Anthony Fagin’s speech to Falmouth’s Civic Society about the Jewish Cemetary


Monday 22 May 2017


Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

Thank you very much for inviting me to come and talk to this meeting of the Falmouth Civic Society. I’m delighted to be here and especially so because a former chairman of yours was a very dear friend of mine, the late and much-missed Professor Eric Roberts. I know that Eric was greatly relieved that the management of the Civic Society had passed into the capable hands of his esteemed successor, Professor Mike Jenks.

I’ve been asked to talk to you about Falmouth’s Jewish Cemetery, a task that I approach with a measure of diffidence because I am neither an historian, nor particularly knowledgeable about orthodox Jewish burial practice. But I’m emboldened by the fact that Keith Pearce of Penzance has written an immensely scholarly book The Jews of Cornwall (Halsgrove 2014) which has brought together virtually all that is known about the history of Jews of Cornwall, thanks to his own painstaking research conducted over thirty years. There are important chapters on the Falmouth Cemetery, including a monument survey and extended family histories.

I should also mention at the outset, for reasons that will soon become apparent, that in dealing with the Jewish cemetery I will of necessity touch also on the adjoining Dissenters’ Burying Ground – about which I know even less! But here again I am fortunate that there is a recently published book by two young men – Rob Nunn and Tom Weller who may indeed be known to some of you – entitled The Dissenters’ Burying Ground, Ponsharden, Cornwall (© Robert Nunn & Tom Weller 2014) which also contains a wealth of information including a history of the cemetery, a monument survey and extensive biographies. I have plundered both these sources shamelessly in preparing this talk and hereby pay warm tribute to the authors.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, small, but viable Jewish communities grew up in Cornwall, principally in Falmouth, Truro and Penzance. During the two decades from around 1820 to 1840, which may well represent the high-water mark of the Jewish presence in Falmouth, there are unlikely to have been more than a dozen families – fifty to sixty individuals including children – living here. The same may be said of Penzance, with even smaller Jewish communities in other towns. Why then, did they leave their various homelands and come to Cornwall of all places? As Keith Pearce says, the Jews who came to Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a small part of a much wider migration of Jews from the continent. Most, no doubt, were escaping persecution, discrimination and the lack of opportunity. In many places in Eastern Europe there were pogroms (organized massacres) directed at Jews. Elsewhere the Jewish population was confined to ghettos in the cities or forced to live in strictly delineated rural areas. In places with slightly less oppressive policies towards the Jews they were nevertheless usually barred from owning property or practising professions and trades. Therefore, if the possibility arose to escape to a better life they would grasp it. Britain, as a comparatively tolerant Protestant country, offered freedom for Jews to settle and ply their trades in the rapidly expanding economy during the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

The thriving seaports of the south coast and the southwest attracted Jewish traders. Falmouth, in addition to the international maritime trade that was centered on its deep-water harbor, also had a flourishing economic hinterland based on fishing, agriculture and mining. Jews were welcomed and even encouraged to settle here. Their trading skills and linguistic abilities were a distinct advantage in this cosmopolitan town. The occupations followed by the Jews of Cornwall, as elsewhere, tended to be those that were portable and relatively easy to re-establish, should the need to move on arise. In addition to general merchant they included such occupations as jeweller, silversmith, goldsmith, watch- and clockmaker and tailor.

Most of the Jews coming to Cornwall would have arrived in Harwich and then travelled through London to the southwest. As to where they came from, they comprised in the main, Jews from Alsace, the Netherlands and Germany, especially the Rhineland. The tolerant attitude of the population of Falmouth, long accustomed to dealing with people coming ashore from foreign parts, enabled the Jewish traders to integrate into Cornish life without necessarily becoming assimilated through marriage. They joined and in several cases went on to establish and even to head important civic and private societies such as the Freemasons.

From the mid-nineteenth century, however, as the economy of Falmouth began to decline, so the Jewish community dwindled. By 1880, the synagogue that they had established in 1808 on Smithick Hill overlooking the harbour was closed, although the lovely Georgian building that it occupied remains to this day.

Falmouth’s historic Jewish Cemetery had been established here in the early- to mid- eighteenth century, around the same time as the adjoining Dissenters’ Burying Ground, on land granted to both religious communities by Sir Frances Basset, Lord de Dunstanville. Both of these historic cemeteries are designated as Scheduled Monuments. The Jewish Cemetery contains about sixty graves, some of them unmarked. It is difficult to be too precise about the size of population that this represents because, as Keith Pearce writes, the cemetery was in use for two centuries during which time many of the local Jewish population would have been itinerant and some would have moved away.

