The Site and the Cemetery

Swains Lane is believed to be the lane down which earlier inhabitants of Highgate drove their pigs to and from pasture. Sadly for the pigs, at least, the neighbouring Bacon lane seems to support this view. The road runs up to the top of Highgate Hill, flanked by the two halves of the extraordinary Highgate Cemetery. Towards the top of the hill Waterlow park replaces the cemetery to the right, whilst South of the cemetery on the West side stands Holly Lodge Estate.

The road is mentioned as far back as the year 1492 as "Swayneslane," though it was colloquially known as "Swines Lane." It was one of four parallel routes up the hill to the village, one of which (Bromwich Walk) has disappeared. There were no houses on it except at a few yards from the upper end.

In 1887 the London Cemetery Company acquired a group of cottages at the top of the lane on the western side, facing Waterlow Park opposite the moat. Here once stood the one house of note in the lane, present since Elizabethan times but by this time belonging to Dr. Elisha Coysh, a London physician qualified in Oxford and notable for his successful treatment of plague victims.

The cemetery in its original form – the northwestern wooded area in which The Grey House now stands – opened in 1839, as part of a plan to provide seven large, modern cemeteries, around the outside of central London. (The inner-city cemeteries, mostly graveyards attached to individual churches, were unable to cope with the number of burials and were seen as a hazard to health.) On Monday 20 May 1839, Highgate Cemetery was dedicated by the Bishop of London. Fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England and two acres (including the plot on which The Grey House now stands) set aside for Dissenters. Highgate soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. It occupies a spectacular south-facing hillside site to which winter brings a view of the whole London skyline. In 1854 the area to the east of the original area across Swains Lane was bought to form the eastern part of the cemetery.
Sadly by 1900 the Victorian desire for grand tombs was fading and the Great War took many of the gardeners away for ever. Gradually the existing graves were abandoned as families died out or moved away, and the cemetery's fortunes declined. By the late 1950s a few parcels of land were being sold to raise money, including at some point the plot on which The Grey House now stands. It was not enough. Finances collapsed, and eventually both of the chapels were closed and the London cemetery Company was bankrupt. The cemetery was closed, overgrown and in danger of being forgotten or even obliterated.

Fortunately, all was not lost. In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed with the aim to promote the conservation of the cemetery, its monuments and buildings, flora and fauna, for the benefit of the public as an environmental amenity. It acquired the freehold, and work began to clear through the overgrown landscape and repair some of the memorials which had been damaged by vandals during the cemetery’s decline.

Since then an increasing amount of restoration and conservation work has been carried out. Careful landscaping of the older cemetery has maintained its sense of natural wilderness, whilst allowing view and preservation of its fascinating, and sometimes peculiar, funerary monuments, buildings, chapels, and memorials, and a glimpse of Victorian attitudes towards life, death, and dying. The grounds are full of trees, shrubbery and wild flowers, all of which have been planted and grown by nature alone, and the cemetery is a haven for birds and small animals. The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon feature tombs, vaults and winding paths dug into hillsides. A rare spider has recently been discovered there.

For more information on the cemetery and details on how to contribute to its maintenance or to book a tour, see www.highgatecemetery.org/visit