During many of the radio shows I have contributed to I have been asked about what existed before Highgate Cemetery, which is a very pertinent question. I hope that this article is useful for people from far-afield attending the Symposium, and helps them geographically and historically contextualise much of the Highgate high strangeness they will hear on the day. The purpose of the Symposium is, after all, to explore some of Highgate’s supernatural mysteries on a deeper level than ever previously attempted. I myself have gone through a steep learning curve over the last few years in terms of sifting through and revisiting primary sources, as will become evident shortly. WARNING – this blog is only suitable for those who crave potentially elucidating detail over easy answers 😉
Due to space constraints I have had to assume that the reader has a working knowledge of at least some of the paranormal experiences of many individuals over the years pertaining to Highgate Cemetery West (it’s a blog entry not a book, and even the few local history observations contained herein cannot be considered comprehensive!). Vast quantities of sightings are, however, detailed in my book Haunted Highgate (significant sections are available on Google Books preview), and in Beyond the Highgate Vampire, penned by my husband David Farrant. They will also be chronicled by Redmond McWilliams during the first session of The Highgate Vampire Symposium, and referenced throughout the day in detail. Then of course there are the multitudinous radio broadcasts which detail these and which can be heard for free here.
Note: Highgate Cemetery West’s iconic North (or ‘top’) Gate features in many spectral accounts associated with the Highgate ‘vampire’. While the main gates also have their fair share of sightings of tall dark apparitions, the North Gate, and the high-walled stretch of lane around it, seems to be associated with additional strange phenomena, such as atmospheric pressure drops and feelings of panic. Much about the Highgate haunting leaves us with more questions than answers, and the North Gate is no exception. It therefore features quite heavily in the following article.
Della Farrant, 09/06/15
WHAT KIND OF GHOST HANGS AROUND A CEMETERY GATE?
For many questers of my generation the 1970s series of illustrated Usbourne books about the ‘World of the Unknown’ were a primer for an appreciation and understanding of the existence of paranormal phenomena. These glorious little tomes doubtlessly encouraged many young ghost hunters to believe that ‘spooks’ are frequently to be found in graveyards. Over the last thirty years or so however more serious researchers have repeatedly concluded that apparitions of the deceased are far more likely to be found at places which were significant to them in life, or as the scene of their death especially if the latter was associated with trauma.
This theory, when applied to the alleged haunting of Highgate Cemetery and its immediate environs, suggests that the entity (or entities) so often sighted inside the North and main gates, within the cemetery and in Swains Lane itself could in life have either worked at the cemetery, died there, or have lived or worked on the site prior to the cemetery’s inception.
Another area of thought which has come to prominence in recent years is that there is a discernible difference between apparitions which appear to be recordings from the past with no consciousness or awareness of their modern environment, and spirits of the dead which appear to be able to interact with the living and exhibit an awareness of the world around them.
It is these possibilities which I shall be touching upon, with regard to the history of the cemetery landscape, in this ‘little’ blog entry ;-).
HOW DO YOU CARBON-DATE A GHOST?
Well, you can’t. Yet. But we can make a start by delving deeper into the histories of the locations where they are allegedly sighted or experienced. This could give a clue as to the earliest and latest periods from which a ‘ghost’ originates. In a video filmed at Hallowe’en 2014, I made the point that Peter Underwood’s 1973 transposition of Eric Maple’s 1971 descriptions of paranormal encounters by the main gates of the West Cemetery to those of the East was damaging to serious research. In fact, I pointed out that the tracts of land in question were in previous centuries owned by entirely different people. My thrust was that if one is attempting to at least pinpoint the century which the entity or entities which ‘haunt’ Swains Lane lived through in life, or maybe even guess at their identity, the precise locations of sightings and the recorded history of the usage of these locations cannot be disregarded.
Another obvious factor to consider, and let us continue to play devil’s advocate here by assuming that we may be talking about apparitions which exist beyond the psyches of their witnesses and were once as human as you or I, is the clothing attributed to such manifestations. Of course, human perception can never be as objective as a camera (and nor can an artist’s impression, as discussed later). But some details of apparel described by various witnesses include a dark (often three quarter length) coat or cloak, a white shirt, a dark waistcoat, and a black, tallish hat. This could place a spectre anywhere from the 17th to 19th or possibly even early 20th century. Indeed to a witness surrounded by Victorian cemetery architecture, in dim street lighting, the unexpected shade of a gentleman from the latter part of the 17th century, for example, could readily be assumed to be of 1800s origin, especially if one had no awareness of the London fashions of the late 1600s.
Readers who have only had the opportunity to learn about the history of Highgate Cemetery online, or have visited it but not the village itself, will be unacquainted with just how modern the sprawling 19th century necropolis appears in contrast. With the majority of its original street plan surviving, including 14th century Swains Lane, and the preservation orders bestowed upon its scores of 17th and early 18th century houses, the South Grove area of Highgate which borders the West Cemetery exudes an atmosphere far more Jacobean than Victorian. The importance of recognising the development of Highgate prior to the Victorian era should not, in my opinion, be overlooked by any dedicated researcher.
