At the beginning of May, I had the chance to spend a day in London. Not only that, but I had the great luck to experience one of the very few sunny days during the water-logged springtime months! As I didn't want to go around the usual tourist circuit I ended up going to Highgate Cemetery as an alternative afternoon 'jaunt'. In fact, to proved to be truly magical...
After Highgate Cemetery's inauguration in 1839, the majestic burial grounds gradually became a high place of Anglican devotion, elegance and affluence in Victorian London. The landscaped garden cemetery with its impressive architectural features of mausoleums, crypts and tombs enabled the discerning visitor to 'take the air' in a respectable, yet hugely popular manner. Men and women would stroll around the ostentatious grounds, observing and admiring the site which acted as a vast stage on which they could parade themselves in the latest finery. Although this self-conscious aspect had no part in the guided tour of the Western part of the cemetery when I went, all the visitors were in awe and admiration of the beauty on display. Nature and the vestiges of the Victorian concerns over Life and Death vie for a place, together creating a scene of great tranquility and peace, especially in the springtime sun.
Highgate is far more than an evocative wildlife sanctuary. The funereal stonework, with its symbolic images and inscriptions all underline the spiritual, aesthetic and historical wealth of the site, and emphasize the cultural context that led to its creation and success. From that point of view alone it is fascinating, as an overgrown museum, exposed to the elements. Here, everything bounds with natural life and spirituality, offering a timeless haven of beauty in the heart of such an urban setting.
The reason for the creation of Highgate Cemetery is a little more prosaic, if not to say of plain gruesome practicality. The Victorians are remarked for their 'obsessive concern' with death, however given the context, this preoccupation is not entirely surprising. As the Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of work and working practices, the urban and rural landscape of Britain changed rapidly and irremediably. From the turn of the 19th century Britain became a vast workshop as advances in technology, science and manufacturing practices altered the supply and demand of goods and services. In turn, the appetite of this increasingly-voracious machine drew potential workers to the cities in their droves. New horizons were opened to the Victorians, bringing unprecedented advances and adventures, yet also leading to exposure to a fair measure of danger, disadvantage and deprivation. Multitudes of workers, skilled and unskilled alike, were maimed or killed in accidents due to perilous working conditions. The work of the 'navvies' - the navigational engineers - carved up the English landscape for revolutionary civil engineering projects. However, the canals, embankments and the railway system that revolutionized travel around the country cost thousands their lives. Neither sex and no age group was safe from danger. Women and young children were commonly employed in factories, selected to perform meticulous, yet hazardous jobs, frequently working with heavy machines and toxic substances. Such risks acted as a weak deterrent, however, as the very real threat of destitution hung over each and every individual in this dog-eat-dog society.
Given its level of death, disease and pollution it seems almost ironic that London should have been a source of inspiration for Napoléon III, in his plans to elevate the city of Paris away from its medieval sprawl. And yet this ,in part, gave rise to the ambitious Hausmanian project that largely defines the City of Light today... The noxious air and water in 19th century British cities plagued the life of their inhabitants, regardless of status. Factories spewed out industrial effluent and fumes into the environment, to the extent that water courses resembled toxic soup and the skies were obscured by shrouds of smog. The waters of Old Father Thames served as a dumping ground for sewage, carcasses and corpses alike. The consequent stench in the summer months was so nauseating that the Houses of Parliament were closed in 1858, as a direct result of the 'Great Stink'. This unpalatable 'bad air' was known as toxic miasmas and these were erroneously held responsible for the spread of cholera. It was to combat these miasmas that the civil engineer, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) would later devise his sewer network. This was to be a key element in the Victorian sanitary revolution which would transform the hygiene of central London. Nevertheless, the smoke-laden air would remain heavy and foul for many decades to come. Judging by the 1872 illustrations of Gustave Doré, London: A Pilgrimage , the situation had still not vastly improved in the last quarter of the 19th century. Ironically, inhabitants who avoided over-exposure to 'fresh' air were equally at risk from toxins lurking in the home as chimney fumes, domestic furnishings, wallpaper, cleaning products or simply damp and vermin posed a very real threat on the domestic front.
Although Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) died just before the veritable beginning of the Victorian era, he rightly predicted the negative consequences of dramatic demographical change. According to his theory, an explosion in population growth could only undermine the dreams of Utopia offered by this socio-economic revolution, driven by industrial progress. When Victoria became Queen in 1837, her long reign would see Britain become truly Great, in terms of its domestic expansion and evolution and its worldwide pre-eminence as the greatest Empire. Britain demonstrated an ever-growing need for resources and overseas markets to fuel an economy based largely on revolutionized manufacturing. She sought to acquire further lucrative territories to extend the Empire, competing against long-standing Continental rivals. Mass production and export of goods assured Britain sudden prosperity. This made the fortune of many industrialists whilst acting as a powerful lure to the less fortunate who hoped to find work of any kind. It was hardly surprising that the major cities doubled in size in a relatively short space of time. Although images prevail of a Dickensian London, Manchester was the vanguard of industrialized Britain. In north west England the manufacture of textiles exploded from the beginning of the 19th century, led by technological and scientific developments which coincided with other advances, such as the introduction of the railway system. The expansion of the railway system linked Manchester to Liverpool, the hub of international trade and immigration, and Birmingham, the heart of the metalwork and jewellery trade. Such developments led to the influx and circulation of ever-more people into and around industrial Britain.
