Formatted by David Shulman and first published on JCR-UK: 3 August 2014
Latest amendment of revision: 4 August 2014
Deciphering An Old Gravestone in Leeds
by the late Murray Freedman
Originally published in
ON the various occasions when I have visited the Gildersome cemetery belonging to the United Hebrew Congregation (UHC) to examine the gravestones of the earliest members of the Leeds community, one particular stone has always intrigued me. Constructed of rather dark stone and inscribed entirely in Hebrew, a number of its letters are no longer legible, and when I decided to investigate the history behind the stone, this posed quite a problem.
As a result some fascinating detective work was necessary to identify the details of the interred person to whom it refers. Next but one along, on the right, stands the badly worn gravestone of Gabriel Davis. the first leader of the Leeds Jewish community who died on 25 October 1851.
The first clue as to the identity came from Louis Saipe's A History of the Jews o/ Leeds (the original version) which appeared in instalments in Habimah, the journal of the Leeds Jewish Ex-Serviceman's Association, between 1949 and 1951. He tells of David, son of Gabriel Davis. being buried next to his father - but gives no date of death or other details.
Because of the poor state of some of the lettering, and my lack of expertise in Hebrew, deciphering and interpreting the text was slow and difficult - but very rewarding. I noticed that his mother and father are mentioned. which suggests that both were alive when David died. This gave me a tune period during which his death must have taken place: between 1840 when the cemetery, purchased through the initiative of Gabriel Davis himself, was opened and 1851 when Gabriel died.
The inscription further reveals that he was 20 years old, and had died on a Wednesday on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. Luckily, I have a program on my computer for matching Hebrew and civil dates. and I therefore checked it looking for the years when Rosh Chodesh Tammaz fell on a Wednesday between 1840 and 1851. There were five different years in which this occurred: 1 July 1840. 8 June 1842, 28 June 1843, 24 June 1846 and 20 June 1849. (On each occasion it was actually 30 Sivan i.e. the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. which lasts for two days.) I was beginning to narrow down the possibilities.
I looked for burial records attesting to David's burial but unfortunately, apart from four individual interments, those held by the United Hebrew Congregation do not go back earlier than 1851, and there is not even a written record of the burial of Gabriel Davis which took place in that year. My next port of call was Leeds Reference Library to examine the St. Catherine's House Index of Registrations it holds on microfilm. This is the index of all births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, going back to 1837 when registration was introduced. I eventually found the entry for David Davis; his death had been registered in the June quarter of 1842.
I then decided to look at the local newspapers of the time to see if there was any obituary notice to confirm the date of death. and found one in the 11 June issue of the Leeds Intelligencer. It read as follows: "On Wednesday last, David Davis, aged 19, eldest son of Mr. G. Davis, of Mount Preston, optician in this town." (Mount Preston, now called Mount Preston Street. is on the campus of Leeds University just around the corner from Hillel House.)
The actual Hebrew inscription is quite remarkable and is written in the form of a poem. After the deceased's name. there are 10 lines of text with an extra line at the bottom giving the year of death. All 10 lines end with a rhyme, the last words of the first four ending with the letter Hay, and the last words of the next six ending with the letter Vav. Furthermore the name David hen Gavriel, appears as an acrostic composed of the first letters of each line. In the bottom line there is a most ingenious reference to the year in the form of a quotation taken from Psalm 104, Barchi Nafshi (which is recited on Rosh Chodesh and some Shabbat afternoons), of part of verse 33: "I will sing to Hashem as long as I live."
Although some of the other lines in the poem are actually biblical quotations or based on them, I could not at first recognise the relevance of this particular quotation to the year of death. Then 1 noticed that it was not quite an accurate quotation in that it begins with a Vav, making the translation into: "And I will sing ...". I counted up the numerical values of all the letters of the words. of the original quotation, according to Gematria, and the total came to 596. Adding the extra Vav (= 6) brought the total to 602 and that provides the Jewish date of 5602 (the conventional omission of the 5 is referred to by an abbreviation at the end of the line), corresponding to the civil date of 1842, which I had already established from the other evidence quoted.
There is little doubt that David was one of the first (if not the first) of the burials in the cemetery which his father had been instrumental in opening two years earlier. It is not known what caused his death, but the first entry of the four in the UHC burial records prior to 1851 refers to an unnamed young man who had died of cholera. Could that have been David Davis? Certainly his stone must be the oldest legible one standing in the cemetery. Whoever composed the inscription on it was a most talented Hebrew scholar and, other than the possibility of his father Gabriel, was unlikely to have been of local origin. Incidentally, there were only about 60 souls in the entire Leeds Jewish community at the time and there was no proper synagogue.
David and his five siblings were the fourth English-born generation on their mother Ann's side. She was a member of the Aaron family of Birmingham whose founder, Moses, was born there in 1718. Their father, Gabriel, was Bavarian-born and grandson to a rabbi in Pumbersfelton. Through his brother Jacob, with whom he came to England, he had family connections with Derby and Dublin. (In Records of the Franklin Family, Routledge, London 1935, which contains much information on the Aaron and Davis families, Gabriel is incorrectly called Samuel.) There was a relationship with David Davis of Glasgow, who was also an optician and who, as an early leader of the Glasgow community, played a similar role to Gabriel in Leeds.
There was another Davis in Leeds, Edward, nephew to Gabriel and David's cousin. At first he was a partner to his uncle and later developed the business into one making scientific and mining instruments that existed in Leeds until the 1920s. Saipe, in his History, claims that he was the inventor of the electric clock, but I have been unable to confirm that. Edward Davis was much involved with the Great Synagogue in Belgrave Street and lived at Far Headingley with his wife Louise (née Joseph).
There were no children and he died, aged 88, in 1895. A great-nephew of Gabriel's was Arthur Davis of Derby. He was an engineer and a self-taught Hebrew scholar famous, together with his two daughters, for his English translation of the liturgy in the Routledge edition of Festival Prayers. A sister of Arthur. Emma was the wife of Lucien Marcan, merchant and consular agent for France in Leeds. Lucien Marcan's father, Maurice, was the first Jewish inhabitant of Chapeltown (then known as New Leeds) in 1867.
The death of David was obviously a sad time for his family. It had already suffered the loss of another son 12 years earlier when Henry, aged 11 months, died on 14 May 1830. (He was probably buried in Hull where Leeds Jews were interred before 1840.) Death was a frequent visitor to families in those days and the Davises were to suffer further bereavements when their eldest daughter, Emma, died later in 1842. and another daughter, Sophie, who had married Dublin husband, Mark Marcus, in the fourth Leeds Jewish wedding in 1848, died soon after childbirth in the following year. David's death, on 8 June 1842 must have been particularly sorrowful, coming, as it did, exactly one week after the marriage of his sister Abigail, to James Cohen Pirani, the very first Jewish wedding in Leeds.
The text of the inscription has been roughly translated to read as follows, the gaps due to illegible words:
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