SHEMOT, VOL 16, NO 2, JUNE 2006
At the top of Deane Road, in the Kensington district of Liverpool, stands a shiny new Lidl supermarket. Its pristine, tarmacked car park and shiny trolleys are a contrast to the piece of land directly opposite, on the other side of the street. There, in a wide gap in the rambling Victorian terrace, an enormous tree casts a shadow over the roadway and the gardens either side of it. The tree stands inside what used to be a semi-circular driveway, with an entrance to the street on either side. At the cusp of the semi-circle, behind the tree, stands a sad looking stone archway, which was once as pristine as the supermarket across the street. This is the entrance to Deane Road Jewish cemetery, which has lain derelict for a century. The tombstones it contains now co-habit with the remains of an infestation of poisonous Japanese knotweed, self-seeded trees and shrubs, a morass of ivy and refuse fly-tipped from the overlooking residential properties. Some tombstones bear childish graffiti, initials and insignia marking the territory of teenage vandals with nothing better to do. However, if we were to wind back the clock some 170 years and visit the cemetery, a very different image would grace our eyes.
The cemetery is the property and responsibility of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation (LOHC). Prior to moving to their current beautiful building on Princes Road in Toxteth in 1874, the congregation had worshipped in a converted house at 133 Upper Frederick Street, the back garden of which was used as a cemetery as early as 1773. Burials continued there until the establishment of Oakes Street Cemetery (close to the city centre) in 1802. The congregation moved from Upper Frederick Street to a new, purpose-built synagogue on Seel Street in 1808, and continued to use Oakes Street. However, this was small and an unsuitable resting place for members of a congregation rapidly growing in both size and wealth. It was later demolished.
In 1835, a site on Deane Street in the Kensington district was purchased as a formal burial ground (it would not become Deane Road until 1865). A huge, ornate archway was built to serve as its entrance, made of brick and rendered in stucco and stone, in the Greek revival style, designed by Sam Rowlands. The archway remains to this day, now as a Grade II listed structure. In front of this was an impressive driveway, with a small stone wall and cast iron railings with spear heads (also now listed). The cemetery was consecrated and the first burials there occurred in September 1837, continuing on a regular basis until 1904.
The congregation outgrew the building on Seel Street and, in 1872, work started on a new building, to be built on Princes Road. It was completed in 1874 and remains the congregation’s home today. Princes Road synagogue is world-famous for its beauty and musical tradition.
Liverpool Jewry produced some particularly notable figures, many of whom were laid to rest at Deane Road. These include David Lewis (1823-85, founder of Lewis’s department stores), Moses Samuel (1795-1860, whose son and daughter-in-law turned his failing watchmaker’s business into H Samuel), David Behrend (1792-1863, co-founder of Bahr Behrend shipping firm) and John R Isaac (1809-70, well-known painter and lithographer).
In the early 20th century, as the cemetery on Deane Road became increasingly full, the congregation was, again, forced to look for more places where their deceased could rest. A site was chosen on Thomas Drive, in the Broad Green district, and this continues to be used by the congregation today, known to all as Broad Green Cemetery. After 1904, only those with reserved plots were buried at Deane Road, and the last recorded burial there took place in 1929. The ohel (prayer hall) and the caretaker’s cottage were demolished in 1952, by which time the site was already in a poor state of repair.
PAST ATTEMPTS AT RESTORATION
Once burials ceased at Deane Road, the site fell into disuse, then decay and dereliction on a horrendous scale. The cemetery became a target for vandals and somewhere for juvenile delinquents to gather. As well being colonised by plants, trees and brambles, the graves became strewn with litter. The cemetery was no longer a tribute to the illustrious souls buried there, but an insult.
The closest that the congregation came to restoring Deane Road was during the period 1978-80, under a plan to convert the site into a “rest centre”. The plan, which involved the uprooting of the remaining tombstones, received the backing of the London Beth Din, following a visit by a dayan (judge in religious law). Liverpool Corporation proposed to grant the congregation £400,000 to cover the entire project, which would include a programme of job-creation for people based in Huyton. The only expenditure required of the congregation was for the rental of the skips. The site was almost completely cleared of foliage and, in November 1978, local photographer Sam Lipson was commissioned to take photos of the remaining tombstones before they were taken up. However, the funding was withdrawn and the plan had to be shelved. The congregation could not afford the cost of the maintenance of the cemetery, particularly in the wake of the arson attack on the synagogue building in May 1979, so the Select Committee and the minister of the day, Rev Ruben Abenson, decided the site should be abandoned and the foliage allowed to re-grow indefinitely.
During this period of inaction, the congregation was forced to deal with an infestation of rats at the cemetery, and also three instances of vandalism, where the boundary wall was breached and had to be repaired.
Some years later, a proposal was brought by a local organisation for the rehabilitation of female victims of domestic violence, to buy several of the houses adjacent to the cemetery and convert the cemetery itself into a park for the use of the women whom the organisation set out to help. Again, the foliage was cleared, this time by a working party drawn from the ultra-orthodox community in Manchester. However, fate dealt another cruel hand and the two women who headed the women’s organisation were both made redundant, so the project collapsed. The foliage grew back once more.
In 1996, the congregation was generously promised funding to clear the foliage, regardless of the cost. The congregation employed a local firm, the foliage was cut down once more and the cemetery was given new inner gates, at a total cost of approximately £10,000. The source of the original promise then only supplied £1,500, with the remaining £8,500 having to be funded by the congregation! As a result, there were, once more, no funds to maintain the site, and the project was shelved yet again.
THE LATEST PROJECT
In January 2003, the congregation approached Ruth Webster of the Groundwork Trust, which specialises in projects such as this. At no cost to herself or her organisation, she set about raising money and encouraging new ideas for the future of the cemetery. Ruth used the funds raised to employ local ecologist David Holland to tackle the complicated problem of the Japanese knotweed that has infested the site, and commissioned various structural analyses to be carried out regarding the archway, railings and boundary wall.
In the summer of 2006, important foundations were laid, not tangibly, but in the form of personnel. The project came to the attention of a recently-retired local schoolteacher with horticultural qualifications, who instantly pledged ten years of weekly visits to weed and tidy the cemetery in a systematic fashion. This was swiftly followed by several local church groups generously providing substantial manpower on two occasions and the involvement of the Merseyside Probation Service, who tore into the excess foliage with a wide variety of equipment!
In 2007, local urban renewal organisation Kensington Regeneration took an active interest in the restoration project and a committee was formed to look at funding for the complete restoration and long-term maintenance of the site.
The project requires approximately £200,000, to cover the hire of skips and other waste disposal facilities, major structural repairs and renovations and re-erection of gravestones. Thus, it is not only a project to restore an old cemetery, but it is also a fundraising project in order to achieve this. The committee was successful in application for two small grants from local organisations and is preparing to submit a major bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2008. Much has been done to improve the basic condition of the site and number of organisations have expressed interest in contributing to long-term maintenance. Many descendants of those interred have been traced on a global scale, something thought impossible only a few years ago.
Finally, after so many failed attempts in the past, this time the future for the cemetery looks more secure. The intention is simple: to restore the cemetery to a condition worthy of those who lie within its walls, and to maintain it as such in perpetuity. Guided tours will be run for adult and school groups, historians, genealogists, descendants, or anyone with a passing interest.
An Appeal: If your Jewish ancestors died in Liverpool between 1837 and 1904, there is a strong chance they are buried at Deane Road. The project has an excellent website at http://www.deaneroadcemetery.com and project manager Saul Marks will be delighted to hear from any possible descendants or anyone willing to donate even the smallest sum towards this worthwhile cause. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.