The Highgate Vampire: Desecration & Duels

A Modern Day Vampire Hysteria 

There was a lot going on in 1970’s London – disco was about to take over the world, and fashion was about to become a whole lot more psychedelic, all while learning to live with the fear of nuclear annihilation.  It’s a lively backdrop to what would become one of the strangest chapters of London folklore, and it all began on a dark Halloween night in 1968. 

According to an article in the London Evening News on 2nd November, 1968: 

On the night of Halloween 1968, a graveyard desecration by persons unknown occurred at Tottenham Park Cemetery in London. These persons arranged flowers taken from graves in circular patterns with arrows of blooms pointing to a new grave, which was uncovered. A coffin was opened and the body inside “disturbed”. But their most macabre act was driving an iron stake in the form of a cross though the lid and into the breast of the corpse.

This was the first report of something amiss in the cemeteries of London, and although the perpetrators of the desecration were never identified, given the events that were to transpire in the following year, it has become embroiled with the events at Highgate Cemetery. 

Highgate Cemetery West: Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue –

A Condensed History of Highgate

Highgate Cemetery was established in 1839 as a response to the lack of burial ground in London. One of the“Magnificent Seven” cemeteries to be established during the 19th century, Highgate became one of the most fashionable places to spend your afterlife.

As death was in vogue for the Victorian upper classes, Highgate became known for its ornate mausoleums, heartfelt memorials and carefully manicured landscaping. Unfortunately, in later centuries death fell out of fashion and the cemetery fell into disrepair by the 1970s. By the time our story begins, nature had taken over and vandalism was rife.

The Letter

On Christmas Eve of 1969, a man reported a mysterious grey figure roaming amongst the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery. This man was David Farrant, who sent a letter recounting this sighting to the local paper, Hampstead and Highgate Express, in February 1970, asking if readers had similar experiences in or around the cemetery, which was met with several replies.

Indeed, Highgate cemetery had earned its haunted reputation centuries earlier, as the Ashurst Estate, which was purchased to create the cemetery, was said to be haunted. All manner of ghosts and ghouls have been seen in the area, including top-hatted gentlemen, phantom cyclists and women in white, so the letter published in 1970 and its replies should have come as a shock to no one. 

Regardless of the areas history, the 1970 letter was the catalyst for the ensuing strangeness, and to find out why, we must first examine the author. You see, Mr Farrant wasn’t just some random passerby, uninitiated to the world of witchcraft and the paranormal. He was the president of the British Psychic and Occult Society, and a Wiccan High Priest.   

Farrant & Manchester, March 6th 1970, David

Farrant & Manchester

It’s safe to say Mr Farrant knew his way around the paranormal, but he wasn’t the only investigator with his eyes on Highgate Cemetery. With seemingly nothing else to report on, the Ham & High milked the sighting for all it was worth, and on the 27th February 1970, published the front page article titled, “Does a Wampyr Walk in Highgate?”

The article originated from a meeting between a journalist and a Mr Sean Manchester, president of the British Occult Society, who proclaimed the entity sighted in Highgate was a Vampire. Although embedded with journalistic flair, this marks the first mention of such a creature. Subsequently, claims of dead foxes, black magic and satanism were linked to the cemetery. 

The introduction of Sean Manchester to the case was the spark that brought Highgate’s Vampire to life (so to speak). With two outspoken, self-proclaimed vampire hunters, it didn’t take much for a rivalry to brew between the two men, each claiming they’d be the one to rid the cemetery of its undead inhabitant. 

The Exorcism of Friday 13th 

With the media stoking the fire between the two eccentric occultists, Manchester proclaimed that he would preform an exorcism of Highgate Cemetery on Friday 13th March, 1970. At this point, national broadcasters had become involved with the supernatural shenanigans, and ITV featured interviews with both men on the evening of Manchester’s planned exorcism, which was, in retrospect, a mistake. 

Within hours of the broadcast, a mob of would-be-vampire hunters swarmed the cemetery, traversing it’s locked gates and walls, with crucifixes and wooden stakes in hand. Despite efforts, the police quickly lost control and the once peaceful Highgate Cemetery resembled the mob scene from Frankenstein (1931). 

But if you think that’s the wildest chapter the Highgate Vampire case has to offer, you better hold onto your fangs, because baby, we’re just getting started. 

Angry Mob, Frankenstein (1931)

A Corpse, An Arrest and A Magic Duel

Manchester’s attempted exorcism had failed before it even began, but that didn’t stop the hunt. Both he and Farrant returned to the cemetery (separately, mind you), with the latter focusing his attempts on communicating with the entity. 

