Friends Trip: Highgate Cemetery

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Posted 25th October 2019

Friends Trip to Highgate Cemetery

Wendy Milne, Friend of Watts Gallery - Artists' Village

On a chilly autumn morning we started our trip to Highgate Cemetery. Quite a trek along the M25 and North circular, but we arrived just in time for our tour of the West side of the Cemetery.

Back in 1839 the cemetery was started to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of dead from London, together with six other cemeteries in the city. There were also plans for an eighth, which was never built. The public were trying to protect the bodies of their loved ones from grave snatchers and the current cemeteries were so full that they were buried one on top of another. The good folk of London thought the gases coming from the bodies (miasma) were poisonous and carried disease, so they needed to be deeply buried. An enterprising company saw the potential to sell plots to families in a pleasant park safely away from grave snatchers and a lovely place to visit your dearly departed.

When we entered the West cemetery, what was once a beautiful park had over the years become overgrown, with many graves collapsing and monuments falling over. It was like entering the realms of a Victorian horror film.

Families who bought land there built vaults, crypts and mausoleums, in which many relatives would be buried. This was to ensure that all the family members went to heaven (or elsewhere!) together on the day of reckoning. The number of people buried is 170,000 in only 53,000 graves. Cremation was illegal and undesirable at the time as the body had to remain whole in order to receive its soul and enter heaven.

As in life, there was a lot of competition to show off people's wealth by trying to get the best plots (high on the hill) and the grandest monuments. The mania for Egyptology encouraged the owners to build an Egyptian avenue, with tombs either side, which were very popular.

Tuberculosis must have accounted for the majority of deaths in the Victorian times and many children died young from childhood diseases, such as scarlet fever. It was very moving to see a large tomb built by the Beer family, dedicated to their daughter who had died and left her parents bereft. The tomb had beautiful life-sized statues of the girl and her mother and the ceiling was gilded. The cost would have been astronomical. Elsewhere a young child had a pyramid (again, Egyptology) instead of a tomb stone. Despite the many deaths in Victorian times, families mourned just as much as they are now.

Another interesting tomb housed Elizabeth Siddal. She was buried by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with a book of poetry he had written during the time she was slowly deteriorating. This was later dug up by his agent to be published, much against the will of Rossetti - but this episode may have sparked an idea with Bram Stoker!

In the 1960s to 1980s, the cemetery was often broken into and occult practices carried out, including the breaking open of coffins in search for the alleged vampire which had been seen there.

We had a lovely lunch in Waterlow park's café and then had a quick explore around the East Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried together with many other political figures. Other interesting people buried here are Douglas Adams, George Eliot (people leave biros by their graves), Malcolm McLaren and Max Wall. This side of the Cemetery is far brighter and the gardens are kept more under control.

It is a fascinating place and a visit is highly recommended.
Thank you to Rachael and Tom for organising and Richard for taking on a pretty challenging drive.

In addition to unlimited admission, our Friends are offered special events, tours and visits. Click here to find out more.