Highgate cemetery

Posted by Tamsin Wilde on

With the West cemetery of Highgate now being open to tourists for 'free range' visits, I thought I'd share some images I took of this beautiful place a few years ago. Highgate cemetery was established in 1839 and is considered one of the 'magnificent 7' cemeteries situated in London, created during the Victorian era to cope with the increasing numbers of the dead, with Highgate being the final resting place of the rich and famous. The west cemetery is famed for its the impressive architectural features including the Chapel, Colonnade, Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, Terrace Catacombs and the mausoleum of Julius Beer. The initial design was by architect and entrepreneur Stephen Geary, and the east and west cemeteries hold around 170,000 burials within approximately 53,000 graves, some notable burials in the west cemetery include singer George Michael.

Henry Gray, anatomist and surgeon, author of Gray's Anatomy.
Bob Hoskins, actor (Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mister Smee in Hook, and voice of Boris the Goose in Balto). 
Lucian Freud, painter, grandson of Sigmund Freud, and elder brother of Clement Freud. 
Michael Faraday, chemist and physicist (with his wife Sarah), in the Dissenters section. 
Alexander Litvinenko, Russian dissident, murdered by poisoning in London who, due to the radiation, his body was buried in a lead-lined coffin, 20ft deep. They did this due to concerns of residual Polonium – 120 used to kill Litvinenko causing contamination of the soil, but this was later found to be pointless due to the way Po-120 acts, it produces a lot of energy, but alpha particles as opposed to gamma that would be detected by a geiger counter (Po-120, being alpha particles isn't, hence the delay in Litvinenko's diagnosis) but in a confined space because alpha particles are easily blocked, for example by paper or skin. 
On the 20th May 1839, Highgate (West) Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England, and two acres set aside for Dissenters. 
The cemetery's grounds are full of trees, shrubbery and wildflowers, most of which have been planted and grown without human influence. The grounds are a haven for birds and small animals such as foxes. The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon (previously topped by a huge, 280 years old Cedar of Lebanon, that had actually stood on the grounds before Highgate was created, meaning the circle of Lebanon was actually built around this ancient tree, which unfortunately had to be cut down and replaced in August 2019) feature tombs, vaults and winding paths dug into hillsides. The Egyptian Avenue and the Columbarium are Grade I listed buildings.
Highgate is a beautiful place and you can lose hours finding all the different symbolism used on the graves, which also serve as a fantastic timeline of fashions at the time, with Egyptian themed tombs correlating to the explosion of interest in Egyptology during the Victorian era, moving into gothic style tombs matching with the interest in the architectural revival with the creation of buildings like St. Pancras Hotel which opened in 1873. 
During its heyday the Victorians would regularly visit the cemetery and its beautiful landscaped grounds for walks, but it was also common for family members to head there with a picnic, crack open the tomb and have afternoon tea with the dead. Still in their coffins mind, they weren't just cracking grandma out and sticking her in a chair with a brew. 
Since it was opened, Highgate was run by a private company, but during the 1970s it was found no longer profitable to run commercially, so was practically abandoned so nature took over and vandals had their day. However, in 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was set up in 1975 and acquired the freehold of both East and West Cemeteries by 1981, since when they have had responsibility for the maintenance of the location, and they offer some wonderful and informative tours of the cemetery I would definitely recommend before having a 'free range' explore of the place. You can still be buried in Highgate, but it isn't cheap. 

1 comment

  • I grew up near Highgate and would often spend time in the Cemetary. It’s a very magical place with so much atmosphere.

    Have you looked into the story of the Highgate Vampire and the history of Highgate and Queens Woods, being used for the burial in mass graves of the dead from the plaque.

    Looking forward to coming up to the shop soon.

    Redders on

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