9 Things Not to Miss at Highgate Cemetery
It’s one of the most famous cemeteries in the world but recently Highgate Cemetery has offered an even better opportunity while visiting. It’s the chance to explore the West Cemetery alone with a self-guided route.
I’ve previously taken one of their excellent guided tours but this was a brilliant opportunity to wander the peaceful surroundings alone.
There are thousands of graves, so this list is just my personal highlights and somewhere to start!
A Bit of Background
Highgate Cemetery was one of the earliest private cemeteries in England. London’s huge population growth in the early 19th century meant that most churchyards were full and there was growing concern of the need to bury the dead.
Between 1801 and 1841 the population of London doubled from 1 to 2 million and during this time the capital was also hit with unprecedented health crises including typhoid an cholera.
The solution to this problem would be solved by entrepreneurial Victorian businessmen.
In 1836 an Act of Parliament established the London Cemetery Company, led by Stephen Geary. There were plans to build a North, South and East cemetery, with Highgate being the flagship project.
It wasn’t the first. Kensal Green (1833) and West Norwood (1837) came earlier and were both run by private companies.
Spurred on by competition the plan was to make Highgate the most beautiful and prestigious private burial place in London.
1. The First Burial
Easily missed in amongst the greenery, the grave of Elizabeth Jackson doesn’t seem that ‘special’.
But this is the very first burial in the cemetery, just six days after Highgate Cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 20 May 1839.
Elizabeth was only 36 and died from consumption. She lived on Little Windmill Street in Soho which at the time was overcrowded and unsanitary. Her husband later died in the 1854 cholera outbreak. You can read more about this and the fateful water pump at the centre of the story here.
During the 19th century, as new opportunities for travel opened to the British, there was a boom in Egyptology. It was during this time that many objects were taken from Egypt, to the British Museum and this new inspiration would influence art and design.
The Avenue reflects contemporary fashion and is particularly apt for funerary monuments. It’s a theatrical experience, walking through the small entrance and passing 8 vaults on either side which can each contains up to 12 coffins. Previously this also would’ve been enclosed overhead, adding to the atmospheric experience.
3.Circle of Lebanon
After walking through the Avenue you then emerge back into sunlight, but are presented with a sweep of mausoleums.
This is the centre of the West Cemetery and is named after a cedar tree from Lebanon – already 100 years old when Stephen Geary was designing the site.
Sadly the cedar tree had to be removed in 2019. Tree Surgeons found it was beyond saving and was in danger of collapsing into the vaults below.
4. Terrace Catacombs
Named after the garden terrace of Ashurst House, demolished in 1830, these are brick catacombs stretching over 70 metres, lit by circular gaps in the ceiling.
One of the people buried here is Robert Liston, a pioneering Scottish surgeon who specialised in amputations. Known as the ‘fastest knife in the West End’ he could remove a patients leg in under 30 seconds.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons – Robert Liston, 1847 portrait by Samuel John Stump
Something I’m sure his patients appreciated in an era before anaesthetic.
5. Thomas Sayer’s Tomb
Since it opened Highgate was a prestigious place to be buried and so it follows that the Victorian celebrities found their way here.
There are plenty of architects, scientists and politicians, but a particularly eye-catching grave is that of Thomas Sayers, a bare-knuckle prize fighter.
10,000 people are meant to have attended his funeral and riding as ‘chief mourner’ behind his procession of carriages was his beloved pet dog ‘Lion’.
In statue form, his faithful dog keeps watch over his master’s grave in perpetuity.
6. Nero the Lion
On an animal theme you can also find an actual lion represented in Highgate Cemetery.
This is Nero; the most famous attraction of George Wombwell’s travelling menagerie. Established in 1810, Wombwell was an eccentric showman and by 1839 he had 15 wagons packed with exotic creatures that toured the country.
He even made use of his coffin before he died, made from the wood of a shipwreck and gifted to him by Prince Albert (for curing his pet dog) Wombwell exhibited his coffin for a fee while he was alive.
Seen as the first international terrorist incident, Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent is based on the story.
7. The Beer Mausoleum
The largest and grandest of all Highgate’s private monuments is the Beer Mausoleum, designed for Julius Beer who died in 1880.
He made his money on the London Stock Exchange and this burial place cost him £5,800 at the time.
But it wasn’t an egotistical place for himself, rather a monument to family including his beloved young daughter who died of scarlet fever aged 8.
Get a 360° view inside the mausoleum here.
8. Karl Marx’s Tomb (East Cemetery)
Karl Marx can be found in the East Cemetery and is almost impossible to miss his tomb, simply because of the absolutely massive bronze sculpture of Marx which stands at 12ft (3.7m) high. Marx was originally buried here in 1883, alongside his wife in a sparse ceremony.
Marx was originally buried here in 1883, alongside his wife in a sparse ceremony. Howver in the 1950s, after a huge fundraising effort from the Communist party, Marx and his wife Jenny were exhumed and moved to a more prominent position. The current monument was erected in 1954, designed by Laurence Bradshaw.
The East Cemetery was built in the 1850s, this expansion doubled the cemetery in size and has a very different feel to the West side, less overgrown and dramatic.
The 19 acre-site is on the other side of Swain’s Lane which meant that it was tricky to transport coffins (after ceremonies in the chapel) across the road.
Leave it to the Victorians to come up with an engineering solution. An underground tunnel and hydraulic lift was installed! It opened in 1855 but is sadly inaccessible today.
9. Patrick Caulfield’s Headstone (East Cemetery)
Not everything in Highgate Cemetery is Victorian and they’re still open for burials today (interested? find out more here.)
One of the most striking modern tombstones is for the artist and printmaker Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005)
Visiting Highgate Cemetery
On the Highgate Cemetery website you can choose between guided tours and self-guided visits of the West Cemetery. The East Cemetery is included in your ticket price. Find out more here.
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