The population of London grew from almost 1 million in 1801 to nearly 2 1/2, which naturally led to huge overcrowding and the hardships which that entailed. While the birth rate rocketed, unchecked by ineffective birth control, the mortality rate reached an unprecedented high, markedly amongst young infants and their mothers. Insalubrious housing was synonymous with non- existent hygiene. The lack of even basic sanitation, a rudimentary waste disposal system and the practice of communal use of water supplies all favourised the spread of common-place illnesses along with life-threatening diseases. What would be considered relatively banal today, in an age of mass-vaccination, was fatal in the 19th century. Swathes of the population, malnourished, or starving, lived and died in cramped, contaminated conditions, often in early infancy from all manner of illnesses. Victorian consumption - tuberculosis - alone accounted for a third of all deaths, irrespective of any class distinction. Epidemics would rapidly decimate significant numbers of the public, as was the case with the notorious cholera outbreaks. Whilst this was a disease brought back from the Indian trade route, others - such as diphtheria, syphilis, typhoid and scarlet fever - were prevalent in Britain and ensured thousands an early death.
From the beginning of the century not only had London experienced an explosion in the number of inhabitants living in its confined spaces, it also had unprecedented numbers of people dying there. As people scrabbled to find accommodation during life, housing their mortal remains after death proved to be even harder. Body disposal became a problem for which there were very few solutions. The concept of cremation was abhorred or feared by the vast majority of the public. In order for the body to rise again and reunite with the soul in resurrection, entombment was vital, or so God-fearing Christians were taught. Even though cremation became more common in the closing years of the Victorian era, it could do nothing to solve the problem at hand during the first decades of the 19th century. The solution was to come from across the Channel...
Paris had also experienced the same practical difficulties and was to come up with a solution which inspired English cities; the garden cemetery. In the latter part of the 18th century, Paris faced the same health hazards, and gruesome problem of how to deal with ever-rising numbers of corpses. Limited space afforded by the consecrated grounds of churches was no longer sufficient to house bodily remains in an appropriate manner. Mass inhumation in shallow graves meant that cadavers in all states of decomposition were often exposed to the elements, whilst liquid organic residue seeped underground into the water supply. The Parisians were literally living surrounded by death. They were exposed to the growing risk of contagion by disease, intoxicated by noxious water, overcome by pestilential odours and haunted by macabre visions. It was decided in the 1780s that the only viable solution was to exhume fully decomposed body remains for transfer to a more accommodating resting place. The overcrowded parish graveyard of Les Innocents (near Les Halles) was the main target of this project as its site juxtaposed a major open marketplace , with the insalubrious consequences that entailed.
This first burial ground was emptied, as were many others. Carts bearing gruesome loads trundled across the city at night to the entrance of the underground limestone quarries of the Tombe-Issoire, later known as the Catacombs. Between 1786-1788 the bones of some six million bodies were re-housed in this labyrinthine municipal ossuary and their numbers grew during the Revolution years. Initially more or less stockpiled, these skeletal remains were later displayed in a vast 'aesthetic' arrangement of skulls and limbs in 1820 to decorate this Empire of Death. As the catacombs were for the most part merely an elaborate repository, they could not satisfy the demand for suitable burial grounds, complete with tombs and headstones. Another solution was needed.
In 1804 the Cimitière du Père Lachaise was inaugurated and became the model for the subsequent landscaped cemeteries over Europe. Although it was initially shunned by Catholic parishioners as it was not attached to a specific church, the cemetery soon grew successful and was enlarged several times. In England, the movement towards public cemeteries distinct from churchyards was first lead by dissenters. The first inter-denominational cemetery was established in 1819 in Norwich. Shortly after, this shift towards extra-muros grounds was driven by the major health risks posed by the traditional interment practices that could no longer meet the growing demands. The cholera epidemic in 1931-2 confirmed the urgency of reform.
The commercial element was also of significance. The tantalizing promise of good money to be made from decent burial practices helped spur on this process. Thus the burial business was taken away from the Church to become business, in its own right, for private companies. Only much later did it fall under the responsibility of public authorities. The General Cemetery of All Souls was created in 1832, when a parliamentary act legalized profit-making burial ventures. The General Cemetery Company was established for the 'Interment of the Dead' at Kensal Green. This was the first of a group of private garden-style cemeteries later known as the Magnificent Seven. These cemeteries formed a loop around the outer London in line with the stipulations of an Act of Parliament in 1836. The London Cemetery Company was responsible for the cemeteries of West Norwood-1836; Highgate-1839; Abney Park-1840; Brompton-1840; Nunhead-1840; Tower Hamlets-1841.
Even the provision of such extensive burial sites proved to be somewhat inadequate to deal with a second cholera outbreak in 1848-49. In addition, the prices demanded for burial plots remained prohibitive for the lower classes, which only served to exacerbate the initial problem of interment and increase the risk of contagion. The Metropolitan Burial Act of 1852 enforced the abolition of burial within city limits and led to the establishment of further cemeteries, situated farther afield. Brookwood in Surrey is still the largest cemetery in England, formed by the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company in 1850. Utilizing the facilities offered by the railway network that had flourished in the 1840's, Brookwood used the link between Waterloo and a local station to transport the coffins and mourners alike on the Necropolis line - duly nicknamed the 'Stiffs' Express'.
