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Monday, 27 July 2009

Never leaving a stone unturned!

Half-a-day for the photography - then comes the real work.....

It's just over 4 months since we visited The Balls Pond Road Cemetery and we've been working flat out on processing the photos ever since. So why do we still have three times as many on our "to-do" list, as we have completed and uploaded onto the site? Well, some of that is down to the mundane demands of everyday living - like going to work, ferrying kids to school and old aunties to hospital, completing the tax returns and booking the car in for a service. In other words, the minutiae of life getting in the way of the serious business to which we, and this site are dedicated

Sometimes we may get caught up in a particular story that leads us down so many varied and interesting byways that, if we didn't call a self-imposed halt to our researches, they could be in danger of developing into a doctoral thesis.

With well over 2700 stones on site, we can now link people across centuries, cemeteries, countries and continents. We haven't yet transcribed Jacob Magnus died 1888 and buried in Balls Pond Road, but the links to him will take us to his distant cousins, Nathan Joseph Magnus, and Judith [Gitele} Joseph Magnus, both buried in Brady Street, and will connect to several other families on the way. The research could be extensive and the links will certainly be many and complex: it will be a fine calculation as to how much time we allow ourselves to spend on this one family

And, sometimes, we just get stuck. For several hours now I've been peering at a picture of a perfectly upright, undamaged stone with not a single visible character to denote who it memorialises. And, yes, I've tried every trick in the PhotoShop handbook - converting to negative, playing with the brightness and contrast. You name it, I've tried it. The stone refuses to give up its secrets.

With luck, we may be able to match it to one of the names recorded on the excellent Balls Pond Road Burial Ground site but we feel we would be short-changing researchers across the world, who may have a personal interest in this individual, if we didn't work overtime to uncover at least a trace of the original inscription. So another day passes and the unprocessed pile of photographs in the "in-tray" is still way higher than the few completed and ready to upload onto the site. We had hoped to have Balls Pond completed by the end of August - but, like an ill-functioning Government Department, I don't see us meeting our targets! With luck we'll be finished by the end of this year - that is, the secular one that finishes 31st December 2009, not the Hebrew one that finishes mid September!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Brady Street Jewish Cemetery - a success story!

When we first visited Brady Street Jewish Cemetery back in May 2007 we took photos of the memorial to Miriam Levy, a rare, perhaps unique, example of a Jewish memorial with a bust of a woman. This, presumably is an actual likeness of Miriam, who has been described as a welfare worker who opened the first soup kitchens in the East End.

Unfortunately our original photos were not especially clear; it was a very sunny day and the light and shade made reading the worn inscription almost impossible. So when we heard that Brady was to be opened for a day in April '09 we jumped at the chance of a return visit, eager to finally be able to read the full inscription. Well, hopeful at any rate!

Brady Street is normally locked and the visit was made possible by Babs, a British-Jewry member, who lives in Australia and had found the tombstone of her 5 x great-grandfather, Nathan Raphael (1726 - 21 Sep 1808) on GenPals website.

On her visit to Brady in 2008, she had been unable to find the tombstone so, when the opportunity to visit London arose in April '09, Babs contacted the United Synagogue and organised for the cemetery to be opened. Here is an extract from her marvellous family newsletter:
... the morning of Sunday, 19th April 2009, was set for a reunion of some distant cousins at the grave of their common ancestor - just over 200 years after his death! I suddenly became very nervous, what if I still couldn’t find the grave? I anxiously re-checked Gaby’s instructions and downloaded pictures of the tombstones she said were positioned either side of Nathan’s. Both these tombstones were quite distinctive, with relatively clear inscriptions. I felt reassured; surely I had enough information to ensure success this time round. At the very least, there were several other graves of family members to visit I told myself while trying not to hyper-ventilate.

..... our group decided it might be quicker to split up and search separately. It was not long thereafter that my eagle-eyed husband triumphantly announced “I’ve found it!” As one, my newly-met cousins and I rushed to the scene. The tombstones on either side, we all agreed, clearly matched those identified by Gaby as Nathan’s “neighbours”.
Sunday 19th April was a truly memorable day for me too, it was an absolute pleasure to meet Babs and know that we had helped her locate the burial place of her ancestor and especially to walk around the cemetery seeing descendants visiting the graves of their ancestors. I fully understand the need to keep the cemetery closed but seeing several groups of families paying their respects to the those that died many years ago was a wonderful thing: how long has it been since these graves have been visited by family members?

Babs' visit was particularly special, as she had brought some polished stones from the Orange region NSW, Australia, where Nathan Raphael's grandson and patriarch of the Australian branch of the family is buried, to leave as a token of her visit.

Here is a photo (copyright K O'Connor) taken by Babs' husband, with Babs, and family members John and Julia, the polished stones visible on the top of the tombstone.

My time at Brady was nearly up so we took some photos of Miriam Levy's memorial from as many angles as possible and this time we were successful: the details of the main inscription are now included on the entry found here. As yet the details of her life and her involvement with the East End soup kitchens elude us.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Co-incidences, WDYTYA, Dreyfus and Balls Pond Cemetery!

Genealogist should be used to co-incidences and synchronicity, but it still came as something of a shock when I suspended work on transcribing the stones in the Balls Pond Road Cemetery and switched on the TV to watch  the 1st  in the latest BBC series of Who Do You Think You Are.  

