The padlocked wrought-iron gates barred our way. In the inner courtyard, a flock of twenty-something pigeons took flight as one, filling the silence with a flutter of wings, and the emptiness with a scratch of charcoal grey. In the eastern cemetery a skinny fox sauntered amongst the tombstones, turning to look back at us, tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth, before he disappeared from sight into the depths with the dead ones. Highgate is high theatre, a feat of excessive Victoriana – a feast for the dead and the living alike.
A custodian arrived; setting his shoulder to the gates, leaning his body into them, he pushed them open. Silence. Once hearses filled with flowers, pulled by black horses adorned with feather plumes, waited here. The cemetery lies beyond, hidden from view. David Ramsey, the landscape architect, wanted to send the mourner – as well as the deceased – on a voyage into the unknown. In 1839 this was a journey with an undeniable ‘wow’ factor; an army of eighty gardeners tended the landscaped grounds, lush with exotic plants and strolling peacocks. At the very centre of the grounds, The Egyptian Avenue, a vault-lined passageway modelled on a tomb at Luxor, provided a final resting place for London’s most eminent Victorians. This ‘avenue of death’ lead to the glorious Circle of Lebanon. The huge Cedar of Lebanon tree from which the circle takes it’s name, now three hundred years old, would have been an impressive sight even when the cemetery was founded. Silent witness to the passage of life and death, it protects the departed with it’s outstretched branches and offered shade to Victorian ladies promenading on Sunday afternoons. Highgate became the place to be buried.
The glorious and good lie here. The largest and most expensive mausoleum is that of Julius Beer, built by Italian craftsmen for £5,000 in 1878 – £1-2 million today. Julius Beer made a fortune on the London Stock Exchange and owned the Observer newspaper, but always felt shunned by society. Not only was he foreign and Jewish – he’d had the effrontery to earn his money instead of inheriting it. His revenge was to situate his magnificent mausoleum, with it’s gold leaf, mosaic and bejewelled ceiling, in a location where it blocked the view over London from the promenade above. Ostracised in life, in death Beer was not so easily ignored.
The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried his muse and wife, Elizabeth Siddall, in Highgate. Poor Lizzie, a milliner girl, was driven to suicide by Rossetti’s philandering, the birth of a still-born baby and various unexplained illnesses. Grief stricken, Rossetti buried a unique volume of his poetry with her as a final romantic gesture, only to exhume her body seven years later to recover his manuscript. Twelve people watched as men dug by the light of burning torches to retrieve the writings and all swore that Lizzie looked simply as if she were sleeping. There had been no deterioration of her body, her glorious red hair had continued growing and filled the coffin, curling in waves around her body. She lies there to this day.
But not only the ‘good’ lie buried in Highgate. Of the 17 acres of the original western cemetery, two were set aside for Dissenters – Baptists, Presbyterians, Sandemanians and other Protestant sects. And not only the glorious either. There are about 169,000 people buried in the cemetery, in 52,500 graves, mausoleums, and catacombs. These ordinary men and women and tell us much about life in Victorian England.
James William Selby, a coachman, accepted a wager to drive from London to Brighton, in 1888, in less than eight hours. The Lewis Hamilton of his day, he did it in seven hours, fifty minutes, using seven teams of horses. He won £1,000 but died five months later. His winnings might have been used to provide him with his lavish memorial.
‘Lion’, a gargantuan stone dog, keeps watch over the grave of Thomas Sayers – the last of the bare-knuckle prize fighters. Sayers was only five feet eight inches tall and never weighed much more than 150 pounds, but he frequently fought much bigger men. In a career which lasted from 1849 until 1860 he lost only one of sixteen bouts. His final fight against John Camel Heenan went more than forty rounds and was eventually declared a draw. Much loved by the public, and regarded as a national hero, a sum of £3,000 was raised for Sayers by public conscription. He retired from the ring and bought a pub in Camden but died at the age of 39, five years later. It took three days for the 10,000 mourners to file past his grave. Lion led the mourning in the second carriage of Sayer’s cortège – a place normally reserved for next of kin, but Sayer declared that Lion had been more loving and more faithful to him than his wife had ever been.
George Wombwell, another extraordinary, ordinary Victorian, lies buried under a statue of his lion, Nero. In the days before zoos, Wombwell got his start when he bought two boa constrictors from a sailor at London docks. He paid £75 and showed them in pubs. Soon he was making a good profit and began to buy other exotic animals. Nero, docile to the end (apparently he used to let small children sit on his back and ride him like a pony), drapes himself over Wombwell’s tomb, and keeps watch as Lion does over Sayers.
The great fear of Victorian Britain was not of death – but of not being properly mourned. Complicated mourning rituals were put in motion at the moment a death was announced. Clocks were stopped at the time of passing, mirrors were covered to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass, and the eyes of the deceased were closed to prevent them from taking someone to the grave with them. None of these customs were as prescriptive as the rules concerning dress. Widows had their dress code dictated for two whole years after their husband’s death. In full mourning all garments were expected to be black – handkerchiefs, stockings, gloves, parasols, even undergarments. All of this was about being seen to do the right thing – making a statement – excess, ostentation, wealth – all were as important in death as in life.
Now, Highgate is a managed wilderness. Headstones lean one against another, covered with clinging ivy. Some uprooted by trees lie slightly raised from the ground, like cracked nuts brittle and broken. The sun plays peek-a-boo through a lattice-work of branches, casting shadows and hues of grey at one moment, only to be replaced the next by dappled greens and pale lemons. Red holly berries shine amongst dark green leaves – the legacy of so many Victorian wreaths. It’s fairyland with an edge – beautiful but decaying, folding in upon itself. Angels point heavenwards; broken columns etched with moss – symbolic of lives that had ended too soon; crosses and resurrection, clasped hands and love, a cry from the heart – everyone, it seems, pleads ‘I was here, I meant something to someone once. I made a mark’.
Highgate is a reminder of the fragility of life, it’s beauty, it’s impermanence, it’s strength. The exuberance and sheer joy of it all. It’s about life, death, and everything in between.
The western cemetery can only be visited with a guide. Weekday tours must be booked in advance. At the weekend, tours are run on a first come -first served basis, generally every half hour from 11.00 – 16.00. Cost £12.
The eastern cemetery can be visited independently (£4). Tickets to the western cemetery are valid for entrance to the east for one month.
In need of refreshment?
Waterlow Park, next door to the cemetery, is small but beautiful with a coffee house – selling cakes, sandwiches etc.
Highgate High Street can be reached by walking through the park. We had lunch at the ‘Flask’. The quintessential old British pub, complete with ceiling beams, open fireplaces, bottle-glass windows, and a labyrinth of cosy snug rooms. Said to be the most haunted pub in London – a fitting end to a walk around a cemetery!
77 Highgate West Hill N6 6BU