Mistress of Death: Interview with Della Farrant, Author of ‘Haunted Highgate’

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Della Farrant is the author of the new book Haunted Highgate. A lover of the infamous borough included and yet outside of London, Farrant lovingly compiled the tales of hauntings and the weird in her new book, as well as on her website, Hidden Highgate. Despite her busy schedule as she and her husband promote their new books, Della took some time out with our Mistress of Death to discuss her project and her love of Highgate Cemetery and its surrounding environs.

FGN: What started your interest in the mysteries surrounding Highgate Cemetery?

Della Farrant: From an occult perspective, I have been aware of certain aspects of the case of Highgate’s most famous entity for decades.  In particular I had heard about magical practices which took place in the cemetery, and which may have influenced some of the paranormal incidents reported there, since my childhood. When I moved back to the Highgate area permanently, however, my interest broadened to encompass the impact which past eras have had upon what I consider to be a very supernaturally infused landscape.  As an historical and paranormal researcher my geographical sphere of interest is greater than the cemetery itself, and encompasses Highgate Village and the pockets of ancient woodland and suburbs which surround it, as well as Hampstead, Muswell Hill, Crouch End, Holloway and Hornsey.  As I spent more and more time exploring parts of Highgate which were familiar to me from my youth I became fascinated with the strong charge which seems to emit from the ancient trackways, and how psychical activity seems to interact with these – even where they have been concreted and built over.  The relationship between the natural landscape and previous and living generations in Highgate is curious and unique, and this itself provokes natural interest.  Why do younger generations of residents, born and bred here, speak openly about the paranormal, whilst older residents, biting their lip revealingly, curtly deny the rumours?  When one senses that a noticeable percentage of a whole generation of people won’t talk, but seem to be brooding upon some collective knowledge of incidents past, of course one wants to coax out more information!  When you meet three local guys in their late 60’s at a social event, one going nutso at the mention of the Highgate ‘vampire’ and blaming someone who shall not be named for him not being able to get his kids to sleep at night in the 1970’s, one who tells you that when he was growing up in the 1950’s everyone knew about the ghost in the lane and the boys would dare each other to go down at night, and another who aloofly claims that he has ‘never heard of the cemetery being haunted’ whilst avoiding eye contact then – well – you dig deep!  And you make it your business to meet and talk with as many people as possible.

FGN: How do you gather personal stories and historical facts regarding the history of Highgate Cemetery and the surrounding area?

Della Farrant: Often the garnering of data regarding these two areas of research overlaps.  People in Highgate are proud of their local heritage, aware that they live in a uniquely conserved enclave –  technically part of London but considered by many of its occupants to thrive as an independent community.  Subsequently many people – when asked – will regale one with local history anecdotes, from times long past to the last half-century.  Membership of the Highgate Society, the Hornsey Historical Society and the Highgate Scientific & Literary Institute is encouraged, and as many local people have lived in listed buildings for decades their knowledge of the social development of their environment  is almost involuntary.  This is certainly case if they wish to make any changes to their homes – and heaven forbid extend their basement!  I have found that sharing my own finds with local people usually invokes a bubbling sense of enthusiasm and a desire to trade tidbits of history.   Unusually for ‘London’, descendents of some of the early Highgate historians still live in the village, and are very keen to continue what they see as an inherited legacy.

Where you have a ‘ghost’, you naturally have a death to research, right? And of course, seeking out primary sources including land registry, property transactions, criminal proceedings and cases, births marriages and deaths, and local news reports dating back centuries has also been very important in ascertaining the real-life circumstances behind some cases featured in Haunted Highgate.

I am also grateful to the many people active in the Fortean community who have trawled through their files for fragments of stories pertaining to Highgate, and to officiating members of the Society for Psychical Research and The Ghost Club who have rummaged through dusty archives from the 1920’s and earlier to retrieve forgotten cases which I was able to follow up.   It is also important of course to find out what has previously been written about hauntings in the area, and where possible what cases local paranormal groups have researched and to check out what their conclusions are.

But as The Smiths sang in Meet Me At The Cemetery Gates  ‘The words you use should be your own : don’t plagiarise or take on loan.’  If one was to just rehash old ghost stories without investigating them personally one would be insulting one’s readers’ intelligence, as well as their book budget.   I did consult with North London Paranormal Investigations, a regional group, but although of course I looked into their accounts and shared some in Haunted Highgate I tried to give my own slant.  I prefer not to repeat other people’s research ‘parrot-fashion’ as is so commonplace within supernatural histories of Highgate both on and offline, and hopefully this fresh approach will break some of the boring old moulds!

