Highgate cemetery – a ‘must do’ in London

East Cemetery graves: pens for Douglas Adams, DEAD sculpture and word tags

“Some of the older visitors who come here remember playing with the dead bodies like dolls when they were children…”

“Only six people came to Karl Marx’s funeral…”

“Thomas Sayers, an incredibly popular sports star, had the best attended funeral in 1865 – it took three days for more than ten thousand mourners to pay their respects…”

These are just some of the fascinating facts our guide, a former reporter, is sharing with our small group as we trek around the West Cemetery at Highgate.

The first thing that struck me on my approach here this morning was the lack of a church, a clue that this isn’t consecrated ground. The second thing that struck me was the multi-cultural feel of the place – graves for people of all nationalities and all religions and denominations, in many alphabets; truly representative of Londoners.

Our guide elaborates on why this is: London, in the early nineteenth century was growing massively with migrants from all over the world (in 1801 Europe’s largest city had a population of 1 million, doubling in only 50 years, source here) and dealing with the dead had reached crisis point. The vast majority of the population was poor and often unable to afford a church burial for a family member (cremation was illegal so not an option at this point) – the alternative being to keep the corpse at home and cover it with onions to cover the smell of decay, while toxic gases added to the already polluted air.

The government had to act. And so in 1836 the London Cemetery Company was formed to create seven private cemeteries in the countryside around London. This cemetery in the elevated countryside at Highgate opened in 1839. Here, there were no trees, just an open view across London from vast, tranquil (although peacock populated) grounds.

173 years on (including many of neglect) you can barely see the panorama of central London for trees. It’s a beautiful time of year to be here, with leaves of gold, bronze, reds and greens changing on the trees and carpeting the grounds, now containing some 53,000 burial plots (about 170,000 bodies).

Alexander Litvinenko’s grave

Our guide takes us past the grave of Alexander Litvinenko (ex Russian spy, poisoned with polonium-210 in 2006) before leading us up the impressive Egyptian Avenue to the tombs in the Circle of Lebanon (built around a Cedar of Lebanon, this place will be recognisable to Spooks fans as the location where Lucas North would go to meet Elisabeta in series 7). For me, it’s a timely Hallowe’en excursion as the Circle was an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

And, as we’re led into the pitch black catacombs, there are tales of grave-robbing (bodies were in demand for medical experimentation and so the locked catacombs were built to deter body-snatchers) and mummified corpses being used as play-things by children in the decades following WWII (the London Cemetery Company went bankrupt, so our guide tells us, and the cemetery went through a long period of decline, until the Friends of Highgate took over its upkeep again, voluntarily, in the 1970s).

Egyptian Avenue

Terrace catacombs in west cemetery

We pass the stone dog of Thomas Sayers’ grave (reputed to have been more faithful to him than his wife) and hear how Tom popularised the illegal and fight-to-the-death sport of bare-knuckle fighting, to the extent that rules had to be introduced and ‘boxing’ legalised (the first popular sport watched regularly by the masses in Britain). On retiring from this dangerous sport aged 37 the hero moved to London, only to die two years later from TB.

Tom Sayers – popularised ‘boxing’

There’s a story behind every grave and you could spend all day – and many a day – here. Another volunteer describes how the landscape changes in the different seasons of the year and I can imagine the cemetery being particularly appealing covered in snow, when the trees are bare and the view of central London beyond can be seen.

At only £10 per adult (£3 to wander around the east cemetery and £7 for a fascinating guided tour of the west) Highgate Cemetery is well worth a visit.

And you can always combine it with a trip to the lovely old Flask pub nearby…

East cemetery: Claudia Jones, mother of Notting Hill Carnival + Karl Marx

Further info::
~ Highgate Cemetery history
~ Wikipedia entry on Highgate Cemetery
~ Cemetery photos on flickr
~ Monument Repair Programme on YouTube
~ London in the 19th C – Urban contexts of crimes tried at The Old Bailey
~ The Flask pub


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