Of all the great London cemeteries, Highgate is perhaps the most famous and was certainly the most fashionable. In its functional heyday, it drew in the public, dead and alive. and was generally held to be the place to be seen in - the best address for the deceased and their mourners. Built on elevated land, this elegant burial place was set on a gentle hillside offering panoramic views over London. It was designed by architect Stephen Geary and landscape gardener David Ramsey. 1843. The vista was not obscured then, as it is today, by the impressive trees and shrubbery that seem an integral part of its beauty now.
Sadly, the peacocks that are said to have strolled around the cemeteries in the past are no longer a feature. Like the other landscaped cemeteries, Highgate has its own specific charm that caught the attention and admiration of the public then as it still does now. However, it does not give the impression of following a uniform grid plan and the rambling grounds add to the Romantic mood that reigns there. The exuberance of the trees and greenery add to this evocative atmosphere, and give the impression that it would be quite possible to lose one's way whilst wandering along the pathways. Nevertheless, like the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries, the lay-out of Highgate was certainly influenced by the specific ideals of garden designer, J. C. Loudon. Although his publication On the Laying Out, Planting and managing of Cemeteries (1843) did not appear until several years after the inauguration of Highgate, Loudon had been exposing his theories on landscaping in Gardener's Magazine since 1825. He rejected sprawling, informal 'picturesque' plans, in favour of a spatially-organised design, which used exotic trees to highlight and enhance this order. In this manner, Loudon sought to satisfy the fundamental need for hygienic burial, whilst attaining a moral and aesthetic harmony that brought dignity and beauty to the grounds and favourised the contemplative state.
The success of the cemetery led to its expansion in 1854, with the creation of the eastern side. Today, both parts of Highgate have their own particular feel, although the majority of the visitors gravitate towards the older section which is to be viewed as part of a guided tour. Two chapels, built in the Tudor Gothic style, form the entrance to the grounds, bearing oriel windows and a central bell tower. The left-hand chapel was for the reception of Anglicans , whilst the right-hand received dissenters. A tunnel was later created to link the Anglican chapel to the second burial site on the Eastern grounds. Once through the chapel entry, visitors are lead out onto a paved area, surrounded by a crescent-shaped colonnade which offers shelter from inclement weather.
This colonnade opens onto the steps that rise ahead towards the footpaths. Once out of this architectural 'tunnel', you are immediately confronted by the incredible greenery. In springtime, the foliage bursts up with a strange mixture of woodland and cultivated flowers. The growth of the trees and bushes, meanwhile, seems to have pursued its relentless course throughout the year, over the decades. Ivy drapes itself over tombs, clinging to headstones as its sinuous runners pour down over masonry to great effect. Indeed, nothing here seems to have escaped the dramatic force of nature. Gravestones and monumental structures are ever dislodged, destabilized and toppled, or thrust apart by roots, runners and branches. The valiant efforts of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery preserve much of the original features, bearing in mind that the scale of the work required is vast, and the fact that an over-groomed site would lose much of its charm. A series of before-and- after photos show the restoration work that has been carried out over recent years, and continues to be performed today. The minimally-restrained wilderness of today's cemetery, in its state of 'managed neglect', creates a truly unique mood.
The tombs and mausoleums vary in form, inscription and ornamentation, yet themes of death, mortal decay, resurrection and the eternal abound. The themes are all demonstrated by the appropriate symbols - weeping angles, wreaths, crosses, draped urns, broken pillars, inverted torches and arrows, clasped hands, ivy, lilies, lambs and doves alongside a number of oddities. Victorian eclecticism is displayed in full by an incredible wealth of styles. Oriental and Classical themes were favoured, as was an aesthetic, romanticized version of the Gothic. Excessive Gothic references that could be directly associated with an affiliation to the Catholic faith would generally have been shunned as this was principally an Anglican cemetery.
The imposing entrance to the Egyptian Avenue amply demonstrates the Victorian taste for the Oriental and the theatrical. Towering obelisks flank a passageway that is set in the pharaonic gate, complete with lotus-flower columns and a wrought-iron gate. The inspiration was, of course, the Valley of the Kings and the Hanging Garden of Babylon.
The dramatic mood is certainly recreated today, given the vegetation which majestically swathes the Egyptian masonry and the ferns that frame the whole. It is not entirely surprising perhaps, that Hammer Horror studies should have been inspired to use this in the 1968 film Taste the Blood of Dracula. The tapering lines of the doorway lead the eye instinctively up to what lies beyond the sombre tunnel; the Circle of Lebanon.
The tunnel is lined by sixteen vaults, all of which able to house twelve coffins. Individual families would purchase a vault, marking the entrance with the symbols and inscriptions of their choice. With quirky Victorian practicality, these would often include the mortal address of the deceased! Incidentally, we also see evidence of this sense of the practical in the symbolic references to professions throughout the cemetery. The most noticeable of these include the inverted whip, horn and horseshoe of a famous coachman, the downturned canons of a British general, and the lion that had made the fortune of a renowned menagerie exhibitor...
