Highgate Cemetery. 31.11.14.

IMG_4986  As today is Halloween, I thought I would show you some pictures of what is said to be the most haunted graveyard in the UK. In fact Bram Stoker is said to have been inspired by it when writing Dracula. Several cult horror films were set here with titles like ‘Tales from the Crypt’. In 1975 the owners, United Cemeteries closed the doors and abandoned the cemetery after the place had suffered years of neglect and vandalism. The place had become notorious in the 1970s after tales of a Vampire captured the imagination of the gullible. Graves were vandalised and desecrated and the occupants subjected to all sorts of indignities. The story was that King Vampire of the Undead had arrived here in a coffin from his native Wallachia in Romania. ( The fact that this story was so lamentably lacking in inventiveness and originality didn’t seem to bother people very much.) By a strange irony instead of the dead preying on the living, you now had the living preying on the dead.
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Highgate cemetery, North London, was opened in 1839 and was the second of a series of seven cemeteries, now known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’ that were opened outside London and managed by private enterprise in the nineteenth century. London had become chronically overcrowded for the living, and even more so for the dead, who were crammed into tiny churchyards that had long been unable to contain them properly. The result was epidemics, the most appalling smells, and the new phenomenon of body snatchers stealing corpses for students of anatomy. When the new cemeteries opened, wealthy Victorians were able to indulge their love of wealth-display and ostentation beyond the grave. Highgate was safely walled in with gates that locked and a lodge to protect the dead. People spent vast sums of money on Gothic tombs or family vaults. The Victorian death cult gained momentum. Imagery was classical and everything Egyptian was fashionable. The impressive Egyptian Avenue is awe-inspiring.
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The Egyptian avenue leads to a circle of vaults and catacombs which has an ancient Cedar of Lebanon in the centre.
IMG_4971 This venerable tree was in the garden of Ashurst House. The house had been demolished in 1830.There is a terrace of catacombs built into the hillside where the terrace of Ashurst House used to be. It commanded fine views of London.
The cemetery became a favourite spot for outings. It had beautiful trees, carefully maintained flower beds, clean air and wonderful views.
The most magnificent mausoleum of all was built by Julius Beer. He was a German Jew who had come to England and converted to the Church of England. He made a fortune on the stock exchange. He was also a newspaper magnate. This was in an age when people were xenophobic, anti-semitic and hated new money. This amazing building cost £5000 to build, which is nearly 3 million in today’s money. The design was based on the Mausoleum of Harlicarnassus which was one of the wonders of the Ancient World. The doors are of brass. Inside is a sculpture of his small daughter, Ada who had died at the age of 7, being lifted up by an angel. The building dominates the top of the cemetery and would have blocked the view of the city which sightseers came to enjoy. So he had the last laugh over those who had looked down on him.
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It is fascinating looking at the sort of imagery used on the tombs. There are some crosses but they were not very popular as they were considered Popish.
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Draped funerary urns were considered tasteful symbols of grief and mourning and there are many of these. I’m not quite sure where and why this fashion for draped urns came about. It couldn’t be anything to do with urns containing ashes because cremation wasn’t practised at this time.
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Broken columns represented a life cut short.
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A weeping woman was a frequent motif.
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As you would expect, there are of course, plenty of angels. Actually, I  decided to do this Halloween post after seeing the beautiful angels on Debra’s lovely blog: Underthepecanleaves  Debra was  in a cemetery on a quest to find a famous Pecan tree and found angels instead. My favourite angel in Highgate cemetery is sleeping peacefully on a bed. This is a very unusual pose for angels on tombs. It is the grave of Mary Nichols  who died in 1909. Apparently, until the 1980s  she was completely covered by ivy.
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Animals were often shown on tombs. This little horse is on the tomb of Jack Acheler who was Queen Victoria’s horse slaughterer. No wonder the little horse looks so dejected.
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I love the beautiful mastiff hound on the tomb of prize fighter, Thomas Sayers. He was the British champion of bare-knuckle boxing and the match where he won his championship went on for four hours. He was a national hero and 10,000 people came to his funeral. His beautiful dog, Lion led the cortege.
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The lion in the next photo was called Nero. He belonged to George Wombwell who had the largest travelling menagerie in the country. He started his career by showing two boa constrictors for a penny a look.
IMG_4979 There are many famous people buried here but the one with the most bizarre story is that of Lizzie Sidall who was the auburn haired muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was the model for Millais in his famous painting of Ophelia.
maxresdefault She actually caught pneumonia after posing in a cold bath for hours at a time.
In the end she died of a laudanum overdose. Her husband, the poet and artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was so overcome with grief at her death that he placed a journal with his unpublished poems under her red hair in her coffin. It was a gesture that he came to regret and seven years later he applied for permission to have her coffin exhumed so that he could retrieve his poems. We are told that her hair had carried on growing and filled the coffin. The photograph shows the family grave where all the Rossetti family is interred.
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Highgate cemetery is vast and there are 170,000 people buried in 53000 graves. The older part, I have just been describing is the West Cemetery and you can only visit it as part of a guided tour. You have to prebook this as they get very busy. The ticket includes a visit to the East Cemetery across the road, which was opened in 1860. If you just want to visit this newer part you do not need to book in advance and you can wander round by yourself. The most famous grave here is that of Karl Marx which has a very impressive monument.
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Highgate cemetery is now cared for by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery who look after it in a way that wild life is encouraged and the paths are kept clear. Sycamore and ash seedlings which break up the graves are removed but ivy meanders round the monuments and there are plenty of other trees and wild flowers. The Wildlife Trust monitors the bat population and recently they discovered a rare, giant Orb Weaver spider, Meta bourneti which lives in the total darkness of the vaults of the Egyptian avenue. Altogether they have found 227 previously unrecorded species of insects here. These old cemeteries round London are valuable nature reserves, as well as being fascinating places to visit. I am going to look at the first one to be established, Kensal Green next time I go to London.

