The Victorian splendour of Highgate’s Western Cemetery

Highgate is London’s famous cemetery – it’s the one that most people think of first when Victorian cemeteries are mentioned and it’s the most well known of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that date from the early Victorian period.  Its location on a hillside overlooking the towers of central London draws thousands of visitors, and the overgrown western cemetery has inspired quite a few chilling tales over the years.  Although it retains the glamour and prestige it commanded in its heyday, Highgate looks quite different now compared to its Victorian beginnings.  Despite the many years of neglect (now being remedied by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery), this wonderful burial ground is still one of the finest locations of Victorian funerary architecture in Britain.

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There are actually two cemeteries at Highgate – the eastern and western cemeteries.  It’s in the eastern cemetery that you will find most of the graves of famous people: Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot, Eric Hobsbawm, Malcolm McLaren and Claudia Jones all rest there.  The western cemetery is a little older, and considerably more overgrown.  It is only accessible to visitors by guided tour, and it’s the section of Highgate that has over the years given us the rumours of vampires and dark goings-on.

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The western cemetery was opened in 1839 by the London Cemetery Company, as one of the new suburban cemeteries provided to ease the chronic lack of burial space in London.  Its location, close to the well-heeled areas of Highgate and Hampstead, meant that many of London’s wealthy inhabitants were laid to rest at Highgate – and their graves marked with grand monuments.

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The entrance to the cemetery is flanked by two chapels – one for Anglicans, one for Nonconformists.  Similar double chapels, with a large arch in the centre, are quite common in Victorian cemeteries.  The arch, as well as separating the two chapels, acted as shelter for people arriving at the chapels in wet weather.  Today, the Anglican chapel at Highgate is still used for funerals, meetings and concerts, while the slightly smaller Nonconformist chapel is no longer in use as a chapel.

Inside the Anglican chapel
Inside the Anglican chapel

I was fortunate enough to visit Highgate West earlier this summer as part of a tour group made up of fellow contributors to the Cemetery Club blog.  Sam Perrin, one of Highgate’s volunteer guides, took us around the cemetery, showing us the many interesting graves on the site and telling us fascinating stories about the people buried there.

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Highgate West is built into quite a steep hillside, which – like Nunhead Cemetery, Highgate’s south London counterpart – overlooks the centre of London.  It must have made for hard work for those dealing with the physical, practical sides of everyday life in the cemetery – digging graves, and carrying coffins and heavy monuments to grave sites.

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Highgate has so many wonderful examples of Victorian funerary monuments.  Grave markers range from simple headstones to huge, elaborate tombs that house entire families.

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A few relatively recent burials are dotted in between the Victorian monuments.

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Alexander Livinenko, a former member of the Russian intelligence services, was laid to rest at Highgate following his death from polonium poisoning in November 2006.  He had accused former colleauges of involvment in several high-profile terror attacks in Russia and his murder resulted in the cooling of diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia.  Litvinenko’s grave is a modern take on the Victorian “broken pillar” design – symbolising the loss of the head of the family, or of a life cut short in its prime.

The grave of Alexander Litvenenko
The grave of Alexander Litvinenko

After the Second World War, Highgate – like so many other cemeteries – fell into decline.  By the 1960s the western cemetery was virtually abandoned, its graves disappearing as undergrowth and new trees spread through the burial ground.  The heavily wooded cemetery we see today was previously free of trees, but left to its own devices nature swiftly took over.  Neglect of the cemetery led to people trespassing on the site, with monuments being vandalised.  It is to prevent further vandalism and damage, and possible injury to visitors from unsafe monuments, that the western cemetery is now accessible only by guided tour.

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It was in the 1960s that rumours of a vampire at the cemetery began.  People passing the cemetery reported strange figures among the tombstones.  Swain’s Lane, the road that runs between the western and eastern cemeteries, feels isolated and a little creepy, even during the day.  As one walks up the lane to Highgate Village, the road is flanked by high brick walls, and it’s plain to see how easy it can be to get frightened in the area after dark.  The cemetery’s gothic, overgrown appearance made it an ideal location for horror films, with the Hammer Horror film Taste the Blood of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee, being among those shot there.

