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Highgate cemetery: the graveyard sift

Boasting many rare, unseen images, the evolution of Highgate cemetery is the subject of a new exhibition

17 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Resurrectionists at work

LONDON was running out of burial space: and this coupled with a rise in body snatching to slake the thirst of medics investigating the mysteries of the human body, Gothic superstitions and the need to help a loved one pass gently into the next life, the Victorian era saw a boom in the creation of grand cemeteries.

In an exhibition at the Camden Local Studies Archives in Holborn, previously unseen images of the life and times of Highgate cemetery in its early days are on display – and it tells the extraordinary story behind its opening.

The cemetery has gone through ups and downs – hailed as the place to be laid to rest when it first opened, it had slipped into disrepair by the mid-20th century, before slowly being restored and becoming the mix of globally renowned landmark and a working burial ground today.

Current chief executive Dr Ian Dungavell has worked with archivist Tudor Allen to source images rarely seen – and build up a complete picture of what the cemetery has looked like through the decades. He says it shows how much the cemetery has evolved.

“I wanted to look at how it was laid out, what it originally looked like and how it has changed,” he says. “The early pictures show it was quite devoid of graves and of growth. Up to the 1930s, it was empty of trees, and you can also track how it has filled up with graves. It shows it has been a constantly evolving landscape.”

The exhibition also highlights how, in the 19th century as today, it was seen as a place to visit not just for mourners but as a place of interest.

“We had issues with the numbers of Londoners who would come to visit each Sunday,” says Dr Dungavell. “It was an important place for people to come on non-cemetery activities.”

And the cemetery, when first established, was bright and colourful – perhaps surprising to those who visit it now, or have preconceived ideas of Victorian Gothic.

“It came as a real shock to see what it looked like in the mid-19th century,” he adds. “There was gleaming white marble, and pink and red granite. This comes across even in black and white photographs.

“There was also a large number of gardeners employed to grow flowers for the graves. It looks very different from today, when it is much more sober with grey marble and less flowers. “

The exhibition also raises questions for the future. “There is a phrase often said about restoring things to their ‘former glory’,” he adds. “But you have to ask: what does that mean? The numerous headstones and trees are something people value today. It shows it is not just a simple thing to take it back to how it looked in the 19th century. Some think that is what it could be. Instead, it shows it is about reimagining the cemetery for the future.”

The man behind the cemetery was the founder of the London Cemetery Company, architect and entrepreneur Stephen Geary.

Before Geary set up the firm that would establish Highgate he was behind a number of schemes that were treated with disdain – but also show what a forward-thinking designer he was.

He had built a monument in King’s Cross to commemorate George IV – but he did not raise enough funds to build it in the manner he wished. It was ridiculed by the likes of Augustin Pugin and lasted just 15 years before it was pulled down.

He also became involved in the “Panarmonion”, going into business with an Italian music teacher Signor Gesualdo Lanza: it was to be a centre for music and drama, but flopped, bankrupting the unfortunate music teacher in the process. Geary designed a cemetery in Gravesend and another in Brighton, and then what is considered to be London’s first gin palace – despite being a staunch supporter of the Temperance Movement.

The call for new cemeteries increased throughout the 1800s. As medical schools cranked up the demand for fresh cadavers for students of anatomy, there was an greater fear of body snatchers.

Cases such as Burke and Hare struck the public’s imagination – and the exhibition includes a print showing a gravedigger from the Hawksmoor church, St George’s in Bloomsbury, in 1777 unearthing a corpse.

As well as the threat of bodies being stolen in the night, the simple dilemma facing London was a lack of space. Graveyards in small parish churches were full. More space was needed – and with typical 19th century vigour, some grand plans were laid.

In 1827, architect Thomas Wilson put forward a scheme that used a giant pyramid to house bodies. This was followed in 1830 by Francis Godwin, who proposed building a Grand National Cemetery in Primrose Hill.

Godwin’s plans never made it off the drawing board – but he then went on to propose, three years later, the first cemetery in Highgate. He appears to have learned his lesson in terms of scale, citing that £20,000 would cover buying land, building two chapels and putting a perimeter wall around it.

In 1836, Geary turned his attention to creating a cemetery in Highgate. His first designs had an entrance from Highgate Village by St Michael’s, which would be used as a chapel. Another was designed for Dissenters, and a southern gate was earmarked for Swains Lane.

By February 1839, a major flaw in Geary’s design was apparent and had to be rectified: namely, the main path was too steep for horse-drawn carriages.

And Geary’s last resting place is in the earth that he had consecrated: he was buried with his wife in a grave owned by his son – who happens to be the great-great-grandfather of George Osborne, the current editor of the Evening Standard and former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A Great Garden of Death: Highgate Cemetery in archive images runs until March 30 at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Holborn Library, 32-38 Theobalds Road, WC1X 8PA.


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