In the entire UK there are only about twenty-five surviving Jewish burial grounds that pre-date the early nineteenth century, of which seven are to be found in the southwest. The first Jews to settle in Falmouth arrived in the 1740s, encouraged by one Alexander Moses (1715-1791), known as Zender Falmouth. He is buried here. The oldest surviving Jewish headstone in this cemetery, and possibly in all of Cornwall, was discovered recently. Uniquely it is made of granite rather than slate or fine-grained sandstone and although the inscription is no longer decipherable, it is thought to belong to one Esther Elias who died in the late 1780s. There are almost certainly earlier burials dating back to the1750s perhaps, but in unmarked graves. The last burial took place in 1913. A photograph of the slate headstone of Nathan Vos (1833-1913) appears in Keith Pearce’s book.  It was standing and intact when the photograph was taken in 1999.  Today, however, it lies shattered on the ground, having been deliberately smashed into many fragments.

Headstone inscriptions dating from before 1838 are exclusively in Hebrew with dates written according to the Jewish tradition. Later headstones also incorporate English with secularised dates. Two of the oldest headstones are Listed Grade II. The ornate and beautiful Hebrew inscriptions were expertly carved by local craftsmen, presumably non-Jews using templates. Some of the headstones carry an incised trademark OLVER of FALMOUTH. It is touching that at least four members of the Olver family are themselves buried in the adjoining Dissenters’ Burying Ground.

Zender Falmouth belonged to the Moses family. Members of other principal Falmouth Jewish families buried here include the Woolf family, the Solomon family, the Joseph and Levy families and the Jacob family. Keith Pearce’s book contains extensive family histories of interest not only to the descendants of those families, but also to anyone curious about a long-forgotten community, some of whose members made significant contributions to society that remain relevant to this day. From the vast store of biographical material available in Keith’s book, I have selected a mere handful of examples in order to provide a taster.

Alexander (or Henry) Moses (Zender Falmouth: c1715-1791) provided the community that he had been instrumental in establishing with an economic system which sent Jewish tradesmen from Falmouth out into the surrounding villages and towns, thus expanding opportunities and incomes. He had been born in Alsace, where he married Phoebe, possibly a relative. He is thought to have come to Cornwall from London in around 1740 at the age of 25. By 1751 he had become a founder member and warden of the Falmouth Masonic Lodge. Alexander Moses was a silversmith by trade and, it would seem, recruited pedlars and hawkers both to work for him in return for loans and also to make up the necessary minyan (quorum of 10 men) for Sabbath services. He might in some cases have arranged marriages for his employees to suitable girls. Then as each of these pedlars paid off his debt and had saved enough money, he would in turn buy his own shop and, in the same way, employ pedlars to sell his goods. Other pedlars would travel around Cornwall with pack-horses, lodging at certain inns.

Alexander Moses and his family were connected through marriage to most of the Falmouth resident Jewish families whose lineages can be traced back to him.

The Hebrew inscription on his gravestone may be transcribed into English as follows:

May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. Here dwells and takes delight a faithful man, a leader and guide; a shield to his generation with his body, his blood and his flesh. His house was open and his table laid for all. He stood righteously until the Lord, in whom he trusted, gathered him. Alexander the son of Moses. Died on the 24th and was buried on the 25th Nisan 5551.’

(Thursday 28th April 1791.)

The last burial in the Jewish Cemetery was that of Nathan Vos. He had been born in the Netherlands in 1833. Before coming to Cornwall he had lived in South Wales where he had worked as a spectacle-maker. He was a Freemason, a ship’s chandler and an innkeeper, having been associated with the Truscott’s Pier Hotel in Quay Street (also known as the Marine Hotel, Quay Hill) and the Greyhound Hotel, Church Street, which he ran with his wife, Mary Ann Maclenaer. She had been born in Falmouth in 1840 and was not Jewish.

His gravestone carries the following bilingual inscription:

Hebrew: ‘Here lies Nathan the son of Meir Vos. He died on Wednesday 28th Tishri. May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.’

English: In loving memory of my dearly beloved husband, Nathan Vos, born 25th April 1833, who died on 28th Tishri 5674, 29th October 1913, aged 80 years. Gone but not forgotten.’

