Conserving Willesden Jewish Cemetery

Willesden Cemetery
Willesden Cemetery (© Michael Eleftheriades)

Ben Newman, Project Manager at Cliveden Conservation, describes how structural stability is balanced with historical integrity to conserve one of London's historic cemeteries.

Originally created for Victorian Jews of German and Dutch origin who settled in London, Willesden's historic 21-acre burial ground first opened in 1873.

Only recently has this still active cemetery been recognised as an important heritage site. Rich in both social history and architecture, it is the first Jewish cemetery to be added to the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. Nearly 27,000 people are buried here.

Thanks to the work carried out by the House of Life project - an initiative of the United Synagogue and supported by a £1.7m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund - the history, legacies and stories behind the monuments endure. Careful conservation and new planting are transforming the cemetery.

Cliveden Conservation first became involved with the site by carrying out a condition survey in 2017. Three years later, the United Synagogue approved the conservation of six key monuments, specially selected for their aesthetic or architectural merit or their biographical significance.

Those monuments include two of Willesden's Grade II listed memorials - the Rothschild and Rosebery burial enclosure and a tomb designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones - as well as a monument to H Samuel the jeweller. Differing in style and material, each monument was individually assessed to see how its visual appearance could be improved, but without taking away the patina of age. As well as carrying out necessary structural repairs, we strove to slow down natural erosion, and to maintain historic integrity without overcleaning, balancing aesthetic attention with structural stability.

By using samples, it was possible to determine the best cleaning method for each monument. Ammonium carbonate poultices were used to remove any black sulphate crusts on the stone in combination with a specialist pressure and steam cleaning device; this not only enhances the appearance of the monuments but also increases the lifespan of the stone by preventing damaging salt crystallisation behind the impervious crust. Our expert team repointed any open stonework with either a hydraulic lime mortar or hot lime mortar - depending on the material - to stop the ingress of water.

By taking a sensitive and considered approach, the future of these six rare monuments has been safeguarded. We have also introduced new specialist methods of care for other graves in the cemetery.

Hester Abrams, Project Leader and Curator at the Willesden Jewish Cemetery House of Life, said: "Thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to engage a wider public to share and protect the value of this special place. "Cliveden's sensitive work on just six monuments has already had a great impact on the appearance of the whole memorial landscape, revealing the beauty of these works of art and improving their condition for future generations of visitors to appreciate."

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A recording of a talk about these memorials with Ben Newman can be viewed at

Samuel/Edgar Family Monument

This decorative monument, styled like a Greek temple to commemorate jeweller Harriet Samuel and her descendants, presented conservation challenges - there was a lot of soiling, but also structural movement. As a precaution, we positioned stainless steel dog cramps in the back of the sections to stop further spread.

Henry Nathan Monument

This distinctive marble monument has an impressive columned structure, surrounding a decorative memorial urn. Subsidence had resulted in it leaning dramatically to one side. Structural engineers recommended careful monitoring to ensure that structural stability remains over the long term.

Before After

The Lewis Emanuel Memorial before and after conservation
(© Cemetery Club and Cliveden Conservation respectively)

Lewis Emanuel Memorial

With its wrought iron construction, this monument is very much in line with the Arts and Crafts movement. Metal expert Alex Coode suggested subtly restoring the monument with grey paint instead of the black paint originally considered, as this would create a more sympathetic end result. Traces of black paint were found to be from a previous intervention.

Tomb Of Maximilian Eberstadt

Designed by Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, this listed grave is not only beautiful but very unusual in its appearance. It was vital not to overclean the granite, to keep some of the character of age. The focus was on reinstating the inscription, with its stylised branch motif with decorative lead inlay, representing a life cut short.

Neville Family Plot

This family enclosure houses flat tombs made of polished granite; the surrounding limestone has beautiful decorative carved elements which were carefully cleaned. Any structural problems were resolved by rebuilding the pier and removing underground roots which were causing the structure to lean over.

Rosebery/Rothschild Mausoleum

Aerial bombardment in the Second World War destroyed the mausoleum over these graves. Miraculously, the original floor survived. Conservation treatment included rebuilding some of the coping sections and repointing using a course marble aggregate in a hydraulic lime mix.