Highgate Cemetery is probably the most famous cemetery in London – I had heard of Highgate before any of the other Magnificent Seven. It is the burial place of some of the most famous figures ever to have graced London, and is well-known in popular culture, having appeared in novels such as Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to live in London for four years without visiting.
Highgate has a lovely setting on a hill in North London. The nearest tube station is actually Archway, not Highgate. From Archway, take the 210,143 or 271 bus up Highgate Hill to Waterlow Park (you can walk, but it’s better to save your energy for exploring the cemetery). You have to walk through the park, which is lovely, to reach the cemetery.
The English Heritage Grade 1* listed Highgate Cemetery originally opened in 1839, the third of the “Magnificent Seven” after Kensal Green and West Norwood, part of a ring of garden cemeteries around the outskirts of central London designed to draw burials away from the overcrowded and unhygienic inner-city cemeteries. An 1836 Act of Parliament created the London Cemetery Company, which bought seventeen acres of land on the steep hillside near Highgate Village for the sum of £3,500. The original design was by architect and entrepreneur Stephen Geary whose Tudor-Gothic style is evident in the entrance and chapels, and the Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London, on 20 May 1839. The original Cemetery is now known as the West Cemetery; the East Cemetery was an extension established in 1854 thanks to the huge popularity of Highgate.
The Cemetery was built in the grounds of the Ashurst estate, evidence of which is the presence of a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon dating from the late seventeenth century. Sadly, Highgate’s profitability declined in the twentieth century and it began to decay, with vandalism and overgrown weeds prevalent until the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, set up in 1975, took over in 1981. The Friends are still responsible for the upkeep of the Cemetery and run the guided tours which are the only way to see the West Cemetery (you can walk around the East Cemetery alone but you do have to pay).
On Saturdays, you can’t book tours in advance: you just turn up. I had a bit of time to wait until my West Cemetery tour so I decided to have a look around the East Cemetery first (entry is included in the price of your West Cemetery tour ticket). The Eastern part was built later than the original West Cemetery, but it is still worth seeing. In fact, the lady at the entrance selling tickets to other visitors summed it up nicely when she said that the West Cemetery has the famous monuments, the East Cemetery has the famous people.
It was a lovely sunny day – warm enough to walk around without a coat – and I enjoyed exploring the beautiful Cemetery and the landscape of gravestones, with a couple of mausoleums thrown in.
I had a good time finding significant graves, including that of one of my favourite Victorian writers, George Eliot, author of Middlemarch. Her real name of Mary Ann Cross is also on her tombstone.
A more recent but equally loved writer, Douglas Adams, famed for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, was buried here in 2001. His grave is often marked with pens.
Karl Marx is probably the most famous person buried at Highgate. His grave is easy to spot because there are lots of people milling around it.
The original gravestone, which is embedded within the newer structure, is plain and simple; the impressive tombstone, with the carved message “WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE”, was erected by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1954. The portrait bust is by Laurence Bradshaw. In 1970 there was an attempt to blow up the monument with a homemade bomb.
A number of other Communists and revolutionaries are buried near Marx, as is the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.
Actor Corin Redgrave is buried at Highgate.
Writer Alan Sillitoe (author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) also rests here.
Malcolm MacLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, musician and fashion designer, is buried in an unique grave.
The artist Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone, dramatically reading “DEAD”, is one of my favourites.
One of my most surprising finds was the grave of TV personality and presenter (of Beadle’s About and You’ve Been Framed!) Jeremy Beadle. I really liked his gravestone, which looks like a bookshelf.
Aside from the famous individuals buried here, there are plenty of graves noteworthy for their architecture. A variety of styles are in evidence, including Victorian:
…and modern. I love this Penguin Books-themed stone.
I was intrigued by this picture and description.
This person obviously loved their dog very much.
This piano is amazing.
The East Cemetery is beautiful and I could wander around for hours.
However it was time to leave this side and head over to the West Cemetery for my tour.
After waiting in the chapel for our tour guide, we were taken outside to the courtyard and arcade.
The smaller part of the chapel on the left, formerly the Dissenters’ Chapel, is now the private area for staff. The larger part on the right was the Anglican chapel: it is now the visitor centre and gift shop and has been recently restored.
Our guide explained the history of the site as we began our tour. Stephen Geary, the architect (and founder of the London Cemetery Company), appointed a surveyor (James Bunstone Bunning) and a garden designer/landscape architect (David Ramsey) who laid out the beautiful, winding paths. It’s a gloriously peaceful place.
