Treasures from Highgate Cemetery
A 170 year old cemetery is not typically on a “To Visit While in London” list. However, Highgate, a mysteriously overgrown and historically elegant cemetery should be a definite addition as it represents a unique view of Victorian tastes and social pretensions.
Curiosity is whetted by the some of the more fascinating tombstones such as Nero the Lion, protecting owner George Wombwell who was the English forerunner of Barnum and Bailey. His collection of exotic animals became a highlight of British town fairs in Victorian times. Over there is the column to scandalous George Eliot who deliciously shocked society by openly living with her married lover. Then shocking them all again by marrying a man 20 years her junior. Beyond that curve in the path is Elizabeth Siddal, the model for drowned Ophelia who is still so familiar today. And of course, bare knuckle prize fighter, World Heavyweight Champion Tom Sayers is here, watched over by his faithful dog.
And there are so many more tombstones tucked away in various nooks and crannies of Highgate. But perhaps the most important question of how all of this came to be, should be answered first.
Highgate was one of seven cemeteries established in Victorian times to accommodate a rising demand for burial plots. Traditionally, the dead were buried in and around the local churchyards that operated as the common focal point in smaller town society. To this day, old family generational plots dotting the English countryside can still be seen. However, during Victorian times something occurred that dramatically changed this aspect – something called the Industrial Revolution. More jobs were to be found in the factories than on the farms, thus more people were migrating to the bigger cities. More people in larger cities meant a greater strain on urban resources resulting in fewer available burial sites. As a result, burials beneath church floorboards, the re-use of plots, river-dumping and body snatching by medical students, became the norm. To counter these occurrences, seven cemeteries were established in and around London. Out of these seven, Highgate arguably became the most elegant and socially desirable of them all and today, the visitor finds many unique architectural treasures from the Victorian period.
One of the most interesting features of the western cemetery is the Egyptian Avenue that leads to the Circle of Lebanon (including an actual Cedar of Lebanon) and a subsequent terrace of catacombs. It’s a feature of Victorian individuality dating to 1839 and one possibly influenced by the European Grand Tours so common at the time. Further Grand Tour influences were most likely solidified by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 as demonstrated by the curious pyramid-shaped tomb below.
A contradictory segue here shows an example of the spiritual versus the earthly. The beautifully carved, sleeping angel needs no explanation as its poignancy is easily felt by all who pass. The other is somewhat more difficult. At first glance, one cannot tell whether it was a horse or a person being remembered. Apparently, the interred loved riding so much that the family thought it more fitting to purchase a horse memorial rather than a typical bourgeois angel.
Then there are the political statements. On the eastern side of the cemetery, Karl Marx still draws devotees and the occasional bouquet while in the various side lanes, lesser mortals jockey their tombstone for a prime viewing position.
One of the more emphatic indications hallowing the upwardly mobile even in death, is the Julius Beer mausoleum located near the Circle of Lebanon. Beer was a successful immigrant from Frankfurt who made money in the stock exchange before moving on to newspaper ownership in later life. Despite his success, he was never truly welcomed in society circles that saw his self-made wealth and “foreignness” as a tawdry constraint (conveniently forgetting that the same scenario had existed in society families just a generation or two ago). In a nose-thumbing gesture, he built a mausoleum for his family deliberately designed to overshadow the surrounding genteel Highgate statues. The approximate cost in today’s money is reckoned at almost four million dollars. As seen below, Beers’ monument towers over the Circle of Lebanon as a symbol of his success against the general hierarchical rigidity of the times.
Of course like most cemeteries, Highgate has its typical share of ghost and vampire stories that even link to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, although there are contentions for a more likely Dracula cemetery in Hendon. Certainly the overgrown tombstones and winding pathways create a strong sense of spookiness supporting these claims. Digging into popular lore reveals a Highgate vampire in Elizabeth Siddal (of drowned Ophelia fame) who died in 1855 and upon being exhumed in 1862, showed no signs of decomposition – a sure indication of vampirism at the time. Although more practically, her long term drug use may have been the possible cause of preservation. Another unproven claim is that the property grounds were utilized as a mass dumping site during the 15th century Black Plague. Allegations of burials of plague victims not yet dead but in a coma, contribute their support for supposed revenge hauntings.
Over the years, ghost hunters have claimed their own Highgate favorites such as a skeleton hovering near the gates; a white shrouded figure staring into the distance, disappearing and re-appearing nearby when approached; a tall, thin figure in black fading into cemetery wall or a purported madwoman roaming the graveyard in search of the children she murdered.
This aspect of ghosts and vampires could be tied either to typical Victorian fears of death or from an overactive imagination fueled by vandals roaming the cemetery at night during the 1960s and 1970s when it became overgrown with trees and other intrusive vegetation after its abandonment.
Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about supernatural phenomenon, Highgate remains one of the most fascinating places to visit in London and is a treasure of architectural monuments – many of which are graded I, II* or II – all graciously pointed out by the tour guides. This fine heritage is precisely why the Friends of Highgate Cemetery work tirelessly on upkeep and fund raising for needed restoration on these unique tombstones. Due to the specialized nature required for renovation, major buildings such as The Egyptian Avenue, The Circle of Lebanon and Terrace Catacombs alone require an estimated $640,000 in funds. Retaining wall supports, continued property clearance and general landscape maintenance are also making hefty demands to the fiscal budget. But while the overall need is daunting, help is arriving. Thanks to a greater public awareness of Highgate’s treasures, more people are visiting and donating their time and money to this notable.
Highgate Cemetery, Swains Lane N6…Via Tube: Take the High Barnet Northern Line to Archway Tube station. Exit station and walk up Highgate Hill (passing a statue of Dick Whittington’s cat) to Highgate High Street. Turn left after the church to pass through Waterlow Park —
— and walk through to the other side, passing through a gate onto Swain’s Lane. The gates to the Eastern Cemetery will be on the left; gates to the Western Cemetery will be straight ahead as seen in the below photo.
Note #1: A partial listing of how to find the more famous residents can be provided for a small fee. However, while it is very easy to get distracted, please keep in mind the very pragmatic need to stay on the beaten path when searching. The gravesites are old and the area surrounding them isn’t always stable.
Note #2: It is also important to remember that while Highgate is a remarkable venue of Victorian heritage, it is also very much a working cemetery with occasional burials on both the eastern and western sides. For example, one of the more recent burials was Alexander Litvenenko, an ex-KGB spy who died of polonium poisoning in 2007 (see Article here). Staff and management request that visitors be respectful of family members visiting those who have passed on.
Magnificent Seven: Wikipedia
In Highgate Cemetery – Friends of Highgate Cemetery
English Country Cottages
Monument Grading definitions
Highgate Cemetery Appeal – Friends of Highgate Cemetery