Davina Mcall's maternal French great great-grandfather, Celestin Hennion, was famous throughout France for revolutionising the French police service. But his name was to spread beyond his native land when,  putting his job and his reputation on the line,  he took a principled  and unpopular stand on the side of Capitaine Alfred Dreyfus in the lengthy trial that was to split French public opinion and still resonates today.  The pretext for the trial was treason. but the underlying cause was anti-Semitism. See more here.

And the synchronicity?  Well, Balls Pond Road is a Jewish cemetery, and the last stone I had transcribed before switching on the TV was for  the infant Alice Kate, daughter of Arthur DREYFUS born Paris 1836.  Dreyfus is not an uncommon name in France and uncovering a link between Arthur and Alfred will not be easy.   But that won't stop us trying!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

An application for a disinterment

George Eliot John (or David) Johnasson, was born in London on 4 February 1863 and was circumcised at 149 Sloane St, Chelsea by Rabbi Asher Ash, on 25th February - somewhat later than the usual seventh day following a birth. He was the only son of [Moses] John Johnasson and his Belgian born wife, Mathilde, and grandson of David Jonassohn of Usworth Hall Durham.

There may have been other causes for the delay, but the late circumcision could suggest the baby was rather sickly? Certainly, the child was to die on 21st February 1874, shortly after his tenth birthday. Evidently, a much loved child, the stone erected to his memory in the Balls Pond Road testifies to his "Gentle Spirit"

The death of the boy's mother was reported in the Times of Monday, Mar 21, 1887; pg. 1; Issue 32025; col A ad. on 19th inst at Paris, Mathilde, the beloved wife of John Johnasson Mathilde Johnasson died in Paris.

Some time between her death and 1890, John Johnasson remarried Alice, Belgian born like his 1st wife. No record of the marriage has been found; their daughter, Gladys Virginia was born Kensington Sep qtr 1890.

And it is around this time, in March 1889 that that John Johnasson made a request to the West London Synagogue to have his son disinterred for reburial in Kensal Green Cemetery. According to the report in the Jewish Chronicle, the request was refused as "being contrary to Jewish principles" [JC MARCH 29 1889 (Page:8)].

What prompted John Johnasson to make such am unusual and dramatic request? After all, the child was the grandson of a representative to the Board of British Deputies and Kensal Green Cemetery, whilst apparently inter or non-denominational, was not a consecrated Jewish burial place. For a father to voluntarily disturb the last resting place of his only beloved son, it must have been something very powerful.

We know little about either of John's wives; Mathilde born Antwerp circa 1838, died Paris 19th March 1887 and Alice V born Antwerp 1864 died Kensington Mar qtr 1933 and if anyone has any information regarding either of them, or the burial place of John Johnasson died Newcastle upon Tyne Jun Qtr 1907 do please contact us at

Thursday, 2 July 2009

English Law v. Jewish Custom and Practice Marriage with deceased wife's sister

English law regarding proscribed marriage partners was based entirely on those laid down by the Anglican Church and stemmed from Henry VIII's reformation of the English Church. These laws almost exactly correspond with those set out in Leviticus, which, whilst explicitly naming the parties forbidden to marry, makes no mention of a deceased wife's sister. Thus, the status of such a union was arguable until laws passed in 1835 rendered it illegal in England and Wales [It was to remain so until the law was repealed through the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907]. See here for more info.

As with all laws, however, those set on circumventing them would always find ways to do so.
On the death of his wife, Elizabeth, it seemed practical for John Michaelis Barnardo to marry her sister, Abigail, who had been in charge of the household since her sister's death. However, the Bill which was to permit marriage with a deceased wife's sister had not yet been passed, and according to the law as it stood it would have been illegal. By coming to London and by having the ceremony performed in a German church by a German pastor, John Michaelis was able to avoid the legal impediment to his marriage, for as a Prussian subject he was not bound by English law. The full story can be found here 'Birth and boyhood and the melting pot 1845 - 1866'.

The Wesleyan minister, William Morley Punshon (1824-1881) married three times. His first wife, Maria Ann Vickers of Gateshead, by whom he had 6 children, died of consumption in 1858 and was buried at Kensal Green. After her death, her sister Fanny came to live with Punshon to help care for his remaining children. Over the years, Punshon fell in love with her but, as it was illegal in English law, he was advised to send her away and marry someone else. Punshon, clearly a man of honour, decided his only course was to leave England. Invited by the Canadian Methodist Conference to become their President and, such unions not being illegal in that country, the couple were duly married in Toronto in 1868. More details available in a Biography here.

Jewish law imposed no such restriction and, indeed, it is specifically included in the list of those whom it is permissible for a man to marry. viz: His deceased wife’s sister, but not his divorced wife’s sister (unless the former is deceased already). provides a summary here.

But a combination of the passing of the 1835 Marriage Act and the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837, meant that Jews, along with the rest of their fellow citizens, would have had to go outside the country in order to enter a legal contract of marriage: Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels were the most likely destinations.

This would explain why no English marriage can be found for Ernst Falck who, on the death in 1877 of his first wife, Helene Samuel was to marry her younger sister, Matilda some time between 1877 and 1881.

If anyone has any information about this marriage, we should be pleased to hear from them.