Primary contactSwain's Lane Highgate
GB N6 6PJ
In response to the crisis in overcrowded parish graveyards, Stephen Geary, (1797-1854) architect and civil engineer, started the London Cemetery Company in 1836 and, with the passing of the London Cemetery Company Act that same year, was given legal permission to establish Highgate Cemetery. Geary secured 17.5 acres of land on the west side of Swain's Lane which had formed the orchard and parkland of the late Sir William Ashurst's 17th century estate. (The Church of England had purchased the whole estate, demolished the dilapidated manor house and built St. Michael's Church Highgate in its place).
James Bunstone Bunning, architect to the City of London from 1843 until his death in 1863, was appointed as the London Cemetery Company's surveyor and with his help the grounds were laid out by David Ramsey, nurseryman and landscape gardener, with serpentine roads and broad gravel paths leading up to the burial area beneath St Michael's Church. Built features which included the chapels, a Colonnade flanking the courtyard, the Lebanon Circle, the Egyptian Avenue and the Terrace Catacombs were all constructed prior to the Cemetery's opening. In 1854 a further 19 acres were purchased on the opposite side of Swain's Lane and this large extension, which formed the Eastern Cemetery, brought the Cemetery's total acreage to 36.5. This was opened in 1857 and is a more naturally landscaped woodland area compared to the grander Western side.
Highgate Cemetery was the third of the seven grand Victorian cemeteries to be opened and, in 1840, the London Cemetery Company also opened Nunhead (the fifth of the seven) which became the head office of the Company.
Following consecration by the Bishop of London, Highgate cemetery opened for its first burial in May 1839. It quickly became popular not just for burials but also as a place to promenade because of its grand features and the views it provided across London from its steeply sloping land.
By the turn of the 20th century, the desire for elaborate funerals was waning and families began to choose less ostentatious memorials than in previous decades. At the outbreak of the Great War, many of the cemetery’s forty or so gardeners and groundsmen were called up to fight. Despite this diminished workforce, the grounds continued to be kept in immaculate order, under the strict authority of the superintendent.
Until the start of the Second World War, the cemetery retained its grandeur. After the War, increasingly, graves were abandoned as families died out or moved away and, with most burial plots sold, revenues declined, maintenance ceased and nature gradually began to take over.
In 1956 in an attempt to raise much needed income, the Cemetery sold off its stonemason’s yard along with the Superintendent’s house. The two chapels were also closed in the same year. The London Cemetery Company was finally declared bankrupt in 1960 and was absorbed into the larger United Cemeteries Ltd, which for the next fifteen years struggled to keep the cemetery afloat; maintenance became minimal.
United Cemeteries was acquired by a property development company, Raybar Holdings Ltd (later Raybourne Group Ltd), which sold off two or three parcels of land around the perimeter despite being prohibited from doing so by the terms of the 1836 Act of Parliament. This was to cause some problems later on as one of the parcels included the tunnel under Swains Lane which connected the west and east grounds.
In 1967 Raybourne Group disposed of its interest to its United Cemeteries Company Ltd [UCC] subsidiary which became the registered proprietor of the freehold of the cemetery with absolute title. United Cemeteries could not run the cemetery profitably and offered to sell it to Camden Council but this was prohibited without special Parliamentary powers. Camden Council initiated a right to acquire under the GLC (General Powers) Act.
By 1975, when UCC closed the older Western Cemetery to the public, the grounds had been totally neglected for more than a decade but the company accepted a subsidy of £8,000 p.a. from Camden Council to meet running costs which was aimed at keeping the eastern side of the Cemetery open at specified times and the western side open to graveowners and bona fide visitors until 1990.
Also in 1975 an interest group, Friends of Highgate Cemetery, was formed (at first under the auspices of the Highgate Society) and given access by C.D.Reynolds, Director of Raybourne Group, to the cemetery on Saturdays to begin landscape restoration – initially carried out monthly and then weekly by interested Working Parties. The Friends also held public Open Days. Gradually they became grew more and more responsible for the renovation of the Cemetery (both monuments and landscape) and eventually the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was established as a charity in April 1981.
In 1978, Raybourne Group Ltd went into voluntary liquidation and became the subject of investigation by the Board of Trade. Sometime between 1978 and 1981, UCC vested operational responsibility for the Cemetery to another Raybourne subsidiary, Bourne Developments Ltd. which met all operating costs (which were reimbursed by a subsidy from Camden Council). Camden Council had declined to purchase the Cemetery and instead allowed the Friends to continue their work but the Council established the Highgate Cemetery Trust to provide advice to the Friends.
In 1981, faced with the likelihood of UCC also going into abrupt liquidation as a result of the directors of Raybourne Group being prosecuted, the freehold of the cemetery was rapidly acquired from the two shareholders of Raybourne Group for £50 through the vehicle of a shell company, Pinemarsh Ltd. The interest in the land was eventually vested in Highgate Cemetery Charity.
In 1983, Highgate Cemetery Operating Company Ltd was set up to administer the proceeds from burial fees, events and visits and to pay staff. This became Highgate Cemetery Ltd in 1988 and it continues to operate under this name to date.
These arrangements left three separate charities involved in the management of the Cemetery - the Friends of Highgate Cemetery (whose members did the day-to-day management of the Cemetery), the Highgate Cemetery Trust (whose trustees provided advice to the Friends) and Highgate Cemetery Charity (which now owned the freehold of the land). In 1994 a paper, The Way Ahead, was written to try to draw these three charities together.
Discussion of this document occupied the next decade. Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was originally incorporated on 12 February 1996 as Friends of Highgate Cemetery and changed its name on 15 June 2006. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee, governed by memorandum and articles of association. These were amended on 11 March 2010, when Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust finally brought the three charities into one.
The FOHCT Archive service will select and preserve:-
• administrative records relating to the management of the cemetery;
• records which chronicle the work of the Friends as well as those which contain information documenting singular events relating to the Friends and/or the Cemetery;
• records which trace the history of the cemetery, its changes and developments;
• records documenting the lives of people interred in the Cemetery;
• material, particularly printed books and digital film, which illustrates the place Highgate Cemetery has played in literature and popular culture.
• important evidence of United Kingdom funerary customs.