Things weren’t always so quiet: some parts of the Cemetery suffered bomb damage during World War II. The damage has been purposely left as a memorial.
In more recent history, Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian poisoned in London in 2006, was buried here.
The largest plot in Highgate belongs to a military man, and the railings around his tomb are miniature cannons.
The oldest grave in the Cemetery belongs to Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, who died aged thirty-six and was buried on 26 May 1839.
The Egyptian Avenue, a gorgeous structure with vaults – rather like above-ground catacombs – is located towards the top of the Cemetery. At first these vaults didn’t sell very well, as they were seen to be too “pagan” in tone, but after Queen Victoria popularised an interest in Egypt this changed.
In recent years a colony of rare orb weaver spiders has been discovered living inside the vaults of the Egyptian Avenue. The cold, dark conditions of the vaults are perfect for the spiders. This is no doubt a good thing in terms of ecological diversity, but I for one will be staying well away from the vaults!
The Avenue leads to the Circle of Lebanon, which consists of twenty vaults around an inner circle; sixteen were added to an outer circle in the 1870s. The Circle was made by excavating earth from around the Cedar of Lebanon which had been present since the land was part of the Ashurst Estate. Above the Circle, a Gothic-style catacomb, known as the Terrace Catacombs as it was built on the site of the original terrace of Ashurst House, was constructed in 1842. We were able to visit the catacombs and they were fascinating, though sadly (but understandably) we were not allowed to take photos.
Author Radclyffe Hall lies in one of the vaults.
Coming out of the Circle of Lebanon and the Terrace Catacombs, we moved into the main Cemetery once again. Our first stop was the tomb of George Wombwell, the menagerie owner, who owned several exotic animals and raised the first lion in captivity in Britain.
We saw the tiny stone of Adam Worth, a well-mannered and pleasant criminal mastermind who was apparently the inspiration behind Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The mausoleum of millionaire newspaper magnate Julius Beer is one of the most impressive in the Cemetery. Sadly, though, he originally constructed it for his daughter Ada, who died aged eight. Apparently when the tomb was first reopened after many years, the Friends were unable to get the door open and had to send someone in through the broken top of the mausoleum. Once inside, they discovered why the door wouldn’t open – the floor was thick with bird poo. Lovely! Thankfully the structure has since been restored, although we couldn’t go inside as there was a problem with the door.
Thomas Sayers was a famous English bare-knuckle fighter during the Victorian period, a time when such fighting was in fact illegal. His final fight, against US champion John Camel Heenan, took place in Hampshire and ended in chaos when the spectating public invaded the ring and the police had to get involved. A public subscription raised a retirement fund for him and he never fought again, although he died aged only 39 in 1865. Thousands of people turned out on the streets of Highgate to see his funeral, although the chief mourner was his dog, Lion, who guards his tomb in effigy.
Michael Faraday, the well-known scientist most famous for his work in electromagnetism and electrochemistry, is buried in the Dissenters’ area of the Cemetery.
Charles Dickens himself is buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but he was familiar with Highgate and has family connections there. His sister Frances (Fanny) Burnett is buried there along with her son Henry (Harry) Augustus, supposedly the inspiration for Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’ parents, John and Elizabeth, also rest in Highgate.
Continuing the writers’ theme, I spied the grave of author Beryl Bainbridge.
Highgate Cemetery is an absolutely fascinating place. It’s a shame about the entry charge, as it would be a wonderful place to visit again and again. Having said that, the Friends do a fantastic job of keeping everything going and the money is certainly put to good use.
I had heard horror stories about rude and grumpy staff, but I didn’t see any evidence of this at all: everyone seemed lovely and my tour guide was informative and friendly.
I really enjoyed my visit but was sad not to have been able to see the grave of Elizabeth Siddall (pre-Raphaelite muse, artist and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti); apparently it is in a part of the Cemetery closed to visitors.
Would I go back?
Despite the cost, yes. It’s a hugely interesting place, with lots to see. A cheaper trip could take in the East Cemetery only; this would only cost £4. I would be back like a shot if I could have a chance to see Lizzie Siddall’s grave.
Address: Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ
Founded: 1839 (Eastern extension opened 1854)
Size: 37 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: http://highgatecemetery.org
Owners: Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (registered charity)
Tours: West Cemetery – weekdays at 2.45 pm (book online via website); weekends every half hour 11-3: £12 adults, £6 children. East Cemetery – Saturdays at 2 pm: £8 adults, £4 children (normal admission £4 adults, children free).