On the subject of clothing, a recurring dilemma for researchers into the case is whether there are one or two darkly garbed spectres abroad in the area of the lane and burial ground. Indeed the potential for conflation between these two archetypes, for want of a better word, troubled me so whilst crafting Haunted Highgate that I separated the sightings into different subheadings. However, perhaps too much emphasis is routinely placed by cynics upon what the spectres do not have in common, to the detriment of their similarities. Statistically the most frequently sighted form is that of an amorphous but humanoid figure, possibly with some kind of long black robe or cloak, and aside from one encounter no discernible features save for its glowing or glinting eyes. Less commonly reported sightings are those of the more recognisably clothed figure described earlier, which as recently as 2005 has even been known to speak (perhaps predictably using anachronistic English). Often overlooked commonalities between these figures, which vary little across sightings, include their abnormally tall stature, male presence, hypnotic optical faculties, the instilling of feelings of fear in witnesses that one is being or about to be attacked and, of course, the precise locations where sightings allegedly occur, namely inside and outside both gates, upon the dirt track inside the North Gate, and outside the cemetery walls approximately ten yards south of the North Gate. To add to the confusion, there are certain spots where only one form of visual manifestation has been recorded (the land above the Circle of Lebanon, the Swains Lane side of Waterlow Park, a house on West Hill built on 17th century remains and an 1838 path in the north east part of the cemetery).
But in the meantime, let us focus upon the locations which appear to be the haunt of the entity or entities in both visual forms. What can they tell us about our elusive spectre/s?
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT – LIFE BEFORE THE CEMETERY
It is relatively common knowledge that St. Michael’s Church (opened in 1832) was built on the site of a sequence of mansion houses which once sat on the land, their grounds forming what is now Highgate Cemetery West. Reference to these is stock in trade for cemetery tour guides, or rather to the last of the mansions – Ashurst House, a red brick three storey residence completed by Sir William Ashurst around 1694. Many a visitor to the West Cemetery has been (correctly) informed that the tall cedar in the centre of the sunken Lebanon Circle was once part of the old mansion’s landscaped gardens (in fact it predates Ashurst’s occupancy of the house by at least 60 years). Patsy Langley, who is speaking at the Symposium, has detailed the consecutive ownerships of the estate in her book The Highgate Vampire Casebook (2007), and has even managed to establish contact with some of these families’ living descendants with a view to publishing an expanded edition of her book. There are also many older books as well as digitised online resources to draw upon in this regard. Indeed whilst researching this plot of land for my own book Haunted Highgate I compared modern maps, antiquated and contemporary narratives, and many prints, including one commissioned by Ashurst in around 1710, and an earlier drawing by one William Blake, showing his own house and landscaping prior to their acquisition by Ashurst via what we would now call the bankruptcy courts. (N.B. if anyone is aware of any other detailed plans of the area in question from that specific era apart from John Rocques’ 1746 Survey of London I would love to know about them!)
I also attempted to overlay key geographical denominators of the existing cemetery grounds and the previous estates to establish what still remained, if only in terms of functionality such as paths and gateways (see below).
On the Ashurst print, on the site of the existing main gates and Colonnade, can be seen a fairly large building at the apex of the north/south and south/south east boundary walls, from which a substantial path leads in a straight line up towards the mansion. From this I concluded (possibly hastily) that the chapels which surround the main gate, the latter having a pretty consistent history of sightings of tall dark figures inside it, moving through it, and departing from it, was built on the site of one of the original entrances to the gardens of the old estate/s. This may not be an accurate conclusion, and it has been very hard to verify beyond visual assessment of the print and of the practicalities of required ingress and egress to the gardens by its landscapers etc, when approaching the estate from south. In this article, therefore, the main gate remains rather neglected in favour of the North Gate which has a much better documented history. Hopefully more information will come to light about the main gates’ history in the near future.
LIFE BEFORE O.S. MAPS – CONFLICTING CARTOGRAPHY
Comparison between the 1710 print and Blake’s drawing suggests that the latter’s layout was enhanced but not entirely eroded by Ashurst. Some key features are visible in both, such as the Cedar of Lebanon, the delineation of the Eastern boundary of the gardens (now Swains Lane), the central location of a square house and the large manmade earthbank which was later utilised as the cemetery’s Terrace Catacombs.
One of the most confusing aspects of the Ashurst engraving is the deliberate erasion (is that a word? If it isn’t it should be!) of Swains Lane as a peasant’s thoroughfare, and of Elisha Coysh’s cottage and adjacent plots, which annoyingly for Ashurst abutted his land. Snobbery no doubt explains that (as well as, perhaps, the encouraged disuse of the lane for droving and the subsequent increase in popularity of Maiden Lane and Bromwich Walk as footpaths). But other features such as the houses on South Grove and the paths which undulate down the gardens and which Stephen Geary of the London Cemetery Company incorporated into the West Cemetery in 1837/8 are generally conceded by historians to be accurate, if slightly skewed by the uphill rather than fully aerial perspective.
Blake’s drawing (and there are two actually – one minus the graffiti with which Blake defaced his own work to defame his creditors) contains a mixture of truth and fantasy. How quintessentially Highgate, even all those centuries back! His own house is almost the only property present in the vista which he did not intend to pull down, purchase or extend, so we can lend that component a certain degree of accuracy. N.B. – the Gatehouse tavern is visible in Blake’s drawing, an pre-graffiti print of which hangs in the downstairs lobby of Upstairs at the Gatehouse where the Highgate Vampire Symposium is being held, so look out for that!