The Egyptian avenue leads onto the Circle of Lebanon, which bears a similar style of architecture for the vaults that encircle the central feature. The vaults that were later added to the exterior wall of the Circle are in the Classical style, but this does not disturb the harmony of the whole, nor does it draw attention away from the massive Cedar of Lebanon that dominates the scene. This ancient tree was already in place when work began on the cemetery and the Circle that showcases it was formed by simply excavating the earth from around its base. This formed an island that is not easily accessible by man or beast; it is said that sheep were let across to graze the Circle's lawn on planks of wood... The cedar itself had belonged to the grounds of Ashurst House, an estate that had been sold in 1830 to give rise to St Michael's Church. Likewise, the remains of the Ashurst terraced gardens, with their panoramic views over London, were used to create the Terrace Catacombs. The latter, carved into the hillside, are also known as the Cutting Catacombs and their brick-vaulted gallery houses fifty-five vaults, able to accommodate 825 bodies. These were created in response to a movement towards above-ground burials, which was partly fuelled by the Victorian fear of being interred alive. Edgar Allen Poe's account of such a fate in The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) did nothing to quell that anxiety, and may have encouraged the use of 'safety graves'. These security systems offered a rudimentary means of communication between the coffin's inhabitant and the world above. Indeed, a bell could be activated by a chain tugged by the resuscitated inmate so as to alert a warden to the unfortunate situation. This was also part of the motivation for glass panels to be installed directly above interred tombs, so that any abnormal activity could be observed by those at hand above ground.
The most impressive mausoleum at Highgate is that of the newspaper baron, Julius Beer. Built to commemorate his daughter who had died in childhood, its massive form commands our attention. Its size and position were chosen to dominate the site, obscuring the view in order to demonstrate the importance of this nouveau riche converted Jew who had been ostracized in his lifetime. The structure is modelled on the tomb of the Greek king Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the origin of the word 'mausoleum'. Today we can enter to admire the sculpted relief that represents an angel transporting a child towards the blue-and-gold mosaic ceiling that symbolizes Heaven. Until several years ago access to the mausoleum had not been possible as decades of neglect had encouraged its colonisation by pigeons and required the removal of tons of bird droppings and debris by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery.
Other tombs are memorable for their highly original design or the originality of their residents, sometimes both of these at the same time. Such is the case for the tomb of a certain Thomas Sayers. The sculpture of a large bull mastiff dog has pride of place, devotedly guarding over the tomb of the famous boxer.
The dog had been named official mourner for the funeral and had duly been taken to the graveside in a separate carriage that followed its owner's hearse. The fame of the deceased was such that his untimely death led to an official day of mourning, and resulted in hundreds of people taking to the streets to follow the funeral procession to the cemetery.
Other noticeable headstones are those of people considered dissenters, dissidents or outsiders, for one reason or another in their lives, like Julius Beer mentioned above . The most famous of these is the imposing monument of Karl Marx (1818-1883), the zealous advocate of Socialism. He looks down on the visitors from his granite stele in the eastern part of the cemetery and you can guess what he must have thought of the extravagant catacombs and mausoleums on the other side of Swain's Lane.
The tomb of the novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) is situated near the Marx monument. Denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of her rejection of the Christian faith, and her 'inappropriate' relationship with her writer partner, she is in the dissenters' area of the site, near Marx. Meanwhile the vault of another female writer who took a man's name as a pseudonym is Radclyffe 'John' Hall (1880-1943) is in the Circle of Lebanon. The author of the novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) fought for the recognition of lesbians as "the Third Sex", and while her work was banned under the obscenity act she did much to advance the lesbian cause.
A more recent tomb belongs to the late Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radioactive polonium in 2006. This was a particularly moving sight due to the dissendent's age, the circumstances of his death and his alleged desire to be buried in Chechnya. His lead-lined coffin assures minimal risk of radiation leaks from the contaminated body but also means that he is unlikely to return to his homeland.
On a lighter note, is the rugged headstone of the 'father' of Hovis wheatgerm bread, Richard 'Stoney' Smith (1836-1900) which recalls the milling process. His unique production technique was patented in 1887, with the name Hovis chosen as a contracted form of the Latin Homonis Vis, meaning the strength of man.
On its inauguration in the 19th century no one would surely have thought it possible that Highgate's success would be ephemeral. And yet from the turn of the 20th century its decline was guaranteed... Despite great commercial and popular success in its opening decades, Highgate was slowly to fall victim to the whims of taste, changing customs and material concerns which would cut off the life blood of the cemetery; income. The practice of large ostentatious funerals and the following need for elaborate tombs and mausoleums were to dwindle in the last quarter of the century. Smaller, manageable individual graves were to be selected since they were more practical and less expensive. Parallel to this, attitudes towards cremation were evolving.
The first official cremation took place in 1885 and the establishment of authorized crematoria came about following the 1902 Cremation Act. Cremation offered a cheaper alternative to burial and rendered the purchase of large burial plots undesirable. Despite an initial healthy investment on the part of shareholders, after a while the cemetery could not generate as much long-term revenue as planned. The rights of burial in perpetuity could not raise any new money, funds were lost and this lead a slow process of decline and disrepair. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 marked the end of the Victorian era, yet the mourning and funeral practices that often seemed to epitomize this period in history had already shrunk away years before. The Great War of 1914-18 and the influenza pandemic dealt another blow to the cemetery. On the one hand, Highgate's gardeners and grounds men joined active service, so that their numbers diminished, on the other, the unprecedented number of deaths brought about by war meant that people no longer had the space, time, money or inclination to maintain the former funeral and mourning rituals. Rights of Burial continued to be purchased in the 1930s , but significant numbers of plots were abandoned to their steady decline. Even the sale of the stone mason's quarters and the superintendant's house could not stem the haemorrhage and the two chapels were forced to close. The merger of London Cemetery Company with the United Cemetery Company following bankruptcy in 1960 did little to protect the cemetery and the new group also declared themselves bankrupt in 1975.