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The Rossetti family grave has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years, and is one of the most well-known graves in Highgate West.  Elizabeth Siddal, wife of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was buried in the family grave after her death from a laudanum overdose in 1862.  Her grieving husband buried a book of his poems with her, but by 1869 he regretted doing this and applied to the Home Office for permission to have Lizzie’s grave exhumed and the book of poems retrieved.  Although he was not present at the exhumation, Dante was reportedly haunted by the decision to disturb his wife’s grave and wrote “Let me not on any account be buried at Highgate.”

The grave of members of the Rossetti familiy
The grave of members of the Rossetti familiy

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister Christina, one of the most accomplished female poets of the Victorian period, also rests in the family grave at Highgate.  Christina, whose best known works include The Goblin Market and In the Bleak Midwinter, spent many years as a volunteer at a home for “fallen women” in Highgate.  This “house of mercy” sought to rehabilitate women and girls – some as young as ten years old – who had been working as prostitutes, teaching them skills that would help them to secure more respectable work once their stay in the home had ended.  It’s thought that Christina Rossetti’s work with the “fallen women” influenced many of the themes in her poetry, such as redemption, forbidden love and sisterhood.

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In another part of the cemetery, some of the women and girls Christina Rossetti may have met whilst working at the house of mercy are buried in an unmarked grave.  Despite the lack of a grave marker, research of the cemetery’s burial records was able to pinpoint the plot these people were buried in – a small space by the cemetery wall, a gap between gravestones that gives no indication of the women resting beneath.  Eleven women are buried in this grave, the youngest being just twelve years old.

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A tree now covers the unmarked grave of eleven “fallen women”

A world away from simple, unmarked graves is the famous Egyptian Avenue, a stunning piece of funerary architecture that is famous worldwide.  Highgate West was laid out in the 1830s, at a time when the Egyptian Revival was enjoying a great deal of popularity, with Egyptian-inspired designs appearing on everything from jewellery to tombstones.  Lotus flowers adorn the carved columns of the entrance to the avenue, while the style and proportions of the structures are unmistakeably influenced by the buildings of ancient Egypt.

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The Egyptian Avenue leads to the stunning Circle of Lebanon, where tombs were cut into the hillside, with a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon crowning the scene.  The cedar tree is older than the cemetery, and it’s thought that the tombs around it have restricted its growth and in doing so prolonged the tree’s longevity, as many Lebanon cedars become top heavy and then fall.  There are two circles of tombs – the older tombs, facing outwards from the tree, are in the Egyptian Revival style, while the newer circle of inward facing tombs are in the Classical style, as the Egyptian Revival had gone out of fashion when these were constructed.

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One of the most distinctive graves to be found in Highgate West is that of the Victorian prize fighter, Tom Sayers.  Tom was a hugely successful and popular prize fighter, and it’s estimated that 100,000 people lined the streets of Camden for his funeral after his death in 1865 at the age of 39.  His final years had been marred by personal problems and ill health.  His faithful dog Lion, who was chief mourner at his funeral, was reproduced in stone to sit by his master’s grave for eternity.

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I first visited Highgate in the summer of 2012, and on this second visit in 2015 I definitely noticed that many parts of the cemetery had been restored and tidied.  The grave of George Wombwell, for example, was surrounded by bracken in 2012, but today the undergrowth has been cleared and the inscriptions on the grave cleaned.

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Sleeping lion on the grave of menagerist George Wombwell

Highgate is a famous place, and it’s easy to see why.   The fact that the western cemetery can only be visited by guided tour adds to its mystique, and although both sides of the cemetery carry an admission charge, they are worth visiting to see the rich variety of monuments, both Victorian and (in the eastern cemetery) modern.  The heavily wooded western cemetery, with its stunning Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon, is a truly beautiful place with countless stories to tell.  I hardly feel I’ve been able to do the place justice in just one blog post.  Maybe we will have to visit again.

More information about visiting Highgate Cemetery can be found here.

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Thank you to Sam Perrin for leading the tour around Highgate West, and thank you to Sheldon of Cemetery Club for organising the tour and inviting me along!


