Cemeteries, and in particular large Victorian ones, often have areas which are either a designated nature reserve or just left to run wild. These are havens to insect and mini-beasts and also to the dedicated lepidopterist or butterfly fancier. On a long, warm, summer afternoon their tiny, colourful, patterned wings can be seen fluttering over their favourite foods such as the humble ragwort. No wonder a group of them are described as a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
Commas, common and holly blues, large skippers, meadow browns, red admirals, gatekeepers and, if you’re lucky, the magnificent Peacock , are all summer visitors to cemeteries.
However, an increasingly common visitor, once rare, isn’t a butterfly at all but is, instead, a day-flying moth. This is a Jersey Tiger or Euplagia quadripunctaria to give it its Latin name. Its striped upper wings, when closed, give it the appearance of an African mask. But it also has a surprise for, when in flight, it reveals its iridescent orange underwings. When the sun catches them it’s like a small jewel on the wing.
This one obligingly posed on an inscription at Brompton Cemetery’s 2015 Open Day.
A lovely Peacock butterfly in Elmers End Cemetery. When closed its wings are completely black and then open to show the beauty inside.
This is a gatekeeper roosting on its favourite food, the ragwort. Although a common butterfly and sitting on what is generally considered to be a weed it does make for an effective composition. Again from a Brompton Cemetery Open Day in 2013.
Below is a six spotted burnet – it’s dramatic red and black colouring always makes me think of it as a Goth Moth. It is very impressive when it’s on the wing and is very fast. I first saw it on an Open Day at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, in 2013. It was a warm and sunny July day and I was making my way to the open air colonnade when I saw a burnet fluttering past I have only found it at one location within the cemetery so far but I always look out for it.
This was an unusual moth to find on a damp winter’s day in Nunhead Cemetery. This is a lacewing. Its Latin name is Neuroptera and it’s not known to be as a day flying moth. It clung to the side of our gazebo for some time.
So although cemeteries are primarily to remember the dead, they can also provide a vital ecosystem as well. Next time you visit one take some time to check out the wilder areas and you might be surprised at what you find!
The first inhabitant of the West side of Highgate Cemetery to greet us was Domino, the cemetery cat, a white and black cat with an enviable domain in which to explore. He was also very vociferous and seemed to think that he would be leading our tour.
I’ve always found the West side to be very romantic and intriguing and last visited it in the 1990’s so a return visit was long overdue. I visited it this time with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. There is a connection between Highgate and Nunhead Cemetery in that they were both owned by the same cemetery company, the London Cemetery Company. Highgate closed in 1975 and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery subsequently took over.
Dr Ian Dungevell welcomed us and then John Shepperd, the current Chairman, took over as tour leader with Peter bringing up the rear. The West side was looking its best with patches of bluebells and luxuriantly growing wild garlic. The latter reminded me of the rumours of the Highgate vampire during the 1970’s and wondered if that was the reason for its abundance..
Originally the East and West sides were two separate cemeteries and the LCC had its own brickworks. The West side opened in May 1839 and the East in 1855 with its first burial in 1860. John revealed that there had been public complaints about the boisterous cheering at shareholders meetings as it was feared that they were profiting from death. Apparently the Magnificent 7 London cemeteries is a misnomer as there were originally 8. Meath Gardens in E3 was once Victoria Park Cemetery but was closed in 1885 due to its poor state and became a public park. Its last burial was in 1876 having opened in 1842.
The imposing Anglican chapel on the West side still has its hydraulic lift and a tunnel under the road. It was rumoured that, after leaving the Dissenters chapel, hearses could go in two directions; the left hand path was for paupers and the other side was for the better off. Like Nunhead, Highgate also had its own nursery, greenhouses and was originally landscaped. However, with its increasing popularity resulting in up to 30 burials a day, it was said that being buried in Highgate was like being buried in Piccadilly Circus.
John indicated the grave of the first resident, Elizabeth Jackson, who was interred in 1839 and paid 3 guineas. He reminded us that the views from Highgate at that time would have stretched to the South Downs as it’s on a hill. It cost £2.10s to be buried there at a time when a working man was lucky to earn £1 a week. Local residents had keys to the cemetery which became their personal park.
