When you’ve lived in a city your whole life, it is woefully easy to overlook the humble tour as a tourist trap. Highgate Cemetery is popular with tourists and locals alike and it’s not hard to see why – I took the tour and spent the full hour riveted by the stories our guide told. It was no different in the Victorian era – Highgate has drawn crowds since its grand opening in 1839 and was a famed spot in London that even featured in guide books of the day.
Like most popular attractions, it has also always required pay from those wishing to spend time in the grounds, whether interred (Highgate was one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries opened in part for profit and in part to solve the problem of where to bury the dead as the population expanded in London), or perusing (following the Friends of Highgate Cemetery’s idea to have volunteers offer tours of the illustrious graves to fund restoration work).
For both Victorians and modern day visitors, celebrity was and is a big draw. Whilst today we look out for Karl Marx’s memorial or Lucian Freud’s and Beryl Bainbright’s graves hidden amongst the impressive garden/cemetery hybrid, the Victorians came here to outdo one another and, as such, they subscribed to the ‘bigger and better’ cult of death, which the owners of the cemetery were all too happy to cash in on: to maximise the reputation of Highgate, they even placed the celebrities of the day where they were sure to be seen – on the paths.
Some of the stories of the noteworthy Victorians at rest in the West side of Highgate were fascinating, amongst which lay:
– James William Selby. Selby’s grave is a short distance from the entrance and would have been a real point of interest to his contemporaries. During his life he owned the ‘Old Times’ coach company, which cashed in on a trend for travelling in the ‘old fashioned’ way. He was also enormously well connected due to his sideline of teaching young wealthy men how to play the adrenaline sport of the day – racing disused stage coaches. In 1888, he took a bet that he couldn’t make it from London to Brighton and back more quickly than the fastest engine on the line. He won, making it in seven hours and 50 minutes. So famed was he that on the day of his funeral, all transport workers in London wore black and draped their carriages in black crepe.
– Elizabeth Siddal. Siddal was married to Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, after the birth of their stillborn child, died of an overdose of laudanum. On her burial Rossetti slipped some of his poems into her famous long red hair. Seven years later, he had descended into an alcohol and drug-induced stupor and could produce no work of value. His agent pushed him to allow the disinterment of Siddal to retrieve the work. With permission from the cemetery on a secret basis, the poems were retrieved during a full moon in November 1869. The poems didn’t fare well with the public due to their erotic nature and Rossetti, though not present during the recovery, lived in shame at the act. On dying, he refused to be buried in Highgate as it was the site of this moment of weakness.
– Mr George Wombwell. Wombwell is a perfect example of entrepreneurship – when he bought two boas to exhibit in taverns he managed to turn a profit quickly enough to realise there was money to be made in showing little-travelled Britons exotic animals. Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie eventually came to include a wide variety of animals including elephants, giraffes, kangaroos and leopards. Several hilarious antics ensued – my favourite was of a kangaroo escaping and crawling into the bed of an old women to sleep. Atop his grave sits a statue of the hand-reared and docile lion, Nero.
Other nuggets included the story of Bram Stoker walking the cemetery for inspiration prior to writing Dracula, visiting a tree dating back to at least 1690 and being shown figures to highlight the enormous cost involved in a Victorian funeral – from clothing to gravestones, the urge to be the ‘best’ mourner a la Queen Victoria is evident everywhere in Highgate. If you are a Londoner who hasn’t been, go immediately and fear touristy boredom not – you’ll be captivated.