A conversation between Jewish Museum London, & Miriam Marson, Head of Heritage, United Synagogue
Museum: Hi Miriam, What’s your connection to Willesden Cemetery?
Miriam: I have been working at the United Synagogue as the Head of Heritage for some time now. In this role, I am responsible for overseeing all aspects related to Judaica, including our ceremonial objects, heritage items and archives. More recently, I have taken on the leadership of the House of Life Heritage Centre, located at Willesden Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery holds great significance as it represents a timeline of the Jewish community’s journey in London over the past 150 years. Through the Heritage Centre, we aim to raise awareness of the important contributions made by sharing the stories and narratives that have shaped this timeline. Willesden Jewish Cemetery stands as a proud Jewish landmark for our community, and we are particularly excited to be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Museum: how engaged are the local community with the cemetery?
Miriam: The cemetery is located near a Liberal Jewish cemetery and the Willesden New Cemetery. Being in a residential area, we have many visitors who come here for walks and exercise. We have a strong partnership with the Borough of Brent and recently collaborated with the Mayor, planting a tree here. Our focus on improving biodiversity has transformed the gardens over the past five years, creating thriving areas with a variety of plants. The positive response from local residents indicates their appreciation and enjoyment of the cemetery.
Museum: What have been the big changes over the past 150 years?
Miriam: The land was purchased in 1872 and as is often the case wasn’t close to where the Jewish community lived. Even so, it was still commutable on your horse and carriage. Since its origins, the cemetery has expanded several times. It was originally grazing land, so there were sheep and trees and it was described as very beautiful, located as it were out of the metropolis. Now it is a bit busier and there is a lot more concrete in the area. As the trains and tube developed, the area became increasingly populated, and there’s now a revival of the large Jewish population that was here since the 1930’s. For me, it is a place that instils a sense of pride in our shared heritage, allowing us to truly grasp the values that remain relevant and important today. It is filled with captivating stories of individuals engaging in remarkable acts of kindness, assisting the less fortunate, and embodying generosity in various ways.
Selecting an object
Museum: So, who have you chosen to highlight?
Miriam: There’s about 29,000 burials here, on around 21 acres of land. So, there’s an awful lot of stories to tell. I’ve chosen these four because they’ve all made remarkable contributions to the way we live today and there’s also a certain familiarity about them.
Rosalind Franklin is, perhaps, the most visited grave here. It was listed by Historic England in 2017. She was a chemist and an x-ray crystallographer who made multiple scientific progresses in understanding viruses; and she is credited with playing a key part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. In fact, she became really well-known after her death. There has been much written about her: was she overlooked for the Nobel Prize in part because women did not have the same recognition as men. Very sadly she died before the prize could be awarded at the young age of 38. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Born in 1920, her parents were pillars of the New West End Synagogue community. She studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, who awarded her an Exhibition though her parents declined the grant that came with it, so it could go to one in greater need.
“Jack” Cohen is buried here too. We all know about Tesco. It’s one of the most well-known supermarket success stories. Cohen was born in Whitechapel; his parents were from Poland, and they were tailors. In 1917 he miraculously survived when a Royal Navy ship struck a German mine with some 200 soldiers, nurses and crew drowning. When he came home, he developed malaria. But nonetheless, when he recovered, he decided to set up a market stall. And the rest is history. Visitors are absolutely amazed that he is buried here, or rather that Tesco is a company with Jewish origins. I wonder how many shoppers go into these supermarkets all the time and have no idea that the company has this Jewish connection.
Solomon J Solomon was a distinguished painter, but he was also well-known for his development of camouflage techniques. When he was in the army, in the Artists Rifle Regiment, he began developing the technique for camouflage, creating camouflage netting first. After the war, he returned to England, and his netting was then widely manufactured. This was to the extent that he had a camouflage school and wrote a book called “Strategic Camouflage”. Interestingly, he was only the second Jewish artist to be honoured by the Royal Academy (in 1906).
When you come to the cemetery, probably the most magnificent and striking monument is that of H Samuel; you can see it from quite a way off. And again, it comes with an interesting story. Most people have never really stopped to think about who H Samuel was, and I’d guess most would probably be surprised that the ‘H’ stood for Harriet, because most people just assume it’s a man. Harriet was a trailblazer as she developed a business at a time when it was incredibly hard for women to do so – women still couldn’t vote at that time and education wasn’t equal. But despite this she developed a business on her own. Harriet’s husband was from a family of clock makers that came from Liverpool. When her husband died (1863), she set up this business on her own. And it’s quite remarkable that she had such success as a woman in that era. And to be honest, the monument really is testament to that. It’s quite remarkable too!
For more information visit: www.willesdenjewishcemetery.org.uk/