On 8 April 1812, a thousand year lease on a narrow strip of land, at a peppercorn rent, was agreed between Henry Street (who is described as a builder) and: Michael Lewis, clothes dealer, Henry Moore, jeweller, Jacob Abraham, optician and Hyam Israel, broker, all representing the Jewish community of Bath. The land leased had previously been part of an adjacent quarry, leased to Henry Street in 1807, for open cast quarrying. However, by 1812 the quarry had been back-filled, and this part of the site was destined to become Bath's Jewish burial ground.
Almost nothing is known about the early history of the cemetery. No grave stone shows any date before 1825, although at least one stone, now lacking any readable inscription, may predate 1825. The Bath Chronicle for 14 December 1815 does report a theft of the furnishings from the prayer room at the cemetery. We must therefore assume that by 1815 there were graves which are now unidentifiable and that there was a prayer room, possibly the present stone building which may pre-date the cemetery, as a single roomed cottage. We do know that by 1825 this tiny building was home to a cemetery caretaker: John Mackmanus and his family.
It is probable that by the late 1820s a larger wooden prayer house had been constructed in the area just inside the cemetery gate. This arrangement would allow for the Jewish tradition of bringing the deceased in through one doorway and, after reciting of prayers, out though an opposite door, into the cemetery, for burial. A blocked alcove in the boundary wall, at a point that would have been within the wooden building could possibly have held a wash basin, to enable fulfilment of the Jewish requirement to wash ones hands when leaving the burial ground.
Today, there is no trace of the wooden prayer house or the extensions to the cottage. However, there are some deep drillings into the north east corner of the stone cottage, possibly for fixings of the upright timbers. Also, in the cemetery boundary wall, and just above present ground level, there is a filled-in square recess that could have supported the massive bressemer beam upon which the joists of the wooden floor of the prayer house would have rested.
Local records show that the surviving stone building was periodically occupied by families. In 1851, James Hillier, quarryman, occupied the tiny building with his wife and four young children. Mrs Hillier is described as laundress, and one can only imagine that she dried the clothing in her care between the graves. The cottage continued to be occupied by a caretaker periodically until about 1927. Whether the cottage had any occasional ritual use remains uncertain. Laying out of the dead may well have more often been carried out at the place of death, and as burial would normally have occurred within twenty four hours of death (to comply with Jewish law) it is possible that the deceased would have been kept at the prayer house during the night before interment.
In 1861, the tiny cemetery, as originally purchased in 1812, must have been nearly full, and the already dwindling Bath Jewish community set about raising the necessary £200 to extend the cemetery by purchasing an extra piece of ground immediately to the south. An article in the London Jewish Chronicle notes that the tiny community in Bath was having to support, and sometimes bury for free, poor co-religionists who had arrived in the town. Fund raising did not go well and by March 1862 the community was still £57 short of its target. Mysteriously, the great banking magnates, the Rothschilds, stepped in and donated the needed balance and the purchase was completed.
Today, the cemetery is listed Grade 2, and is recorded by Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1396344
We are working to research the fascinating stories of the people whose remains lie in the cemetery. You can find a list of the graves and their occupants here, and we will be publishing more of the stories as our research progresses.