Highgate’s other cemetery and its lost poet

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street, with The Gatehouse in the background - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Everybody knows about Highgate Cemetery – one of the Valhallas of Victorian London. But there’s another burial ground in Highgate: older, easier to get to and with real charm, even though it has lost its star attraction. 

This is the graveyard at the top of Highgate High Street, opposite The Gatehouse theatre and pub and on the south side of the Highgate School chapel. It really is pocket handkerchief size and easy to miss and it’s not routinely open to the public. But the story of this burial ground reflects the development of Highgate.

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street, on the south side of the Highgate School chapel

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street, on the south side of the Highgate School chapel - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Prior to Henry VIII’s Reformation, there is reputed to have been a hermitage and small chapel close to where Highgate School now stands. These were swept away at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and in 1565 the land was granted to Sir Roger Cholmeley, a lawyer, Parliamentarian and Highgate resident, for the building of a school.

The foundation stone of the school’s chapel was laid in 1576. It opened two years later and served as the local church and an adjoining burial ground was consecrated for interments in 1617. As the locality developed into a thriving hill-top village, the chapel was repeatedly enlarged. Indeed, there were complaints that the headmaster was spending more time acting as parish priest than teaching his small group of pupils.

After a local bust-up, an act of Parliament was passed in 1830 requiring the demolition of the school chapel and the building of a new church to serve the parishioners of Highgate at the school governors’ expense. The wonderful neo-Gothic St Michael’s, Highgate, just a couple of hundred yards from the site of the old chapel, opened in November 1832. It rejoices in standing higher than any other church in London.

The crypt at Highgate School's chapel

The crypt at Highgate School's chapel - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

The burial ground adjoining the old chapel remained in use as the graveyard for the new parish church. It closed for new interments in 1857, though even after that date special application could be made to St Michael’s.

No one knows how many Highgate residents are buried there. Many of the gravestones are weathered and illegible – though the burial records are available at the London Metropolitan Archive.

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Of the monuments in the burial ground, one in particular stands out. This is a twenty-foot granite obelisk to the memory of Isabella Cannon, who died in 1854 at the age of 26, and of two of her daughters, including Amy Josette who died in Constantinople in that same year aged 3. Isabella’s husband was at that time a general serving in the Crimean War, during which Britain and the Ottoman Empire were allies against Imperial Russia.

In 1866, Highgate School embarked on the construction of a new chapel where the old church once stood. This is the splendid building which still stands and which remains well used and loved.  It has a remarkable crypt. Not the dark, dank subterranean space which you associate with the word, but a space beneath the chapel with windows and natural light. This was the solution the architect devised to preserve the graves which had been placed in the crypt of the old chapel.

The crypt at Highgate School's chapel

The crypt at Highgate School's chapel - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

One of these graves was that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Towards the end of his life and already in poor health, he moved to Highgate – there’s a plaque to him at 3 The Grove – and worshipped at the newly built St Michael’s. On his death in 1834, he was interred in the old burial ground.

But that’s not the end of the story. The building of the new school chapel impeded access to Coleridge’s grave, and to add to the problem, there was a dispute about who was responsible for the upkeep of the graves beneath the chapel which meant that maintenance was none to good. A campaign to find a better resting place for one of Highgate’s most distinguished residents raised sufficient money and support to achieve its goal. 

In 1961, Coleridge’s remains, and those of his wife and three relatives, were removed to St Michael’s where a reinterment service was held. An elegant slate slab was placed in the church’s central aisle bearing the words Coleridge had written to mark his burial spot:

Stop, Christian passer-by! Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he
O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise – to be forgiven for fame
He ask’d, and hoped, through Christ.
Do thou the same!

Good for St Michael’s! But this deprived the old graveyard of by far its most famous occupant. It’s as if the other Highgate Cemetery had lost Karl Marx...

Happily, the burial ground is now well looked after. While St Michael’s has authority over the site, it’s tended by the staff of Highgate School, with help from the pupils who have planted over 2,000 bulbs among the gravestones and memorials. The school’s gardening team plan to rewild the area, with an annual cut-and-prune but otherwise providing a refuge for wildlife: hedgehogs, toads and butterflies. Just as an old burial ground should be!

Andrew Whitehead is a local historian and the author of the Curious series of books about different localities of North London.

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street, with The Gatehouse in the background

The cemetery at the top of Highgate High Street, with The Gatehouse in the background - Credit: Andrew Whitehead