The area that was to become Highgate began as the hunting estate for the Bishop of London. In 1386, the Bishop allowed a road to be built through his land but insisted that a toll was to be charged for each vehicle that passed over the land. A gate was built at the top of his property in order to collect this toll. Combined with the locality’s high altitude, at least when compared with greater London, this gives us the name Highgate. By the fifteenth century, this had become a major route on the way from London to the north. Due to frequent travelers, business began to pop up along the route including inns, taverns, and shops. This naturally led to an increase in the population, mostly made up of working-class people such as laundresses, tavern keepers, and shopkeepers. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the people who inhabited Highgate started to change. A large influx of residents during this time came to the area because Highgate was known to have clean air and water unlike most parts of central London. Indeed, one nineteenth-century writer wrote that “few of London’s suburban hamlets can boast air so fresh and salubrious, views so extensive, or rural walks so diversified and pleasing.” (“A Day at Highgate”) In an era when health and wellness were associated with clean air and fresh smells, Highgate was an attractive locale. The neighborhood gradually welcomed more and more wealthy residents and by the late nineteenth century, the neighborhood was almost exclusively composed of the wealthy. Consequently, it was around this time that Highgate ceased to be a local village and was officially incorporated into the city of London. Throughout the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, Highgate has continued to grow in both wealth and prestige. It is now one of the wealthiest areas of London and one of the most coveted areas to live in. (Baggs)
Our group’s journey to Highgate began with a thirty-minute tube ride north of central London. After only a few minutes of walking around the main section of the neighborhood, it was clear that Highgate differed greatly from other sections of the city. The area was more residential, noticeably cleaner, and the price for a cup of coffee was a few pences higher. Our group visited several small businesses, schools, and churches. We walked around different parks, investigated local plaques, visited the Highgate Cemetery, and talked to several locals and tourists during our two-day exploration of the neighborhood. One of the locals we met with was Susan Trackman, the head archivist for the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution. We scheduled an interview with Ms. Trackman, which can be listened to in full below, to learn more about both the history of the neighborhood as well as how the local community understands the area’s history and identity. Our visit to Highgate, while brief, was impactful because it allowed our group to receive first hand insight into the history of one of London’s most affluent suburbs.
Though we were fortunate to receive the opportunity to visit Highgate in March 2020, we were only given two days to explore the village. Thus, a majority of research was derived from digital sources and records. As white American citizens, we saw Highgate through the lens of ‘Western civilization,’ which shaped the way we viewed and evaluated Highgate. Therefore, while we have attempted to gain universal truth on Highgate, we do not have every perspective represented, which is a limitation in our arguments. According to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” “I am a part of all that I have met.” We have taken the history and heritage of Highgate, analyzed them, and returned them with our own perspectives. While we might not know the perspectives of all of Highgate’s residents and visitors, we have gained tremendous insight from those people and sites we encountered.
As students concerned with the methods, aesthetics, politics, etc., of ‘exclusivity’ in dominant institutional apparatuses like ‘history,’ we came to Highgate with receptive and biased notions of what we were going to find in such a posh place. But beyond merely walking the streets and noting the village-type architecture, we got impressions of Highgate’s exclusivity from the research we conducted both during and after our trip to London, and we challenge the notion that ‘exclusivity’ is an inherently negative characteristic of a neighborhood. In terms of space, there simply isn’t enough to accommodate everyone in Highgate’s schools, cemeteries, societies, or historical plaques. However, we highlight the currents of classism, sexism/gender discrimination, and other prejudices that are historically and presently etched into Highgate’s identity. Through this project, we hope to give some idea of what life (or death) in an exclusive space is like, what it appears to be from outside the ‘gates,’ and how exclusive spaces might accomplish inclusion.
“A Day at Highgate.” The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 1, no. 25 (June 1846): 386-390.
Baggs, A. P., Diane Bolton, M. A. Hicks, and R. B. Pugh. “Hornsey, including Highgate.” In A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 6, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Hornsey with Highgate, 189-99. London, UK: Victoria County History, 1980.
Trackman, Susan. In-person interview by authors. March 5 2020.