishing or farming; they were not in competition with the local people and so were not considered a threat."

He says those Jews who came to the county worked in a variety of jobs, including as tailors, jewellers, silversmiths, clockmakers, pawnbrokers and wine dealers.

The 62-year-old, who has co-authored a book called The Lost Jews of Cornwall with historian Helen Fry and Godfrey Simmons, says that these specialist skills were both welcomed and needed by the Cornish as the economy boomed around them.

Many of the Jews who came to Britain, he explains, were fleeing from discrimination and persecution on the continent. There was a particular reason why Cornwall was such an attractive destination for them.

"The trade union movement never really took off in Cornwall and a significant number of miners, fishermen and farmers were freemasons," Pearce says. "The Jews were welcomed into the Masonic lodges, which were
places where they were free from

These days the county's Jewish population is limited to a small but thriving congregation of around 50 families in Truro - boosted at this time of year, of course, by the influx of Jewish visitors, who as they lick ice creams on the beaches, might pause to ponder the time when Cornwall was much more than just a holiday haven.

Last updated: 6:05pm, January 27 2014