7. The 17th to 18th Centuries of Highgate Hill

One reason we know animals were going though the Bishop’s fields and over Highgate is because of the number of butcher shops that sprang up on the approaches to the toll. Animals that would not make it into London could be butchered. And one must not rule out that it was a point of exchange, whereby a drover did not need to travel with coin and risk losing it, but could sell an animal when in Highgate that would provide the funds for board and refreshment and the continuing journey to London and back home again.

This developing drovers exchange and the comings of merchants and private travellers was the reason for the many public houses that sprang up. It’s only known for sure since records began but it makes The Swan the oldest licensed public house, recorded in 1480. In 1553 there were five licensed inns in Highgate, and a remarkable nineteen by 1826, reflecting the amount of activity and travellers.

From this period of increased activity the drovers are mentioned as stopping over at the inns instead of driving on to Liverpool Road. Presumably there were some areas where animals could be kept for a fee. But it was the animals that caused the first problems for Highgate. The sheer numbers being transported through became an issue and Regulations were issued in 1657, 1665, and 1672, requiring that animals being driven to London should not stray from the road.

The map above is of 1810 for the area of Upper Holloway. Note Highgate Hill then was the lane behind Swain’s Lane. The current Highgate Hill was called Upper Holloway. Swain’s Lane was called Swine Lane and Hornsey Road was called Devil’s Lane, sometimes Duval’s Lane after the infamous highwayman.

By the end of the eighteenth century the number of animals being brought into London was causing mayhem. The arrival of the railways brought about a revolution in the movement of animals so that by 1849 almost one million of the animals sold at Smithfield came to London by rail.

A second issue was with clean water. The flask is recorded in 1663 as selling flasks to fill up with water from Hampstead Spring. However the ponds were being used to dispose of human waste which caused a serious health issue and no doubt any flasks purchased from The Flask were by the many pilgrims travelling to the spring of water at the Mus Wel as the water was said to have curative powers. However, the Flask continued to supply drinking water until 1864 when the ponds were filled in.

There was a two tier system whereby the rich could have water brought in and stored in a reservoir whereas the poor had no choice but to draw water from the ponds, and if by well then it was charged by the pail if that well was on private property.

In 1800 Robert Kilby Cox had the right to convey spring water from Barnet to Highgate. The public ponds would become polluted as you may imagine. In Crouch End water was drawn from a small common pond, which became polluted c. 1820 and was filled up in 1828. At Muswell Hill people relied on the well which closed in 1861. And in Highgate the ponds became polluted in 1857 leaving houses dependant on one parish pump and nine private pumps. As late as 1863, cottages under construction at North Hill were to rely on the parish pump.

Three hundred years earlier when the Bishop of London had provided an alternate route North through his park, 1.6 mile’s West of Crouch Hill, the height of the land in Highgate provided a more passable route in winter than Crouch End and Muswell Hill and it was said that you could not smell the stench of animals and human cesspits in the air. By opening Highgate to people and animals those urban aromas eventually followed.

The toll would develop as Frederick Prickett’s book of Highgate describes it, not as a booth and barrier type but as a brick arch with people living in it. The account explains that the arch was so low that by 1769 it had to be removed because nothing much could go under it and travellers had to be taken around it through a yard behind the Gatehouse PH. Highly inconvenient when you consider that by 1780 The Red Lion PH alone (which closed in 1900,) was receiving 80 stage-coaches a day.

Yet John H. Lloyd states of the original toll that the gate was only of sufficient width to allow one loaded pack-horse to pass through at a time. When this original gate was removed in 1769 so that the road could be widened, the path through the yard of the Gatehouse PH was not essential and had subsequently an Assembly Hall built upon it.

The tollgate finally closed in 1876 having its gates removed in 1892, but the pub remains to this day. However, Frederick Prickett maintains that it was the original toll gate at the time of the hermit William Philippe in 1364 that Highgate originally owed its name even though the toll was granted to him for only one year, and in that grant, John H. Lloyd points out that Highgate is named as a place already recognised.

Print courtesy: The history of Highgate by John H. Lloyd 1888 (HLSI)

Prior to the construction of Highgate Hill the whole of Highgate had been known only as a portion of Hornsey, and was for the greater part covered with the woods of Hornsey and Haringey Park and originally formed part of the Forest of Middlesex. All that is left as a reminder today of the Bishop’s history is the name given to Bishop’s Wood and The Bishop’s Avenue constructed from Bishop’s wood to East End Road c. 1887.

Until the alleviation of traffic after the construction of the Archway cutting at the start of the 19th Century, Highgate Hill was a conduit between the splendour of London and the lavishness of wealth at the Highgate Village. Despite the wear and tear it endured, Highgate Hill still presented an unexplainable allure for building upon. Roman Catholic, COE and Anglican churches setup churches and famous authors moved into the area such as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J.B. Priestley.