This may all sound very high-brow, but such networking and data-gathering isn’t always so academic.  History is for everyone, and we are all born of it and into it.  Residents of the Hillcrest Estate for example (which features in Chapter 5 – Haunted Houses) had some very interesting memories to share about their paranormal experiences, and how they feel that these relate to the Victorian history of the land upon which this post war council estate was built.  Their recollections of the social history of the estate are as interesting and significant to me as the input of occupants of much older houses, and much more fascinating than hackneyed old accounts churned out in the 1970’s by the paranormal establishment [think Haunted London (1973) by Peter Underwood, who accidentally revealed that he had never even visited Highgate at the time of writing, assuming that The Gatehouse on Hampstead Lane was in Hampstead – it is actually the oldest known site of occupancy in Highgate!].  For example, the frequent reports from the now grown-up ‘kids from the estate’ of the wailing of invisible babies during the recession of the 1980’s helped bring to life for me the torturous existence of the unmarried mothers during the Victorian era.  Separated by a few hundred yards from their newborn infants, these women, often little more than children themselves, were frequently doomed to years of penal servitude at the devoutly ‘Christian’ House of ‘Mercy’ which was replaced by modern tower blocks in 1947. Such is the unusually fluid nature of history at Highgate, perhaps helped by the extremely active psychic environment upon which this ancient hamlet sits – Highgate seems to demonstrate unselfconsciously a living history, as though everything that ever happened here is trapped in time, endlessly repeating itself in a cyclical fashion.

My website, http://haunted-highgate.org, and that of my husband David Farrant (over at http://davidfarrant.org) have also generated many leads from witnesses, including people who have moved away from Highgate but never forgotten what happened to them there.   As I mentioned, there is often a degree of apprehension among Highgaters who fear ridicule for discussing their own paranormal experiences.  I have honoured requests to respect confidentiality, and this has resulted in some remarkable stories – usually from people who have never met, and yet have had encounters which are eerily similar.  Many of these have occurred in the same clusters of streets around Highgate and have never made it into the press or into local gossip.

And local gossip itself is of course incredibly important!  My advice to anyone planning to write a book about local hauntings would be to not swattishly sequester themselves behind a computer or  in the British or local studies Library (although they should do this too) – but to get out and talk to people.  Go to the local pubs, cafes, working mens clubs, social events, wherever people gather and talk, especially people of some decades occupancy.  Draw them out, and you will be amazed what gems your notebook soon fills up with.

FGN: Did you have any help from the Volunteers at Highgate Cemetery? What were your interactions like with this special breed of volunteer?

Della Farrant: Yes, I did actually!  I better be careful how I answer this … The majority of volunteers have incredibly dedicated hobbyist or professional backgrounds in social history, and all are passionate about their work at the cemetery.  They are happy and willing to discuss the history of the cemetery and its interred occupants, which from a local history perspective is great.  The internal politics at Highgate Cemetery are complicated  – and although attitudes towards the paranormal are relaxing slowly, there is still a little bit of inherent prejudice there regarding the name “Farrant”, and on a much greater scale the mention of vampires.  But ‘ghosts’ or potentially paranormal experiences are in no way the same thing as ‘vampires’.  And that said, the volunteers have less in common with the ‘Borg’ than popular perception dictates – some have even been known to fabricate paranormal incidents to amuse tourists! Statistics indicate that (based on a recent ASSAP poll) a good 50% of Britons are open-minded to if not believers in the supernatural.  And I can assure you that the volunteers at Highgate Cemetery are not all as lofty and removed from the rest of us as you might think.  I discuss the public relationship between Highgate Cemetery and the paranormal on my website here: http://hidden-highgate.org/highgate-cemetery-west/.  The personal views of some volunteers are a different matter, and something which out of respect for those who have offered advice, insight and assistance I regrettably cannot divulge here!

FGN: Is there a famous resident of Highgate Cemetery that is your favorite?

Della Farrant:  I’m going to do a naughty thing here, and turn that question round a bit.  So much is available online about the various famous notables interred at Highgate.   I could try to be maverick and clever and pick one, but many have been written about before, and I don’t believe in insincere platitudes for the sake of it.  From perhaps a feminist perspective, I would however like to draw your readers’ attention to some research conducted this year by two cemetery volunteers, Sam Perrin and Rowan Lennon.  The article reveals the sad lives – and deaths – of some of the ‘fallen women’ discussed earlier in our interview, and includes a photograph of their unmarked grave.

Perrin also writes a painstakingly researched blog about the biographical backgrounds of well and lesser-known people buried in the cemetery which is certainly worth a visit, and offers much more of interest than the passing references to Marx and McLaren which litter blog entries about Highgate.  As we are approaching Hallowe’en  perhaps this entry about Bram Stoker’s alleged relationship with Highgate Cemetery would be an appropriate opening link!

On a personal note, one resident of Highgate – potentially now unearthly and certainly not famous – is my particular favourite.  In Haunted Highgate I present an opening case for the possibility that the identity of the tall dark figure which has been seen many times around Highgate Cemetery could have finally been pinpointed.  William Blake, a seventeenth century wool merchant who owned the land upon which the cemetery is now situated, and built a house upon what is now St. Michael’s Church at its summit, is a very interesting character.  Contrary to what visitors to Highgate Cemetery are generally led to believe, the history of the occupation of the site did not begin with Sir William Ashurst and his mansion.  Blake, who lost the land to Ashurst via the old equivalent of the bankruptcy court, had emotive and/or practical associations with at least six areas where the entity is known to walk – the main and top gates of the cemetery and those of St. Michael’s Church all of which formed entrances to his estate, the Circle of Lebanon, the site of the 20th century youth hostel on West Hill (a previously unpublished haunting which can be found in Chapter Two – Highgate Cemetery West), and The Flask public house.  After immersing myself in incredibly complicated 17th  century documents about his life, habits and metaphysical leanings I came to the conclusion that just possibly this tragic footnote in history, whose final resting place remains unknown, could still well consider himself a resident of Highgate Cemetery.  Just not in the conventional sense.  As interesting and influential as such interees as Michael Faraday are, Blake does it for me every time!