That Blake’s drawing did not incorporate the North Gate, and nor did Ashurst’s, at least at the precise junction of boundary wall and Swains Lane where one would expect them to, I perhaps generously put down to the subjectivity of the artists’ rendering, focussing more upon imagining the houses and gardens and their relation to the modern cemetery. There must have been a gate in the vicinity of the North Gate, I reasoned. There must have been … if only to conquer the impracticalities of bringing goods and supplies to the higher ground of Highgate without approaching the grand main entrance on South Grove (no ingress would have been possible from West Hill to the left). And somewhere along the line I failed to study the 1710 print as closely as I should have done.
WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES …
If all authors ruminated and waited decades to ensure that every detail they published was 100% accurate, there would be many empty library shelves. In Haunted Highgate I first raised the suggestion that at least six key paranormal hotspots in Highgate have associations with the afore-mentioned William Blake, provided a very brief outline of his life as then known, and of his connections with ‘haunted’ locations such as the Flask, the Youth Hostel on West Hill, the northern approach to the church, the Circle of Lebanon, and the main and top gates of Highgate Cemetery.
There is simply no room in this article to give Blake’s peculiar and fascinating life justice, suffice to say that his passionate and tragic time on earth, which was played out on the site of the modern cemetery, was astonishing, and I will be revisiting it in full in a series of blog entries over at hidden-highgate.org in the near future. Although there are, by default, scores of other long-since deceased Highgate residents who might account for the apparitions, I still maintain that Blake is very much worth considering as a candidate for some of the manifestations around Highgate, including potentially the North Gate. I have uncovered no other candidate who in life demonstrated such an obsessive emotional attachment to the land.
But despite my enthusiasm, with so many dozens of ghost stories to check for authenticity and follow up and a publishing deadline to meet I neglected to really drill down into the precise geography of the North Gate and its predecessors. Specifically, I concluded personally, and suggested in print, that the present location of the North Gate was the site of a 17th century entrance to the estate owned by the Earl of Arundel, Blake’s father and latterly himself, Andrew Campion, Ashurst and eventually a later series of owners and tenants. This seemed to provide a potential clue as to why the gate plays such a role in Highgate’s canon of reported ‘paranormal’ sightings and other strange experiences, and perhaps broaden the potential origins of the haunting beyond the cemetery’s construction in the late 1830s. After all, a ‘haunted’ gate which once led to a house with a long history of occupation could potentially link its ‘ghost’ with that property, surely? Whether at least one of the ghosts is Blake or someone entirely different … I was almost right – but not quite.
THE GATES OF PERPLEXION
An 1800 map of the Parish of St. Pancras which I recently stumbled upon (and should have examined years ago! D’oh!) shows a clearly defined area which is annotated in almost indecipherable handwriting as what appears to read ‘Mr Richard’s Gate House’ (answers on a postcard if you can work out the scrawled name better than I!)
Comparison with modern maps and the Blake and Ashurst prints indicates that this smallish yard seems to occupy the land which was developed in 1970-1972 by architects Haxworth and Kasabov as a row of seven terraced houses, with a driveway area to the south flanked by the northern boundary wall of Highgate Cemetery West.
A hand drawn indentation on the map suggests what could be a gate on the Swains Lane side of the enclosed land, although the length of this would make the gate extremely wide. That point aside, a Gate House with no gate – or at least no point of entry, gated or otherwise – makes no sense. We can therefore reasonably conclude that there was indeed a wide-ish entrance leading to the yard by at the latest 1800, opening approximately 3 metres north of the present cemetery gates which were installed in 1838. What difference does 3 metres make, you might ask.
All the difference in the world! What a potential pinprick in my 17th century balloon! But, as a dedicated truthseeker, upon having ascertained this, I embraced it with excitable fascination, and revisited the prints and the land conveyances.
I had been struggling with the resolution quality of the versions of the Ashurst prints which I possessed, and consequently sought out a higher resolution copy, which had helpfully been tinted. From this it was much more obvious that the area referred to above as ‘Mr Richard’s Gate House’ was self-contained in 1710, and offered no access to Ashurst House. It cannot possibly have therefore been a gate house for that estate. So what was it?
The answer is to be found in the conveyance of the western part of adjacent Arundel House to Ashurst by Francis Blake in 1691. According to The Survey of London Volume 17 (1936), Arundel House was at this time ‘a capital messuage in the occupation of Benjamin Richards, gentleman (except a garret belonging to Elizabeth Cornish – my italics)’. The conveyancing documents also refer to the positions of a wall “formerly in the possession of William Blake”, and “a green walk adjoining the orchard of Elizabeth Cornish”. Well, in a close zoom of the tinted Ashurst print we see a green walk, bordered to the south by a wall which we know once belonged to Blake, containing a garret, and bordered to the north by an orchard. That the garret sits on Swains Lane, which would have been a northerly approach to Arundel House then in the possession of (Mr) Benjamin Richards implies that it had no connection with the Ashurst estate at 1710 or its predecessors. Obviously by 1800 Benjamin Richards was long dead, but it rather seems his name may have lived on as a local nomenclature for the garret.
Indeed, it seems that Ashurst never got his hands on the plot, and the will of Elizabeth Cornish conveys her property situate in Highgate (including her gardens and their appurtenances) to her immediate family. The fact that wealthy widow Cornish never seems to have relinquished the plot which sat squarely in the middle of Ashurst’s land, despite the many offers he is likely to have made her, is initially rather mysterious – but perhaps not so.