Highgate may well have been closed to the public, it still received many 'visitors' - largely undesired. Even before this period, vandals, reckless youngsters, occultists and varied odd-balls were fond of frequenting the grounds 'out-of-hours'. The plants and trees that had always been resident in the grounds now had free rein to take over in spectacular fashion. This all went to create a kind of mystical wilderness that today's Goths might dream about. It was at this time that Highgate Hysteria was born, duly bringing with it negative and positive consequences.
Accounts of ghostly sightings in Highgate Cemetery had always been given with great relish. Part of the enthusiasm for such tales probably stemmed back to the all-too-real macabre events of the late 1860s, when a coffin was exhumed and opened. The artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti returned to the tomb of his late wife, the Pre-Raphaelite model and artist, Lizzie Siddal in order to retrieve his manuscript of poems which had been placed in the coffin on her death seven years earlier, in 1862. Fearing that his lifework would be lost forever, along with the bodily remains of his wife, he decided exhumation was the only viable option. After some judicious string-pulling with the relevant authorities, and encouraged by his literary agent, Rossetti received permission to proceed to a discreet night-time mission. With a certain amount of gall, nerves of steel and an even stronger stomach, Rossetti was to use the poetry book thus recovered and it was forever claimed that Lizzie's beauty was intact, set off by her ever-growing luxuriant locks. Nevertheless, the exhumation is said to have played on his conscience and the events of that night haunted him to the point that he later stated "Let me not on any account be buried at Highgate". Not surprisingly, the ghost of Rossetti was said to roam the pathways of the cemetery, but his was not the only one to haunt the grounds...
For many years visitors had claimed to have been touched by icy fingers, disturbed by whisperings, whimpering, sighing specters and unnerved by strange forms disappearing behind gravestones and into dense undergrowth. Some witnesses reported glimpsing imp-like creatures, others purported to have seen creatures from medieval Wallachia. Perhaps inspired by Lizzie Siddal's exhumation, along with the romantic aura and eerie tales that lingered around and about the cemetery, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) dwells on the theme of the undead. Lucy Westenra's fictional resting place is often said to have been set in Highgate. It is not sure if that is truly the case, but the novel served to keep vampires in the public mind. The vampire genre, like vampires themselves, is destined for eternal life, a form that never dies, regardless of the decades that pass.
It was in the early 1970s that the 'Highgate Vampire Sightings' made media headlines and fed a frenzy that stoked up interest in the dilapidated cemetery. Despite its locked gates, Highgate was increasingly broken into by those interested in the supernatural, the spirit world, and black magic. These enthusiasts were joined by ordinary members of the public too, simply curious to see what might lurk in the grounds, and what lie behind all the rumours. Working independently of each other were a young man who described himself as a paranormal investigator, David Farrant, and his soon-to-be arch rival, an exorcist/vampire-hunter called Sean Manchester. Both reported traces of unexplained activity at Highgate to the local media and claimed to have found evidence of dark forces at work. Farrant stressed that this phenomena manifested itself as a strange 'grey man'. Manchester pursued the line that a vampire was probably concerned since a Romanian nobleman-occultist had been buried alive in the cemetery some 150 years previous. The mysterious discovery of dead foxes spurred on their shared intention to find the offending force, and neutralize it once and for all. Neither one had any desire to work with the other, however, which complicated matters somewhat. On Friday 13th March 1970, the act was set to take place by the separate factions. By this time, the whole affair had taken on far greater proportions, as media hype meant that it was no longer considered a minor event recounted in the local paper. The cemetery was invaded by crowds, prepared to take the necessary steps. Many came armed with the crucifixes, wooden stakes and garlic so familiar to us today from vintage vampire films. Apparently tombs were opened, and there was talk of headless corpses as the marauding vampire hunters sought to drag out suspect cadavers. The Highgate hunts never did manage to return the 'Vampire King of the Undead' to the land of the dead with a wooden stake through his ungodly heart. In the failed mission, the cemetery was desecrated, masonry damaged, graves were tampered with, but no concrete evidence of a vampire was found, let alone a vampire.
The only lasting advantage of the whole vampire saga was that it dragged Highgate back out of obscurity, into the public light, even if this was for dark reasons. It resulted in the formation of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery shortly after the initial Highgate Hysteria. With its volunteers, lead by the imposing figure, 'Mrs Tombstone', the late Jean Pateman, this group campaigned to resurrect Highgate Cemetery from oblivion and possible obliteration. By the early 70s there had been talk of razing the cemetery's architectural features to the ground, exhuming the bodies from the underground crypts and covering over the burial site for later sale. Thanks to the non-profit organisation, Friends of Highgate Cemetery, the site was saved from the developers.
The vampire notoriety meant that Highgate was brought to the fore in the public's mind. Its grounds, perhaps forever 'doomed' to be synonymous with the strange, have attracted interest ever since. Unlike the other cemeteries of the Magnificent Seven, the name of Highgate is easily recalled today. Highgate is the Victorian burial site that people want to see, whatever their motivation may be. As said, an interest in the undead has never really waned. Although today's vampire stars are rather more youthful than they were in the 70s, largely appealing to younger audiences unaware of the original Highgate furore, the fascination with this historic location still continues. Today, visits to Highgate's western site is by guided tour only. Since the volunteers carrying out the tours only make the most cursory references to the cemetery's vampire associations, the public - young and old alike - learn of the fundamental significance of Highgate and move away from the media-hyped popular legends. The residual succès de scandale of the cemetery as a "Victorian Valhalla" (Sir John Betjeman) has assured that Highgate's fate has not been sealed by financial ruin. As admission to the site requires the payment of an entrance fee, each visitor contributes to the upkeep and restoration of the site.
