You are on page 1of 2


In 1836 an Act of Parliament was passed creating The London Cemetery Company. St
ephen Geary, an architect and the company s founder, appointed James Bunstone Bunn
ing as surveyor and David Ramsey, renowned garden designer, as the landscape arc
hitect. 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 o
f the Ashurst Estate, descending the steep hillside from Highgate Village. Over
the next three years the cemetery was landscaped to brilliant effect by Ramsey w
ith 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 Revere
nd Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrate
d for the use of members of the Church of England and two acres set aside for di
ssenters (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 leve
l at its highest point, along with its unique architecture, meant that the wealt
hy would be encouraged to invest. The millionaire newspaper owner Julius Beer wa
s one such investor who built the cemetery s most impressive monument, to his eig
ht year old daughter Ada.
Two chapels, one for the Church of England and the other for Dissenters, were ho
used within one building, built in the Tudor Gothic style, topped with wooden tu
rrets and a central bell tower. The archway beneath the bell-tower gives an impo
sing entry to the Cemetery.
In the heart of the grounds was created the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structu
re consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a broad passageway, entered vi
a a great arch. These vaults were fitted with shelves for twelve coffins and wer
e 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 t
he Classical style. The Circle was created by earth being excavated around an an
cient Cedar of Lebanon, a legacy of the Ashurst Estate, and was used to great vi
sual effect by the cemetery s designers. Above this, a separate Gothic style catac
omb, 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 impressi
ve eighty yard frontage and room for a total of eight hundred and twenty-five pe
ople in fifty-five vaults of fifteen loculi each, each loculus being sold indivi
dually to house one coffin. These were typical of the fashion for above ground b
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 th
e other side of its Swain s Lane site. This new ground, now known as the East Ceme
tery, was opened in 1856. A tunnel beneath Swain s Lane connected the new ground w
ith the Church of England chapel in the older (West) side. With the aid of a hyd
raulic 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 wer

e over 10,400 graves within the older part of the cemetery. During a short perio
d of this decade an average of thirty burials a day took place, including the bu
rial in the West Cemetery of Tom Sayers, the famous bare-knuckled prize-fighter
who to this day boasts the largest funeral in the history of the cemetery with p
ress reports of over ten-thousand mourners in attendance, including Lion, his fa
ithful dog who was chief mourner.
Unarguably the most famous interment in Highgate Cemetery is in the East Cemeter
y and is that of the philosopher Karl Marx who died in 1883. His grave must now
be amongst the most visited in London.