Alexander Litvinenko – a modern interpretation of the broken column symbol.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
The largest vault is that of Gen Sir Loftus Otway which can hold up to 30 coffins and was vandalised during the cemetery’s closure. It currently holds 15. The Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, who died from poisoning is here and John pointed out that his tombstone is a modern adaptation of the Victorian broken column which indicated that the head, or support, of the family has died.
We all admired the celebrated Egyptian Avenue which capitalised on the 1820’s taste for all thing Egyptian after the first expeditions there. John explained that originally it had a roof which had made it very gloomy but it was considered to be a prestigious place for an eternal sleep. But it took 50 years to sell all 16 vaults as, with other Egyptian symbols like obelisks, it was viewed as pagan and so unpopular. The Avenue is now roofless and is a much lighter place especially in the Spring sunshine.
However, on a Highgate Open day I nearly fell off the top of the Avenue. I had lost my bearings and was walking along and suddenly realised where I was just as I was about to take more steps forward. Although I might fancy being buried in Highgate I wasn’t intending to become part of it quite so soon!
The Circle of Lebanon, named after the beautiful Cedar of Lebanon on top if it, was another highlight. The tree came from a local, long vanished, house, Ashurst and no-one knows its exact age. It is a lovely and magnificent centrepiece. We also saw Radclyffe Hall’s vault which always has flowers . She wrote ‘‘The Well of Loneliness’ which was declared obscene due to its portrayal of a same sex relationship. However, Virginia Woolf, asserted that it was boring and gave it up.
At the highest point on the West side stands the Beer Mausoleum. Fifteen feet high, it had been closed for years until 1993 when it was reopened. Unfortunately the door wouldn’t budge due to roughly 2 and half feet of bird droppings and so this had to be cleared before anyone could actually get inside. This really is a showpiece memorial. No expense was spared on it and it would have cost £5million in today’s money. It was built by Julius Beer who made money from selling cotton bonds. These were to be repaid when the Confederates won the US Civil War so they weren’t a good investment. The mausoleum’s walls are lined with Italian marble and the ceiling is gilded and painted. It was dedicated to Ada, Beer’s daughter who died aged 8. The beautiful sculpture on the back wall is of an angel and a small girl whose face is modelled from Ada’s death mask. One of the sculptors who worked on the Albert memorial , Henry Dew Armstead, worked on the mausoleum. However, it doesn’t contain any bodies as they were originally in the vault below which was vandalised during the cemetery’s closure. The Beer family have died out.
One of the best loved of all of Highgate’s many memorials is that of Nero, the sleeping Wombwell lion. George Wombwell was a zookeeper who, in 1810, owned a giraffe and a kangaroo amongst others which must have seemed very exotic to 19th century Londoners. Children used to ride on Nero’s back and Wombwell’s travelling circus was in business until the First World War. However, some of his extended family didn’t fare so well with nature as his niece was killed by a tiger and his nephew was trampled to death by an elephant.
Another highlight of our tour was the catacombs. I hadn’t know that Highgate had any and these are on ground level. There are 825 spaces with 60 remaining. They were in use until the early 20th century. Originally whitewashed, Charles Dickens had his young daughter placed there before removing her saying that it was too gloomy. John added that coffins are placed feet first into a catacomb space or loculi so that visitors can talk to the head of the deceased and not their feet.
Animals have always been popular in cemeteries and John took us to the grave of Tom Sayers complete with a life size sculpture of his bull mastiff, Lion, keeping watch. Sayers was a Victorian boxer or pugilist. He was the English champion and originally hailed from Pimlico, a slum are of Brighton. At Sayers’ funeral, Lion, wearing a black ruff, sat in the carriage behind the hearse which emphasised that the dog had been more faithful than the wife. Lion was sold for £2 at the auction of Sayers belongings after his death. One hopes that he had a happy and long life. The restored Acheler horse stood guard under a spreading horse chestnut tree and the sleeping angel on a bed of stone clouds slumbered on.
There are still burials taking place here and we saw novelist, Beryl Bainbridge’s, grave on our back to the entrance. Domino ignored us as he continued on his prowl and vanished into the ivy..