For Elizabeth Cornish (who herself had at one time occupied part of Arundel House) was a staunch supporter of William Blake. Indeed her husband Henry had been executed in 1685 for his alleged role in a regicidal conspiracy, and moved in the same political circles as Blake’s renegade son Daniel. Not only this, but Henry (who like Blake had family connections to the wool trade) had been the Treasurer of Blake’s ill-fated orphanage at Highgate (which was scuppered by Ashurst as we shall read later), and we see Elizabeth make much provision for orphans of the parish in her will. What seething feuds and deep allegiances we can uncover in the machinations of the wealthy of Highgate if we but scratch the surface!
So what about the site of the North Gate itself?
As readers may discern, William Blake’s circa 1675 drawing clearly shows that the area now occupied by the North Gate was, whilst in his possession, simply a solid wall running north to south, which met another at a right angle where the northern-most pillar of the present gates stands. By 1710, part of the first wall had been demolished, and a house had been constructed, larger than but approximately where the present lodge now stands, straddling the boundary enforced by the remaining wall to its south and sitting partly in Swains Lane itself. William Blake was not a rich man, and we have scant information to hand about the number of servants he employed, as opposed to Sir William, who as Mayor of London would have required a vast body of footmen, coachmen and domestic staff. We can therefore conclude that this building, positioned some distance from the main house, was probably intended to house some of Ashurst’s employees, and was erected post 1692.It could also have some connection to Swains Croft Paddock, which once ran immediately to its south in the direction of the cottages, although the strip of cultivated and enclosed land which runs from it and immediately south of the Terrace to the western border of the estate suggests otherwise.
By 1800 this house had been demolished, and it is likely that the resultant gap in the wall at the site of the present North Gate was plugged with simple wooden paling such as that visible on the east side of Swains lane in the 1842 print below, and not brickwork, thus leaving the estate somewhat exposed and vulnerable to intruders. We can infer this from the fact that in 1830 it fell to a neighbour to replace the tumbling down western boundary wall which adjoined his property, rather than the owners of the remains of the Ashurst estate who appear to have ceased maintaining the once proud homestead.
SO THE GATE ISN’T ‘VINTAGE’ – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE HAUNTED PATH?
As if dealing with an allegedly haunted 19th century gateway, which historically sat adjacent to an unrelated 17th century gate house wasn’t confusing enough, we also have the issue of the dirt track which runs inside the cemetery from the 1838 top gate, parallel to the northern boundary wall.
The gothic appearance of the gate lends itself so well to campfire-esque retellings of sightings of tall dark figures that the relevance of the path immediately inside it has been somewhat overlooked. The popular image of a menacing figure ‘gloating through the bars’ seems to stick in the imagination more than the lesser-told tales of a figure manifesting somewhat further inside the cemetery on the path itself. I stumbled across some of these tales whilst researching Haunted Highgate, two of which I included and three of which (which do not involve members of the general public / tourists) I have not yet obtained permission to discuss. The first, dating back to 1968, was relayed by a Mr. Michael Quinn who recalled glimpsing through the Cemetery’s North Gate
the figure of a darkly dressed man who looked like he was wearing a top hat” standing or hovering in a patch of mist some fifteen feet down the path. As Mr. Quinn rapidly crossed the narrow lane and grabbed the locked gates for a better look at the figure, it slowly dissolved into the mist. Mr. Quinn states that there was no noise of someone running away.
The second, which took place some 15 yards to the south west, was relayed by Patricia Langley:
In 2004 Langley was one of approximately twenty visitors enjoying a tour of Highgate Cemetery West. Towards the conclusion of the tour, the group were listening to their guide in the most northerly section of the cemetery, at the junctures of two paths. Gazing around them as the guide pointed out various tombs and memorials, five of the party glanced down the track which leads to the cemetery’s North Gate. They were bemused to observe a tall figure cloaked in black moving in the direction of the gate. As the guide indicated that it was time to return to the main gates, the witnesses remarked to him that they had not been made aware that the cemetery employed actors to enhance their tours. Langley recalls that the guide became immediately uncomfortable, and after curtly confirming that they did no such thing rapidly ushered the group away from the top gate. As they exited into Swains Lane, Langley was able to ask the five visitors what they had seen on the path. They could only describe it as a tall man wearing some kind of cloak, who had disappeared whilst their attention was returned to the guide’s lecture. They had assumed that this ‘actor’ had hidden amongst the shrubs and trees which border the path in an attempt to frighten them. While there are often gardeners and groundsmen to be found in the cemetery, it is commonsense to assume that they do not wear cloaks, and […] entry to the locked cemetery by the public is strictly upon paid admission.
An interesting aspect of Langley’s account is that the 1838 path along which the figure was seen to glide does not appear to have existed prior to the cemetery’s construction. A very short distance onwards it does, however, link up with the dirt track inside the North Gate where Michael Quinn describes seeing a very similar figure, as well as forking south onto what was during Blake and Ashurt’s eras an ornamental path through a small orchard and from 1838 was a ‘Geary path’. Frustratingly I also have on file a report relayed to me dating back to around 2003 pertaining to the latter path, the experience in question having commenced just south of the present North Lodge, but hopefully we will hear more about that from the witness on the big day.
