Highgate Cemetery was just one of a whole rash of cemeteries built in London during the early 19th-century. The city was suffering from a severe shortage of burial space at the time, with bodies packed in floors of chapels, crammed-in inches from their neighbours. People had started to complain of the stench during the hot summer months, so the Government stepped in to alleviate the crush.
They authorised the construction of seven large commercial cemeteries around the edge of the city, the most famous being Kensal Green and Highgate.
Highgate Cemetery dates from 1839, when the London Cemetery Company opened a 17.5 acre space to alleviate the strain. The government hoped that by making them commercial, the companies would be encouraged to build bigger and better grounds to accommodate the bodies.
Their plan undoubtedly worked, as Highgate’s grandiose layout – with fine views of the city from Highgate Hill – was designed by architect Stephen Geary and landscape gardener David Ramsay. The Victorians responded in kind by building some of the most flamboyant tombs in London. People literally couldn’t wait to die – so much so that a 19.5 acre extension was added in 1857.
As a taster for what awaits… imagine a tomb guarded by a cross-pawed lion, and a cricketer sleeping under a broken wicket. Famous graves include those of Karl Marx, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. You can also see the tombs of 18 Royal Academicians, six Lord Mayors of London and 48 Fellows of the Royal Society.
Many of the paths have been given grandiose names to match their surroundings – like the Circle of Lebanon. This is a ring of doors topped by a centuries-old cedar tree.
By the 20th-century the cemetery had fallen into disrepair and the graves had become overgrown. The dilapidated buildings looked like crumbling amongst the overgrowth. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed in the 1980s to return it to its former glory.
Guided tour of Highgate Cemetery – from 2nd Jan 2013
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