Highgate Cemetery

“What’s it about?” … “Dunno. … What goes on in a cemetery after dark.” The Ink Black Heart, Part One 

On the 26th May 1839, Elizabeth Jackson of Soho was the first person to be interred in Highgate Cemetery, three years after The London Cemetery Company was tasked in creating seven private cemeteries around London to ensure its ever-increasing population was decently buried.

Seventeen acres of a steep hillside in Highgate Village were excavated, landscaped and furnished with vaults and catacombs that reflected the fascination of the era with Egyptology and grand monuments to the dead.

In June 2021, JK Rowling’s Twitter header was changed to an image soon identified as that of a statue of a lion, Nero, on George Wombwell’s tomb in the West Cemetery of Highgate. Wombwell was a Victorian menagerist, leading some to speculate that the use of the image was referring to The Fantastic Beasts franchise. 

However in June 2022, another image from HIghgate, an ‘empty chair’ memorial, became Rowling’s Twitter header, provoking increased speculation that it could be connected with Strike Book 6; speculation confirmed on 30th June 2022 as The Ink Black Heart cover reveal depicted Strike and Robin walking alongside grave markers. Then, the official blurb for the novel teased us with the description of Edie Ledwell, a woman who’d asked Robin for help and was subsequently tasered and murdered in Highgate Cemetery.

We’re first introduced to Edie and her co-creator Josh Blay “who dreamed up the cartoon in HIghgate Cemetery” in chapter 5. The cartoon features Harty, an ink black heart, who lives amongst “tombstones by moonlight” and “stone angels overgrown with ivy.”

The animation has inspired an online game, Drek’s Game, created to look like the cartoon and areas of Highgate Cemetery, where users can chat with each other whilst solving ‘clues’ that gain the gamer access to ‘hidden’ parts of the cemetery. 

When some of the Drek’s gamers find out about her death we learn “they’re having a f****** party”, “go and look at what’s happening in the Circle of Lebanon.”

The online “party” is being held in an area of Highgate where a large excavation of the hill, on which a Cedar of Lebanon tree grew, created a deep, circular channel leading from The Egyptian Avenue of mausoleums, around which large vaults with impressive stone entrances were constructed.

When Robin first visits the cemetery, she realizes it is split into two areas, East and West, divided by the road. The East Cemetery was created in 1854, after 10,000 burials rapidly filled the West Cemetery, marking it as a prestigious, fashionable place to be laid to rest.

Robin joins a guided tour group, along with several Ink Black Heart fans. As they pass through the entrance courtyard, “the tour guide led them up a narrow, earthy path. … Here was the winding path that wound upwards through the ivy-tangled trees, along which little Harty bounced in perpetual tragi-comic pursuit of the beautiful Paperwhite. … broken classical columns, crosses, stone urns, marble caskets and obelisks …” 

The tour guide leads them to a: “chest tomb topped by a statue of a horse” and tells them “it belonged to Queen Victoria’s horse slaughterer.”  

This was John Atcheler (1792-1867), who was described as above in probate documents but held no Royal Warrant. He was married three times and bought the Highgate plot for himself and his second wife; however, the grave only contains the second Mrs Atcheler, Atcheler’s son and stepson. The third Mrs Atcheler, possibly not wanting him buried with his second wife, had him interred elsewhere in the cemetery.

Atcheler, from historicengland.org

Nearby, Robin spots the grave that a character in The Ink Black Heart, Magspie, perches on. 

“On every side, ivy, grass, ferns, brambles and tree roots had run amok, mocking the formal grandeur of the monuments.” 

As the tour continues toward the top of the cemetery, they pass the tomb of Mary Nichols, upon which a “life-size sleeping angel” is carved from white marble: “This Robin knew, was Paperwhite’s tomb in the cartoon.”

Mary Nichols, from historicengland.org

Mary Nichols died in 1909, age 58, succumbing to diabetes and heart failure. Her unusual monument was one of many that suffered during the decline of Highgate Cemetery that started in the 1930’s, but its popularity with visitors has ensured its restoration by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who now manage the site. 

Angels were a popular memorial. If depicted facing downward, this signified an untimely death; perhaps this is why Paperwhite chose this tomb to “mourn her deceased state.”

When Robin and the tour reach The Egyptian Avenue and The Circle of Lebanon, she recognises the “grand Gothic tomb that most closely resembled that of Lord and Lady Wyrdy-Grob,” the cartoon’s skeletons. We’re reminded of the first time Robin encounters the cemetery as she watched The Ink Black Heart cartoon in chapter 5, when: 

“The black heart stood frozen, pointing into the dark heart of the mausoleum. … Harty backed fearfully away from a figure emerging from the tomb’s doorway. It was large, hunched and cloaked in black, with an exaggerated beak-like face.” 

