Entrance to the Western Cemetery
Tudor arch flanked by Gothic mortuary chapels
Highgate Cemetery, Swain's Lane, North London
Other Views of the Cemetery
Scanned image and text by Jacqueline Banerjee
Highgate Cemetery, or the Cemetery of St James, Highgate, is spread out on the southern slope of Highgate West Hill, lying to the west and east of Swain's Lane. The entrance to the original part, now known as the Western Cemetery, is through an archway flanked by two mortuary chapels — "buildings of Gothic design though laid out to a classical plan" (Weinreb and Hibbert 391). The architect was Stephen Geary, founder of the private London Cemetery Company. Opened and consecrated in 1839, the Western Cemetery can now only be visited on guided tours, and with restrictions on photography. It is by far the grander and more elegant of the two sides: the landscape gardener David Ramsay created winding lanes leading up though another arch, between Egyptian columns and obelisks, to the Egyptian Avenue. Under a bridge at the end of the avenue lies the Circle of Lebanon, with catacombs on a passageway built round a great Cedar of Lebanon. Above that is a terrace and the parish church of St Michael, where Coleridge lies buried under the central aisle. The setting and layout were much admired at the time: "Highgate [Cemetery] is peculiarly fortunate in its position — the slope of a picturesque hill, with the beautiful parish church just above, appearing to form a part of it, and below, at a little distance, the mighty metropolis outspread" (Saunders 174). Among the many famous Victorians buried in the Western Cemetery are the sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead, Edward Hodges Baily and Alfred Stevens; the engraver George Dalziel; the scientist and inventor Michael Faraday; the artist Charles Landseer; the poet Christina Rossetti, as well as Elizabeth Siddal and other members of the Rossetti family; and the novelist Mrs Henry Wood. Geary himself is also buried there.
On the other side of Swain's Lane lies an extension opened in 1857, which is known as the Eastern Cemetery. A tunnel, complete with a hydraulic system for lowering the coffins down, was built from the chapels to the new annexe, in order to avoid taking them across the road thronged with funeral carriages and crowds of mourners and visitors. The Eastern Cemetery is a more natural, even woodland, area, open for visitors to walk around by themselves. Here too are the graves of many distinguished Victorians, such as George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, Frank Matcham (the architect of many London theatres, including the London Coliseum) and Sir Leslie Stephen. Perhaps the most famous grave of all is that of Karl Marx, though the celebrated edifice surmounted by Marx's head dates only from the mid-1950s, when his grave was moved from a more obscure spot in the cemetery.
"Let green leaves and sweet-smelling flowers, fresh and beautiful as their own imaginations, wave around [those buried in London cemeteries]," gushed the contributor to Charles Knight's large collection of essays on London in 1843; "let us feel how sweetly they must 'sleep,' how serenely 'rest!'" (Saunders 176). However, the days when the Victorians picnicked among the tombs at Highgate and even sheltered from showers in the mausoleums are long gone. Many people believe that Bram Stoker found some of his inspiration for Dracula in Highgate Cemetery, and its air of decayed grandeur has made it a popular location for filming horror movies. The process of restoration may rescue it from its spooky reputation.
"The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon." The Highgate Cemetery website. Viewed 3 April 2008.
Friends of Highgate Cemetery. "Notes on Some of the Many Eminent People Buried in the Eastern Cemetery, Highgate." Available at the Cemetery Office.
Friends of Highgate Cemetery. "Notes on Some of the Many Eminent People Buried in the Western Cemetery, Highgate." Available at the Cemetery Office.
Pearson, Lynn F. Discovering Famous Graves. Princes Risborough, Bucks: Shire, 1998.
Saunders, J. "London Burials." London, Vol. IV, ed. Charles Knight. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1843. 161-176.
Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert. The London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.
Last modified 3 April 2008