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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Stonemasons and Monumental Masons

A recent message on one of the forums reminded that for, some time, I had been mulling over a piece about Stonemasons.  Who and where were they? What were the particular skills of their craft? Was this a trade (or craft) that was handed down from father to son, or could any likely lad become apprenticed? 

It is believed that the early stones were carved by local, non-Jewish, stone masons and that the bereaved family would visit the mason, look round his work and select something that most closely matched their needs. Certainly it’s fair to say that there are symbols that are used both on Jewish headstones as well as Christian ones, and similar themes, in particular those representing a young life lost with broken columns, cut flowers, cut branches etc.

I wonder how they managed with the Hebrew inscriptions and whether that would explain some of the anomalies that crop up from time to time? Did the deceased’s family write out the Hebrew for the stone mason to try and copy?

It seems more likely that it would have been  the responsibility of a Synagogue functionary since, according to the Laws of the Congregation of the Hambro Synagogue published in 1844, the Rabbi of the Burial Society would check all inscriptions, before they were engraved, to ensure that the wording was correct and proper. In the event that  he allowed a stone or tomb to be set that contained an error, he would apparently have been liable to pay for any alterations or corrections; a powerful incentive to get it right!   

It would clearly be extremely difficult to trace these early masons but slightly simpler to find out about more recent practitioners

We have on site the details of James Samuel founder of J. Samuel and Son monumental masons who lived at Jews Burial Ground, Stepney according to the 1841 and 1851 census.

In 1873 J. Samuel and Son advertise as Monumental Masons and undertakers at 147 Sidney Street, Mile End. Established over fifty years (so before 1823) and providing headstones, tombs and monuments for all cemeteries, in stone, Aberdeen granite and marble, with the 'imperishable lead letters'. Although I doubt any one came back to complain I think its fair to say that the lead letters were not entirely imperishable.

Other's I have found are:

Barnett LEVY stonemason of Princes Street Coverleys Fields who had Sun insurance in Feb 1815.

In 1858 the partnership of John Lyons undertaker of 1 Alie Street, Goodman's Fields and Philip Levy, sexton and stonemason at Wellington Road Forest Lane was dissolved.

1861 the bankruptcy of Levi Lee 1 Carlton Road, Kentish Town.

1873 Barnett Levy monumental mason of 10 Sion Square advertises alongside J. Samuel and son in the Jewish Chronicle. A year later in 1874 there is E. Harris & Co at 1a Braumont Street, Mile end. E. Harris is advertising immediately below J. Samuel and son and includes in their advert "18 years at Messrs J. Samuel and Son"

In 1875 there is a change, E. Harris is now Harris and Barnett monumental masons. Their advert includes the "18 years with J. Samuel and Son".

1879 and John W Legge, sculptor of Aberdeen, advertises monuments and tomb furnishings, 'best quality from £5'. 

By 1883 there are three London stone masons advertising. A. Van Praagh  of Leman Street, Whitechapel along with J. Samuel and son, and Harris and Barnett monumental masons. All three saying that they provide designs on application.

1894 Directory has B. S. Polack of Bow E, Lincoln House, Lincoln Street, with his works at Gough Road, Stratford, adjoining the Jewish Cemetery: A. Van Praagh of 14 St Mark Street and works at Baron Sclater Street.: Harris and Son (rather than Harris and Barnett) at 1 Beaumont Street: and J Samuel and son at 147 Sydney Street.

Most of the above firms are clearly Jewish, but were the Masons employed to do the actual carving also Jewish? 

This is very much a work in progress and it would be greatly appreciated if any of you out there who have further knowledge of London Stonemasons and their history would make contact.

Sources: London Gazette, Sun Fire Insurance, Jewish Chronicle, Directory of Jewish tradesmen 1894.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The fascinating story of Abraham Isaac, died 1733

Whilst searching on the National Archives website I came across the mention of a petition regarding an Abraham Isaac dated 1733. It didn't take me long to decide that I wanted to know more so I ordered a copy the next day.

The petition briefly tells us the story of what became of Abraham in mid May 1733, sadly there isn't a great deal of detail, leaving a lot to the imagination or, better still, further research!

Abraham was travelling to, or from, his home in Dukes Place in the City of London when on, or about the 16th May 1733, he died from a fall from a wagon on Barham Down.

Did this take place on what is today the A2 trunk road? Was this his wagon or possibly the mail coach? What caused him to fall? Was he attacked by a local highwayman such as the notorious 'Black Robin' known for shooting down coachmen? did the horse take fright, or the wagon hit a rock causing him to lose his balance? We will probably never know as there doesn't seem to have been an inquest.

However, we can learn a little about his family. He had at least one daughter. Her name was Eve and she was married to Jacob Isaac, a baker in St Mary Axe, London. Unfortunately no ages are mentioned, but just to add a little to the story, we could suppose that Eve was at least 20 years old given that she was married, she may of course have been older, and that perhaps Abraham was 20 when she was born, so it would place his birth in the late 1600's.

Abraham was probably travelling alone, at least not with friends or family or any one that knew him or his background. Presumably he wasn't carrying any papers either and therefore the village was unable to easily contact his family or, if they were able to, it took several months for the notice of Abraham’s death to reach them.

In view of the situation the decision was made to bury him and on the 16th of May 1733, Abraham Isaac was buried in the Church Yard of Barham. The local church would be St John's Church, noted for its magnificent beech trees, an ancient church going back to the 9th Century and mentioned in the Doomsday Book.

Sometime between May and Nov 1733 Abraham's family hears of his death and place of burial. His daughter Eve then petitions the Archdeacon of Canterbury, humbly praying for permission to remove the corpse of her father, Abraham Isaac, of the Jewish nation, from the Church Yard at Barham to be interred in the Jewish Burying Ground at Mile End, London. The decree is granted in court on the 8th Nov 1733.

There is nothing to say when exactly the body was moved or to which burial ground although the grounds in Alderney Road seem the most likely.

This contemporary record of a Jewish burial takes us to within 70 years of the Readmission of the Jews to the United Kingdom. It occurred only 35 years after the final purchase of the Alderney Road Burial Ground and over a decade before the acquisition of the Three Colt Yard extension. But Abraham and his pack, lying on the dusty Kentish road while, back in London his daughter anxiously waits for his return, is as vivid to me as if his story had just featured on the late evening TV News.

Friday, 7 August 2009

GenPals Cemetery Project has moved address to

When we started the cemetery project we had no idea how long it would last, how much we would be able to do and more importantly how successful it would be. So the data was placed as an additional file on a site I had been using for my own family history under the address

Some two years later, the site has grown enormously and is still growing so we decided the cemetery project deserved its own address!

GenPals Cemetery Project is now at if you have bookmarks for the old address they will no longer work.

There are a number of new entries for Balls Pond Cemetery and other cemeteries so please take a look.