Today (May 20) in London History – Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery was consecrated on May 20, 1839. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

They called it “the great garden of sleep.”

They call them “the magnificent seven”

And this one is primus inter pares – the most magnificent of the Magnificent Seven.

Yes, welcome to Highgate Cemetery. Today, May 20th, 1839 is opening day – the first day of eternity in the great garden of sleep on Highgate slopes.

Now look, Highgate Cemetery is so well known – it’s London’s most famous cemetery, and deservedly so – let’s just do a quick run-through, make a few connections in the manner of detectives linking up suspects and witnesses and incidents with pins and bits of string on a crime scenes diagram in a police station office and make a solemn vow to get up there and visit or revisit that extraordinary city of the dead. 

So terminology first.

The Romans – wisely – buried their dead outside their cities. Roads – roads, remember, went through the countryside, streets were urban – roads would often be lined with monuments and tombs.

Come the Anglo-Saxons we get tumuli, burial mounds. But they were also cremating their dead. And indeed sometimes burying them in ships. Think of the magnificent Sutton Hoo find.

You get into the middle ages, it’s churchyards, graveyards. And of course over the centuries the silent majority – the dead – outnumbered the living. Churchyards went higher and higher. It created terrible problems, terrible health hazards.

Come the 19th-century vast cemeteries on the outskirts of London seemed the way to go.

Ergo the Magnificent Seven: Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets.

Kensal Green was the first of them. It came along in 1837. Tower Hamlets brought up the rear: it arrived on the London scene in 1841.

Highgate – as per my list – was third. But it’s not a simple case. The oldest part – the creepiest, most interesting and indeed most spectacular half is the West cemetery. It came in 1839. 

The East cemetery – where Karl Marx is, for example – comes 21 years later. 

You can roam freely in the East cemetery. The West cemetery is a different story – to see the famous catacombs, for example, you have to go on a guided tour. Prime yourself – get clued up – with an initial visit to

Now let’s start to people the scene.

As I said, on this day in history – May 20, 1839 – Highgate Cemetery – that’d be the West cemetery – was open for business. Business wasn’t long in coming. The first permanent resident was one Elizabeth Jackson. She was 36 years old. She moved to Highgate Cemetery from Golden Square in Soho. Her grave was ten feet deep. That deep so there’d be room for relatives come the day. The family paid 3 guineas for the grave. Historical reminder here: a guinea was 21 shillings. One pound and one shilling. The extra depth of the grave – ten feet under rather than six feet – cost Elizabeth’s family an extra 13 shillings. Elizabeth Jackson didn’t have it all – the cemetery, I mean – to herself for very long. Within a year there were 204 burials in the cemetery. Within 183 years – today – there were 170,000. Highgate Cemetery is a good-sized city.

Two more names. Presiding at the consecration of the cemetery was Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London.  He’s got a tiny cameo role in our Little Venice walk because there’s a very fine street there named after him. That tiny cameo just got fractionally bigger: next time I’m guiding Blomfield Road in Little Venice I’ll be making the Highgate Cemetery connection. And adding that at age 8, at Bury Grammar School – Bury, that’s appropriate isn’t it – young Blomfield acquired the nickname Tit. And that he often rose at 5 am to commence his studies. And that he was precocious, declaring, at that tender age, “I mean to be a bishop.”

And one other name: Stephen Geary. He was the architect of Highgate Cemetery. He planned it, laid it out.

He’s going to get a mention on Thursday when I go through Dean’s Yard on my Old Westminster Walk. That’s where he was born. And we have Stephen Geary to thank for the London placename, King’s Cross. In 1836 he put up a building in that neck of the woods. He topped up the building with a statue of George IV. Both the statue and the building are long gone. But from the statue we get the name King’s Cross. Which of course has stood the test of time. It endures. You’re at King’s Cross you’re of course on your way – on the Northern Line – to Highgate. And the cemetery.

And the today’s Today in London recommendation. Our Sunday morning Highgate walk of course. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company invariably dialled up by those who know. Numbered among those who know, many many Londoners. We get more Londoners and their compatriots than we get tourists. So there’s some sage, time-honoured advice for you, “when in London,  do as Londoners do.” 

It’s a perfect fit, savvy, discerning visitors, tack-sharp Londoners and elite guides. Guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City

of London professionally qualified guides.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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