As much as I have fond childhood memories of Christopher Lee's contributions to the world of vampires, and the Hammer Horror films in general, the supernatural genre does not fascinate me in particular, and certainly did not motivate my visit to Highgate. Neither did the other popular association that proves to be a crowd-drawer; the renowned Victorian interest in death and a predilection for the morbid. This does not specifically concern Highgate, but as one of the best-known cemeteries of this period, it is generally considered to highlight this penchant the most dramatically.
The unprecedented mortality rate in the 19th century had an impact on the Victorian attitude to life, and above all death, and in consequence the death rituals that were observed. The Victorians understood that death was a domestic, day-to-day reality that they were obliged to face, regardless of their status and wealth. Dire poverty and the ravages of disease obliged the majority to accept the base fact that life, was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", to quote Thomas Hobbes (1651).
Understandably, middle-class Victorians shied away from any association with the brutish unfortunates of society. They wanted to distance themselves from the miserable fate in this world and the next that awaited such individuals. Clinging to the belief that death would surely deliver honorable beings such as themselves to another sphere. they used lavish material trappings in their death rites. In this manner, the affluent and aspiring classes could distinguish themselves from these lesser mortals, and the brutal finality of their existence. Such excess served to mask the fear that the deceased had simply left this mortal life; no eternal life lay beyond. Through an almost superstitious display of mourning the Victorian mourners believed they could get closer to the spiritual, eternal life that would be found upon death. In this manner, free indulgence in elaborate death ceremonies consoled the mourners and provided them with the means to face tragedy and gave meaning to their loss.
Little by little, the notion of grieving took on far greater importance in what has been termed the Victorian 'cult of death'. Each step of the bereavement process was ceremoniously enacted to a strict set of customs which strove to belie mortality. Death was literally dressed up and obsessed over. This was an almost frantic attempt to cover up the void at the heart of death since the admission of the emptiness and futility of the human condition was taboo. In addition, in a life for the upper classes that was often cosseted, corseted, asphyxiated by custom, etiquette and religious fervour and morality, perhaps the excesses of mourning gave some, especially women, the means to indulge in fashion, fantasy and heightened feelings.
Perhaps it could be said that excessive Victorian rituals served to celebrate their belief in Life, even though they simply appear macabre or voyeuristic to us today. The two taboos of Death and Sexuality still fascinate us today as they did the Victorians, with an interchangeable ability to repel and attract us. However, the sexuality that was repressed by Victorian ignorance, devote morality and hypocrisy now colours much of western society today, whilst death has become our last remaining taboo. We find the Victorian preoccupation with death to be morbid to the extreme and we consider ourselves to be above such distasteful interests. Yet our over-sexualized society would be the nightmarish vision of licentiousness to the average Victorian prude. And the joy of others, just as long as it could be kept a secret. In short, our taboos have largely been inverted; each era seeks to repress whatever disturbs its innermost equilibrium or perceived sense of decorum in social display. Perhaps we also hope to be defined by our obsessions. Maybe the Victorians hoped to express morality and sanctity through their observance of death, just as our sex-obsessed society seeks to convey the image of success and power. Freud said that we are defined by our repressions; so where does that leave us today?
In the 19th century each family could expect to mourn several loved ones and would be obliged to give the deceased a decent burial. The funeral process proved to be a costly enterprise, albeit highly lucrative for the those attending to the needs of the bereaved. Mourning soon became an industry in its own right. Indeed, all kinds of companies, alongside the funeral parlours, catered to the needs of a public desperate to follow correct etiquette. Mourning enabled the wealthier members of society to display their status and respectability in a wholly dignified manner, and to a certain extent this showy aspect filtered down to all social classes. This influence continued as journals and household manuals gave advice on the appropriate forms to observe. It was not enough to simply have a funeral cortege, with the customary black lacquered carriage, drawn by black horses bearing somber ostrich feathers, accompanied with a suitable group of pallbearers and a pair of funeral mutes to stand guard over the day's proceedings, means permitting. Mourning had to be seen to be a long, protracted process.
A woman had to display bereavement through a far more visible form of mourning dress than a man and she also was expected to spend a far greater time doing so than her male counterpart. The vestimentary code for men ensured that a mourning suit would be worn initially, but this could soon be replaced by black arm and hat bands, a cravate and gloves. By custom only menfolk would attend the actual interment of the coffin; women were obliged to stay at home to avoid traumatic graveside scenes. This confinement would extend over months for women, although generally speaking there were fewer restrictions on a man's social movements during the mourning phase. It was deemed vital that a man go out and about on his business and furthermore, should he have children to cater for, it was preferable for all concerned that a widower found a new wife as soon as possible.
