A Constable portrait & a neglected cemetery in Ipswich

In about 1807, the Suffolk painter John Constable, renowned for his landscapes, painted a rare portrait. It was a painting of a very old lady, who lived in the parish of St Peter’s, Ipswich. The woman was called Sarah Lyon and she had been born in 1703.

Sarah Lyon

Sarah Lyon died in 1808 at the age of 105. It is believed that she was buried in the Jewish cemetery, close to Fore Street. A transcription published in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, vol. XL, part 2 (2002), of the few remaining tombstones, mostly faded to illegibility and all written in Hebrew, includes one to “The woman… 5565 or 5568 [= 1805 and 1808]” which might be hers.

Yesterday, because I’m researching the history of Judaism in East Anglia, I visited the Jewish cemetery. It took me some time to find it and I’m not going to give exact details of its location, because – although it’s hard to believe – there are still people anti-Semitic enough to want to vandalise it.

It was a beautiful spring day in Ipswich and when we eventually found the little patch of ground with a small number of headstones that remain, we took the following photographs through a padlocked, wrought-iron gate. It is a peaceful place, despite being surrounded by extremely busy roads.  A robin was singing within the brick walls that surround the graves. Some of the Hebrew inscriptions are still legible.

There was a synagogue serving the Ipswich Jewish community in Rope Walk, not far from the cemetery. The Jewish population dispersed (probably to larger cities) and by 1877 the synagogue had become so neglected that it was demolished. Ipswich Jews nowadays must go to Colchester to worship.

17 thoughts on “A Constable portrait & a neglected cemetery in Ipswich

  1. We visited that cemetery on a previous visit – it looked exactly like that.
    Shouldn’t the Jewish communities in the surrounding area do something about taking care of the cemetery – perhaps restoring the headstones?

    Michael Greengard

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that more could be done to look after the cemetery. One of the problems, I think, is that there is no substantial Jewish community in Ipswich any longer – the nearest synagogue is in Colchester about 15 miles away, as far as I know. I have been in contact with a local councillor about the subject and he said that there is still, sadly, a concern about vandalism which is one reason why its existence is not publicised. However, he did say that he would look into the possibility of putting up a memorial to Ipswich’s historic Jewish community and that may well be an opportunity for some effort to be put into the restoration of the cemetery. I will be reminding him at a later date!

      • Hi Susan,

        Thank you for posting the information. I am very interest in Sarah Lyon because my family is connected. Would you please contact my privately?

        Many thanks,

        Judy Hill

      • Hi Susan,
        Unfortunately there does not seem any way to contact you privately via this blog but I am interested to know if you have you heard any more from the Councillor about a memorial to remember Ipswich’s historic Jewish community?

      • Hi Susan,

        My heart leapt with joy when I discovered this blog yesterday and I read how the Jewish Cemetery still exists and has been preserved. My grandfather talked about it but never told me where exactly it was and so I have never seen it myself and imagined it had been bulldozed and had houses built on it years ago. Today however my joy has however turned to worry and I am starting to feel concerned about how this burial place is being protected for future generations.

        A public website like this is not really a good place to discuss security but two things in particular are starting to worry me. I have lived in Ipswich all my life and am not personally aware on any significant anti-semantic feeling in the town… but then again I am of an age where I am a bit out of touch with today’s youth. My first worry is that if this graveyard is in a secluded spot surrounded by high walls does a trusted individual actually enter the graveyard regularly (once a week or more) and check everything is ok or could any defacement or vandalism go undetected for months? Secondly, if it is surrounded by a high wall and heavy metal gates (as suggested in your blog) has anyone made sure that the Emergency Services (I am thinking particularly of the Police and Fire Brigade) have a telephone number and address of the key holder in case an incident occurs and they need to gain access?


      • Thanks, Ian. I think these are all very important points. I will approach the Borough Council, but I don’t live in Ipswich itself and so I’m probably not in the best position to ask about these things. It may be something that you (or someone else in your family) could raise with your local Borough councillor. I’m hoping to write more articles about Ipswich’s Jewish community and, if I do, it may kindle some further interest in the cemetery and the surrounding issues.

  2. I’m always suspicious when a council says they don’t want to do something because they’re scared it might be vandalised, and always think it’s just an excuse to save money. I for one don’t think we should pander to vandals – they are getting their own way and we are losing a valuable historic site to a fear that criminals might not be caught, what a sorry state of affairs. I may go down and see this later.

    • I think the council are genuine in this case and – given that Jewish cemeteries are still regularly vandalised up and down the country – they’re right to protect it. I so agree that it’s a sad state of affairs though.

      • Knowing where it is (I used to pass it walking to work) I can see why they would find it difficult to protect, perhaps it’s best that it’s hidden away where it is. I just get mad when we are deprived of something because of an inability to deal with a criminal minority.

  3. Susan, if you e-mail me,i have an interesting URL for you …

    11-AUG-08 Walls enclosing Jews’ Burial Ground

    Boundary walls to Jewish cemetery, c1764 with later repairs. In use as a Jewish burial ground 1796-1855.

    MATERIALS: Red brick.

