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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

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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.

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