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Highgate Cemetery: Newly exhibited images tell story of burial ground built to keep out the bodysnatchers

PUBLISHED: 17:59 27 November 2018 | UPDATED: 18:00 27 November 2018

An anonymous print of Highgate Cemetery dating from 1835. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

An anonymous print of Highgate Cemetery dating from 1835. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

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Highgate Cemetery’s grip on north London’s imagination is a firm one.

An etching showing the entrance to the catacombs at Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreAn etching showing the entrance to the catacombs at Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

It has featured on the silver screen – most recently in the second Fantastic Beasts film – and since its foundation in the 1830s attracted visitors from across London, the UK and beyond.

And. although now famous for its well-known residents – Karl Marx, George Eliot, George Michael – the cemetery’s 19th century beginnings were markedly less glamorous.

Overflowing churchyards and a thriving market in dead bodies left people concerned about their welfare after death, and the establishment of private cemeteries was one solution.

Highgate wasn’t the first, it followed Kensal Green and Norwood in London and a number of burial grounds in other cities, but with its dramatic location just below St Michael’s Church, it has become perhaps the most striking.

The Southern Entrance of the cemetery on Swain's Lane. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreThe Southern Entrance of the cemetery on Swain's Lane. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

A new exhibition of previously unseen images from the cemetery’s past is running at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre (CLSAC), and Dr Ian Dungavell, the man who has curated it and who runs the cemetery, explained the images build a fascinating story.

He explained the cemetery’s establishment was as a place which could protect the dead from physical – and spiritual – bogeymen.

He said: “Churchyards, such as the one still in St Pancras, were overflowing. Coffins were becoming cheaper and people just weren’t decaying fast enough.

“The other thing was the body snatchers.

An drawing of St Michael's Church and the Cedar of Lebanon from around 1832, before the cemetery existed. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreAn drawing of St Michael's Church and the Cedar of Lebanon from around 1832, before the cemetery existed. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

“People had a fear of being interfered with after death, and that’s where the private cemetery companies came in. This wasn’t a problem that was going to be solved by the Church of England.”

High walls and tight security were consequently a key selling point for the early cemetery, but innovative designers were able to make Highgate’s hilltop location something special.

Dr Dungavell said: “Highgate had by far the best location of any in London. It was seen as a city of the dead looking back at the city of the living.”

One of the driving forces behind the cemetery’s establishment was Stephen Geary, a man whose - less successful - statue of George IV a few miles south gave King’s Cross it’s name.

Geary created a design for Highgate Cemetery in 1836, and this was then added to by landscape designer David Ramsay.

Ramsay, Dr Dungavell thinks, is the man to thank for the more elegant touches at Highgate.

“Making a feature of the Cedar of Lebanon was down to Ramsay. he also added many of the delicate curving paths.

“The tree had been there below St Michael’s before the cemetery. Framing it was perhaps a bit cheeky, it makes it look like the cemetery is attached to the church.”

The development of the cemetery as somewhere to visit was part of its appeal in the 1830s just as much as it is today.

“Attracting visitors was key. You had to tempt people to bury their family far away from where they lived, it needed to be a pleasant place to visit.”

Despite this, also on display are some coins which illustrate social segregation in the early days of the cemetery. In order to stop the working classes visiting the cemetery, tickets for Sunday entrance were sold.

Cunningly, the cemetary company only sold them in the city of London during the week, making it very difficult indeed for anyone working six days a week to buy one.

The cemetery’s design, Dr Dungavell added, harkens back to a bucolic idea of a pastoral churchyard.

Of the people who created the cemetery, he said: “The idea was to recreate the idea of a certain kind of country churchyard from some of these men’s childhoods.”

The current exhibition also draws attention to the Egyptian influences on the cemetery, particularly when it comes to the catacombs, dating from 1838, which constrain the cedar of Lebanon’s roots.

Then there’s the tomb-lined Egyptian Avenue.

Dr Dungavell said: “The Avenue used to be a tunnel, which’d have been hugely eerie even uncovered it feels gloomy, never mind what it’d have been like before.”

The photographic exhibition – A Great Garden of Death – has been extended until 28 February 2019 at the Camden Centre above Holborn Library in Theobalds Street.

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