Life & Culture

How a caretaker discovered Plymouth's secret Jewish cemetery

A forgotten graveyard was hidden behind a locked door, now Plymouth’s Jewish heritage is its top visitor attraction


It’s a sunny day on Plymouth Hoe and all seems normal, but those with sharp eyes might be able to see a man with a very determined expression, hacking down the undergrowth.

Watch him as he works and see his delight when he finds what he has been looking for — a neglected but unmistakable, big black door — a door that will soon lead to some incredible stories…

In 2007 an advertisement had been put in the local paper for a part-time caretaker. It had very few details but nevertheless caught the eye of local man, Jerry Sibley who had recently retired from the army. He applied, and only later found it was to look after Plymouth Synagogue. A building dating from 1762 — the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in regular use in the English-speaking world.

He got the job, and although not Jewish himself became more and more involved with its history — and why the vacancy had occurred when it did. After the Second World War, membership had fallen drastically, mainly due to the closure of the town’s navy base, and the subsequent job losses. Also, town planning initiatives had pulled down local houses, so it was no longer easy to live within walking distance of the synagogue.

The smaller community could no longer afford to support a rabbi. As a result, the synagogue faced imminent closure, despite being a listed building. Luckily fortunes slowly reversed as people from different parts of the UK started to see the beauty of Plymouth and to settle in the town. New members joined, and the building needed to be looked after.

One day after Jerry Sibley had been in the job sometime, he heard a message left on the answerphone. It was from a local resident complaining that overgrown trees from the Jewish cemetery were affecting the quality of his telephone line. Jerry went to look but could see no houses nearby or any obvious straggly trees. The resident had left no name or contact number. Sibley knew the current synagogue cemetery dated from 1850. He wondered, could there be an older one nearby?

After some research, he found a reference to a Jewish cemetery on Lambhay Hill just off the famous Plymouth Hoe, but couldn’t find anything. It was only when he scrutinised Google Maps that he saw a little-known branch of the hill, and in the middle a small green spot. When he zoomed in, he could just make out a couple of headstones.

It was then he went to cut down the undergrowth and found the door. Annoyingly it was locked. Back in the synagogue Jerry asked around and was given an almost forgotten box of keys. Luckily one of them worked and the door scraped open to reveal a jungle of vegetation, interspersed with headstones.

“It was an amazing moment”, says Jerry. “The whole thing looked like a wild garden and because the hill in front of the door had been built up, there was a big drop before me — I had entered at the level of the tree branches!”

Volunteers helped to cut down the undergrowth and eventually the stones were revealed, showing that the earliest burials dating from 1744. Today it is now recognised as Britain’s oldest Jewish cemetery outside London and has its own Grade II listed status.
Who are the people buried? In the early 18th-century Jewish arrivals to Plymouth were mostly migrants from Amsterdam, who intended to use the town as a stepping-stone to emigrate to America. When they saw the thriving naval docks and the need for goldsmiths, tailors, and other skills, many decided to stay, and so the community began.

At that time if a member died outside London, the corpse was shipped to the capital for burial but, if the death occurred too far away it was acceptable to bury the body in the garden of a fellow Jew. A local Jewish woman, Sarah Sherrenbeck, allowed such burials to take place on her land and eventually, in 1745, she gave it to the Hebrew congregation. When that filled, adjoining territory was leased and when that too became overcrowded a new plot was purchased, which is now the current cemetery site at Gifford Place
Jerry did some research into the lives of the people buried on Lamhay Hill which gave a valuable glimpse into Jewish life and general social history.

He already knew Derek Frood and Ruth Mitchell from Ripple, the local theatre company, and together they did further research through books and documents from the synagogue archives and old newspapers. Families then got in contact, wanting to know more about their ancestors and the result was an audio guide, enacting the lives of those buried. Now visitors on pre-arranged days can walk around the cemetery, don earphones, and participate in fascinating stories.

These range from details of a fight outside the cemetery walls in 1787 and how it was dealt with, or the fortunes of the watchmaker, Aron Nathan, who fell on hard times, unable to support his wife and seven children and having to appeal to the synagogue for funds. He then finds a new job as a Ward Constable in Devon and his prospects further improve when his good deeds result in his being promoted to the well paid position of Superintendent of the Watch.

The very last story on the audio concerns Barney, Jerry’s cat, much loved by all visitors to the synagogue in Catherine Street. When Barney passed away, Jerry spoke to the Committee about possibly laying him to rest there too. There was a long discussion, as burying animals in a Jewish cemetery is forbidden, but finally a plot was found just by the entrance, where he could be buried without upsetting anyone.

The audio tour was an outstanding success and it was featured both on BBC Spotlight and Radio Devon. This meant that 400 people turned up for the first designated day tour. As Derek Frood commented “It really seemed to blow everyone away, funnily enough especially non-Jewish people who had lived in Plymouth all their lives. One participant said ‘what an absolute gem of social history. I can’t believe I have lived here 62 years and have only just discovered this place’.

“What was also extraordinary was that I met a living person, an elderly lady, who had a memory of her grandmother describing a funeral procession with horses that left the graveyard. It was a real living link to the past.”

So, it was decided to do it again, this time for the current, Gifford Place Cemetery. As Ruth Mitchell explained, “In our first cemetery trail, we created audios in the first person, as if the people were speaking to us from beyond the grave. This time, with living relatives, we collected stories from friends and family of the deceased and because of Covid it largely meant talking to them over Zoom.

“It has also triggered memories from other people and maybe we will be adding further stories at a later date. It was good too because we sent the details of the stories to each of the participants and they shared memories and because they were all of a similar age they all knew each other’s parents.

One of these Zoom interviews was with Valerie Miller, who talked about her parents, Dr Mordechai and Betty Gordon, and the tiny grave which holds her sister Freya who lived for just one day.

Another plot is that of Jacob Nathan Brock, born in 1867, the popular manager of a local skating rink. It seems he was a real character, in charge of putting on all sort of events with people dressed up in costumes as well as competitions with livestock as prizes. One young girl went to the rink to skate and came home with a pig under her arm!

These two cemetery tours complement any visit to the synagogue itself. The simple building houses a beautiful Baroque ark, made in The Netherlands, and re-assembled in situ, while the naval influence is reflected by the bimah, which was made by local boat builders and looks remarkably like a ship.

The fact that the building stands at all is a bit of a miracle, as during the Second World War Plymouth was the most bombed city in the UK. Very few buildings survived.

School parties and tourists now go on regular tours conducted by Jerry Sibley who is now known as the custodian of the shul. Forget the Mayflower and the fact that the Pilgrim fathers left here to go to America, on Trip Advisor, touring the shul is now the number one thing listed for visitors to see while in Plymouth.

The next planned cemetery visits to both sites with the audio trails will be in May 2022 during the Plymouth Festival month.
For a taster of the Ripple interviews: For further information contact Jerry Sibley, email:
Great Western Railways currently offer tickets from London Paddington to Plymouth from £34

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