    DESCRIPTION: The walls enclose the burial ground on four sides. Access is via an iron gate on the E side. There are two boundary marker stones set into the walls, said to date from the reign of George II. The marker on the exterior right side of the entrance gate is for St Clements Parish and the one in the internal left corner of the N wall is for St Mary Key. There is a buttress on the inner side of the N wall.

    The burial ground contains 36 tombstones of limestone, marble and Yorkstone, including 3 smaller footstones. The stones are all upright and arranged in seven rows in largely chronological order, and have inscriptions in Hebrew or Hebrew and English. Two or three stones have broken at the top, and the inscriptions on a number of the stones are no longer legible due to weathering. The earliest dated tombstone is 1797/8 (Jewish year 5558), and the latest is 1850. The stones are dedicated to members of the Ipswich Jewish community and other Jews from Harwich (2), Bury St Edmunds, Colchester (3) and one from London. At least three of the stones are dedicated to children.

    HISTORY: There was a Jewish community in Ipswich in the Middle Ages, but it dispersed when Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290. At Cromwell’s invitation Jews returned to England in 1656 and settled in London. During the Jacobite Rebellions some Jews left London to establish trade in the port towns, Ipswich being one of these. By 1750 Ipswich had an established Jewish population, and they worshipped in a rented room. By 1792 the congregation numbered at least thirty families from Ipswich and the area and they were able to start building a synagogue on a site in Rope Lane (now Rope Walk, erected through the generosity of two benefactors, Simon Hyam and Lazarus Levi. Many members of the Ipswich congregation were shopkeepers and tradesmen, involved in the traditional occupations of garment selling and watch making.

    Having built a synagogue, the community set about acquiring a cemetery. On 6 May 1796 they purchased a 999-year lease on an enclosed plot of land in the parish of St Clements from a bricklayer named Benjamin Blasby, for £28 and a peppercorn rent. The walls of the enclosure had been put up in at least 1764 and it was known as Rogers’ Court after the then owner. Eight trustees were appointed for the cemetery, headed by Simon Hyam and Lazarus Levi, and including two Colchester residents. It is unknown how many burials took place in the cemetery, as there were evidently more graves than the number of tombstones. One of the burials was Sarah Lyon or Lyons, who died in 1808 at the age of 105. She was famous for her ripe old age and John Constable painted her portrait in 1804 when she was 101 years old. She was said to be the earliest Jewish settler in Ipswich in modern times.

    By 1830 there were no more than fifty Jewish people in Ipswich and the synagogue was in poor repair. By 1867 it had fallen into disuse, and in 1877 it was pulled down. When Hermann Gollancz visited Ipswich in 1895, there were only three Jewish people still resident in the town. Twenty years later the Ipswich Jewish community was nothing but a memory. The burial ground was closed on 1 July 1855 under the Burial Act, and a Jewish plot was acquired in the municipal cemetery for future burials. After the closure the burial ground fell into disrepair, and by 1879 it was in a deplorable state, having been converted into a poultry yard and later a refuse dump. In 1893 the London Committee (now Board) of Deputies of British Jews took over responsibility for maintenance of the site. The Ohel (prayer hall) once attached to the burial ground had fallen into such a state of neglect that it had been claimed by a neighbour as his own property.

    The Board of Deputies undertook a number of repairs to the brick walls in the late C19 and C20, including rebuilding the top of the north wall after a severe gale in 1895, and rebuildings of the west wall in 1912 and 1918. By 1912, the firm of R & W Pauls (later BOCM Pauls) owned all the land and buildings surrounding the burial ground. After WWII the adjoining tenements were demolished but the burial ground was preserved and maintained by BOCM Pauls for the Board of Deputies.

    Four separate surveys have been made of the burial ground, recording the inscriptions on the tombstones and their locations: in 1875-1900 by Rev. Francis Haslewood, Anglican Rector of St Matthew’s; in 1895 by Rev. Hermann Gollancz, a Jewish minister; in 1980 by Dr Nicholas de Lange and Sarah Montagu of University of Cambridge; and in 2001 by Alan Coleman of Suffolk College. None of the tombstones have been removed since the late C19 surveys.

  4. This interests me greatly. My family in New Zealand has a direct link back to Sarah Lyon and her son Rabbi Isaac Titterman who I believe was also the subject of a portrait by Constable. His daughter Martha was the mother of my third great-grandfather Myer Ansell of Yorkshire West Ridng. Isaac was renowned for his hospitality to all who passed by his door and was said to have an inscription in Hebrew above the door of his house inviting any traveller to enter and receive rest and nourishment as an honoured guest.

    • That’s so interesting. Thanks for letting me know.
      It’s amazing that you can trace your ancestry so far back. Do you know anything about the Constable connection? Were the portraits commissioned or was there another reason? I would love to know more about this.
      Best wishes,

      • Sarah’s son, Isaac was rabbi of Ipswich, the inscription on the painting indicated the portrait was commissioned by the congregation to mark forty years in that position.

      • Thank you for this information. Unfortunately there is no longer a synagogue in Ipswich, but I know that the local council take great care to preserve the cemetery.

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