A name familiar to many in Falmouth and elsewhere in Cornwall is that of de Pass. It appears as street names and on public buildings to mark the extensive charitable bequests made by Alfred de Pass. The de Pass family were Marrano Jews who, in medieval Spain had outwardly professed Christianity in order to avoid persecution while secretly maintaining their faith. Alfred Aaron de Pass (1861-1952) was descended from one of the many branches of the family who, having left Spain, established themselves across Europe and in many other parts of the world. A wealthy Jewish entrepreneur with long-established family connections in South Africa, he visited Devon and Cornwall on honeymoon. In August 1895 he returned to Falmouth with his family on holiday and was so taken with the place that he built a house here and moved in in 1897. It was not the family’s only house, but they apparently regarded it as their main home and spent their summers here, wintering in South Africa. The immense wealth that his father had accumulated through his widespread business interests in South Africa enabled Alfred de Pass to retire early, in his thirties, and devote himself to the serious (some might say compulsive) collecting of valuable works of art and artefacts. His great wealth and assiduous collecting practices enabled him to accumulate a vast treasure of priceless artworks. However none of his purchases remained with him for too long, for his acquisitive passion seems to have been matched by his great generosity. He made substantial donations to public museums and galleries not only in Cornwall but also to the great national galleries and museums in London, Oxford, Cape Town and elsewhere. Indeed the detailed account of his donations, occupying several pages in Keith Pearce’s book, testifies not only to his boundless generosity, but also to the catholicity of his tastes.

The justification for including de Pass among the limited number of family references that I have included here is not because he is buried in the cemetery, but rather because, in an act of characteristic generosity, he took steps while he lived in Falmouth to acquire the cemetery which was in a neglected state, and to employ people to restore and care for it.

One other name merits mention, Rose Joseph (1829-1887), a descendant of the Woolf family who married Leon Solomon (1811-1879) of Dawlish. They are said to have had twenty-three children. One son, Ernest Solomon, changed his name to Simpson. His son, Ernest Aldrich Simpson (1897 -1958) was an Anglo-American shipping executive and former officer in the Coldstream Guards who became the second husband of an American socialite, one Wallis Warfield, later known as Wallis Simpson, on whose account King Edward VIII abdicated the throne on 11 December 1936. The rest, as they say, is history.


Having suffered from decades of neglect and more recently vandalism, the two ancient cemeteries that lie side-by-side in Ponsharden between Sainsbury’s and the so-called Vospers site have now found a group of local champions. In December 2013 the Friends of the Ponsharden Cemeteries came together formally to protect, maintain and improve the condition of the Dissenters’ and Jewish cemeteries. In addition to local volunteers, the Friends’ management committee includes representatives of Historic England and Falmouth Town Council. The first AGM of the committee open to members of the public will take place in the Council Chamber, Municipal Buildings, Falmouth on Tuesday 20 June 2017 at 4:00 pm.

Since its establishment three-and-a-half years ago, the Friends’ committee has been working up ideas for the repair, protection and future presentation to the public of these important historic sites. This ‘committee work’ complements the substantial physical clearance work done recently on both sites, but particularly the Dissenters’, which had suffered from extreme neglect. Eric Dawkins, a former Town Clerk of Falmouth Town Council, had previously been responsible, on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, for maintaining the Jewish site. And Keith Pearce of Penzance, author of the authoritative The Jews of Cornwall (Halsgrove 2014

The Friends’ Committee, following detailed discussions held in Exeter only last week with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), has established that a sum of about £400,000 is needed to repair, conserve and present the two graveyards. We have already secured donations of over £50,000. Although this may seem like a creditable sum, we have a very long way to go. An important part of our forthcoming application to the HLF for substantial funding will be a detailed Conservation Management Plan. This is currently being prepared on our behalf by a firm of consultants, thanks to a grant from Historic England. In deciding on grant applications, HLF pays heed to the level of demonstrable public support that there is for a project, together with the amount of match-funding that has been secured. In our case, only £40,000 of the £50,000 just mentioned qualifies as match-funding. As part of our funding drive and in order to extend the level of public support, we are recruiting new members to the Friends of the Ponsharden Cemeteries. Membership costs £10 per annum for individuals and £15 per annum for families. Donations may be Grant-Aided which automatically adds 25% to the value we derive. I have brought along membership application forms for anyone interested in joining us.

While ideas are being formulated for the future maintenance of the cemeteries, including arrangements for public access, there is to be an Open Day on Sunday 10 September 2017 between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm to which members of the public are cordially invited. Tom Weller and Rob Nunn will be in attendance to welcome visitors to the Dissenters’ Burying Ground and take questions. And Keith Pearce will be doing the same in the Jewish Cemetery.

I hope to see some of you again on that occasion and perhaps also at the AGM on Tuesday 20 June at 4:00 pm in the Council Chamber.

Thank you.

Anthony Fagin

Hon Custodian

01326 218 810

07596 455 708