Mary Nichols and the Sleeping Angel

Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful graves in Europe, it is said that the grave Mary Nichols lay completely hidden under ivy of Highgate Cemetery until the 1980’s, when it was rediscovered by photographer John Gay.

Photo by NickJRichards.

On the top of the grave lies a sleeping angel on a bed of clouds: it is easily one of the most photographed and admired of all the graves in Highgate. Yet there are a few things about it that have bothered me over the years

Who was the angel made for?

The angel was sculpted for a lady by the name of Mary Nichols, who died in 1909 of diabetes and heart failure. The inscription on her tomb reads:

‘In Ever Loving Memory of Mary , the darling wife of Arthur Nichols and fondly loved mother of their only son Harold who fell asleep 7th May 1909. Also of Dennis Arthur Charles, son of Harold and Winifred who died 28th April 1916 aged 18 months.’

So what can we glean from Mary and her beautiful tomb? Its location on a key avenue within Highgate gives an indication of wealth and status, and that she was cleared much loved and mourned for such an impressive bit of stone to be used as her monument.

Mary hailed from Yorkshire and was the daughter of Reverend George Mower Webb and his wife, Sarah. George was the vicar of Aughton, Yorkshire in the 1851 census and would later go on to become the vicar of Heckmondwike, before dying in 1889. Her brother Samuel was also a vicar, and this translates into the occupation of the aforementioned Harold, Mary’s son, who in the 1911 census is a vicar in the Isle of Wight. Mary had a hand in the choice of monument that stands in the memory of her father and brother.

Mary would mary Australian-born Arthur at some time in the 1890s and relocate to Hornsey in North London, where Harold Jules, their son, was born and raised.

Photo by NickJRichards

Mary died at 12 Woodland Gardens, Muswell Hilll and according to probate left £433 (roughly £54,000 in 2022 money). Her husband, being a bank manager, was not short of a few bob and so could afford a stunning monument to his wife. She was later joined by her grandson Dennis in 1916, and they are the only two members of the family buried in the vault.

Highgate
Photo by Christina Owen.

The curious thing I find is that for such a wonderful tomb, Mary, besides her infant grandson, is its only adult occupant. This is prime grave real estate in Highgate Cemetery of all places, so why did the family not return to have their own remains placed inside? It was built as a monument to love as much as it was to grieving: so what happened here?

Moving on

I’ve not been able to locate the sculptor of the angel, but I have managed to track down what became of the man who chose the image of a sleeping angel to symbolise the death of his wife. Tastes change and people move on: the Nichols did just that.

Via Ancestry UK.

Arthur was to remarry within a year. Alice Waterfall, herself a widow duly married Mary’s husband at St. Mary Bolton’s church in West Brompton in June 1910. I was unsure if this was the right Arthur Nichols when I was trawling Ancestry U.K but the fact he and Mary’s son Harold also served as a witness to the union leaves very little doubt. Arthur interestingly must have had a thing for the older woman as both Mary and Alice were his senior. His marriage to Alice was (hopefully) out of love as much as it was to address the need to have a companion in old age and one wonders if he ever thought he would be buried with anyone other than Mary. When was the last time he paid his respects in Highgate?

So it is of no surprise that he wasn’t buried with Mary, the mother of his son. And the archives revealed he ended up in a place I was very familiar with and so, joined by my friend Ben, we returned to Brompton Cemetery to locate his grave. It is nowhere near as flashy as Mary’s.

Photo by Ben Weston

Once married to Alice he relocated to Kensington and died in 1921, to be buried under an art-deco inspired monument in the heart of the cemetery, in what is referred to as an ‘open air cathedral’. Stunning in a different way, Alice’s choice of monument was far more in keeping with the era in which Arthur expired.

From one magnificent Victorian cemetery to another! Migration of lives, people and spaces is a fascinating thing.

Photo by Christina Owen.

If you visit Highgate Cemetery, you can find Mary Nichols by walking up the main avenue from the colonnades, following the path to the right of the red gothic Daukes monument and just past the entrance to the Egyptian Catacombs.

One of the weird things about cemetery reserach is who you stumble upon and no moreso in this case, because three graves back and one across to the left is Montague Fowler, the first grave I ever did research on. I’ve walked past Arthur and adored Mary’s monument for years. Who knew!

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