Full Marks to Highgate Cemetery

For a long time I’ve been intrigued to visit Highgate Cemetery and my chance arose last Thursday. There are two cemeteries on opposite sides of the road – Swain’s Lane – in Highgate. The East Cemetery which is home to the more famous graves and still in use today (at a high price!) can be visited by anyone during opening hours for a charge of £4. The West Cemetery you have to book in advance during the week and join an organised tour. There are some more recent burials here (the so-called Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko for one, and the author Beryl Bainbridge for another) but mostly it is full to bursting with Victorian funerary art and symbolism. The cost of the West tour also covers the entrance fee to the East Cemetery.

Angel and trumpet

Draped urn

Highgate Cemetery was one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven‘ cemeteries established during the early 19th century in order to alleviate overcrowding in the city’s churchyards :

Kensal Green Cemetery, 1832
West Norwood Cemetery, 1837
Highgate Cemetery, 1839
Abney Park Cemetery, 1840
Nunhead Cemetery, 1840
Brompton Cemetery, 1840
Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 1841

Highgate Cemetery West

Here is the description on the opening page of the cemetery website :

One of London’s greatest treasures
Highgate Cemetery is a haven of beauty and tranquility, a place of peace and contemplation where a romantic profusion of trees, memorials and wildlife flourish in the heart of London

Highgate West

Highgate W

That description proved oh so true on my visit last Thursday. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place. During the introduction to the tour Gordon, our leader, explained the current policy of ‘managed neglect’. During the 1970s it was no longer profitable to run the cemetery commercially and it was left to go to rack and ruin and vandals and thieves. In 1975 a band of locally interested parties got together to rescue the cemetery and establish The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust which now runs the place, organising the paid staff as well as the countless volunteers, who help to guide tour groups and maintain this special landscape.

The broken column symbolises a life cut short

We visited a number of graves of significant people of the 19th and 20th centuries and the symbolism of many of the features was also explained to us. Three tier plinths represent faith, hope and charity; a trumpet means The Judgement Day; a broken column a life cut short. We heard stories connected with some of those buried here, were able to go into the Terrace Catacombs and the Julius Beer Mausoleum and visited the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon and the funerary chapel.

Mausoleum of Julius Beer

The Mausoleum of Julius Beer (no photography allowed inside)

Egyptian Avenue

The Egyptian Avenue

Cedar of Lebanon Circle

The Cedar of Lebanon Circle

George Wombwell's Nero

Animal friends even accompany their masters: Nero guards his master George Wombwell a Menagerist

And Thomas Sayers’ bull mastiff, below

Thomas Sayers and his bull mastif

A live inhabitant

We even saw a live inhabitant!

The East Cemetery has its own atmosphere and clearer to follow paths with less undegrowth and many more recent and famous graves and memorials – the most famous probably being that of Karl Marx erected and paid for by the British Communist Party in 1955. It is truly larger than life.

Highgate Cemetery East

Karl Marx


18 comments on “Full Marks to Highgate Cemetery

  1. Fran says:

    Visiting the West side has long been on my “to visit” list. I went to the East side on a mellow autumn afternoon, its very atmospheric, so many interesting people, whose lives I would like to know more of buried there.

    • Well worth a visit, Fran. Put it on your list! By the time we were only a few steps into the East side and saw so many well-known names I began to get grave-overload so maybe I will go back again to do the ‘rest’.

  2. Ruth says:

    Awesome cemetery!
    Remember our visit to White Lake Cemetery? Not as grand as this one, but interesting.

  3. Thank you very much, reading your blog feels like revisiting that place. I always try to go there when in London, but it takes so much time to get there as it is a long way off Central London. You might be interested in a report of our friend Oxfordian about his visit to Brompton Cemetery (it’s in German but there are many pictures, too).

    • Thank you, Baerbel. Now that I have visited two of the ‘magnificent seven’ (the other was Kensal Green a few years ago) it would be interesting to see the others. I knew already that Brompton Cemetery was not where I would have expected it to be – next-door to Harrods – but OW has kindly included the instructions how to get there. I do hope the man with the two blue parrots will still be there!

  4. Such a fascinating post and brilliant photos! Thank you!

  5. Darlene says:

    I visited Highgate Cemetery almost two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and wonder of both sides of Swain’s Lane. You chose to take photos of so many of the same things that I did…and isn’t the Beer mausoleum breathtaking inside? Our guide described the state of it before the renovation, which was quite grim, but they have done an incredible job of putting it right. Great post!

    • Darlene, welcome and thank you. I took many more photos but feel I should be respectful to the very much more recent dead. Yes, the Beer Mausoleum is indeed breathtaking. I have had a book recommended to me (our guide also mentioned it) “The first lady of Fleet Street: the life, fortune and tragedy of Rachel Beer” by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.

  6. Nilly says:

    Must try to visit – it looks even more interesting than I had imagined. I wonder if you’ve visited Rosary Cemetery in Norwich – the UK’s first non-denominational cemetery? I haven’t, but I should as my Norfolk g-grandparents (he Catholic, she Welsh chapel) are buried there.

    • Oh, Nilly, I don’t know how long The Rosary has been on my ‘list’. Norwich is always a difficult one as I spend time with my mother but the last place she wants to walk around is a cemetery. But I know I will get there. That’s an interesting connection that you have there. Thank you.

  7. Lyn says:

    Lovely photos, Barbara, very atmospheric. Did you visit any Pre-Raphaelites while you were there?

    • Thank you, Lyn, and well, yes I did ask to visit the Christina Rosetti grave but it is so overgrown and decayed that sadly you can scarcely read the inscriptions. I will post it on Flickr shortly and send you a link. CR is buried alongside Frances Polidori Rossetti, mother of Dante Gabriel, Christina and William Michael Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Elizabeth Siddal, wife and model of artist/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose grave was reopened at one point to retrieve her husband’s book of poems that had originally been buried with her. You will know more about this, of course.

      • And I nearly forgot, and not Pre-Raphaelite, but a well-known author – Radclyffe Hall. Someone pays for flowers to be left constantly at her memorial.

  8. […] May on a visit to Highgate Cemetery I noticed his tomb and photographed […]

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