Within the Highgate Cemetery complex lie the mortal remains of many thousands of people, all lovingly remembered in tender words or bold proclamations of their worldly achievements and deeds. However, for me the most heart rending plot was pointed out to our small party by the tour guide in the last few minutes of our 90 minute amble in the grounds. And a good job too that it was pointed out as there is in fact absolutely nothing to see. Immediately in front of a buttress of the perimeter wall there is a plot no marker, or even any indication that it is in fact a burial plot.
This unremarkable patch of sparse greenery sits on top of earth that conceals a terrible and highly poignant reminder of the inequalities that existed within Victorian Society. Surrounded as it is by thousands of tons of masonry and marble raised in the memory of eminent Victorians, this particular hole in the ground is more crowded than many of the grand mausoleums close by. No fewer than ten females, young girls and women. In life they would have been described as 'fallen women', those whose actions were considered to have contravened the strict moral codes of the age. Some would have been engaged in prostitution whilst others were condemned as such for having engaged in sexual relations outside of the sanctity of marriage.
In the mid 1880's (the heyday period for Highgate Cemetery), in London alone it was estimated that some 20,000 people were involved in prostitution, many were very young, barely teenagers. It was as late as 1885 when the age of consent was raised in the UK from 13 to 16 years of age. Prior to 1875, this had stood at just 12 years of age!
In an era before the existence of the Welfare State, the options open to the poor and destitute were very limited, with entry into the dreaded workhouse being an action of last resort. In the absence of a centralised welfare system it was down to religious organisations, temperance groups and wealthy philanthropists to offer relief for the plight of the poorest and least respected members of society.
One such organisation was the London Diocesan Penitentiary (LDP) which was formed in 1853 through a generous financial gift. It's raison d'etre was the 'reception and reformation of penitent fallen women'. In 1855, the LDP had obtained a lease on a property known as Park House in the Hillcrest area of Highgate. In 1861, the building and some surrounding land were acquired. The mansion was originally a family passed into the 'care' sector upon becoming an 'Asylum for Idiots' under a Reverend Andrew Reed. Under the LDC the institution also became known as the Highgate Penitentiary or the Highgate House of Correction.
Upon referral from a cleric or another institution of refuge women could be accepted into the House of Mercy if they were penitent of their former sins and able to give 'practical proof of their desire to foresake the ways of evil'. If a woman successfully passed a two month period of probation, she would be accepted as an inmate of the Penitentiary for a period of two years. This period of habitation was divided into four periods of six months during which time she would be involved in the initiatory, the laundry, the domestic and the kitchen. During the six month initiatory period, inmates would be engaged in activities such as needlework and where.... 'habits of self-restraint - ever the great difficulty in cases of this kind - are inculcated' (the patricentric language applied here is not of my choosing but rather from a published funding drive by the LDP itself, which is reproduced below). In addition to the practical and heavy domestic work that the women were expected to engage in daily, the penitentiary staff, Anglican ministers, such as the Reverend John Oliver, and live in ladies of independent means, strove to improve the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the inmates. All of this training over the two year period was intended to give the women the means of living a life free of sin and vice after leaving the penitentiary. Some women married after passing through, whilst the aim for the majority was to attain a good position in service. In this respect, it would seem that, at least according to their own published appeals for charitable donations, Highgate Penitentiary, enjoyed considerable success, with the demand for Highgate trained domestics outdoing the supply.
All in all, it seems that the Highgate Penitentiary a good institution in an age when alternatives were few. The regime was said to be strict but fair. The stated fact that after leaving the house several of the girls contributed monies earned from their paltry wages from their domestic service positions do suggest that the institution was benign.
The plot in which the women are buried is unmarked and yet the names of all of those interred are known. This information was published I believe in the Ham & High (the newspaper serving the Hampstead and Highgate areas) in 2014.
The aforementioned Reverend John Oliver purchased the plot in 1862, when Emma Jones, the youngest inmate of the Penitentiary according to the property's 1861 census entry when her age was recorded as 10 years, died. She was just 12 years old.
The plot contains the remains of the following women: