Highgate Cemetery had been on my list of places to visit for a long time and I finally managed to do so on a surprisingly warm and sunny weekend in January. The cemetery is split into two sites across the road from each other – Highgate Cemetery East will feature in my next post. The West Cemetery is accessed by guided tour only and costs £12 (which includes access to the East Cemetery which is self-guided). You can’t book in advance on a weekend but you must do so during the week – I had no problem getting on to a tour on the Sunday at 11am (tours start at 10.30).
As I’d arrived about ten minutes early I had a chance to take some photos of the chapel where the ticket office is and then bumped into the man who it turned out would be leading our tour. He was great and very knowledgeable, though I’m afraid I can no longer remember his name. Worth noting that if you have a particular person’s grave you want to see or a particular interest the tour guide is happy to tailor the tour for you – I expressed an interest in architecture so the guide pointed out some architect’s graves to me like that of Edward Blore, below, which I correctly identified as one of the architects who worked on Buckingham Palace.
Inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (somewhere that’s on my to visit list), once church graveyards began to become overcrowded in the 1820s private companies began to create beautifully landscaped creations on the edges of towns for the burial of people from all denominations. Seven of these cemeteries were opened in London, the so-called Magnificent Seven (and yes, I intend to visit them all at some point). Highgate was the third to be opened in 1839 by the London Cemetery Company.
The west side was opened first and always intended to be a tourist attraction with guidebooks to the cemetery published even in its earliest days. Unlike in some countries in the UK we don’t routinely reuse graves – we had a German on our tour who was surprised to learn this – so eventually the cemetery became unprofitable as the price of maintaining it and keeping out vandals grew, though our guide said that even now there are still spaces available. The company that opened Highgate eventually went bust and it is now run by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a charity that uses the money from its tours to keep the cemetery open and in a decent condition.
The cemetery is very photogenic, with this side having the most elaborate monuments. Famous sites include the Egyptian Avenue lined with tombs and with two large obelisks at its entrance.
This leads to the Circle of Lebanon which you may have seen in some TV and films including Fantastic Beasts. We paid particular attention to the tomb of Radclyffe Hall, writer of The Well of Loneliness which I’d by coincidence started reading before the tour. A lesbian who wrote about lesbian relationships in the 1920s she is buried here with one of her female lovers and her lover’s husband. Apparently every day a fresh vase of flowers is left at her tomb though the guide claimed never to have seen the person that leaves it there.
One other striking feature is the Mausoleum of Julius Beer, a German born businessman who made his fortune on the London Stock Exchange. He built the mausoleum for his daughter Ada who died at the age of 8. Julius is also buried here along with his wife and son. You couldn’t go in when I visited but there is a 360º virtual tour on the cemetery’s website. Interestingly, despite extensive searches, the cemetery has yet to find out much about Julius Beer and his family and haven’t managed to find any descendants yet. The architect was John Oldrid Scott – son of Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.
Some other interesting graves we visited were those of Charlotte and Charles Cruft who founded Crufts Dog Show
and Herbert Bartlett, a civil engineer who worked on parts of the London Underground.
I would highly recommend a visit – the tour lasts roughly 70 minutes and is a great opportunity to visit some Victorian splendour and history. You can find more photos here.