On August 1st 1970 – which coincidently or not coincides with Lammas – the burnt, headless corpse of a woman was supposedly found near the entrance to Highgate’s catacombs, thought to be remnants of a “Black Magic Ritual” according to police. As dramatic as this entry to the Vampire’s tale may be, it earns only a passing mention in its retelling, which I find rather odd, frankly. Indeed, I have so far found only a single media report which references the discovery as follows:

Det. Sgt. Brown said that in recent months there had been reports of black magic activities at the cemetery and some weeks ago the body of a woman, with the head missing, was found removed from a coffin.

This passing sentence is taken from a report in the Evening News, September 29th 1970, which centres around Mr Farrant. 

“Why is David Farrant in the news again?” I hear you ask. Well, he was found wandering Highgate Cemetery at night with a wooden stake and a crucifix and arrested for “being in an enclosed area at Highgate Cemetery for an unlawful purpose”, a few days after the desecration was supposedly discovered. 

These charges were dismissed in court, however this wasn’t Farrant’s only run in with the law. In 1974, after a handful of warnings, arrests and fines, he was sentenced to four years in prison for “breaking into a tomb in Highgate Cemetery, interfering with a body and threatening two policemen by sending them voodoo dolls through the post”.

Farrant denied the first two charges, but admitted to the sending of voodoo dolls.

poster for the magicians duel
An example of the “magician duel” posters that sprang up around London in the ’70s

A Timeless Rivalry  

In amongst all this Vampire hunting, Farrant and Manchester were still at odds, taking every opportunity to discredit or ridicule the other. Throughout the 70’s, Manchester supposedly challenged Farrant to a series of“magicians duels”, which sadly, never occurred.

Since the 70s, Manchester became a Bishop of the British Old Catholic Church – a branch of Catholicism entirely separate from the Roman Catholic Church – and has written numerous books, articles and interviews about this and other Vampires he has allegedly hunted.

According to Manchester, he and his companions encountered the Highgate Vampire face to face in August 1970, where a failed exorcism took place before returning in 1974 to defeat it for good. His account of this is recorded in his book, The Highgate Vampire, which also recounts the slaying of one of its “disciples”, after it took the form of a giant spider before his very eyes. Manchester continued his feud with Farrant in his many blogs, often creating artwork of a Farrant-like figure labeled as “demonic”. To this day, the Bishop remains dead set on his vampire hypothesis.

Meanwhile Farrant, who was in and out of the tabloids for many years, became convinced that the Highgate Vampire wasn’t a Vampire at all, but was, in fact, a dark entity traversing the ley line that runs through the cemetery. His account of the case is recorded in his book, Beyond The Highgate Vampire, which includes his supposed communication with the entity, and the attack that followed. In more recent years, his feud with Manchester continued with his satirical comic book, Bishop Bonkers. 

David Farrant passed away in 2019, maintaining that inexplicable events took place in Highgate  Cemetery, but that it had nothing to do with Hollywood style Vampires.

But What About The Vampire?

With all the media commotion surrounding this case, it’s easy to forget all about the supposed Vampire at the centre of it. The fate of “The Vampire” depends on who you ask. It’s clear that something was going on in and around the Highgate area. Whether that something was paranormal, the results of vandalism, or the remnants of Magic Rituals taking place in a secluded location, who knows?

Maybe it was connected to the desecration at Tottenham Park Cemetery in ’68? To my knowledge neither Farrant or Manchester claimed responsibility for that. Perhaps a macabre Halloween prank inadvertently sowed a seed in the public hive mind which enabled the Highgate Vampire to flourish. The media circus got its teeth into the story “for laughs” – so said the editor of the Ham & High – and struck gold with rival eccentrics, who carried the tale to new heights. 

In the golden era of Hammer Horror, audiences were ready and waiting for something spooky to have a bit of fun with. How many of the 1970 mob actually, really, truly believed they were hunting a real life vampire? How many of them just wanted something to do, and got carried away? It certainly would have come as a welcome distraction from the previous decade’s Cold War tension and rapidly shifting socio-economic scene. Perhaps a vampire hunt provided a little bit of well needed escapism? After all, monsters allow us to address humanities darkest reflections. 

According to David Farrant, the psychic entity at the centre of the case is still active, having been seen as recently as 2005. On the other hand, Bishop Sean Manchester maintains that he staked the very real, very physical vampire in his coffin in 1974. 

Thankfully, in 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed and set about restoring the monuments and gardens to its former beauty, returning the cemetery to the glorious necropolis it was meant to be. These days, both guided and self-guided tours are available, although any talk of vampires and ghouls is discouraged. 

In truth, it doesn’t matter what any of us believe, because the Vampire of Highgate lives on in public consciousness regardless. 

At least, that’s what he wants you to believe. Since I helped facilitate his escape in the early 70s, he’s quite happily relocated to a sunny beach on the Costa Del Sol, with plenty of factor 50 and a bloody mary in each hand.

I hope to visit him again soon.

Dr LJ Hawthorn

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