Entrance to Highgate Cemetery West (with the Colonnade visible beyond the gate)
I’m fulfilling the start of a lockdown promise to myself here. I will over the coming months pay a visit to each of the so called ‘Magnificent Seven’ London cemeteries. These are:
- Kensal Green
- West Norwood
- Tower Hamlets
- Abney Park
The century leading up to the creation of the collection of cemeteries later termed the ‘Magnificent Seven’ saw a huge migration of people from the country to the UK’s urban centres as the Industrial Revolution brought with it work. This boom in city populations coupled with the Christian tradition of burial in consecrated ground in the immediate environment of Parish churches created untold problems. The City of London was greatly affected as the small graveyards of the churches in the area were hugely overcrowded. Often it was the gravedigger’s gruesome task to break up the coffins and the remains of their occupants from earlier interments to make room for new burials. Paupers graves would be dug that were upto 20 feet deep and these would remain open until such time that sufficient coffins had been placed in the plot to fill it. This could take a couple of weeks, during which time the natural processes of putrefaction were underway. The fact that demand for space hugely exceeded the space that was available meant that graves were regularly opened and reopened with the inevitable disturbance of the bodies within. Many burials were made that were just inches below the surface. This situation resulted in contamination of the ground water, a saturation of the soil with the effluvia of putrefaction and a general miasma of noxious odours in the environs of city graveyards. In turn this resulted in serious health risks to those people living ‘cheek by jowl’ to the resting places of the dead.
In 1839, English medic, George Walker published a treatise entitled ‘Gatherings from Graveyards, Particularly those of London’ in an attempt to prove the link between public health and the continued practice of interment of the dead in close proximity to the living. The work went to great lengths to describe the practices of the ancient civilisations in this respect, almost all of which forbade burials within religious buildings and in many cases even within city walls. Indeed, this was also true within the Christian faith, however, with time the laws laid down on the subject of burials were increasingly overlooked. Initially, pious men could with ecclesiastical approval be buried in the outer parts of their churches. Later this privilege was extended to those of great wealth and status that contributed to the foundation of their churches. Eventually, internal burials encroached on the interiors of churches such that celebrant’s were standing on the flagstones underneath which lay the remains of their fellow Christian congregation.
Title page of George Walker's work highlighting the dangers of interment of the dead in close proximity to the living (1839).
The crisis was recognized and wealthy entrepreneurial businessmen were quick to offer solutions to London’s dilemma. One such set up was the London Cemetery Company established as a result of an 1836 Act of Parliament. The Company was charged with the construction of a purpose built cemetery outside of the city (it was many years before the villages selected as locations for these necropolises were subsumed by the sprawl of Greater London). The first for the London Cemetery Company was Highgate to the north of the city, soon to be followed by a second, Nunhead, to the south. Subsequent Acts of Parliament resulted in what are now regarded as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries that ring the City of London.
Locations of the 'Magnificent Seven' garden cemeteries that surround the City of London.
In 1839, within Highgate, 15 acres of the 17 acre site were consecrated for the burial of members of the Church of England whilst 2 acres were set aside for Dissenter burials (those of Christian faith outside of the C of E).
The Important thing to remember about Victorian society is that they were obsessed with death! How one’s death was managed was a matter of utmost importance to Victorian’s both rich and poor. A plot, marker and funeral were something to be saved for throughout life. Naturally, in a society that placed a great emphasis on social standing, those that could afford to do so went big when it came to the funerary arrangement and remembrance of loved ones. The Cemetery Companies offered many options to those planning for the afterlife. The ‘menu’ offered to the bereaved was extensive, costing grand family mausoleums to single plot graves. Death may be the great leveler but it was certainly possible to make a distinction in the manner of your family memorial.
Aside from the variety in terms of grandeur of graves and tombs to be found in a cemetery of the Victorian age there is also their obsession with the symbolism of loss that is of note. There are angels aplenty, Guardian Angels of the souls of the departed gesturing heavenward, grieving angels with eyes cast down and cherubs representing innocence and loss. Classical columns abound, broken not as a result of the passage of nearly two centuries but a representation of a life cut short, inverted torches carry meaning of a life extinguished but their flames tell of a continuation of the soul. Any self respecting Victorian cemetery will contain dozens of urns half draped with cloth to ensure that the soul within can ascend to heaven. Then, there is the Victorian preoccupation with all things Egyptian, the contemporary uncovering of the tombs and monuments of that civilization was readily reflected in the funerary sculpture of the day such that obelisks and pyramids appear in profusion!
The two paragraphs above exemplify just what I find so appealing about such places, they are so unashamedly over the top!
Having spent upwards of forty five years traipsing around graveyards it saddens me to think that in another 150 years when the leaded letters of our Victorian monuments have all dislodged and the carved inscriptions have all weathered to an illegible state, we will only be left with our modern day monuments and grave stones that in comparison are so bland and lifeless…. no pun intended. Whilst no doubt heartfelt, ‘In Memory of Joe Bloggs, beloved Husband, Father and Grandson’ cannot compete with the crowing of the achievements in life and the social standing boasts that one finds inscribed on many a Victorian headstone! And I, of course, appreciate the necessity for a scaled down approach to remembrance of the dead.
As I write this piece in June 2022 I am reminded that between November 2021 and January 2022 notices were posted on the gates of the Old Cemetery here in Bishops Stortford. These notices invited members of the public to provide comments in a consultation on proposals to re-use ‘common graves’ (those owned by the cemetery and unmarked) under the authority of a private Act of Parliament. This proposal has been necessitated, once again, by the fact that in 10 years from now both of the town’s ‘active’ cemeteries will be full. Issues of capacity in the cemeteries of our towns and cities coupled with the prevalence of cremation over burial (and I am all for the former when my time comes!) means that the spaces given over to remembrance will inevitably be lacking the flamboyance and drama of former times. I find that to be an awful prospect.
