In the early decades of the nineteenth century London was facing a major crisis. Inadequate burial space along with a high mortality rate, which resulted in a serious problem, there was just not enough room to bury the dead.
By the early 1830s the authorities were stating that for public health reasons something had to be done about Inadequate burial space. Parliament passed a statute to the effect that seven new private cemeteries should be opened in the countryside around the capital for the burial of London’s dead. These cemeteries were Kensal Green 1833, West Norwood 1836, Highgate 1839, Abney Park 1840, Brompton 1840, Nunhead 1840 and Tower Hamlets 1841. These Cemeteries became known as the Magnificent Seven.
The initial design of Highgate Cemetery was by architect Stephen Geary, an architect and the company’s founder. Geary appointed James Bunstone Bunning as surveyor and David Ramsey, a renowned garden designer, as the landscape architect. The sum of £3,500 was paid for seventeen acres of land that had been the grounds of the Ashurst Estate, descending the steep hillside from Highgate Village. Over the next three years the cemetery was landscaped to brilliant effect by Ramsey with exotic formal planting, complemented by the stunning and unique architecture of both Geary and Bunning. It was this combination that was to secure Highgate as the capital’s principal cemetery.
Due to the Victorian’s romantic attitude to death, Highgate’s presentation led to the creation of a labyrinth of Egyptian sepulchres and a wealth of Gothic tombs and buildings resulting in Highgate quickly becoming the most desirable and fashionable place for burials and admiration not just in London but across England as a whole.
By the turn of the 19th century, the desire for elaborate funerals was waning and families began to choose less ostentatious memorials than in previous decades. Although some wealthy families continued to purchase select Rights of Burial into the 1930s, Highgate Cemetery was passing into a long terminal decline with less expensive and more common graves being the main options. Increasingly, greater numbers of graves were abandoned as families died out or moved away and maintenance became minimal.
The London Cemetery Company was absorbed into the larger United Cemetery in 1956 and for the next fifteen years struggled to keep the cemetery afloat. Funds eventually ran out and the gates were closed in 1960 with the company finally declared bankrupt. From 1960’s Highgate Cemetery faced a bleak and uncertain future suffering neglect and vandalism. Fortunately, in 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed with the aim “…to promote the conservation of the cemetery, its monuments and buildings, flora and fauna, for the benefit of the public.
Today Highgate Cemetery sits Perched on a hill within London and has become one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. The cemetery has two parts the east and the west entombing poets, painters, princes and paupers and there at least 850 notable people buried at Highgate.
As a child living in London in the 1970’s I can remember visiting Highgate and being mesmerised by the place. Returning as an adult for me personally, it is the west cemetery that is most alluring. Highgate is a mix of romantic decay, overgrown ivy, ferns and deeply shaded paths, together with a variety of architectural styles making it unique and special. In the autumn, the West Cemetery of Highgate is transformed in to photographic location of wonder providing a visual history of Victorian London’s funerary monuments, structures and art and it deserves a visit and your support.