Week two of my Spooktacular runs series. (I use the word “run” rather liberally this week. I took a walking tour, then walked around myself for a couple more hours. I think it would be rude to actually try to PR in an active cemetery!)
Highgate Cemetery Part Two: West Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery was the third of seven cemeteries built around London to compensate for the population boom of the 19th century. Between 1800 and 1840 the population of London literally doubled, and due to this increase (and some wide spread cholera outbreaks), the traditional churchyards of the time could no longer cope with the influx of bodies. Thus, seven for-profit necropolises were created, circling London, of which Highgate was probably the most fashionable place to be laid to your final rest.
The West Cemetery is the older of the two parts of Highgate Cemetery, and home to some of the more expensive and heavily sought after plots.
The design of Highgate Cemetery was the work of architect, Stephen Geary. The Victorians were obsessed with death and could be expected to spend about a third of their whole life savings on their funeral service and burial. Death was big business, so Highgate had to offer outstanding architecture and botanical gardens in order to compete with the other cemeteries of the era.
Geary cut an enormous courtyard into the hill, long enough, wide enough, and flat enough to allow a horse drawn hearse with up to six horses to pull into the graveyard and turn around elegantly and with much pomp.
60 caretakers were employed to look after Highgate Cemetery’s landscaping, which would have included many exotic plants that needed expert care.
Highgate Cemetery’s earlier graves feature more pagan imagery. Early Victorians took an interest in Egyptian and classical symbolism. Urns, obelisks, palms, and lotuses were popular funereal symbols. Later, when Neo-Gothic design came into vogue, the Christian symbols of angels and the cross surpassed pagan symbols in popularity.
Symbols were often used to make reference to the deceased’s career in life. This general has cannons slipped into the fencing around his family tomb. As a sign of respect and acknowledgement that earthly things were no longer needed, such objects were always turned upside down.
The grave of Highgate Cemetery’s first resident: Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho. She was buried on 26 May, 1839, six days after Highgate Cemetery’s official opening, at the ripe old age of 36.
The occupant of this grave, who’s name escapes me now, made a fortune touring the Home Counties with his menagerie. Among his exotic collection was Nero the Lion. Nero, who was raised entirely in captivity was said to be so gentle that he would let children climb on his back. When Nero died, his owner commissioned this sculpture of him, which was then made part of his own tomb.
Julius Beer was a German immigrant, and outstandingly successful businessman in the latter part of the 19th century. When his very young daughter Ada tragically passed away, Julius was utterly devastated. He commissioned this mausoleum, by far the largest single standing tomb on the grounds in her honor. Purchasing the plot of land for £500 and spending between £3000-£5000 on the building itself, Julius Beer spent the modern day equivalent of about £3 million on his daughters shrine. We were allowed to peek inside (but not take photos) at the mosaic ceiling covered in gold leaf and at the statue he had commissioned of Ada being taken off to Heaven by an angel, which was copied from Ada’s actual death mask. Julius, his wife, and his son were later interred there.
This is the grave of Tom Sayers, one of the most visited graves on site. Sayers was a famous bare-fisted prize fighter in the 19th century. His beloved mastiff, Lion, depicted in stone on his tomb, was the chief mourner in his funeral, and therefore first in the procession behind his coffin. His wife was second.
When the Great War broke out, the Highgate Cemetery caretakers were called away to fight, and the famous botanical gardens started to fall into disrepair. Attitudes toward mourning changed, and the pomp and ceremony of Victorian services was replaced with austere, private expressions of grief. Burials continued in the East Cemetery while the West Cemetery slowly became derelict. In the 1970s a group of locals banded together to rescue to Cemetery. They created a non-profit, charitable organization, The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, which takes the sole responsibility of management and restoration today, and subsists only on charity and admission prices for the Cemetery and tours.
That’s all the spookiness I have in store for this week! Scare you later! 🎃👻💀😱