However, I digress, let us step back into the leafy tranquility of Highgate.
One of the first graves to which our attention was drawn by our guide was a recent one, that of a former member of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) , Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin who, after gaining asylum in the UK, advised the British intellegence services on Russian affairs. He was taken ill in a hotel in Mayfair and died on 23rd November 2006. The cause of death was attributed to poisoning by polonium-210. A subsequent murder investigation identified two Russian suspects but extradition attempts failed. A public enquiry concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko was murdered by the same two suspects acting on behalf of the FSB with the approval of Putin.
Like many of his Victorian neighbours, his remains lie in lead inside the coffin, a protection from a danger lying within i.e. the radioactive agent that killed him, rather than a danger lying without that was so feared by the Victorians i.e. the 'Resurrection Men'.
Continuing to walk up the Main Drive the visitor is confronted by perhaps the showiest contrivance of Victorian funerary construction, 'The Egyptian Avenue'. Entered through a large arch that is flanked by four lotus columns and two obelisks inspired by Cleopatra's Needle (an 1819 gift to Britain from Egypt that is sited on London's Embankment), a greeny gloom quickly envelops the visitor, who once inside the avenue is standing amid eight private vaults. These vaults are locked, the key being given over to the family so that on occasion they could visit their dead relatives (rather them than me!). Like so much else in Highgate, even the locks on the doors to each vault are symbolically inverted.
A depiction of the entrance to the 'Egyptian Avenue' in the Victorian era.
The entrance to the 'Egyptian Avenue' Highgate, May 2022.
A view down the 'Egyptian Avenue', May 2022.
One of the family vaults within the 'Egyptian Avenue' May 2022.
Whilst each of the vaults has the capacity to accommodate twelve coffins, none in fact are full. As a consequence of the avenue's gloomy aspect this afterdeath option fell out of favour. Even in the cemetery's own guidebook of 1865 the avenue was described as a 'cold stony death palace'.... hardly the most persuasive advertisement to those seeking the eternal resting places of their nearest and dearest! For those who could afford it a vault in the light and airy 'Circle of Lebanon' was a much preferred option.
The Circle is just beyond the Egyptian Avenue. The Inner Circle is constructed around a mound upon which grew an ancient (even in Victorian times) cedar tree, that was the centre point of the cemetery according to architect Stephen Geary's plans. The 400 year old tree, having died, was removed in 2019 and has since been replaced.
Such was the desirability of the Circle as the final resting place of the family that to the twenty vaults of the Inner Circle, an Outer Circle was constructed.
The Circle of Lebanon showing the inner and outer circle of vaults.
The Circle of Lebanon is a Grade 1 listed architectural feature.
Our tour moved on to the Terrace Catacombs located above the Circle of Lebanon, at the highest point of the cemetery, and under St Michael's Church (although the catacombs are above ground level). Here our guide delivered a gentle warning, 'Those of you who are uncomfortable with the idea of seeing exposed coffins should wait outside.' 'Let me in!' my inner voice bellowed!
The interior of the Terrace Catacombs (occupied loculi can be seen on the right), May 2022.
Occupied loculi (one with inscribed slab still in place), May 2022.
Example of an exposed lead casket, May 2022.
The catacombs represented yet another 'menu option' for the client. On entry to the catacombs and once the eyes have adjusted to the low levels of light, the visitor finds themselves in a long corridor lined on either side with wall to ceiling recesses arranged in 55 recesses. There are 825 recesses, so called 'loculi', each one designed to accommodate one coffin. With the coffin in-situ the loculi was either closed up with an inscribed slab or in some cases sealed with an 'inspection window' of glass. It is said that those opting for the inspection window finish did so for one of two reasons i) to be assured that they had got what they paid for or ii) to show others what they had paid for!
Unlike internments in the earth, those placed in the catacombs were first placed in a sealed lead casket which was in turn placed in an exterior coffin. The purpose of such a treatment was two-fold. The use of a lead casket prevented the unpleasantness of leakage from the coffin but also would thwart the best efforts of any would be 'body snatchers' to access the corpse. The 'body snatcher' or 'resurrectionist' (those that would steal the bodies of the recently deceased in order to meet Medical Schools high demands for cadavers for dissection) was such a 'bogeyman' within Victorian Society that a guard was placed on the entrance to the catacombs as an extra precaution against such a fate.
Of individual graves, the names of the majority of the occupants of Highgate West, do not mean a great deal to today's visitor. Then, as indeed is the case now, the names of the wealthy do not resonate with the public, the banking magnates, oil barons and corporate CEOs are able to live out their lives away from the eyes and ears of the majority. However, there are some people here who enjoyed great fame in their day such as Thomas Sayers, a Brighton born bare-knuckle prize fighter, one of the few commoners interred here, whose £3,000 funeral was paid for by public subscription and for who thousands turned out to see his final procession up to Highgate.
The memorial to Thomas Sayers, May 2022.
Charles Cruft, the cat loving pet food producer who gave his name to the famed annual dog show also lies within the cemetery walls.
However, there was only one specific plot that I really wanted to see, that of Michael Faraday. Faraday, arguably Britain's greatest scientist lies in the Dissenters section of the cemetery (the assigned 2 acres referenced earlier) by virtue of his membership of the Christian Glasite sect. In life he had rejected the offer to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
The headstone of Michael Faraday FRS, May 2022.
Whether, like me, you harbour a particular interest in monuments and mausoleums, or you just appreciate time spent in beautiful surroundings, I would highly recommend that you struggle up Highgate Hill (and it id a struggle!) to visit the Cemetery. You won't be disappointed.