Both the Blake and Ashurst prints clearly show a path which runs inside the estate from Swains Lane towards what is now the Terrace Catacombs, which are a kind of raised veranda, in their days providing a glorious southerly view of London. The ground-level promenade depicted in the prints appears to run from what is now the North Gate. In the Blake era there was no point of ingress (if his drawing is accurate), and in the Ashurst era the path terminates at the small house mentioned earlier. In both prints a high wall borders this path to the north, and the Ashurst print provides an additional level of detail viz. vertical buttresses every 12ft or so.
A drawing of Ashurst House from the south, dated to around 1830 (and certainly no later) shows the pre-Geary wall running to the north of the ‘haunted’ dirt track. It also shows a high rustic fence, which appears to be enclosing the latter. More romantic or sinisterly inclined readers may speculate that this allegedly haunted piece of land was fenced off for a very practical reason, beyond the creation of a private veggie patch for a subtenant. But we shall never know!
All of this considered, there is strong suggestion, that the ‘haunted path’ has been in situ since at least 1675, giving us a 340 year timeframe within which to place our ‘ghost’.
“LET NOT HIM WHO IS HOUSELESS PULL DOWN THE HOUSE OF ANOTHER.”
Ashurst House was once, as described by Daniel Defoe writing between 1724-27 “a very beautiful house […], on the very summit of the hill, and with a view from the very lowest windows over the whole vale, to the city: And that so eminently, that they see the very ships passing up and down the river for 12 or 15 miles below London.”
But by the early 19th century the estate which Blake had fought so hard for and coveted so dearly was a shadow of its former self. We learn from C.V. Thompson (The Cholmeley Grammar School at Highgate, 1923), with reference to the purchase of the house by the Commission for the Building of New Churches in 1830 that “the ground was purchased advantageously as the house, having a reputation for being haunted, had stood empty for many years.” We also find this view presented by local historian Mary Cathcart Borer in her book Hampstead and Highgate : the story of two hilltop villages (1976).
In light of these suggestions we should perhaps consider the relatively rapid turnover of tenants of the old mansion house, and that many lessees spent little time at and lavished little care on this prime piece of real estate, despite its exquisite placement. The tragic deaths of the adult sons of three unconnected occupants, combined with the house’s eerie reputation and aspect as it became increasingly neglected could certainly have lent the mansion the reputation of being ‘cursed’. If something – or someone – was demonstrating their displeasure with Ashurst’s “beauteous pile of honour”, this could also account for the extraordinary length of time taken for its original construction. Although work on the house began at the latest in early 1692, by the summer of 1693 it remained incomplete (although still, irritatingly for Ashurst, liable for taxation to fund the war against France). One is reminded of the nightly disruption to tools and building materials caused by unseen hands during the renovation of nearby Fairseat, another 17th century mansion during World War II, although the comparison unfortunately must remain mere whimsy.
As an aside, the most observational of you may have noticed the door-less doorway in the middle of the terrace in the 1830 drawing. No such aperture appears in the earlier prints, so we can infer that at some stage after 1710 the terrace was hollowed out, probably for use as a storage area. The present use of the terrace is as mentioned, as a catacomb; a ventilated, above-ground crypt, which naturally maintains a perpetually cool temperature. Certainly at one stage the house was utilised as a boarding school, which would have benefited from a pre-electricity larder of this magnitude. As a further aside, I should clarify that I hold no records on file which suggest that the Terrace Catacombs themselves have ever been haunted, and their atmosphere can be accurately described as tranquil and calm.
By 1832 the old wall adjoining the ‘haunted path’ had been removed, and the fence had been repositioned to fill its place (see image below).
It is likely that the wall was dismantled in order to establish side access to the demolition and erection site as the by-now derelict house gave way to St Michael’s. The asymmetrical placement of the large new church on the old house’s grid plan, and the construction of a spire “50 ft. higher than the top of the old mansion was” would have required significant access for workmen and carters in order to minimise disruption to the village. Indeed, we also learn from the diary of Sir William Copeland Astbury (Sep 1830) that the old house’s extensive cellars underwent intensive stabilisation work around this time, on one occasion resulting in near death for one of the labourers as he and his colleagues attempted to knock down part of the vaulting with pickaxes. “If it falls, we shall fall with it,” was the rather peculiar remark made by the man in question, Charles Day, just before he did indeed fall along with the whole crown of the arch into the basement. This cavernous series of rooms had most likely existed in the days of Arundel’s Banqueting House years before Blake purchased it, and now forms the crypt of St. Michael’s, final resting place of Coleridge.
Although Highgate historians have never agreed 100% upon the location of the Banqueting House, the size of the ‘Ashurst’ cellars and their location makes the spot a favoured probability. The only contemporary illustration of the house (see below), is so different from the wattle and daub Tudor-style construction visible in Blake’s drawing, that we can reasonably assume that he built a new house for himself upon the site after legally acquiring the Banqueting House in 1675. Several Highgate historians have suggested that Blake was living at the Banqueting House from at least 1670 if not earlier, which further suggests his dedication to the site. Confusion also rages as to whether William Blake, vintner, and William Blake, woollen draper, were one and the same, although the Blake referenced in this article has a distinctly traceable biography.
N.B. Kudos to Roger Sainsbury, author of St. Michael’s Church, Highgate – a History (2014) for discovering the references to Ashurst House in Astbury’s extensive diary!