Milliners and dressmakers endeavoured to meet the sartorial needs dictated by convention, and soon driven by 'crazes'. Since mourning garments would often be required at short notice, these were some of the first off-the-peg clothes to be found in suppliers' shops. Not surprisingly, only the colour black was considered respectful for adults Clothes were either bought ready-made in lack-lustre material, or a mourner's own clothes would be taken to a merchant-dyer who would treat them in bulk. Poorer families could dye their own garments at their own peril; the pungent smell was unbearable, the fumes noxious. The duller and more life-less the 'widow's weeds', the better the effect, and crape seemed to meet this requirement admirably. Used for veils and trims it nevertheless proved to be a difficult to wear and maintain since it shrivelled and disintegrated when wet. Not only that, breathing through a dyed veil exposed the wearer to toxic substances released by the treated material. However, a long weeping veil was an essential element of respectful mourning since it hid inopportune sobbing and again could protect the mourner from a watchful specter. Indeed, for all the tears spilt for the deceased, the Victorian fear of haunting by the 'undead' governed many of the mourning rituals. The colour black could hide a mourner from the attentions of any hovering spectre of Death. Black material was used liberally to camouflage any person or possession from a loitering spirit who might otherwise get caught. Every conceivable visible accessory or item of clothing had to black, from mantles, handkerchieves, parasols and fans. With the same concern in mind, mirrors were shrouded to avoid the reflected image of a spirit being ensnared in the glass, clocks were stopped at the hour of death, door knobs and bells muffled so as not to 'wake the dead'. When the body finally left the home for burial it was carried out feet first to prevent the deceased from looking back and beckoning to mortals to follow. The rituals observed would appear normal measures to a Victorian public already obsessed by superstitions of all kinds.
The need for mourning paraphernalia often gave bereaved families the means to acknowledge the importance of the deceased person. Post-mortem photos portraying the departed 'resting' amongst family would sometimes be the only photograph of the loved one. Plastercast molds of hands or faces - death masks - caught the essence of an individual, as did hair which was commonly used to make various types of jewellery, especially brooches, pendants and rings . Tears that had not been wiped onto the 'weepers' - the muslin cuffs on the mourning gowns - could be preserved in a 'lachrymatory' or tear bottle to show how much and how long a mourner had grieved. Indeed, it had to be remembered that mourning was not only an expensive process, but a lengthy one too.
The duration of mourning depended on the nature of the relationship with the deceased. For a widow the mourning period would be divided into three distinct stages, usually over a minimum of two years, means and circumstances permitting. Deep mourning would see the mourner confined to the house and church in full mourning attire for a year and a day, whilst the half-mourning stage allowed for a less rigid clothing code and a greater freedom to leave the house. 'Slighting' the full mourning meant that appropriate ornamentation could now decorate the sober gowns and that mourning jewellery could be worn during this secondary phase lasting nine months. The custom for tasteful jewellery lead to an explosion in the demand for jet (black amber) and its cheaper alternative, vulcanite (ebonite). The coveted jet came from Whitby where business was brisk in the 1820s but roaring by the 1860s. Onyx and obsidian were much appreciated as was the hair-work jewellery already mentioned. Although the crape mourning veil could at last be lifted back, it was only in the half-mourning phase that women could finally wear other garments than the dour widow's weed. Many women allowed themselves to wear pale mauve or grey while others dressed in mourning black for the rest of the lives . Since many women would experience the death of several children along with other members of their family, they could expect to spend most of their life in black.
Hospitals were generally shunned as unsavoury places to be avoided; the sick and dying were tended at home. Approximately 80% of the population died at home, surrounded by their loved ones who would watch over them before and after death. The death bed was an accepted part of the departure from this world, and it was hoped that the dying would utter a few meaningful last words to the living gathered around before shuffling off the mortal coil! Likewise, the laying-out of the body would generally be performed at home, by the women of the household. The body would remain in place, duly watched over during the wake until the day of the funeral. Keeping a body at home for as long as possible enabled mourners to grieve adequately and would render it less beneficial to a body snatcher. Heavily scented flowers were de rigueur for the obvious reasons...
The Anatomy Act of 1832, again served to open the eyes of unwilling Victorians to a brutal view of Man's lot, one that cruelly opposed their hope for consolation in times of mourning and for reassuring world view in the face of death and loss. The factual, anatomical details of death simply underlined the ugliness of man's passing from life, and the suffering that had generally led to it. This could only abnegate the hope for a beautiful afterlife. Indeed, the act highlighted the possibility that decent humans may live and die like any other creature, bound for mortal decay in this material world, denied immortality or reunion with loved ones. The act lifted the restrictions on the origins of corpses required for medical research by the expanding medical profession. This also lead to the birth of 'resurrectionists', ready to disinter the dead to feed this illegal trade in corpses for dissection. The very idea, let alone the reality, of having the body of a loved one, or indeed oneself, stolen and tampered with, was simply intolerable. The mere notion that any human body could be dissected and studied like an animal carcass was anathema to the vast majority. Understandably, the publication of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution several decades later, disturbed and outraged God-fearing Victorians. It showed that Man was not created unique, but was one of the fittest links in an evolutionary chain. The Origin of Species (1858) was praised by many scientific luminaries, but rejected as absurd and monstrous by the general public. Indirectly, its publication served to reinforce the Victorian desire for a 'good death' for the deceased, and also for a good mourning for the benefit of the living.
