|Nuevo Beth Chaim (New Cemetery) North end|
Very small numbers of Jews had existed in England since Norman times, but they didn’t live in communities as such and were few and far between. The official figure between 1290 and 1656 was ‘0’ since they couldn’t officially live here, although many had escaped the Iberian Peninsula where they were being forced to convert or be massacred, and had made England their home. Despite having the support of Henry VIII (who employed Jewish Scholars to look for something – anything – within religious texts that would enable him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This was before he’d thought up the convenient method of beheading them) they still married and buried using the rites of the Church of England.
Eventually they petitioned for two basic things: the right to conduct religious ceremonies and the right to bury their dead. A heart-breaking request reads:
|Velho Beth Chaim|
|Nueveo Beth Chaim - South end|
In the newer cemetery, The Nuevo, 'Keepers' were eventually appointed to maintain a burial register and ensure the graves were all the correct size. However, they did have another aspect added to their job description. They were to examine the cemetery morning and evening and “..not to suffer any playing, revelling or other irregularity” and to “observe with caution if any strange person attends frequently at funerals, so as to give cause for suspicion”. No they weren’t on the lookout for Sisters of Mercy fans drinking cider in white frilly shirts at midnight – they were on the lookout for pliers of the new trade in Bodysnatching....
In April 1786 several graves had been pillaged and the cemetery keeper was also reprimanded so the logical conclusion is he may well have been in cahoots with those Resurrection Men, turning a blind eye for a few coins. The solution was to hire four new night watchmen (two Jews and two Christians) who’d work together in shifts. They were given a watch house and a new moveable hut on wheels, fitted with alarm bells, which was placed over every new grave (I initially thought they stayed near to the new grave, hidden in this wheeled hut or ‘Bodymobile’ which they would use to chase the Body Snatcher’s, alarm bells ringing, until they dropped their loot but that seems more like a scene out of a ‘Carry On Graverobbing’ film and it’s not what happened here! However, there were some ludicrous moments during this dark time of cadaver theft. Guards were dismissed after being discovered drunk on duty, or because they fell asleep. There were reports of suspicious burials happening under the curtain of night, practical jokes being played on new guards and various shenanigans. By the time the Anatomy Act of 1832 came about and had rendered bodysnatching defunct, it was decided the guards were more trouble than they were worth and they were no longer employed.
|Carry On Screaming - a fun film for this time of year|