Then, after tea and excellent home-made biscuits, we crossed the road to the East side. It is where most modern burials take place and it was busy with 21st century Londoners following the custom of Victorians by promenading in the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon. Near the entrance John pointed out the monument to one of the Great Train Robbers, Bruce Reynolds, which was erected on the 50th anniversary of the event. It features a death mask of Reynolds between two columns with the phrases , ‘This is it.’ And ‘C’est la vie’. The former was the one that Reynolds used to alert the rest of the gang that the robbery was on and the latter was the one used by Reynolds arresting officer. Another death mask was on Malcolm McLaren’s grave so perhaps this is the start of a new fashion in funerary architecture.
But the East side’s most famous incumbent is undoubtedly Karl Marx. An enormous bust of the man sits staring out from on top of his column. It’s a place of pilgrimage for worldwide communists but has suffered for it. Poor Karl, he’s been blown up and daubed in blue paint but still stares serenely, if a little forbiddingly, from his plinth. Originally he and his family were buried a short distance away but were moved to their present location and their headstone incorporated in Karl’s monument.
Nearby lies Herbert Spencer who was a prominent right-winger and coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. And so that little corner is known as Marx and Spencer. Another close neighbour is Gloria Jones, creator of the Notting Hill Carnival. George Eliot is not far away and so the great and good jostle with the less well-known and there are too many to list. Alas, the wallabies have gone elsewhere. My favourite epitaph was pllaywright, Anthony Shaffer’s which simply read’ Grand Artificer of Mysteries.’
It was a fascinating tour and we left wishing that we had more time to explore both sides of Highgate Cemetery. And below is a gallery of some of the other memorials
we saw on our visit.
First published in Friends of Nunhead Cemetery News,
This month I am looking at the passionflower as a symbol. It is so called because it’s been claimed that it symbolised Christ’s suffering on the cross.
But first, let’s digress for a moment and discuss Floriography or the language of flowers. This is very pertinent to the study of Victorian funerary symbols although some visitors may just see them as charming and pretty decoration.
Floriography is a way of communicating through the use of arrangement of flowers. It has been used for thousands of years in various cultures, most notably in 17th century Turkey and throughout the Middle East.
But it reached its zenith in Victorian England. The Victorians love of flowers coincided with their love of cyphers and coded messages. Anyone who has ever watched TV’s Antiques Roadshow jewellery expert, Geoffrey Munn, revealing the hidden meanings behind the seemingly innocuous combination and arrangement of stones in a brooch will know what I mean.
The strict etiquette of the 19th century that was expected of the upper and middle classes meant that people had to find other, more secretive means to express feelings and messages that couldn’t be openly shared. And so flowers became the most popular method. Floral decoration was already extremely popular in the home with William Morris’s wallpapers, for example, so they became the preferred choice.
Floral dictionaries were extremely popular. The first official one, entitled The Language de Fleurs, was published in Paris in 1819. It was written by Louise Contambert who wrote under a pen name. However, in 1879 a Scotswoman, Miss Carruthers, wrote one that rapidly became an essential guide.
Today some of the original meanings have been lost but eventually I hope to post a guide to Victorian floral funerary decoration and its meanings.
Now back to the Passionflower. It is a symbol of faith and suffering. The story goes that it is so named, because of a Scholar in Rome called Jacomo Bosio who was writing a treatise on the Crucifixion. A Mexican friar showed him a passionflower and Jacomo included it in his work.
These are the symbols of Christ’s Passion within the passionflower:
The unique corona
Christ’s crown of thorns
The sepals and petals
The Apostles excluding Judas and peter who distanced themselves from Christ before the Crucifixion.
The five anthers
The five wounds on Christ’s body.
The three stigmas
The three nails that pierced Christ’s body on the Cross
The spears that pierced Christ’s side
The scourges which flayed Christ’s flesh.
It’s a deeply religious flower and I include two well carved examples on memorials from Nunhead Cemetery, one of London’s Magnificent Seven, UK.
This is the Mills memorial. A Celtic Cross filled with sculpted blooms which are beginning to erode under an inner city climate.