Adjacent to the stairs leading up from the Circle of Lebanon is the tomb of William Wombwell, which the Ink Black Heart fans in the guided tour leave unremarked, perhaps indicating they aren’t Drek’s Game players, because in chapter 41 during an in-game chat, Fiendy1 says, “We’re always getting log-jams at Wombwell’s tomb.” This is in response to Robin/Buffypaws’s irritation at being unable to move past the lion in the game’s cemetery.

We find out in chapter 68 while Strike is playing the game as Buffypaws using Robin’s “cheat sheet” that the correct answer to avoid the log-jam and move past Wombwells Tomb is: “You is bad stony mukfluk, bwah.”

George Wombwell started his menagerist’s career with a pair of boa constrictors. He exhibited the exotic animals he bought off cargo ships from around the globe as alive, dead and stuffed. He was the first to breed a lion in captivity, whom he named William; however, it’s Nero who is immortalised on the tomb. During a dogfight in 1825, Wombwell allowed his lions to enter combat with several fighting bulldogs. Nero was unwilling or unable to fight and had to be dragged from the ring. WIlliam, however, severely injured most of the dogs and had to be lured away to be stopped from killing them. Wombwell obviously felt great affection for Nero to have him guard his tomb for eternity.

Rachel Ledwell tells Robin in chapter 82 that “you’re not a proper Inkheart until you’ve … debated whether the stone lion’s hiding a clue about Harty’s owner in its tomb.” 

De Munck’s tomb, from thelondondead.blogspot.com

The Ink Black Heart fans certainly recognise the tomb of Baroness Elizabeth de Munck on a slope above the path the tour is taking. Robin does not understand the significance of the tomb at first, but she has seen the image carved on it before. In chapter 16: “Groomer and Legs were standing with their backs to Robin on the other side of the room, discussing the symbolism of the pelican on a design by Edward Burne Jones.”

The pelican feeding her chicks in the nest with blood from her breast was recognised as a symbol of maternal devotion. De Mucnck’s daughter, Maria Caradori-Allan, a famous soprano singer, had the grave marker commissioned to commemorate her mother’s unfailing support during her life and career.

It is the location of Edie’s murder, her special place where the murderer knew she and Josh Blay had envisioned The Ink Black Heart“They’d clearly known the route to that sequestered patch of graves off the paths, supposedly unvisitable by visitors.”

And as Robin has this thought, she is surprised to find Pez Pierce lurking in the undergrowth. He diverts her from visiting Christina Rosetti’s grave with the rest of the tour group and informs her that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina’s brother, buried his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in the family grave along with a handwritten book of unpublished poetry. Rossetti disinterred Elizabeth Siddal seven years after her death to retrieve the poems, which were published as ‘Poems’ in 1870.

Lizzie Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite muse and poet, was used as a model numerous times by Rosetti. One of the most well-known was “Beata Beatrix”; this is Rosettii’s tribute to his late wife, with many at the time assuming it depicted her death.

From Tate.org.uk

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix 1864-70, Tate Collection N10279

In chapter 66, whilst Robin is in Nils de Jong’s studio, she sees the mixed-media depiction of Edie Ledwell that Nils tried to give Grant Ledwell at Edie’s funeral: “weird figures in the background and a gigantic … well, it doesn’t matter. But the thing was an abomination.” 

From Strike’s description of how Grant Ledwell described the artwork, Robin realises it’s the same painting: “Rossetti, Beata Beatrix. Picture of his dead mistress.”

Nils goes on to tell Robin that the spider featured in the piece is an orb weaver spider. “They’ve been found in a crypt in Highgate Cemetery. The only place in Britain they’ve been discovered.“ 

In 2013, the large Meta bourneti orb weaver spider was found in some of the vaults of the Egyptian Avenue; though rare, it can be found in other parts of the UK.

From bbc.com

So with the letters placed in Edie’s coffin by her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend echoing Rossetti, as well as Nils de Jong’s portrait imitating Beata Beatrix, there are several parallels with Edie Ledwell and Lizzie Siddal, both buried in Highgate.

The one character Robin encounters in the online Drek’s Game but doesn’t feature in the original Ink Black Heart cartoon is the Vampire: “Suddenly a bat swooped low over her character and transformed into a vampire blocking her path …/Mind if I suck on an artery?/ … /I’d rather you didn’t/ …” 

In chapter 63, as Strike and Robin interview Josh Blay in hospital, Josh reveals that he wanted to add an “inept” vampire to the Maverick production of the Ink Black Heart cartoon because: “They fort there was a vampire in the real cemetery, in the seventies.“

From vampires.fandom.com

This refers to a period in the cemetery’s history when the neglect of the site allowed trespassers to roam the area in search of the weird and supernatural. A series of unusual sightings amongst the graves investigated by “vampire hunters” David Farrant and Sean Manchester inspired a large group of people to break into Highgate Cemetery on Friday the 13th of February 1970 and damage many tombs in search of the vampire that supposedly dwelled there. 

Find Highgate Cemetery on the map below: