Noted for such resident as Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery is one of those places that many have heard of but few visit. Currently, while sitting on the tube heading into London, I know very little of the history or story of the place I am going to. I know that originally it was a privately run business, I know that many famous people are buried there, I know that it has some amazing funeral art, I believe it to be a very atmospheric place. In a short while I will find out for myself.
I picked up the tube at Hillingdon, my usual starting point for journeys into the capital; a change at Kings Cross and then on the Northern line to Highgate. The approach to the cemetery, at least the route I took, takes you down a narrow tree lined lane. To the right is a 14 foot high brick wall with nasty looking spikes on the top. This is the cemetery wall! Not clear if it was intended to keep the locals out or the residents in.
Highgate Cemetery is split into two; East and West. The West Cemetery is home to the most impressive architectural features; the Chapel, Colonnade, Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, Terrace Catacombs and the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This area is only open for pre-booked tours and is the part that is hidden behind the wall.
Not being that well organised it is the East Cemetery for me which is open to everyone for a small entrance fee of £4.
Here you can find the tombs of ….
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
As well as Jeremy Beadle (1948-2008), Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) and Max Wall (1908-1990) plus many thousands of others.
It is clear that the cemetery has not always been as well looked after as it is today. Many stones have collapsed or have been displaced by trees and other shrubs which have grown through them. The atmosphere of the places is in many ways enhanced by these areas of neglect, particularly when you spot new head stones or those that have been cleaned amongst the over grown vegetation. Particularly poignant were the small number of soldiers headstones which I spotted. They were created in the same design as those in the war cemeteries of Europe, but hidden amongst the graves of long dead London residents.
I spent a good couple of hours wondering the paths through the trees and between the memorials, reading the names and dates of many long dead people. All mixed together they were from different times and in many ways different worlds. You have to wonder how it is possible to continue to add more, but they do. Highgate Cemetery is still in use to day and is an important part of the London community in which it is situated.
Highgate Cemetery is very much one of London’s hidden treasures and well worth a visit.
For more information:
Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839, as part of a plan to provide seven large, modern cemeteries, known as the “Magnificent Seven“, around the outside of central London. The inner-city cemeteries, mostly the graveyards attached to individual churches, had long been unable to cope with the number of burials.
On Monday 20 May 1839, Highgate Cemetery was dedicated to St. James by the Right Reverend Charles Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England, and two acres set aside for Dissenters. Rights of burial were sold for either limited period or in perpetuity. The first burial was Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, on 26 May.
Highgate, like the others of the Magnificent Seven, soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. The Victorian attitude to death and its presentation led to the creation of a wealth of Gothic tombs and buildings.
Highgate Cemetery was featured in the popular media from the 1960s to the late 1980s for its so-called occult past, particularly as being the alleged site of the “Highgate Vampire“.
The cemetery contains the graves of 316 Commonwealth service personnel maintained and registered by the Commonwealth War Graves, in both the East and West Cemeteries, 257 from the First World War and 59 from the Second. Those whose graves could not be marked by headstones are listed on a Screen Wall memorial erected near the Cross of Sacrifice in the older (western) cemetery.