Search

History of Highgate Cemetery unearthed in famous burial ground’s 175th year

17:00 04 June 2014

Senior members of the Friends of Highgate Cemetary cut the cakes. (LtoR) Ian Kelly, vice president, Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive, and chairman John Shepperdm. Picture: Mark Hakansson

Senior members of the Friends of Highgate Cemetary cut the cakes. (LtoR) Ian Kelly, vice president, Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive, and chairman John Shepperdm. Picture: Mark Hakansson

Archant

Highgate Cemetery’s origins, past and hopes for the future are unearthed by Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive of the charitable trust that runs the famous burial ground

Dr Ian Dungavell new CEO of Highgate CemeteryDr Ian Dungavell new CEO of Highgate Cemetery

Imagine trying to get planning permission to build a cemetery on the slopes of Highgate Hill, or perhaps in the Highgate Bowl.

Even back in the 1830s when the area was relatively undeveloped, neighbours were concerned about the impact the new cemetery would have.

For one thing, they didn’t want visitors overlooking their gardens. And the parishioners of St Michael’s wanted the cemetery chapel kept well away from their new church. And the people down the hill were concerned about the possible impact on their water supply. Their objections meant that the cemetery didn’t open until 1839, a year after it was ready, and so it celebrated 175 years last week.

It’s difficult for us today, when cemeteries are old and crumbling, to realise how new-fangled they were in the early 19th century. They were a novel private solution to a very public problem: how to dispose of the dead of the burgeoning metropolis?

The unveiling of the famous Karl Marx grave, in 1956The unveiling of the famous Karl Marx grave, in 1956

Until the 1850s most burials took place in church graveyards, close to the homes of the bereaved, but insecure. There were regular scandals as the bodies of the dead were subjected to appalling indignities.

They might be stolen by body snatchers to provide raw materials for the schools of anatomy, or be uncovered by rain if they were buried too close to the surface.

Their coffins might be broken up and the lead, wood, and metal fittings sold. Or they may simply have been dismembered and rearranged to take up the least possible amount of room.

Clearly something had to be done, and the idea of civic improvement combined with the opportunity to make a profit led to the establishment of private cemetery companies. They promised good returns to shareholders, and their advertisements appeared on the same newspaper pages as those seeking investment in the new railway companies. Indeed, the first intercity train line from London to Birmingham was being built at the same time as the cemetery. They were each as modern as the other in the public’s mind.

The London Cemetery Company, which built the cemetery at Highgate, had to be sure that people would be attracted to its new speculation. So they laid it out as a landscape garden with sinuous paths winding up the hill and planted it with clumps of trees and shrubs, almost like a gentleman’s estate.

To this they added striking architectural features such as the Egyptian gateway flanked by a pair of obelisks, and the terrace catacombs from which there were views all over London.

To calm fears about body snatchers the site was encircled with a tall brick wall and there was an armed police of retired soldiers in the cemetery day and night. The pair of chapels at the entrance looks almost like a fortified gatehouse.

Another problem was the name. Idyllic as the village was, to most people Highgate simply meant a jolly great big hill whereas Kentish Town had tea gardens and pleasure grounds and was a popular place of resort on Sundays.

So it was advertised as Kentish Town and Highgate Cemetery with travel advice on omnibus routes and fares and how to avoid the hill. Attracting visitors was important, not just the bereaved, as a means of showing off the desirability of the site.

Soon it was so popular that ways had to be devised to control the number of visitors on Sundays. People had even been spotted having a picnic on consecrated ground. The first guidebook was published in 1845, followed by another 20 years later. A visit to a cemetery would be educational and improving and the clear air of Highgate was healthy.

The cemetery was a great success and the London Cemetery Company felt so encouraged as to double it in size by 1860. There were on average more than 2,000 burials a year for the rest of the 19th century. The numbers steadily dropped until the 1950s and ’60s when the decline was calamitous and it became uneconomic to run.

The company was taken over by a London property group and parts of the cemetery were sold off for housing including 2.5 acres for Camden Council’s Highgate New Town estate.

By the mid-1970s the cemetery was ramshackled and overgrown. It required a lot of labour to keep tidy and secure. Thanks to a hefty grant from Camden Council it remained open to the public but in the end the council wisely decided not to take ownership itself.

Instead, it came to the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a charity which had long been involved in looking after it.

Today the cemetery attracts more than 67,000 visitors a year whose entrance fees are spent on conservation and maintenance. Tours are led by volunteers, who also do much else. Memorials are being restored, trees tended and paths improved attempting to maintain the precarious state of romantic decay which many visitors find so attractive. Celebrating our 175th anniversary also gave us the opportunity to look to the future and think about how it might look for its 200th.

Latest Hampstead & Highgate News Stories

Fri, 14:06
Yasmin Farah

Police are appealing for the public’s help to find two sixteen-year-old girls who have gone missing from Camden.

Fri, 09:07
Mary Langan with her 23-year-old son, James

Carers of adults with demential and disabilities are demanding change after a report revealed there is a “breakdown of trust” on the Haringey boards designed to represent them.

Thu, 17:14
Nina Martynchyk with her foster mother, Nina B

A young woman who overcame anorexia is organising a conference with the Royal Free Hospital to draw attention to how the condition affects children and teenagers

Thu, 16:01
Highgate School

Students and staff at Highgate school were reflecting on a very impressive set of GCSE results today, with 88.2 percent of exams receiving a grade of A* or A.

Thu, 12:41
Hampstead School is in Westbere Road (Pic credit: Google streetview)

The Hampstead School has once again seen its GCSE results improve today, with nearly a quarter of all grades receiving an A* or A grade.

Thu, 11:53
Hornsey School for Girls

Girls at Hornsey School for Girls were today collecting some stellar GCSE results.

Thu, 11:44
Sam White has praised William Ellis pupils

The headteacher of William Ellis school, Sam White, was full of praise for his students today after a promising set of GCSE results.

Thu, 10:56
UCS school

University College School was today celebrating the second best set of GCSE results in its history, with a remarkable 88.6 percent of exams achieving either an A* or A grade.

PROMOTED CONTENT

The showroom is located in Hayes

After 25 years as a trade-only business, family-run door manufacturers Composite Door Master are set to open their first public showroom in Hayes this weekend.

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Most read Hampstead & Highgate news

HOT JOBS

Show Job Lists

Property Newsletter Sign-up

Get the latest North London property news and features straight to your inbox with our regular newsletter

I am also happy to receive other emails...
Fields marked with a * are mandatory
Email Marketing by e-shot

Competitions

You could win £15,000 to spend on either their mortgage or a deposit towards the home of their dreams

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a period of time when you simply don’t have to worry about finding the money each month to pay your mortgage? When you don’t have to put money aside from your monthly income, or worry about having to afford other essential outgoings?

Which book character do you share cleaning habits with?

Whether you have more in common with put-upon Cinderella, emotionally turbulent Jane Eyre, or easily distracted Mole, you’re sure to appreciate that one lucky winner will receive four sessions of free cleaning. Enter our quiz for your chance to win. All runners up will get £10 off their first clean when making a repeat booking.

Digital Edition

cover

Enjoy the
Hampstead & Highgate Express
e-edition today

Subscribe

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now