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Finding the Lost Grave of Georgiana Houghton

The author: Robin Oakley is a retired academic who is a grave owner and a volunteer gardener and grave researcher at Highgate Cemetery.

Georgiana Houghton is well-known among spiritualists as a prominent practitioner in London in the 1860s and 1870s, who also developed a style of abstract painting that pre-dated the modernist movement of abstract art by some 50 years. After her death in 1884, her pioneering artwork was largely forgotten, and most of her surviving pictures found their way to Australia. Her work has only begun to receive the recognition it deserves in the last decade or so, with exhibitions at Monash University in Australia in 2015, and at the Courtauld Gallery in London the following year. It is well-known that that Georgiana Houghton was buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London, but despite numerous attempts over the years to find her grave, its precise location had remained undetected. Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839, and was one of seven large cemeteries established on the (then) outskirts of the city, to provide burial space for the rapidly growing population, given that traditional churchyards were full and becoming closed for new burials.All the new cemeteries were designed to be ‘garden cemeteries’, and landscaped with lawns, walkways and (where possible) fine panoramic views across the city. Highgate Cemetery, on the south-facing side of Highgate Hill, was probably the finest in this respect, although in more recent times it had become heavily wooded and then also overgrown when the original private cemetery company became unable to manage it. In 1975 it was taken over by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, a voluntary organisation which employs professional staff to help restore and maintain it both as a continuing burial and memorial space, as well as one of London’s most beautiful and interesting visitor attractions. Burial records kept at the Cemetery document that both Georgiana and her parents were indeed buried in a grave (plot no. 12610) in the West section of the Cemetery. The burial forms have a space for recording the number of the ‘Square’ on the grave-map in which the grave-plot is located, but the problem in Georgiana’s case is that the Square number has been overwritten and is not clearly legible. We narrowed this down to two possibilities and then scoured the relevant Square Maps – but the existing copies of the originals do not show any plot with the Houghton name and specific grave number. The challenge in making a new effort to find her grave therefore involved trying to find a reason for this, and to find other clues as to where her grave might be located. Our initial hypothesis focused on the fact that there was some damage to a corner of one of the maps, probably due to dampness, and the record of graves in that little area had thus been destroyed. We therefore excavated some buried gravestones in that location, but none proved to bear Georgiana’s name. One of my volunteer colleagues then suggested that I examine the old ‘day-books’ which recorded all burials in the Cemetery on a daily basis. I examined these vellum-bound volumes in the local government archives, and at first I thought there was nothing new to learn – but then I noticed a tiny scratched entry on the record for her father’s burial, which said “foot 10177”. I immediately recognised the latter as the number for another grave to which it must be adjacent. I was quickly able to identify this grave on the old maps, and immediately saw that, at its foot, there was a grave-plot that was blank, with no name or grave-number written on it. This location also corresponded to an additional clue that I found in Georgiana’s memoirs, where she wrote that her father’s grave was close to that of her sister Zilla, which still has its upright gravestone standing nearby.

The next day, I visited the precise location and identified the plot, which had no visible grave monument on it. I therefore borrowed a probing rod from the sexton, which indicated that there was a flat stone covering the whole plot area lying about a foot deep. A few days later, full of hope and accompanied by fellow volunteer gardeners, we dug through the earth and thick roots that now covered the grave, and revealed a ledger-stone with well-preserved inscriptions memorialising her father George, her mother Mary Ann (mysteriously spelt Marian) – and then Georgiana herself. The grave’s location is in a prominent position on the hillside above one of the main paths, and must originally have had fine views across London, although today it is surrounded by shrubs and woodland. At present the grave is not accessible to visitors, but the immediate area is in process of being cleared and a small path created for those interested to see it.As to why the grave is not recorded on the existing copies of the old maps, this remains a mystery. Maybe an error of omission was made when information was copied onto the map, or maybe – given that the grave lies on the boundary between two adjacent squares – the edges of the individual square maps got frayed and broken off (as sometimes happens). No doubt we shall never know the reason, but happily this no longer matters, since we have now at last found Georgiana’s final resting place. Finding the grave, however, for me has only been the first step in my investigations. What has subsequently intrigued me is to discover not just her own grave, but that there are a further five graves of her immediate family close by. This came about because there developed a small coterie of her married siblings living alongside her in the old village of Kentish Town, at the foot of Highgate Hill, where her parents had moved to in 1830. Georgiana herself had been born in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where her father George was a merchant, but when she was young the family returned to England and lived at his business address in Ely Place in Holborn, in central London. Then in 1830, they moved out northwards to Kentish Town, when Georgiana was 16, no doubt to escape the increasing noise and dirt of the city, just as did many other professional and commercial middle-class families to villages all around London. In the late Georgian period around 1800, rows of small villas with gardens had sprung up in such villages and on the surrounding fields, followed by smart 4-storey terrace blocks for those who could not afford their own separate property. Her father bought one of these terrace houses in the centre of the old Kentish Town village, at 5 Upper Craven Place, and Georgiana lived here for the next 37 years. The first four houses in the row still stand, but sadly hers was demolished to make way for a cinema in 1934. Almost nothing is known about her life in these early years, except that in the later 1830s she spent some time in France. Several of her older siblings would have left home by the time they moved, and her oldest sister Marianne had already married in 1828. She and her husband Charles Hyde, a solicitor, moved into the village in 1834, buying a detached villa with large gardens, a short way further up the road towards Highgate. Georgiana would also have helped to look after her younger siblings, of whom she became very fond. Then her younger sister Zilla, whom she adored, married John Neville Warren, a civil engineer, in 1844 at the age of 19, and they too moved into a terrace in the village, where his own family also had a villa in which he had grown up. But tragically Zilla died in 1851 following the birth of her fourth child, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. It was this event that appears to have determined the future course of Georgiana’s life, by stimulating her to explore spiritualism as a way of communicating with Zilla in the afterlife. It was also the determinant of the location of her grave, as after her father died, Georgiana sought to find a grave plot for him (and thus eventually herself) close to Zilla’s.

During the 1850s, her younger brothers Clarence and Charles also moved into the village with their families, making (if one includes her ‘in-laws’) a total of six separate households in what Georgiana describes as her “close and united family” there.Further early deaths, however, led to several of the families moving away, and by the 1860s Kentish Town itself was becoming increasingly built up and Georgiana’s house in particular was being threatened by the construction of a railway. Following her father’s death in 1863, she and her mother (who, unlike her father, was very much involved in her spiritualist activities) moved to Kensington in West London which was a more convenient location for her spiritualist and artistic work. Her mother died in 1868 and was buried in Highgate, but Georgiana lived on until 1884, still remaining unmarried, and residing in the Kensington house on her own with two live-in servants. But it was the graves that had kept her ties to Kentish Town alive, as they did for other members of the original family network, and the last of them to be buried in Highgate Cemetery was her niece named Isabel Georgiana, in 1928 and in her brother Clarence’s family grave just a few plots from Georgiana’s own. Georgiana’s grave record (Highgate Cemetery)

"For further information about Highgate Cemetery, see, and about Georgiana Houghton, see"

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