This is the Blackburn tombstone with a lovely 2 dimensional frieze of the flowers.
Alongside the busy Bayswater Road, on the way down from Marble Arch, there is a secret place behind one of the gate lodges. It’s protected by an iron railing and thick hedges and the casual passer-by wouldn’t know what lies behind them. But this is a special place where 300 much loved pets sleep in an eternal slumber. Curio, Ruby Heart, Prince and Ba-Ba are just some of the names of the family pets that are commemorated on the Lilliputian tombstones. This is the tiny Victorian Hyde Park Pet Cemetery.
It was a burial space for the local residents and their beloved animals It’s mainly dogs that are buried here as they often fell victim to the Park’s horse riders hooves. However, there are also three small monkeys as well as several cats and birds. The first burial, Cherry, a Maltese terrier, was in 1881. Cherry belonged to the Lewis-Berned family who lived nearby. They were frequent visitors to the Park and knew Mr Winbridge, the lodge gatekeeper. Mr and Mrs Lewis-Berned approached him after Cherry had died of old age and enquired if Cherry could be buried in what was his back garden at the lodge. He and his employer agreed and Cherry’s tombstone reads ‘Poor Cherry. Died April 26 1881.’ Word must have got round as, before long, other local families were also having their deceased pets interred in the lodge’s back garden and it soon became an unofficial pets cemetery. There is even a royal dog there. This is a Yorkshire terrier which belonged to the wife of HRH Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, who lived in Mayfair. ‘Poor Prince’ was crushed under a carriage wheel and actually died in the Lodge. The subsequent burial was recorded in the Duke’s diary on 29th June 1882 and made Prince the second incumbent in the cemetery. In contrast, there were also low-lifes in there and I am indebted to the London-In-Sight blog for the background information on a police dog, Topper, who is buried within the cemetery. He was obviously a dog with attitude and was described as being: ‘insufferably vulgar, a snob of the lowest kind and most contemptible, a bad strain in him which seems to have run through very line of his character.’ He died of over-eating. I have to admit that I would have liked to have met Topper to see if he lived up to his description. When you first enter by the side gate the first thing that really impresses you is how many of them there are in the little garden and how poignant some of the epitaphs on the small headstones are. Who has owned a pet, loved it dearly, and not wanted to commemorate its life and passing like other family members? The little plots are arranged in rows, each with an area bordered by rope edge tiles to allow the families to place flowers if they wished.
We visited the cemetery as part of a tour arranged by London Month of the Dead and had roughly thirty mins inside which didn’t leave much time to explore the epitaphs. I can only show a few of them here. But it was a good introduction to the cemetery. So next time we may book an hour long tour. We didn’t find Cherry’s grave despite looking for it. . One of our guides did point out that at the time of the first burials the average expectancy of a working man was forty or less.
The gate was locked behind us as the little residents slumbered on. Access is limited for obvious reasons and needs to be booked via The Royal parks website; http://www.royalparks.org.uk. Tickets cost £50 +VAT for a visit lasting one hour for up to 6 people. Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell
Sources and further reading:
Barking Blondes – Will you book a grave plot for your dog? The Independent blogs 18/01/14
Fun London Tours – The Victorian Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park, 20/10/11
London-In-Sight blog, The Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park, 06/10/10
Below is a selection of the epitaphs
Spot’s last resting place copyright Carole Tyrrell
Snow and Smut Two cats buried there copyrght Carole Tyrrell
The epitaph to Snip says it all – note the little border so that owners could leave flowers. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A lovely and poignant epitpah copyrights Carole Tyrrell
Prince and Scum 0 imagine calling that out at night copyright Carole Tyrrell
Just inside the entrance – a touching epitaph copyright Carole tyrrell
A noble name indeed – Pepys copyright Carole Tyrrell
A sad ending for a much missed dog – Monty copyright Carole tyrrell
I would have loved to know what Curio looked like. copyright Carole Tyrrell
two long lived companions – Zeno and Clytie copyright Car9ole tyrrell
A perfect pug Chin-Chin copyright Carole Tyrrell
A much missed pet – Ba-Ba copyright Carole Tyrrell
A much missed local resident – Jack copyright Carole Tyrrell