In the early decades of the nineteenth century London was facing a major crisis. Inadequate burial space along with a high mortality rate resulted in a serious problem: there was just not enough room for the dead.

BBC London Calling - Highgate Cemetery from Santiago Burin des Roziers on Vimeo.

Graveyards and burial grounds were crammed in between shops, houses and taverns — wherever there was space. In really bad situations undertakers, dressed as clergy, performed unauthorized and illegal burials. Bodies were wrapped in cheap material and buried amongst other human remains in graves just a few feet deep. Quicklime was often thrown over the body to help speed decomposition, so that within a few months the grave could be used again. The smell from these disease-ridden burial places was terrible. They were overcrowded, uncared for and neglected.

The cause of this situation was that in the early 1800s London had a population of just one million people. In the following years the population had increased rapidly and the number of deaths along with it. Very little new burial space had been put aside to cater for the growing numbers and by the early 1830s the authorities were stating that for public health reasons something had to be done.

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.

The London Cemetery Company

In 1836 an Act of Parliament was passed creating The London Cemetery Company. Stephen Geary, an architect and the company’s founder, appointed James Bunstone Bunning as surveyor and David Ramsey, renowned garden designer, as the landscape architect. A head office was opened at 22 Moorgate Street, London.

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.

On Monday 20 May 1839 the Cemetery was dedicated to St James by the Right Reverend Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of members of the Church of England and two acres set aside for dissenters (people who were not Church of England). Rights of burial were granted for either a limited period or in perpetuity. The first burial, on 26 May 1839, was Elizabeth Jackson aged thirty-six, of Little Windmill Street, Soho.

The unparalleled elevation overlooking London, rising to 375 feet above sea level at its highest point, along with its unique architecture, meant that the wealthy would be encouraged to invest. The millionaire newspaper owner Julius Beer was one such investor who built the cemetery’s most  impressive monument, to his eight year old daughter Ada.

The architectural highlights

Two chapels, one for the Church of England and the other for Dissenters, were housed within one building, built in the Tudor Gothic style, topped with wooden turrets and a central bell tower. The archway beneath the bell-tower gives an imposing entry to the Cemetery.

In the heart of the grounds was created the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structure consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a broad passageway, entered via a great arch. These vaults were fitted with shelves for twelve coffins and were purchased by individual families for their sole use. This avenue then lead to the Circle of Lebanon which was built in the same style and consisted of twenty vaults on the inner circle with a further sixteen added in the 1870s, built in the Classical style. The Circle was created by earth being excavated around an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, a legacy of the Ashurst Estate, and was used to great visual effect by the cemetery’s designers. Above this, a separate Gothic style catacomb, named the Terrace Catacombs due to its position on the site of the earlier terrace of Ashurst House, was completed in 1842. This was built with an impressive eighty yard frontage and room for a total of eight hundred and twenty-five people in fifty-five vaults of fifteen loculi each, each loculus being sold individually to house one coffin. These were typical of the fashion for above ground burial.

Opening of the East extension

Highgate attracted a varied clientele and over the next twenty years became one of the capital’s most fashionable cemeteries. In 1854 the London Cemetery Company was so profitable that the cemetery was extended by a further twenty acres on the other side of its Swain’s Lane site. This 'new ground', as it was then called, was opened in 1860. A tunnel beneath Swain’s Lane connected the new ground with the Church of England chapel in the older (West) side. With the aid of a hydraulic lift, coffins would descend into the tunnel and remain on cemetery ground for their passage to the other half of the cemetery.

The first burial in the new ground took place on 12 June 1860, of one Mary-Anne Webster, the sixteen year-old daughter of a local baker. By that point there were over 10,400 graves within the older part of the cemetery. During a short period of this decade an average of thirty burials a day took place, including the burial in the West side of Tom Sayers, the famous bare-knuckled prize-fighter who to this day boasts the largest funeral in the history of the cemetery with press reports of over ten-thousand mourners in attendance, including Lion, his faithful dog who was chief mourner.

Unarguably the most famous interment in Highgate Cemetery is in the East side and is that of the philosopher Karl Marx who died in 1883. His grave must now be amongst the most visited in London.


By the turn of the century, the desire for elaborate funerals was waning and families began to choose less ostentatious memorials than in previous decades. At the outbreak of the Great War, many of the cemetery’s forty or so gardeners and grounds-men were called up to fight. Despite this diminished workforce, the grounds continued to be kept in immaculate order, held under the strict authority of the superintendent.

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.  In 1956 in an attempt to raise much needed income, the Cemetery sold off its stone mason’s yard along with the Superintendent’s house. The two chapels were also closed in the same year. The London Cemetery Company was finally declared bankrupt in 1960 and was absorbed into the larger United Cemetery Company, which for the next fifteen years struggled to keep the cemetery afloat.  Funds eventually ran out and the gates were closed. The Cemetery faced a bleak and uncertain future.

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  as  an  environmental  amenity.”  Work began to clear through the overgrown landscape and repair some of the memorials which had been damaged by vandals during the cemetery’s decline.

Since then an increasing amount of restoration and conservation work has been carried out. The Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon and the Terrace Catacomb, along with over seventy other monuments, have now been listed by English Heritage, with over double that number having had expert attention and maintenance. During 2011 the chapel interior was restored to its 1880s colour scheme and reopened for funerals.

English Heritage has listed Highgate Cemetery as a Grade 1 Park and has been impressed by continued restoration work.  Both sides of the cemetery remain open as active burial grounds with interments taking place weekly.

Justin Bickersteth