References and further reading

The History of Highgate Cemetery, London N6 – Jacqueline Banerjee, Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/highgate/1.html

Highgate Cemetery – BBC London, 10th May 2005 http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/10/highate_cemetery_feature.shtml

Highgate Cemetery – The Friends http://highgatecemetery.org/about/the-friends

Did Rossetti really need to exhume his wife? – Jan Marsh, Times Literary Supplement, 15th February 2012 http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article872671.ece

Highgate Cemetery tour guides reveal story behind deaths of teenage prostitutes who died at “house of mercy”, Ham & High, 9th June 2014 http://www.hamhighbroadway.co.uk/news/heritage/highgate_cemetery_tour_guides_reveal_story_behind_deaths_of_teenage_prostitutes_who_died_at_house_of_mercy_1_3629157

Victorian bricklayer Tom Sayers became world’s first heavyweight boxing champion, Ham & High, 19th October 2013 http://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/heritage/heritage_victioran_bricklayer_tom_sayers_became_world_s_first_heavyweight_boxing_champion_1_2904397

13 thoughts on “The Victorian splendour of Highgate’s Western Cemetery

  1. Sara James August 21, 2015 / 9:49 am

    Absolutely fascinating post. I have always meant to visit Highgate Cemetry, as I am a North London girl, and will be booking a visit ASAP. Thank you for your very interesting blog each week.

  2. Anne Guy August 21, 2015 / 11:17 am

    Thanks so much for a fabulous post with great photos….it brings back memories of the tour I did some years ago in fact the weekend after Litvinenko was buried! It is a stunningly beautiful place and if you haven’t visited do try to attend a tour they are excellent. In fact after reading this post I think it’s time to visit again!!!

  3. mysearchformagic August 21, 2015 / 11:33 am

    Really fascinating – I visited this place many years ago and have always wanted to return. I hope they don’t tidy it up too much though, its wild spookiness is all part of the magic of the place in my opinion.

  4. Alison Weathers August 22, 2015 / 12:16 pm

    Pass the teleporter keys STAT! 😀 It’s been so very long since I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Thank you for the superb photo tour!

  5. HistoryLondon August 23, 2015 / 8:11 am

    Beautiful post, and wonderful pictures. I haven’t visited for almost 30 years so must go again soon!

  6. Icy Sedgwick August 25, 2015 / 3:15 pm

    I love Highgate! I’ve done the tour so many times – once we even got inside the catacombs. I think Nero’s my favourite of the statues, you feel you could just reach out and pet him.

  7. Beth August 30, 2015 / 1:05 am

    Thanks so much for the post! I was there in 1985 when London – especially Trafalgar Square – was full of punk rockers – rode the train out with a girl dressed in all black with spiked blue hair and tons of piercings (since punk hadn’t hit the U.S. yet, this was all wildly interesting to me). Along the walk up to Highgate I met another American who was a photographer of funerary sculpture and taking photos for a book he was doing. The whole Western cemetery was active with many dozens of volunteers pulling vines because the place was completely grown over. The long and detailed tour was lead by a vivid & theatrical Poe-like man with wild black hair who suggested I have a closer look at one of the vaults in one of your pictures (in fact I have pictures of several of the same ones you posted). When I went over and put my hand on the wrought iron gate across the doorway to the vault, it gave way, which was terrifying and exactly why he had suggested that I go have a look – it always fell inward and scared the visitors. There were some completely bizarre tombs such as an underground family vault that had a glass window on top for others to look in – the family had been entombed placed upon their living room furniture as if they were still sitting in the living room together – the docent asked for people to look in, but nobody took him up on it – especially after the wrought iron gate incident. In 2005 we were in London for the “last” Cream Concert at Royal Albert Hall and I took my family out to Highgate to visit – it was a gray, rainy day and they docents were lovely – we had an iteresting visit in the gloom and my family loved it! Thanks for recalling all the good memories!

  8. con jamón spain September 15, 2015 / 5:47 pm

    Lovely post. The Egyptian Avenue was the bit used in the Hammer Horror film, correct…? Have you read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger? Great book set in/around the cemetery.

    • Caroline September 28, 2015 / 3:04 pm

      I’ve heard of “Her Fearful Symmetry” but haven’t yet got round to reading it – Highgate is an wonderful setting for a novel 🙂

      • con jamón spain September 28, 2015 / 4:51 pm

        The novel divides opinion – some saying it loses its way – but we loved it. The first chapter especially is beautifully written.

  9. Barb Drummond May 16, 2016 / 2:56 pm

    They are both fantastic places. Shame they told us we could not use the photos we took. Interesting how Marx’s grave had to be moved to accommodate the many visitors.

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