Secrets Of Highgate Cemetery

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 93 months ago

Last Updated 11 October 2016

Secrets Of Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery is perhaps the most famous of London's 'magnificent seven' burial grounds. Following its Victorian heyday, it fell into ruin during the early 20th Century. It's made a comeback since The Friends of Highgate Cemetery took over, and is now a popular tourist destination — visitors coming to see the final resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot, Michael Faraday, Douglas Adams and many more. Here are some lesser-known titbits about the cemetery and its residents.


1. It's the resting place of Britain's great forgotten adventurer

The name might not ring a bell but it really should. James Holman is possibly the greatest and bravest adventurer in history. For he did it all blind — his aim to prove that his handicap was a motivator, not a hindrance.

One of his greatest achievements was hiking up Vesuvius, then skirting around its rim. He claimed that because he couldn't see the drop beneath him, he had nothing to fear. Holman also trekked 3,500 miles to reach Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia. Unfortunately, once he reached his destination, he was sent home — accused of being a British spy. Later in life he managed to visit Africa, South America, China and India.

Holman published his experiences in travel journals, but Victorians were dismissive of the notion that someone blind could achieve so much. They viewed those with disabilities as people to provide for. They were particularly sceptical of his claims he could see where objects were by tapping his stick and listening for where the sound bounced off — an early form of echolocation. These doubts led to his books selling poorly and he ended his days in dismal poverty.

2. Leaning to the left

Karl Marx and his political theories have been divisive to say the least. The hatred Communism inspired in the 20th century led to many attempts to vandalise and destroy the bust of Marx in the cemetery. One particularly notable attempt came with an attempt to blow it up. This failed miserably, but rather aptly left the statue leaning ever so slightly to the left.

Photo: SomeBlokeTakingPhotos

3. More things are alive here, than dead

Highgate Cemetery grew into disrepair in the 20th century, before finally taken over by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery in 1975. While humans had all-but forgotten about the cemetery, the natural kingdom had taken over. Highgate is now home to abundant wildlife including 40 species of birds and 20 different types of butterflies, as well as foxes, owls and badgers. The combination of this and the wild flowers, overgrown ivy and ferns led to Highgate Cemetery becoming added to the English Heritage Register of Parks Interest in 1987.

4. It's got a radioactive proof grave

Highgate Cemetery houses many murder victims from the Victorian period. But it's also the final resting place of the victim of one of the most high profile murders from recent times. Alexander Litvinenko was tragically murdered through radioactive poisoning in London's Millennium Hotel in 2006. His body is buried 12ft-deep in a lead lined coffin, to avoid the risk of any visitors contracting radioactive poisoning themselves.

Photo: SomeBlokeTakingPhotos

5. Its most well attended funeral wasn't probably what you expected

It was the funeral of Thomas Sayers that attracted roughly 10,000 people (as opposed to the miserly 11 that turned up for Karl Marx).

Sayers was an extremely successful bare knuckle boxer and his career culminated in a fight with American John Camel Heenan, which is widely considered the first (unofficial) world championship bout. The match ended in a draw after nearly two hours, when Heenan attempted to strangle Sayers and the crowd invaded the ring. Sayers retired from the sport and his fans raised £3,000 for their hero to live on after the great fight. He died of tuberculosis just four years later, but his fame hadn't wilted. The funeral procession was trailed by the chief mourner, Sayer's dog Lion. He too is memorialised at the gravesite, lying at the bottom in stone, loyally guarding his master.

6. The exploding coffins issue

The Victorians were obsessed with ancient Egypt, and and this translated to their burials. Highgate Cemetery's catacombs were built for those who wanted to be buried above ground in the same fashion as Egyptians.

Less well-known, is that this was at first somewhat of a disaster. The Victorians had to contend with regulations stating that those buried in this fashion had to have their tombs encased in lead, for fear of miasma (gasses which Victorians believed caused illness) leaking out.

As the bodies decayed, a build up of noxious gasses would fill the coffin, and in extreme cases they would explode. Eventually a solution was agreed upon whereby a small hole was drilled in the coffin, and a pipe was placed in it. A lighted match was then applied to the pipe and resulted in a flame burning of the gasses "hygienically" — lasting for up to three weeks.

Photo: Past London

7. Alongside gothic masterpieces lies postmodern brilliance

Don't just check out the Victorian parts. Highgate Cemetery is still functioning and people are still buried here today. (As the cemetery states: "To buy a plot in advance you must be over 80 years of age or terminally ill.") Artist Patrick Caulfield's tombstone is particularly worth hunting down, for its rather brutal honesty. Sculpted into it is the word DEAD (and you really can't disagree with that assessment of the situation).