The secret Plymouth graveyard unearthed behind this door with the aid of Google and a box of old keys – Plymouth Live

Posted By on July 10, 2022

City folk used to walk past the plain wooden door on Plymouths Lambhay Hill day after day with no clue of the fascinating secret that lay hidden behind it. It took an intrepid enthusiast to rediscover the long forgotten Jewish Cemetery that for more than a century had remained unloved and overgrown with weeds in the shadow of the citys Citadel.

When Jerry Sibley, caretaker of Plymouth Synagogue, received an anonymous complaint back in 2016 about overgrown trees in the graveyard affecting phone lines, he was confused. After checking the current Jewish cemetery next to Ford Park, which dates back to the 1860s, and finding no problem with overhanging branches, he started investigating the possibility of another, older, graveyard somewhere in the city.

Not Jewish himself, British Army veteran Jerry had taken the job of looking after the historic Jewish synagogue on Catherine Street nine years earlier. He learned about the intriguing history of the building - the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue still in regular use in the English-speaking world - which dates back to 1762, but had never heard of another burial ground associated with it.

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After dogged research he eventually discovered a historical reference to a Jewish cemetery off Lambhay Hill, but after searching up and down the road he still couldnt find any clues. That was when he decided to trawl Google maps satellite imagery to help track down the site, spotting a patch of green behind a high stone wall and the hint of a couple of gravestones. Rushing down to take a look, he discovered a mysterious black door, but it was firmly locked.

Back at the synagogue he asked if anyone could help and was offered a box of random old keys to try. Working through the likely candidates one by one, Jerry struck gold when the lock finally turned and he was able to scrape open the door to reveal a wild jungle hiding the final resting place of Plymouths early Jewish community.

Talking about his first visit inside, Jerry told the Plymouth Herald: I was really awestruck. The whole thing was like a wildlife park, completely overgrown, not just at ground levels but the height of it as well.

Volunteers helped cut back the undergrowth and uncover the headstones, with worn inscriptions mostly written in Hebrew, revealing some dating back as far as 1744. Armed with those clues, Jerry went on a mission to find out more about the historic hallowed ground and the stories of the past generations buried there.

Jewish migrants began arriving in Plymouth from Amsterdam in the early 1700s, aiming to journey on to America, but some decided to stay when they realised the potential for their skills, particularly tailoring and goldsmithing, in the naval community. The only Jewish burial ground in England at the time was in London, so it was deemed acceptable to bury those who died in Plymouth on the land of another member of the Hebrew community.

The Lambhay site, originally just a small private garden, was gifted to the synagogue in about 1745 by a woman called Sarah Sherrenbeck, and she and her husband, Joseph are both buried there. As the years went on, more land was leased to either side until the plot could expand no more and some graves were having to be used twice, leading to the purchase of the new site.

Today the walled Lambhay Hill plot is recognised as Britains oldest Jewish cemetery outside London and is protected by Grade II listed status. Along with the synagogue itself, it is also one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, especially for visitors from the worldwide Jewish community. Jerrys guided tours share the fascinating detailed information he has unearthed about the social history of Jews in Plymouth in centuries gone by, further embellished by an entertaining audio trail describing the lives of some of those buried there.

It includes the charming story of the final, and rather unusual, burial at the cemetery. Jerrys black and white cat, Barney, had become part of the furniture at the synagogue, following the caretaker around and greeting the congregation as they arrived or left the building. When the popular feline died at Passover, Jerry asked for special permission to bury him near the entrance to the old cemetery, which is where his grave is now marked with his name in white on a black headstone and the words Guardian of the Threshold. The whole congregation turned out for his burial.

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The secret Plymouth graveyard unearthed behind this door with the aid of Google and a box of old keys - Plymouth Live

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