St. Michael’s Church (which is C of E) today plays a thriving role in the Highgate community. Although I have been approached by a security guard whose patrol includes the area around the church and who claims supernatural experiences in the vicinity at night, and hold other accounts on file of tall dark figures in the area which would once have been the wide, horse chestnut flanked northern entrance to the old house, I have never heard a witness claim any paranormal encounter inside the church itself. If we were to accept that Ashurst House was indeed haunted, on the slim evidence available, whoever or whatever was plaguing it seems to hold either fear or respect for the church, and to potentially be continuing their manifestations out of doors instead. A point in favour for Blake as our largely nocturnal suspect (although we must remember that St Michael’s is not open late at night or at dawn, when many of the sightings have been reported) is his devout Protestantism. Indeed, in life Blake was so invested with the spirit of Christian principles and charity that he expended all of his private funds upon the foundation of the orphanage previously mentioned, which for some twenty years struggled on at nearby Dorchester House while Blake lived in poverty at his own property, before mortgages proffered by Ashurst amongst other local landowners became impossible to repay. Blake expressed extreme antipathy towards Ashurst, who he considered to have gazumped him out of his rightful seat, and never forgave him for his calculated attainment of the house and land.
“EVEN PARADISE COULD BECOME A PRISON IF ONE HAD ENOUGH TIME TO TAKE NOTICE OF THE WALLS.”
Sightings of tall dark figures in Swains Lane and even in adjacent Waterlow Park indicate that it or they are not in any way forced to remain in what is now the cemetery, although it certainly seems to be a significant loci for them (or it). In the vast majority of the sightings which I am aware of the entities manifest around points of entry to the cemetery or on paths or a fairly specific part of the lane adjacent to the wall, all of which are in the vicinity of the old house and its approaches. Sightings in the south of the cemetery away from the main gates are unheard of to my knowledge. Ascertaining the age of the walls and gateways could therefore be of value when attempting to ‘date’ our ‘ghosts’. I also find the aggressive and menacing behaviour of these figures as reported by many witnesses to be highly relevant. It would certainly be reasonable to hazard a guess that there is some element of guardianship regarding the cemetery land going on, which suggests a proprietary aspect to the entity’s motivations.
Several people have asked me over the years just how old the imposing walls of Highgate Cemetery West are. Dating them is a challenging task, and one which English Heritage has handled with discrete vagueness. Erring on the side of caution they only list the east boundary wall as the work of Geary, omitting to list the northern or southern boundary walls or attribute them to him. They do make reference in the listing for St Michael’s to the remains of (what they assume are) parts of the Ashurst walls and some of their gatepiers surviving in immediate proximity to the church, but are not specific. These may well be Ashurst era. In fact I would go one step further than English Heritage and suggest that the unlisted fragments of wall which remain to the west could well be part of the wall described as enclosing the land whilst it was in the ownership of Francis Blake, William’s father.
The upper segment of this wall above can be dated to 1830, and a plaque still in situ denotes it by 1831 to be in the ownership of Robert Isherwood who at that time also owned the semi-adjacent and now demolished South Grove House.
I feel that it is highly likely that the evidently much older section of wall with its buttresses, narrow red bricks and lime mortar is part of the brick wall referenced in the conveyance of large parts of the Arundel Estate by Francis Blake (William’s father) to Andrew Campion in 1674. By the following year William had managed to buy his inheritance back, only to lose it again to Sir William Ashurst in 1682.
An example of what appears to be the raising and reinforcing by Geary of an earlier (probably early 1800s) wall can be seen below, and gives the impression of just how towering the walls are in some places. This photograph was taken by approaching up White Eagle Hill and then going up the Neuwrath pathway that runs parallel to the Holly Lodge Houses on the other side of the wall, placing its composition at the juncture of the south wall and the Geary continuation of the Isherwood wall.
With a degree of sensitivity still actively (and thankfully) lobbied for by the Highgate Society when planners seek to make the slightest change to Highgate’s time-warped appearance, Geary with his choice of brick and his elegant buttresses potentially attempted to appease locals who were in opposition to the cemetery by demolishing and then recreating the walls which once stood to the east, north, south and south-east of the land which the LCC landscaped as Highgate Cemetery. In doing so, through 17th century eyes, Geary could be seen not to be creating a new, Victorian enclosure, but restoring and rescuing what once stood from the ravages of time. In all of my poring over old maps, prints and cemetery plans, I can see nothing to suggest that Geary or any other 18th – 19th century developers in any way moved the position of the 17th century boundary walls, even by a foot or two in either direction.
Walls, of course, perform the dual function of keeping people out – or in, just like gates. Which, with the Blake hypothesis still in mind, leaves one wondering just how a potentially sentient, 17th century, very territorial ghost, who had seen the walls which stood in his father’s day torn down, might react to the re-erection of his old defences. Why ‘potentially sentient’ you may ask? I’ll get on to that very soon when I wrap this article up, and start asking you the questions! But in the meantime, on one hand we could infer increased motivation to guard these newly reinforced boundaries, and on the other the possibility that their re-emphasis enhanced what may already have been some form of psychological prison, an attachment to the place which was so strong that ‘moving on’ was never going to be likely, or at least easy. For Blake, letting go of his estate at Highgate was impossible in life; one queries therefore how easy it would have been in death, if his spirit indeed survived physical death.
Yes, the latter may all sound a bit ‘woo’, and these are just ideas and observations. But I would ask you as a reader to question whether within the parameters we are working with whilst attempting to ‘date’ ghosts, does it make sense? Is there some other reason why the apparitions seem so interested in the walls, and the gates (and I am sure that Ken Rees will touching upon THAT during his paper upon liminal spaces and Highgate-focussed apparitions)? The access to and protection of the old estate does seem, upon reflection, to be highly relevant. As a point of interest, a 17th century militant and staunch Protestant such as Blake, whose own son had been implicated in planned regicide and fled abroad, certainly had little cause to sleep easily at night, when the majority of sightings occur in our time.
Or is there another candidate for the spectre, who had some strong emotional or at least repetitive association in life with the east and north walls and gates? Several suggestions have been made on various internet forums over the years, but none implicating a specific historical character. One of these is that the shade of a generic undertaker could be a candidate for the ‘ghost’ or ‘ghosts’, but post the anatomy act of 1832, and with walls in situ which were in the 19th century largely un-scalable by any human being, the suggestion that such an employee would be guarding the cemetery at night (after death, no less) seems highly implausible. Geary’s early incorporation of a now-closed path along the east side of St. Michael’s church which led directly onto the roof of the catacombs additionally downplays this modern but inaccurate perception of post 1832 fear of body snatchers.
Additionally, if anyone with such significant responsibility was likely to be patrolling at night it would surely be the cemetery’s live-in superintendent, who we know was prone to firing his shotgun at sundown in the 1850s. However I am reliably informed by Martha Winter, daughter of the architect John Winter whose late 1960s modern family house still abuts the Victorian home of successions of superintendents, that there has never been a hint of paranormal phenomena in that locale, at night or during the day. We should also, perhaps, consider the potential paranormal significance of the unaccounted for and unidentified male dressed in what presumably passed for Victorian clothing, apparently accompanying suicide victim Henri Feuhonlet up Swains Lane in full view of the same superintendent’s wife in 1856, with reference to ‘dating’ the well-dressed apparition. Bizarrely, this mysterious stranger’s presence was entirely unrecorded at the scene of Henri’s death, half way up narrow and steep Swains Lane, just a few minutes later.
Indeed, the Victorian cemetery employee explanation is as dubious in application regarding the behaviour of the entity/ies to this author’s mind as the old motif from Usbourne of the ‘graveyard guardian’ which has itself ended up on various forums as a proposed explanation. I think we can all assume that the first interee (Elizabeth Jackson of Soho buried in 1839) was not destined through some ancient rite performed by the Directors of the London Cemetery Company to guard the cemetery for eternity, nor that she underwent some kind of post-mortem gender re-identification.
That said, if we were to give some credit to the folkloric concept that the person first buried on land utilised as a burial ground for others has some role to play in its protection in perpetuity, perhaps we should look further back than a relatively modern cemetery which opened its doors in 1839. This could also have relevance to the theory that someone buried secretly, and/or in un-consecrated ground, is more likely to return to haunt the living. But perhaps this is the terrain of those psychic questers brave enough (and with the permission of landowners) to publish their findings publicly. For the time being all we have are unsolved mysteries, and half-glimpsed clues, from which to draw something resembling our personal conclusions.
ARE YOU STILL WITH ME OR HAVE YOU DOZED OFF? THIS IS ALL RELEVANT, I PROMISE …
How, I am not 100% certain. As I mentioned earlier, much about Highgate leaves us with more questions than answers, and to paraphrase a certain reggae song certainly the more one finds out, often the less one knows. In light of some of the points raised above, however, perhaps the following questions might point towards something resembling answers. I doubt it! But that said, they are in my opinion worthy of some future dialogue:
AND HERE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE CONUNDRUMS WHICH THIS ARTICLE MAY SUGGEST:
- We appear to have a ‘haunted’ gate (in this instance the North Gate) on our hands which physically only dates from 1838.
- If the entity sighted just inside this gate is pre 1692-94, and it is not sentient, it could be a replay of someone standing rather randomly staring at a brick wall. This seems unlikely (although not of course impossible) for obvious reasons.
- If the entity sighted just inside this gate is post circa 1694 and pre-1838, and it is not sentient, it could be a replay of someone standing inside a house or standing gazing over a fence (N.B I am not aware of any sightings immediately inside the gate wherein the entity is wearing a hat – and most people do not wear hats indoors).
- In both scenarios the perceived psychical interaction with living people somewhat suggests that a stone tape / replay scenario is unlikely, but it cannot entirely be ruled out.
- If this entity is sentient, and was ever human, based upon its apparent interest in the gates, it seems probable that it post-dates 1838, or is aware that a new entry point to the old estate has been created.
- In the latter instance, if the entity is pre-1838 and sentient, the demolition of a very early north to south wall, erection and demolition of a house, the subsequent erection and demolition of a fence or less conceivably a short-lived wall, and the installation of the Geary gates could have significance to it. It is largely conceded these days that major alterations to property can trigger temporary surges in apparently paranormal phenomena. In the vast majority of cases though, these seem to involve replayed images, rather than sentient entities. And we must bear in mind that many sightings in this area occurred at least 130 years after the final alterations which resulted in the gates we can see today. Perhaps there is some merit therefore in considering that these changes to the once-secure and visually enclosed boundary of the estate in some capacity distressed a sentient entity, and attracted and continue to attract its attention more than less changeable or permanently restored boundaries. If this distress was or is connected with the many people passing the relatively unsecured space on a daily basis, this may account for the entity’s continued apparent interest in living people at that location. This of course is only valid if the ghost’s apparent need for privacy suggests that he perceives the land as private property and not as a cemetery for which such gates are appropriate.
