Pets at Highgate Cemetery

What can the Victorian culture of death and commemoration tell us about pets of the past? The Victorian period saw an expansion of the death and mourning industry including the emergence of a lavish and ostentatious funerary culture, that has been described as ‘The Victorian Celebration of Death’.[1] In the 1880s, ‘the Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park’ was founded, which now contains the graves of over 300 Victorian pets.[2] The importance of Victorian pets and animals is also evident in the grandiose material culture of grave memorials.

Following intense overcrowding as London expanded in population, seven private cemeteries were built between 1832 and 1841 to alleviate the pressure on local burial grounds. Arguably the most famous of these was Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839 in North London. In this blog post, I examine a handful of examples of pets and animals in the West side of the cemetery, primarily from the Victorian period. For the most part (as far as we know), animals were not buried within their owners’ graves. One exception to this, however, is a mausoleum on the West side which has two bird-sized sarcophogi inscribed ‘Polly’ and ‘Cocky’- possibly the family’s parrot and cockatoo; while the late artist Berenice Sydney (1944-1983) is buried in the East cemetery with her father Joseph Frieze and their family dog.[3]

Highgate dog

Photo courtesy of the Author

Animals feature most prominently in the memorial sculptures of some of Highgate’s most famous Victorian residents. The grave of Tom Sayers (1826-1865), a pugilist (bare-knuckle boxer), is guarded by a marble sculpture of his beloved mastiff, Lion. As a working-class hero, Sayers’ funeral procession was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. His chief mourner, however, was not his estranged wife or children, but Lion. Directly following the hearse was Sayer’s own carriage, led by his pony, the only occupant his beloved mastiff. As reported in a local newspaper: ‘On the seat reclined the dog, its collar muffled with crape, hanging its head in sorrow (I am not putting this in to get up sentiment, it is fact), and as the mourning animal was borne along, “Poor thing!” “Don’t it look sorry,” were everywhere expressions.’[4] Lion was later auctioned with the rest of Sayers belongings; the Oxford Times reported that it was for the mastiff that ‘evidently many gentlemen had gone to bid’. He was bought for 39 guineas (approximately £2427 today!) by a Mr Warner, the owner of the Welsh Harp public house in Hendon, who reportedly sought to use the dog drum up business.[5] Evidently this was successful. In September 1866, a journalist reported visiting the Welsh Harp and found ‘a little crowd gathered round and admiring a fine dog, which, I found, once belonged to the redoubtable Tom Sayers’.[6]

One of Highgate’s cemetery’s most memorable graves also features an animal; the grave of menagerist George Wombwell (1777-1850) is marked by an imposing sculpture of a lion, sleeping upon his grave. Wombwell began his collection of exotic animals by purchasing  two boa constrictors at the London Docks. By his death in 1850, he had ‘three huge menageries, which travelled through different parts of the country, and comprised a magnificent collection of animals, many of them bred and reared by the proprietor himself’.[7] Wombwell was also notorious for his publicity stunts. In 1825, he staged deeply controversial fights between his lions and packs of dogs. However, his lion Nero was famously gentle. In press reports of the fights, Nero refused to attack the dogs ‘and seemingly endeavoured more to get rid of the annoyance than to injure them’.[8] A few weeks later, Wombwell reorganised the fights, this time with his lion Wallace, of ‘a more ferocious and nutractable disposition’ who brutally mauled the dogs.[9] It is speculated the gentle lion resting on Wombwell’s grave represents Nero. Wallace died in 1838 and is now stuffed and on display at Saffron Walden Museum.

Highgate lion

“Nero” atop Wombwell’s Grave. Photo courtesy of the Author

The family grave of John Atcheler is marked by a small horse on a plinth- ‘whose head is dropped sadly, as if to shed a pensive tear’, as a journalist put it. As the writer continued, ‘The sentiment is slightly marred by the reflection that, of all living creatures, the least likely to be, metaphorically, “cut up” by the death of a knacker would be a horse.’[10] Indeed, the sculpture of a horse is somewhat morbid in context; Atcheler was infamous in the Victorian period as the horse-slaughterer to Queen Victoria. It was a common misconception in the Victorian press that John Atcheler was buried in this grave, prompting one journalist to comment: ‘most persons will, like myself, fail to perceive the peculiar fitness of the sculptured horse over the dust of the founder of the great horse-slaughtering firm of Atcheler’.[11] In fact, John Atcheler is buried in a different part of the cemetery, and the Atcheler family grave marked by a marble horse is the final resting place of his son Jack (d. 1853), his son-in-law Henry (d. 1857) and his wife Sarah (d. 1859). The decision to mark the grave with a sculpture of a horse may not be a reference to Atcheler’s chosen profession, but instead a reference to Sarah Atcheler who may have been an equestrian, as hinted in the epitaph:

She’s gone; whose nerve could rein the swiftest steed,

Whose heart and hand to all in time of need

Were ready, and with a cheering hope she gave

To soothe the suff’ring, and the weak to save

Highgate Cemetery is also the final resting place of Charles Cruft, the founder of the famous Crufts Dog show. Cruft started his career as a salesperson of Spratt’s dog food. In 1886 he hosted his first dog show at Westminster, which initially only included terriers. It was a tremendous success and is still held annually today. Cruft briefly attempted to start a cat show which did not prove as successful.[12] At the time of his death in 1938, he was described as the ‘Napoleon of Dog Shows’.[13] In an obituary for a local newspaper, it was noted: ‘News of his death will be received with grief by dog lovers in every part of the world. The name of Cruft has become legendary in his lifetime’.[14]

These four case studies are just a handful of examples of the animal stories that appear in Highgate Cemetery. The presence of pets in funerary culture, and their appearance on these fascinating memorials, is a testament to the emotional centrality of pets to the Victorians.

This blog post was written with the assistance of the staff and volunteers at Highgate Cemetery who generously shared their knowledge with me.

This blog was written by Dr Katie Carpenter. Katie recently finished her PhD in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her doctoral research examined the Victorian and Edwardian housewife and her relationship with science and technology within the home. She currently teaches at University College London and King’s College London.

[1] James Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (Detroit: Partridge Press, 1972).

[2] ‘Walking Tour- The Secret Pet Cemetery of Hyde Park’, The Royal Parks, https://www.royalparks.org.uk/whats-on/upcoming-events/walking-tour-the-secret-pet-cemetery-of-hyde-park2

[3] http://www.hamhigh.co.uk/etcetera/art/exhibition-of-the-late-highgate-artist-berenice-sydney-at-the-saatchi-gallery-1-5730963

[4] Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph, 16 November 1865, 2.

[5] Oxford Times, 9 December 1865, 2.

[6] South London Press, 1 September 1866, 2.

[7] The London Reader, 16 January 1864, 301.

[8] Oxford Journal, 30 July 1825.

[9] Morning Chronicle, 2 August 1825.

[10] Dublin Evening Mail, 23 November 1865, 1.

[11] Debryshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 25 September 1880, 8.

[12] Joh Martin,  ‘Cruft, Charles Alfred’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi-org.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/49018

[13] Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 September 1938.

[14] Cornishman, 15 September 1938, 4.

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