When the last hermit ceased maintenance of Highgate Hill in the 1550s the state of local roads deteriorated badly. We know this because a naval commander called Sir John Hawkins who lived here in those times tells of how difficult was the ascent of the hill that he required a carriage drawn by four horses. A hundred years later the diarist Samuel Pepys informs us that Lord Brouncker (first President of the Royal Society,) found it necessary to use six horses in order to climb it.

During the 1720s/1730s highwaymen were venturing near the foot of Highgate Hill. Indeed men were employed by pubs to patrol the area against highwaymen. I’m suggesting they ventured down the hill because it had become virtually impassable and the supply of unwitting victims travelling from London had consequently dried up.

The portrayal given to us by historical accounts paints Highgate Hill as a slippery slope – post hermit era. Its status as a medical hub was well established at the bottom half and at the top Highgate Village had long emerged. But at the middle, in 1767 we learn that the demands of traffic led to widening the road on Highgate Hill to the Gatehouse.

Accordingly, we have record of a footnote dated Oct. 1767 describing the widening of Highgate Hill thus: “The greatest part of the year 1767 was spent in enlarging the Highgate road from the four-mile stone up to the gate, and moderating the sharp ascent of the hill. To widen the road the great elms on the bank, and all through the town, were cutt down; the foot causeway on either side taken down and leveled to make more room, all the highway through the town to the gate was diged up many feet deep for the sake of the gravel, which was sifted and then laid on the surface.

We see today from Hornsey Lane to Highgate Village that the hill does indeed widen, with an inclusive high bank opposite Waterlow Park. One theory for the widening is that this was the impassable part requiring of immediate attention but we know for sure that it had become a deadly route.

Thomas Cromwell (not to be mistaken for the Thomas Cromwell that lived in Islington from 1535 and famed for organising the Dissolution of the Monasteries; read more about him in the section about religion, in Walks Through Islington published 1835 he arrives at Highgate Hill via Hornsey Lane and begins with the following interpretation:

The dangerous acclivity which ascends from Holloway for such a considerable length, at the rate of three inches in every yard and which several mail coaches, many heavy waggons, and a vast number of carriages of every description, were necessitated to climb daily, had been the destruction of many lives, both of horses and men, and it was therefore no wonder that a variety of plans should, at different times, have been suggested to remove the evil, by changing the course of the road altogether.”

Cromwell is referring to the plans of a proposed tunnel under Highgate and of the ensuing cutting for Archway Road. He goes on to describe the beauty of the houses on the mid part of the hill as follows:

By its sides stand many large and commodious houses, several of them somewhat ancient, the desirableness of the spot as a place of residence having been not less felt by our ancestors, than by numbers of the existing generation.

Cromwell House in itself is an enigma. It was the home of Oliver Cromwell, yet it was not because there is no evidence that he lived there. The grand staircase offers some clues in its design but again there is no proof. The house was built around 1637, but the record shows that Oliver Cromwell inherited estates in Ely from his uncle and moved there in 1636 for ten years.

So if Oliver Cromwell had anything to do with Highgate then it was between 1646 and his death in 1658. However, after the Civil War of 1642 he lived at Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace. There is a connection though because it was the home of his eldest daughter Bridget and her husband General Henry Ireton who married in the year of Charles I’s surrender in 1646. Henry Ireton was one of those who signed Charles I’s death warrant.

Cromwell House – At present the Ghana High Commission

Cromwell House became a boarding school for boys and in 1869 became The Convalescent Home for Children providing 40 beds for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Arundel House is next to Cromwell House on the bank. Lord Francis Bacon the Lord Chancellor died there in 1626. Thomas the 2nd Earl of Arundel was just 24 years old when he inherited the Arundel Estate. His father had died at the Tower of London for treason and after first having his fortunes confiscated by association, the Earl had most things returned excepting some estates in 1604 by King James. His friend Francis Bacon is recorded as having visited the house on two occasions. On the last visit he died but left the Earl a letter penned by Sir Julius Caesar.

My very good Lord,– I was likely to have had the fortune of Caius Plinus the elder, who lost his life by trying an experiment or two touching about the burning of Mount Vesuvius; for I was also desirious to try an experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well ; but in the journey between London and Highgate, I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it were the Stone, or some surfeit or cold, or indeed a touch of them all three. But when I came to your Lordship’s House, I was not able to go back, and therefore was forced to take up my lodging here, where your housekeeper is very careful and diligent about me, which I assure myself your Lordship will not only pardon towards him, but think the better of him for it. For indeed your Lordship’s House was happy to me, I kiss your noble hands for the welcome which I am sure you give me to it. I know how unfit it is for me to write with any other hand than mine own, but by my troth my fingers are so disjointed with sickness that I cannot steadily hold a pen.