Local History Group’s visit to Highgate Cemetery.
The visit took place on Wednesday 23rd May 2018
The only way for a group to visit the West Highgate Cemetery is on a pre booked tour. Ours was in the afternoon at 2-30. This gave us plenty of time to have a lunch then wander down to the East Cemetery which is open to the public. On this warm sunny day we ambled along the main path noticing some famous people among the great variety of headstones. It is here that many come to see the tomb of Karl Marx, which consists of a large head bust of Marx in bronze set on a marble pedestal. Among the graves stones were many varieties of wild flowers. There were seats to sit and contemplate.
We assembled across the road at the locked gates of the West Cemetery. Just before 2-30, with a jangle of keys, the iron gates were unlocked for us to enter to be introduced to our Guide Terry.
This cemetery opened in 1839 as the inner-city cemeteries, mostly the graveyards attached to individual churches, had long been unable to cope with the number of burials and were seen as a hazard to health and an undignified way to treat the dead. Rights of burial were sold for either limited period or in perpetuity. The first burial was Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, on the 26th May, see photo.
Highgate soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. The Victorian attitude to death and its presentation led to the creation of many Gothic tombs and buildings. In 1854 the area to the east of the original area across Swains Lane was bought to form the eastern part of the cemetery. It is the East cemetery that is mostly still used today for burials.
The owners, the London Cemetery Company was finally declared bankrupt in 1960 and was absorbed into the larger United Cemetery Company, which for the next fifteen years struggled to keep the cemetery afloat. Funds eventually ran out and the gates were closed. The Cemetery faced a bleak and uncertain future.
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.
We stopped frequently as Terry kept up his very interesting dialog explaining the many reasons for the symbols and carvings on the tomb stones. For example seen in the photo (A Life cut short).both the stone in the foreground, which is for Alexander Litvinenko, and the fluted column in the middle have the tops cut at an angle.
Even in the 20th century and to this day big money is sometimes spent. So what does one spend their money on? An example is for Dalziel Davison (1852–1928) who was a newspaper proprietor, financier and MP, he was made Baron Dalziel of Wooler. In his will, which was only 140 words long, he left over £2,250,000 to his wife. She must have thought a lot of him, see photo!
When the Cemetery opened there was a large Cedar Tree, now over 300 years old. This was still the only tree in the 1960’s when an aerial photograph was taken and all the tombs could be seen. On another aerial shot in the1980s and because of neglect, unaided a forest had taken over and no tombs could be seen from the air.
Some of the earliest tombs in Highgate were constructed around the cedar in the fashionable Egyptian style of the 1830s. The outer circle of tombs, built later, are in a more classical style. This circle of mausoleums surrounding the cedar is known as the “Circle of Lebanon,” and it created a gigantic pot befitting the size of the tree inside it. The tree, still growing despite its age, is now a sort of bonsai with its roots constrained inside the pot.
The only place we could not use a camera was a catacomb, we went inside the entrance to inspect coffins that are placed on stone shelves, a place one might not want to linger!
We heard stories of grave robbers and descriptions of the inside of some of the larger mausoleums. Our guide was so enthusiastic about his subject we went well over the allotted time, I suppose because he could tell that he was holding our interest.
Click on a picture below to see it full-size with more details.