A Brief History of Highgate

The name Highgate has for centuries been taken as a simple statement of fact: ‘high-gate’, i.e. the former tollgate between the High Street and North Road at the highest point of the neighbourhood.

But originally the first syllable was derived from ‘haeg’, the Saxon word for hedge. This ‘hedge-gate’ was to a track inside a private deer park of ancient woodland (a fragment of which still exists today as Highgate Woods). The track ran along the eastern side and all round the park there would have been a high hedge to keep in the animals.

First records

The name ‘Highgate’ entered historical records c.1318, by which time it is evident that the owner of the park, the Lord of the Manor of Hornsey, the Bishop of London, was allowing people to use the track on payment of a toll. Gates were also erected where The Spaniards public house in Hampstead Lane and The Old White Lion in East Finchley stand today.

It has to be remembered that the Bishop owned a large tract of land comprising the Hornsey and Finchley manors, which today would cover Muswell Hill, Crouch End, the village of Hornsey and other districts, as well as his private park.

Leasing the land

By the 15th century, hunting in the park had been abandoned, and the Bishop was allowing leases of land inside the park to be granted. The toll charge continued (and was levied into the nineteenth century).

The ‘highgate’ created a crossroads where the High Street and North Road and Hampstead Lane, West Hill and Southwood Lane met. This focal point gave rise to a hermitage inhabited by someone who was later to combine his religious observances with maintenance of the local roads.

A magnet for travellers

The crossroads was a magnet for travellers, especially after c.1380 when a new road from the City via Holloway had come into use as the main road going north. Holloway Road and Highgate Hill became linked with the new North Road past the ‘highgate’. A gatehouse inn was established at the crossroads and prospered.

Ancient Southwood Lane, outside the Bishop’s park and on the west side of Highgate Common, continued to provide an alterative route northwards. It led first to a famous spring of supposedly curative water, the Mus Well, which had become a stopping-point on one of the main medieval ways north out of London. But Muswell Hill and Highgate West Hill, lost their importance for long-distance travellers in the 14th century because they were too steep for the heavy horse-drawn wheeled vehicles that were replacing the less capacious pack-horses. Highgate Hill, with its gentler incline, replaced earlier routes.

An established settlement

By the late 14th century Highgate was an established settlement. Easy communication with London and Westminster was a particular attraction for those with business in the capital. Round the green on the hilltop plateau and on the slopes looking towards London, noblemen and rich merchants bought land and built fine houses with splendid views. One of these men, Sir Roger Cholmeley, founded a grammar school in 1565 which took the old hermit’s chapel into its care.

Middle ranking professional men also started to make their homes in Highgate. Farmers and cottagers served the many travellers and their animals passing through on their way to the London markets and offered their services to local households.

A small country town

By the 18th century Highgate was a small country town, with shops, policing, schools and doctors. Its healthy elevation helped to make it a sought-after address. London with its noisome trades and smells was five miles away, Islington was a village surrounded by fields, and Kentish Town was still, despite its name, a hamlet.

In the 19th century the tide of bricks and mortar advanced rapidly beyond the previous northern perimeter of the metropolis. The open spaces up to the Northern Heights were gradually covered by a maze of terraced housing.

A town becomes a village

Highgate residents, treasuring their rural heritage and fearful of the future, began to call Highgate Town, Highgate Village. The comparative quietness of the place seemed to justify the concept, for Archway Road had been built as a bypass to the town early in the nineteenth century and later the railways were emptying many roads of their long distance commercial traffic.

In the 20th century the farms and nearly all the fields were built over but large stretches of open space in the form of parks and woodland were left. The basic street pattern today is still that of the Tudor settlement that grew up round a tollgate.

Further reading:

Joan Schwitzer, Highgate Walks, Hornsey Historical Society, revised 2016

Benjamin Dabby, Loyal to the Crown The Extraordinary Life of Sir Roger Cholmeley, Highgate School, 2015

Janet Owen & John Hinshelwood, A Vision of Middlesex The North Middlesex Photographic Society’s Survey & Record of Middlesex, Hornsey Historical Society, 2011, 28 – 53

Paul Feeney, Highgate Britain in Old Photographs, The History Press Ltd., 2008

Joan Schwitzer (editor), People and Places, Hornsey Historical Society, 1996, 112 – 157

John Richardson, Highgate Past, Historical Publications, 1989

John Richardson, Highgate its History since the Fifteenth Century, Historical Publications, 1983