FGN: Have you personally interacted with anything supernatural during your research?

Della Farrant: Yes I have.  But, I have a personal bugbear with discussing those experiences publicly.  I think there is an inherent danger to reputation when an author – or moreover a researcher – is perceived to have become too personally involved in their subject.  I will say this – I have never divulged my own experiences to any of the witnesses featured in my book, for fear of leading them, or planting an instinct to either compete or attempt to please or homogenise their own encounters to match my own.  It stands to reason that, if a genuine supernatural or preternatural phenomenon exists or manifests at a specific location, someone who spends an inordinate amount of time at that site is increasing their chances of experiencing it.   Rip me apart on that one, cynics, I am past caring with over 100 genuine encounters from others in a 2 mile radius under my belt!   I would NEVER encourage thrill seekers to go looking for the Swains Lane entity, however.  Whilst I do not believe it to be as malign as it has been depicted, it is fair to conclude that like all immortal creatures it is both unpredictable and ultimately unknowable – and what one cannot know, one cannot adequately protect oneself against.   A ouija board session on Swains Lane on Hallowe’en will NOT help you get to ‘know’ an entity which may not choose to reveal its nature after years of psychic work on your part.  And if it does, what would you do with that information, and why would anyone believe you?  Leave the poor guy alone, I say.

FGN: Your site, http://hidden-highgate.org/, features an Interactive Map of the Cemetery and local sites near it. What prompted you to create this map?

Della Farrant:  Two reasons:  Firstly, I started the map off with known paranormal hotspots, because I had a hunch that people would feel a) more comfortable talking about their own experiences at those places – the cemetery, The Flask, The Gatehouse etc. – if they felt that these had been somewhat normalised, and b) that this would apply to lesser known haunted locations.  It worked, and people started coming forward with their stories.   

Secondly, I was curious to see if the established and newly forthcoming locations formed a pattern on Google Maps, and how they fitted in with the natural terrain.  This also proved interesting.  The online map is so far incomplete with regard to the proliferance of additional hauntings in Haunted Highgate, and certainly in comparison to the flags I have stuck into my trusty 1869 OS map!  But two overlapping lines certainly seem to emerge, south to north and west to east.   There is much more work to be done on the leyline theory which I hinted at in answer to your first question, but this remains a work in progress with which other people, including geologists, are gradually getting involved.

FGN: Your book, Haunted Highgate, is available now to Americans on Kindle and soon in print.  If you could have readers take one thing away from the book, what would it be?

Della Farrant:  Ultimately, I would like people to realise that Highgate is a magical and ancient place.  No one can or should attempt to own or monopolise that fact and how it is presented to a public with little or no direct experience of it.   If you want to experience Highgate then approach it – preferably in person with a few days to spare at least – with an open mind.  Listen to the place, its echoes, its memories, and not the nonsense you may have read online or in books which are ill-researched or fiction disguised as fact.  It is older than them, and you, and it knows and remembers a hell of a lot.

FGN: Now that you’ve finished writing about Highgate Cemetery, do you plan to write books on any other cemeteries in London? (ie, Abney Park, Brompton, Tower Hamlets).

Della Farrant: The cemetery only actually comprises two of Haunted Highgate’s seven chapters.  It is my opinion that if the London Cemetery Company had not built upon the land then it would still be haunted today.  Much as I appreciate the natural and manmade beauty of Victorian cemeteries, I have no plans to write about any more in this level of detail.  I may well be writing Haunted Hampstead next, however, so watch out for that!

??????????????????????????????FGN: Where can readers get Haunted Highgate?

Della Farrant: It is available on Amazon, or signed from http://davidfarrant.org/publications . People in the London area will also be able to get signed copies at the inaugural Muswell Hill Geisterfest on Hallowe’en, where my husband David; Paul Adams, author of Written in Blood : A Cultural History of the British Vampire, and I will be answering questions and taking part in this local festival of the macabre! 

FGN: Where is the best place for our readers to follow your future projects?

Della Farrant:  Over the summer I have been compiling some very detailed background notes on Highgate’s 17th  century historical mysteries, which I will be posting on my website http://hidden-highgate.org .  I will also be adding some Haunted Highgate extras which didn’t make it into the book for lack of space.  So watch out for many more mysteries to come!

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Mistress of Death: Interview with Della Farrant, Author of 'Haunted Highgate'
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Mistress of Death: Interview with Della Farrant, Author of 'Haunted Highgate'
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An interview with Della Farrant, author of the new book Haunted Highgate which compiles the tales of hauntings in the burrough.
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