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51 Responses to Highgate Cemetery. 31.11.14.

  1. Christina says:

    Fascinating stuff Chloris! thanks for sharing this for The day of the dead or Tutti i Santi,

    • Chloris says:

      Thanks Christina, I am intrigued by the origin of All Saints Day which seems to be celebrated in countries all round the world. It seems that like many Christian celebrations it probably has Pagan roots.

  2. TheDigger says:

    Wow, fab halloween post. I haven’t been to Highgate Cemetery since I was a child- I can’t remember how old I was, but I was young enough to wonder why one of the Marx brothers was buried in London…. Anyway, I should go and visit again and take my own children (who have never heard of Karl Marx or the Marx brothers.)

    • Chloris says:

      I love it, did you think Karl Marx was Groucho?
      I should think your children would love Highgate, mine were fascinated by cemeteries when they were little. Or ‘ gravy yards’ as my daughter used to call them.

  3. croftgarden says:

    Absolutely fascinating, thank you for the tour. I think the Victorians handled death better than their successors. We may consider their rituals and monuments to be rather obsessive, but with high mortality rates and short life expectancy it is easy to understand how these wonderful cemeteries with their symbolic funerary art developed. The best should be preserved, but I also like the idea that they should be allowed to crumble and return to nature.

    • Chloris says:

      I think they have the best approach at Highgate with managed neglect. It wouldn’ t look right if it was manicured now. They do try and preserve what is left though, they have had an enormous job to try and repair the damage and neglect of decades. The mausoleum of Julius Beer, with its beautiful sculpture, had been used as a tool shed. It is probably a good idea to only allow people around in guided tours.

  4. A very topical post Chloris, and, again, very informative. It’s somewhere I’ve never visited before. It would not necessarily, have been somewhere I would have considered visiting, but it looks like a very calm and tranquil place. I like they way it is being tended, giving nature a bit of a free reign. So atmospheric! And so big!

  5. Happy Halloween, great post.

  6. Peter/Outlaw says:

    What a beautiful cemetery! Too bad about the vandalism, something I’ll never understand. Why destroy something lovely? Happy Halloween to you, Chloris!

  7. Flighty says:

    A most interesting, and informative, post and wonderful pictures. I have been there a long time ago, and as with such places found it fascinating to wander round. xx

  8. Debra says:

    Thank you SO much for showing us around Highgate. What a wonderful treat.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you, Debra for giving me the idea of writing this post. It was you and your angels that reminded me that I had these photos of the cemetery that I took earlier in the year.

  9. Alain says:

    Thank you for this most interesting post. I like visiting graveyards. They are so different from country to country and era to era. The Victorian ones are usually the best since in the XIXth century death occupied in the culture the same place sex occupies nowadays. The inscriptions on monuments are often very revealing. You could write a book about how wives are listed. I know a big column that has “Here lies (name of the husband) and his two wives”. The wives don’t even get their names mentioned!

    • Chloris says:

      Yes, there really was a cult of death in Victorian times. Their funerary art is more elaborate than that of any other period. How awful that the 2 wives weren’ t even worth naming. I love looking at epitaphs on graves and there is a wonderful 18th century one in the Suffolk village of Bramford. It reads: Bridgett Applethwaite: ..’ After the fatigues of a married life bravely born by her with Incredible Patience for Four years and three quarters bating three weeks; and after the enjoiment of the Glorious Freedom of an Easy and unblemish’ t widowhood, for Four years and upward, She resolved to run the risk of a second Marriage- bed. But DEATH forbade the banns, and having with an aplopeptick dart ( the same instrument with which he had formerly dispatch’ t her Mother.) Touch’ t the most vital part of her brain. She must have fallen Directly to the ground (as one thunder- strook) if she had not been catch’ t and supported by her Intended Husband. Of which invisible bruise, after a struggle for above sixty hours, with that Grand Enemy of Liife, ( but the certain and Merciful Friend to Helpless Old Age) in Terrible Convulsions, Plaintive Groans, or Stupefying Sleep, without recovery of her speech or senses, she dyed on ye 12th day of September, in ye year of Our Lord 1737 and of her own age 44.’
      Whoever wrote that clearly didn’ t like to cut a long story short.

  10. Really interesting post Chloris. I have never thought about going there but having read this I can see why people do.I especially loved the faithful dog waiting for his master for all eternity.

  11. Fascinating post. It’s nice that cemeteries can be havens for living beings, albeit non-human. Many small prairie remnants and rare plant species in this region can be found in old cemeteries.

    • Chloris says:

      Old cemeteries are wonderful nature reserves for wild flowers and for wild life. Last year a couple of wallabies appeared in Highgate cemetery. No one knows where they came from but it was obviously an ideal retreat for them. They weren’ t allowed to stay though, which is a pity.

  12. snowbird says:

    Oh….how I enjoyed this! The pics and dialogue are marvelous, I was a little sad when it ended, I could have read on and on….
    Isn’t it a simply fascinating place, I just loved the tombs so much, I simply must visit. There is an interesting cemetery in our village and some of the inscriptions are so hauntingly sad, like the one about a young boy who ran in front of a horse and carriage, maybe I ought to post about it….giving you the credit for the idea of course!!!xxx

    • Chloris says:

      I always find it fascinating reading the epitaphs on old graves. Some of them are so sad and moving, others are unintentionally funny. I think you would enjoy exploring Highgate cemetery, it is an amazing place.

  13. Julie says:

    Great post Chloris, as always really interesting and informative. I lived near here in my late teens, I had not realised it was then shut but do remember the reputation. I would like to visit now though and had not realised it was so beautiful.

  14. Chloris says:

    It is a fascinating place to visit Julie, but if you want to go, don’ t forget to book in advance.

  15. Cathy says:

    Cemeteries in Germany are quite different, so nice to be reminded of some of the hidden treasures in Britain. Tomorrow German cemeteries will be full, as everyone visits the family grave which will have been lovingly tended and decorated for All Saints Day.

    • Chloris says:

      Yes, Germans keep their cemeteries immaculate. I know Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg which is enormous. I believe it is very expensive to be buried there and families have to pay quite a lot for the upkeep of the graves.

  16. Anna says:

    Oh a most informative post Chloris. We tend to think of cemeteries as melancholy places but there is so much to discover in them. If you have not come across it you might enjoy Diane Setterfield’s novel ‘Bellman and Black’, which is a ghost story featuring a Victorian ‘Mourning Emporium’ founded by the main character.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Anna. Trust you to come up with a book suggestion. I will look out for this book. I have read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and I really enjoyed it.

  17. Tina says:

    I love this post. Thank you so much for the tour. The thing about European cemeteries is that they’re just so chock full of…famous/infamous historical figures. I love that your community groups play such an active role in the upkeep of the cemeteries–we could learn a thing or two here, across the Pond.

  18. Chloris says:

    Thank you Tina, there are so many famous people buried in Highgate Cemetery that I didn’ t have room to mention them all. The Friends of the Cemetery are all volunteers.

  19. Another fascinating post, Chloris! You have the blood of a historian in your veins. Happy Halloween!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Kris. I love both reading and writing as much as I love gardening, so a blog is the perfect outlet for me. It is great when something captures your interest to be able to share it.

  20. mattb325 says:

    Amazing post! Cemeteries can also be a great Horticultural treasure: so many old and lost garden cultivars can be found in their walls, particularly roses and other long lived shrubs that are often planted by families of the deceased.

  21. Cathy says:

    What an amazing place, Chloris – I knew a little about the cemetery (and not just from that episode of Only Fools and Horses when Del and Rodney accidentally painted the Karl Marx monument with luminous paint!) but had not seen pictures or heard all these fascinating snippets. It’s far more atmospheric than the amazing Glasgow Necropolis. Thanks for continuing to educate us.

    • Chloris says:

      I didn’ t see that episode of Only Fools and Horses.
      It is a really interesting place. I haven’ t been to the one in Glasgow but I believe Greyfriars in Edinburgh is well worth a visit too.

      • Cathy says:

        Ahah – we are in Edinburgh again in a few weeks so I have made a mental note of that ps the paint was a job lot, I believe (not surprisingly!)

  22. We love visiting cemeteries and visit them whenever we can, but haven’t been to Highgate. It is on the list! Lovely blog 🙂

  23. Chloris says:

    Thanks Gill. I thoroughly recommend a visit. It is fascinating.

  24. pbmgarden says:

    Thanks for a fascinating report. Cemeteries are quite interesting but this one, especially so.

  25. bittster says:

    What an excellent post, very interesting indeed. You sometimes forget that there’s a life story behind each tombstone.
    Thanks for giving the tour!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Frank. There were so many more fascinating stories to tell about some of these graves but the post was getting rather long.
      It was great having a guided tour or we would have missed so much.

  26. I read a novel this summer that was set near Highgate and the cemetery seems like such an interesting place. The US doesn’t have anything that really compares. Excellent post.

  27. I do love a good cemetery, one with lots of wonderful old gravestones with plenty of moss and interesting inscriptions. The “fashions” in grave markers are fascinating, though I really dislike the modern propensity for shiny colored ones.

  28. Chloris says:

    I agree about modern grave stones I love the wording on old grave stones. Modern ones are all a bit boring. Mind you, I know someone who was married to a very lazy man and when he actually died after years of malingering, she put ‘Take it easy’ on his grave stone. I thought that was rather fun.

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