Above: Graves at Highgate Cemetery, photo credit: DavideGorla on Flickr
As the nights draw in and the leaves turn golden, scary movies play on TV and carved pumpkins line the streets, Spooky Season gets us intrigued about mysterious histories and ghostly tales. Graveyards and cemeteries are an oft-used setting for sinister stories, but in London you’ll find them to be less creepy, more contemplative.
London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, one of which is Highgate, were built in the 1830s and 40s as a solution to the city’s overcrowded graveyards. For centuries, London’s dead were buried in small parish graveyards, but in the first half of the 19th century the city’s population more than doubled, from 1 million to 2.3 million. A growing population meant, naturally, a growing number of deaths, and the traditional graveyards became grossly overcrowded. This led to improper burials, including bodies being buried in occupied graves, and decaying matter ending up in London’s sewer system, causing epidemics such as cholera.
In 1832, Parliament passed an act encouraging the establishment of private cemeteries outside of central London. This act led to the creation of the Magnificent Seven, consisting of Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead, and Tower Hamlets cemeteries.
In the Georgian and Regency periods, Pleasure Gardens were also popping up around London, growing out of society’s desire for peaceful places to walk and escape the city’s overcrowding, bad smells and other disagreeable hazards. It follows, then, that these brand new cemeteries being built on the outskirts of the city were architecturally designed with the same qualities in mind, and became a haven for reflection and relaxation rather than just a sombre place for mourning.
Highgate Cemetery in north London is listed as Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by English Heritage, and is a de facto nature reserve. It contains 53,000 graves across its East and West Cemeteries, including a whole host of famous names. Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti and George Michael all found their final resting place at Highgate Cemetery — although visitors can’t see the Wham! Star, who is buried in a private lot.
Highgate Cemetery was modelled on Père Lachaise in Paris, which was the first garden cemetery. It is impeccably architecturally designed: highlights include a Tudor-Gothic style chapel building, with wooden turrets and a central bell tower, which uniquely housed both chapels for the Church of England and for Dissenters.
In the heart of the cemetery grounds runs the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing but impressive necropolis consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a wide passageway, each of which could house twelve coffins and were purchased by families to keep relatives together. The Avenue leads to the Circle of Lebanon, built in the same style in a circular structure, with twenty vaults in the inner circle. These are fascinating examples of cemetery architecture, morbid and imposing in their very nature but an enthralling look into how the Victorians honoured their dead.
A beautiful park to explore on a crisp autumn day, offering stunning views over London from its spectacular hilltop location, visiting Highgate Cemetery is a must for a peaceful, reflective day out in the capital. It must be kept in mind that Highgate is an active cemetery, so while it is of great historical interest, visitors need to be respectful. It can also get muddy, so wear sensible shoes.
You need to buy a timed entry ticket in advance to visit, with East and West Cemeteries separate. If you’re looking to see the final resting place of Karl Marx, the East Cemetery is the one to go to, but the Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon are in the West Cemetery.
Tip: Entrance to the East Cemetery is included with West Cemetery tickets at just £10 for adults and £6 for children aged 8-17, so I’d highly recommend visiting both if you can! More information and tickets are available on the Highgate Cemetery website.
* * *
Rachael Davis is a content writer and journalist based in London. She loves to explore history both at home in the UK and internationally when travelling, and has a particular interest in modern history and literary history. She currently works for CBA Content, producing written content for museums, galleries and cultural heritage organisations. Say hello on Twitter @_rachaelbdavis!