There are only about twenty-five extant Georgian Jewish burial grounds pre-dating the early 19th century in Britain. Seven of these are to be found in the South West, and, collectively, they form the best-preserved regional group outside London. Of these, the Penzance cemetery has been recognised as by far the best preserved and it is Grade II listed. It is owned by the the Board of Deputies of British Jews, London, and while, as a private cemetery, there is no public right of entry as such, it is maintained by the Penzance Town Council, and it has a permanent local custodian. The cemetery receives support from the Friends of the Penzance Jewish Cemetery.
History of the Cemetery
Jews first came to Penzance from the Rhineland area of Germany and from Holland in the early part of the 18th century, possibly around the 1720s, and at least by the 1740s. The size of the Jewish population of the town at this time is unknown, and, because the first synagogue was not built until 1768, their arrangements for worship would most likely have taken place in private houses. Because settlement would not have been viable without a separate Jewish burial ground, steps must have been taken to secure a plot for this purpose very early on. The earliest graves are thought to date from the early 18th century.
The cemetery contains forty-nine identified headstones, many of which are in remarkably good condition with beautifully carved and elaborate Hebrew inscriptions, only five of which are decayed and unidentifiable. The last burials of members of the congregation were of Bessie Joseph in 1900, and the family of one of the last Rabbis, Isaac Bischofswerder, who were interred between 1880 and 1911.
The history of the cemetery, together with complete headstone translations and biographies can be found in The Jews of Cornwall A History Tradition and Settlement to 1913 by Keith Pearce (Halsgrove 2014; ISBN 978 0 85704 222 4).
A short history and guide to the cemetery, written by Keith Pearce, is available from Penlee House Gallery & Museum. Click here for more information about mail order.
The Friends of the Penzance Jewish Cemetery
The Friends of the Penzance Jewish Cemetery is a charitable organisation formed in 2014 to better protect and interpret this historic Jewish burial site. By joining the Friends, you will help to preserve this important monument for generations of people in the future to learn about and appreciate. Membership is £10 a year for individuals or £15 for families. To find out more, please click here.
Portraits by Richard Pentreath of Rabbi Barnett Asher Simmons (1784 – 1860) and his wife Flora in 1832. Barnett Asher Simmons was summoned to Penzance by the Jewish community in 1811 to act as its Minister, Cantor and ritual slaughterer. In 1813 he married Flora Jacobs of Redruth. Both portraits are in the collection at Penlee House Gallery & Museum.
Access to the Jewish Cemetery is by appointment only. Please give as much advance notice as possible of your visit, as it is not possible to guarantee same-day access. Full details on how to access the Cemetery are given on the Friends of Penzance Jewish Cemetery website.
Visitors are reminded that this is a private cemetery. As such it is not dedicated to public access, and visitors enter it at their own risk. The entrance floor and grass surface of the ground are uneven, and visitors are asked to take special care, as the ground falls on a gentle gradient. If you have limited mobility, you should, if possible, be accompanied, and if you do not feel confident that you could walk on the ground securely and safely, you are advised to remain in the entrance area. Please walk only between the graves and not across them. The custodian or accompanying guide reserves the right to restrict or refuse access.
Any photography is for private and personal use only, and photographs may not be reproduced, published in any format, distributed or made publicly available (including internet or website presence) without the specific written permission of the Board of Deputies, London (6 Bloomsbury Square WC1A 2LP. Tel. 0207 543 5400 or 5436). The custodian does not have the authority to issue such permission.