At the beginning of the 19th century, science and religion had 'co-inhabited' peacefully, as God's earth provided rich evidence of His design and creation. Yet the 19th century was led by a growing desire to identify the nature of things, to reveal the meaning and role that each and everything was endowed with. The century was hailed as one of discovery, education and improvement, and England led the way, as the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace sought to demonstrate in 1851. An insatiable interest for the new and unusual drove many to collect items to satisfy their inquisitive nature and furnish their own curiosity cabinets. The desire to map out the world enabled many Victorians to create a romanticized, ever-more symbolic universe around them, wherein even flowers had their own heightened meaning and 'language'. Nevertheless, the Victorian aim was surely not to remove the spiritual mystery of life and death, but to draw closer to it, in wonder and awe of God's design. As such, death, could not be rendered in any way prosaic or meaningless, nor could God's intention be debased by crass explanations. The memento mori that were so appreciated may have underlined the fragility of human life, they nevertheless hinted at the afterlife. Yet again, the beauty of life and death remained intact; mystified and detached from the spiritual void that science seemed to suggest. The deceased could truly be perceived as not lost, but gone before to the hereafter.
As scientific research probed further it posed ever-more troublesome questions. It was sometimes felt that Christian explanations were not entirely sufficient to answer these queries and were subsequently tainted by doubt. The reassuring mantle of belief in God's unique creation slipped or was left with gaping holes as uncertainty crept in, at a time when reassurance would surely have been most needed. Meanwhile, science offered much but was unable to deliver all, especially in the field of medicine. As medical advances and improved hygiene the mortality rate lowered, especially amongst the youngest members of society. The unexpected cruel blow of death therefore seemed even more unjust, and its unbearable threat seemed to loom over life, ever-present. Discoveries could reveal the threats that surrounded a hitherto unsuspecting public but could not guarantee cure from the illness or escape from the death these threats alluded to. Alternative medical therapies and cures were adopted in the hope that homeopathy, hydrotherapy (Darwin was a convert to this), mesmerism and galvanism or treatments closer to quackery or plain witchcraft could offer alternative forms of relief and belief. In the arts, the desire to escape from a dehumanizing, increasingly mechanized modern society led to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood around 1852 and later, the Arts and Crafts movement. The medieval period was inspirational due to the purity of its aesthetics and its freedom from vulgar, soul-less industrialization that characterized Victorian Britain. In the last years of the century spiritualism became increasingly popular as members of the public hoped to communicate with the dead and in so doing find evidence of an afterlife. Sadly, none of these solutions could eradicate the various causes of so much suffering nor the prevalent diseases that had no respect of age, class or position in mortal life.
When Prince Albert died of typhoid at the premature age of 42, his widow became the most eminent and influential Victorian mourner of all; Queen Victoria herself. By 1861,full-blown mourning was already an established social norm. However, on the Prince's death this ostentatious practice reached an unprecedented level. Victoria's full mourning period surpassed any other and continued, to a lesser degree, during the forty years to the end of her life, inspiring other women to follow suit. Although little appreciated for her stilted tastes and sense of dress during Albert's life, Victoria suddenly became a trendsetter after his death as she withdrew from public life to grieve. On the consort's death, the Queen had announced that the public mourning would have "the longest term in modern times"; she was true to her word. While all the servants had to wear mourning clothes for a year, life in the royal household eerily continued as if the prince were still alive, with preparations made daily for his domestic routines. Her 'binge' of bereavement knew no bounds, and the display of her mourning showed little reason. At the Duke of Wellington's funeral in 1852, Prince Albert had himself disapproved of the excess, and above all the abundance of memorial monuments, remarking, "If I should die before you, do not, I beg, raise even a single marble image to my name." Perhaps the Queen no longer recalled those words; her only single-minded forays onto the public scene for years after Albert's demise were to do precisely that. Her quasi-retirement from the responsibilities as head of the British Empire caused concern for the Monarchy. After almost a decade of seclusion, withdrawn in a state of pathological grieving, Queen Victoria was to resume her full regal duties in the public light. Nevertheless just as her excessive mourning marked an outrageous peak in the trend, it heralded its end too. By the time of her death just after the turn of the century, the custom for 'Victorian' mourning had lost its vigor.
Although Victoria had spent most of her life dressed in black, she demanded a white funeral, and was dressed in her wedding veil, ready to be reunited with her husband. Victoria gave strict instructions as to her own funeral proceedings, stating in particular which objects she wished to be placed in her coffin. These were, not surprisingly, those of Prince Albert, in addition to a photo of her devoted servant John Brown. I think that the inscription above the mausoleum probably sums up the typically Victorian hopes in death, and aspirations in mourning: peace and eternal harmony - "...Here at length I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again."
Well, it goes without saying that I would fully recommend a tour of Highgate, although I am sure that the other cemeteries that make up the Magnificent Seven fully deserve a visit too. Yet these are but a few of the beautiful, peaceful Victorian sites often wrongly dismissed as being depressing, morbid places. I certainly don't believe that to be true in any way. They are the testament to a myriad of positive and negative emotions, aspirations and events that made up the lives of our not-so-distant relatives, although many only represent the more privileged classes of Victorian society to the exclusion of the less fortunate. What they do reflect, for me at least, is a universal yearning for something lasting and of beauty, however questionable that aesthetic taste may be, in some cases. As hypocritical, unfeeling, selfish, ignorant, misguided, or just plain weird many people of this vast period may well have been in reality, at least they 'bothered', even if it was just for their own personal gain. Now just as then, much of life is governed by money, but the aspiration to create an enduring elegance and beauty that can be shared by many seems to have been lost, or is used solely for personal benefit behind closed doors. Much of the Victorian world view was skewed, often to the detriment to the underprivileged, but the Victorians' attitude to life and death was not one of indifference and could not be resumed by the modern term 'Whatever'...