- Highgate Cemetery West is not accessible via the modern driveway where the old gate house once stood, and I am unaware of any sightings of tall dark figures in this open area or north of the gates’ northerly pillar. This suggests that the entity feels no need to guard this piece of land, which has never been connected to the Ashurst Estate or the cemetery.
- On the subject of sentient vs. insentient ghosts, at this point in time we have no way of distinguishing these via any scientific method which could lead to data samples. We therefore have no way of knowing if witnesses of what they perceive to be paranormal phenomena are more frightened of one kind than the other. To a degree (with the exception of occasions when entities in the lane have spoken or communicated clearly using body language such as beckoning) the assumption that an entity is actively engaging on any level with a witness could be put down to the fear and trauma of seeing something unearthly, even if it is ‘merely’ a kind of psychic video playback.
- Very little is known about the occupants of the house built by Ashurst on the site of the present North Gate circa 1692-4, and we can’t discount that the spectre could be associated with that property as opposed to the mansion house. The same could be applied to the various occupants of the cottages which once stood further down the lane between what are now the main and North West Cemetery gates. There are various Victorian properties at the top of Swains Lane, but they are all on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
- There is still no consensus as to whether the shrouded and tall-hatted spectres are the same, and this is unlikely to be reached anytime soon (although maybe we should take a poll about that at the Symposium!). Although they have both been seen at the same locations and have many commonalities we cannot blindly assume that they are one and the same. The appearance of the former, with its undateable countenance, could reduce the significance of any location-based dating of the latter, which is sighted less frequently.
- Another possibility is that there is no traditional ghost at all, rather some kind of projection of the imagination of human beings from 1839 onwards, inspired by the gothic appearance of the North Gate and ‘fed’ by the media frenzy of 1970 onwards. I am sure that this is a point which will be raised by our esteemed speaker Dr. Jacqueline Simpson at the Symposium!
- When using locations as an historical framework for analysing the era from which a spectre originates, we must bear in mind that the entity potentially manifests a lot more often than it is witnessed, and in areas which are not regularly frequented by living people. There is at least one account on record of a tall-hatted entity being observed from a distance moving unselfconsciously and apparently unaware of the witness through the main gates, suggesting that it does not solely manifest as a result of an attraction to living people.
- We should also be careful not to restrict our own theories as to the entity or entities’ motivations based upon location. The 1994 sighting of what could be assumed to be the entity in tall-hatted form in Waterlow Park for example (based upon its aggressive motions, visual appearance and proximity to the cemetery) indicates that it seems capable of going for jaunts of its own devising outside of the majority of stations it assumes at locations of some contrivable relevance. But what does that suggest about the validity of historical paranormal ‘forensics’ attempts? How far have we therefore come in that regard?
- Perhaps the biggest – and hence my final conundrum here today is – how do sentient ghosts see and experience the world? It is an enormous question, which teeters terrifyingly (for this word count!) into the realm of quantum physics. Maybe we need to start by considering just what aspect or scope of consciousness we are intuiting or guessing exists within any particular entity which is under examination. It could merely be a surviving fragment which demonstrates limited signs of intelligence, whilst not retaining the full faculties of the individual’s ‘unified consciousness’ as they may have perceived it whilst alive. Or it could be a whole lot more conscious – and confused, and potentially distraught in terms of its earthbound existence in relation to this.
- Another aspect to consider is that by applying our own linear concepts of time to entities as we attempt to ‘date’ their human existence on earth, we are creating potentially irrelevant and misleading barriers to our comprehension of their ‘experiences’. To give an example – my earlier reference to an ‘insentient’ ghost staring through an early 17th century wall, or staring over an early 18th century fence at a 20th century witness. If the ghost in question was sentient, we don’t know how ‘bendy’ their experience of time is at the moment they are seemingly connecting with a witness. Are the iron North Gates, the old house or the wooden paling simply a date-stamped memory for them, on the various occasions when a human being’s presence reminds them that they are still part of the world, and were not always a friendless, nameless beast? Or are, centuries of silent observation later, past, present and future, along with day, night and the seasons, a continually nauseating merry go round that makes no sense? We simply don’t know, and therefore creating a ‘sentient vs. stone tape ghost’ dynamic can’t ultimately prove a thing, even within its own attempts at structured reasoning.
I suppose ultimately in this regard we all have to consider not what we are going to conclude as individuals, but how little we know about the facts and people (whether ‘alive’ or not) involved in our decision making attempts.
But from a personal and concluding perspective (and yes I know you all want to know what I really think regardless of my attempt at an academic approach!) I can honestly state that:
Whoever or whatever the Highgate entity or entities are, if they exist, they are by default of their voluntary or otherwise otherworldliness purer in nature than any of their dedicated and pursuant doubters. Just maybe one day some of the latter may come to see this also. But if these entities, and what their existence implies, are real I hope for their doubters’ sake that such acknowledgment occurs on this side of the veil.
(c) Della Farrant 2015