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,
Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell