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Jacobs Island - London Slum c1840

Jacobs Island London Slum c1840

There was something rotten in the heart of London in the first half of the nineteenth century.  As the population in the capital grew at an alarming rate from just 700,000 in 1750 to 1.6 Million by 1831 so too grew the numbers of the dead that the city had to accommodate.  By the 1830’s London’s graveyards were as packed as its slums with corpses disposed of in shallow graves in burial grounds that were crammed in between taverns and shops; bodies were often quick-limed so plots could be reused; the stench of the charnel house must have hung over many districts of the metropolis.

Highgate Cemetery Gatehouse

Entrance to Highgate Cemetery

So great was the risk to public health that parliament was forced to act.  Between 1833 and 1841 legislation was passed creating the ‘London Cemetery Company’ (1836) to oversee a ring of park-like cemeteries encircling London – ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – thereby freeing up more space for the living and improving sanitation in the city.

17 Hectares of the Ashurst Estate set on a wooded hillside above Highgate Village formed the basis for Highgate Cemetery and the cemetery was opened for business on 20th May 1839, with its first burial (of Elizabeth Jackson) following only a few days later.

Sleeping Angel tombThat Highgate Cemetery became such a fashionable place to spend eternity was largely thanks to the work of entrepreneur and architect Stephen Geary and James Johnstone Bunning who created Highgate’s distinctive Victorian Gothic architecture that appealed to the Victorians penchant for death.  The landscaping was completed by David Ramsay and gives the cemetery a naturalistic park-like feel.   It was a fashionable day out in its heyday.

Many famous people chose to invest in Highgate and also to be buried there: Julius  Beer the newspaper magnate built the magnificent mausoleum for his 8-year-old daughter Ada; other dead luminaries include Christina Rossetti the Victorian poet;  Elizabeth Siddal wife and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti the Pre-Raphaelite artist; Charles Cruft of dog-show fame; Michael Faraday, scientist.

Terrace Catacombs

Terrace Catacombs

Many families chose to purchase vaults or a place in the Terrace catacombs (made up of 55 family vaults, the catacombs could hold 825 people). In the 1830’s the going rate for a fair-sized plot was £3.  It costs a little more these days…

The Cemetery holds 170,000 people interred in 53,000 graves.  So popular (and profitable) was the cemetery that it had to be expanded and in 1856 the East Cemetery was opened.  The Karl Marx memorial is possibly the most notable monument in the East Cemetery – certainly the most controversial if the bomb attacks in the 1960’s are anything to go by.

Tangled tombs

Things didn’t go so well for Highgate Cemetery in the twentieth century – two wars and differing attitudes to death and burial saw the once meticulously maintained cemetery fall into disrepair and fall prey to vandalism and desecration.  In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was founded  and to this day they have maintained and carried out extensive restoration of the monuments and graves.  They also conduct excellent tours in the West Cemetery – and this will form the basis of my next post.