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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > History > Cemeteries > Highgate Cemetery

Bust of Karl Marx

Karl Marx's bust at Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery is probably most famous for its bust of Karl Marx, father of Marxist philosophy. However, this does the cemetery a disservice.

Highgate Cemetery is probably most famous for its bust of Karl Marx, father of Marxist philosophy.

However, this does the cemetery a disservice. It is a truly enchanting place in the heart of North London and there is little wonder the Highgate swiftly came to be regarded as the most fashionable place of rest for Victorian society.

Listed of 'outstanding historical and architectural interest' and as a Grade II* Park,

Highgate is considered by many to be the finest of London's 'Magnificent Seven' Cemeteries for its Victorian funerary architecture and landscaping. Two buildings are listed Grade I, two Grade II* and over sixty Grade II.

The 37 acres appears more extensive. There are over 168,000 names buried in more than 52,00 graves, of which at least 850 are notable.

Just a few steps into the West Cemetery and the visitor is greeted by coachman, James William Selby who still holds the coach record, London to Brighton return, seven hours and fifty minutes.

He is kept company by a whip and inverted set of horseshoes as a mark of his profession and the esteem of numerous friends.

The Victorian fascination with discoveries of ancient Egyptian treasures pervades Highgate Cemetery. Nowhere is this more evident than at the exquisite 'Egyptian Avenue'.

Tomb surrounded by trees and shrubs

Tomb at Highgate Cemetery

Following a charming shaded woodland path, nothing prepares you for the avenue entrance, with its obelisk and lotus-flower column. It could be straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. No temple of doom here though. Walk like an Egyptian through a line of splendid family vaults.

Boa Constrictors

The avenue leads to The Circle of Lebanon, another magnificent area of family vaults, influenced by Egyptian, Gothic and Classical styles.

There is also a Columbarium 'place for urns', and Terrace Catacombs. The Circle enshrouds a magnificent three-centuries-old tree, a Cedar of Lebanon, which majestically towers over the Cemetery.

Highgate is unrelenting in surprises at every turn. There is the resting lion, Nero, in honour of George Wombell, proprietor of England's largest travelling menagerie in the early 19th century. He was one of the first to reap the rewards of displaying exotic animals to people who would otherwise never see them.

He started out by acquiring two boa constrictors and charging one penny a viewing in London's taverns.

The jewel in Highgate's crown is revealed on reaching the Cemetery's highest point, the Mausoleum of Julius Beer.

According to the Friends of Highgate Cemetery he was born into poverty in Frankfurt and determined to make a fortune. It is believed he dealt on the London Stock Exchange and became proprietor of 'The Observer'. However, being Jewish, a foreigner and having earned his wealth by commercial success rather than inheritance, it is claimed Beer always felt ostracised by Victorian high society.

According to FOHC his response was this mausoleum, built by Italian craftsmen and costing £5000 then, £2 to £3 million in today's terms. At 1000ft above sea level, the mausoleum lords it over the rest of Highgate's residents.

The Cemetery was extended in 1854 and so the East Cemetery, still a working burial ground, came into being.

Tomb at Highgate Cemetery

Tomb at Highgate Cemetery

Here, the large, well-maintained Marx bust was a popular stop for visiting communist officials and seems always accompanied by fresh flowers. The monument reads, 'Workers of All Lands Unite - The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways - The point however is to change it.'

While they may have started small, there is a shopping list of founders of London businesses at Highgate, who went on to be household names.

John Maple founded the Tottenham Court Road furniture store; William Alfred Foyle was founder of the Charing Cross Road bookshop and John Lobb founded the world famous St James Street boot shop.

In 1975, Highgate Cemetery ceased to be financially viable. Today the owners are The Highgate Cemetery Charity and management is by Friends of Highgate Cemetery Ltd, both charities. Major buildings and several monuments have been restored and in 2000 the Europa Nostra award was received for conservation and restoration work on the Lebanon Circle.

There has been plentiful planting including hornbeam, exotic limes, oak, hazel, sweet chestnut, field maple and tulips. Some 50 species of bird and 18 of butterfly have been spotted here, and among the spiders, three rarely sighted in the UK. This visitor can also testify to the colony of wily urban foxes.

last updated: 27/10/2008 at 09:38
created: 10/05/2005

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