The Story of the Highgate Society

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The Story of the Highgate Society


Fri, 23/09/2016 - 10:08


Highgate Society’s HQ, next to Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution in S
Highgate Society’s HQ, next to Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution in South Grove
22 September, 2016

IT sounds like the sort of April fools’ day joke newspapers run to give readers a bit of light-hearted spring mirth ­– but at the time, the plans were deadly serious.

As cars clogged up the historic high streets of Highgate and Hampstead, 1960s urban planners came up with radical solutions – and one was to dig a huge tunnel under Hampstead Heath to whisk commuters in from the northern suburbs to their jobs in the West End and beyond. 

Linked to this was a scheme to barge a new carriageway through Highgate Village. Freight, unloaded at the London docks and the eastern ports, would use it to head to the Midlands and the North.

It was this seemingly whacky and outrageous idea that helped prompt the formation of the Highgate Society.

Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the Society, with its headquarters in South Grove in the heart of Highgate Village, has produced a book charting five decades of campaigning – including the story of how a drastic answer to congestion threatened the peaceful nature of Highgate Village.

The book is compiled by four members of the Society – Michael Hammerson, Robin Fairlie, Tye Blackshaw and Richard Webber – who have drawn on the extensive archives of the Society, the back issues of the Society’s magazine Buzz (the name was created by Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who also helped with the magazine) and newspaper articles. They have created a comprehensive history of events – plotting the course of how the Society has reflected the wants, mores and needs of a London village.

Before the Highgate Society existed there was the Highgate Preservation Society (HPS), which boasted among its members such names as the celebrated engineer and designer Ove Arup – he lived in Fitzroy Park – Lady Crosfield, the widow of the Arthur who built Witanhurst mansion, and Sir Robert Waley-Cohen, who handed Athlone House over to the NHS and donated land to Hampstead Heath. 

In 1962 they were warning of the threat of the new lorry route proposed by the Ministry of Transport that would help link the M1 with London’s markets and docks. 

Eventually, the idea of what was known as the London Motorway Box was fought off – and, as the book explains, a group of activists led by Ronnie Bernstein (pictured, below) and HPS president John Lacey decided the community spirit the battle had fostered was too strong to let slip away.

Highgate Society founder  and first chairman Ronnie Bernstein

“To this end, he [Bernstein] had proposed that those residents who had formed the campaign team should form a new society to campaign for good development for the area,” the authors note.

“When, 38 years later, he wrote to the Highgate Society about a Saturday farmers’ market proposed in Pond Square, he recalled his own remarks at a meeting [to form the Society] in Highgate School in 1966. ‘I said I would sooner see the people of Highgate fighting each other in the streets than sitting at home watching television’.”

The HPS agreed, and with the Save Highgate Committee, which had fought against the road plans, the Highgate Society was formed. 

And, as the book describes, it is much more than having a Society to speak for the residents and businesses of the neighbourhood as change and progress affected the area. “It is not uncommon for non-members to perceive the Highgate Society principally as a group concerned with planning issues,” they write. “This is understandable when it is the environmental campaigns receive the most press coverage.

“Indeed as must be the case with most amenity societies, the catalyst for its formation was the anger generated by a proposed threat to the local environment. In practice though, however visible and important they are, environmental and planning campaigning is just a part of what the Society does.”

The book walks readers through five decades of change: the battles to preserve Highgate historic homes such as Witanhurst and Athlone House, help preserve open spaces such as the Highgate Bowl from redevelopment, and play an active role in the formation of bodies such as the Friends of Highgate Cemetery and The Jackson’s Lane Community Centre. But it also tracks the Society’s cultural programme, including the establishment of an art lending library that was partly organised by the celebrated photographer John Gay. 

There are craft fairs, the Fair in the Square, children’s events and the Good Neighbours Scheme, which organised visitors from volunteers to people who need a helping hand. 

The vast range of work the Society has embarked on has had an almost impossible-to-quantify effect on the village – but life in Highgate would be very different if, 50 years ago, those who care for the place they live hadn’t banded together and created a civic group. 

As broadcaster Griff Rhys-Jones, the president of Civic Voice, which represents societies such as Highgate’s across England, writes in a foreword: “They recognised that the car was not the ultimate solution but the ultimate problem in our urban fabric, that the quality of a place would be reflected in its open spaces and fine buildings... and these issues continue to need vigilance. It’s not a question of ‘not in my backyard’ but ‘will you look at my backyard as carefully as possible, please?’ After all, if we, who live in a place, do not care for our immediate environment, who do we think will?”

• The Story of the Highgate Society 1966-2016. Edited by Richard Webber. Published by Northern Heights Publications on behalf of the Highgate Society. £19.50. See

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