If you follow the Great North Road out of London towards York and Edinburgh you come to the village of Highgate four miles after leaving Smithfield, the traditional starting point of the road. These days you fight your way out through heavy traffic on the A1 along the Holloway Road to a one-way system encircling the Victorian Archway Tavern and next to the Archway Underground station. Ahead lies Archway Road running through a deep cutting and spanned after half a kilometre by the bridge carrying Hornsea Lane over the top. If you want to visit Highgate Village itself you need to take the fork off the one-way system just before Archway Road, to drive up Highgate Hill, past the modern Whittington Stone pub and the Whittington Stone itself sitting beside the pavement.
If you had been making your way along this route in the mid-14th century you would have no problem with traffic, fumes, noise or jams. But you would have been lurching along a muddy track sunk deep between the fields on either side – the original Hollow Way – until it turned and followed the route of Highgate Hill, for there was no cutting and easy route where Archway Road now runs. You would have armed outriders if you could afford them and a stout cudgel if you could not, because you would be deep in the country here and making your way through an area notorious for footpads or worse.
In the mid 14th century a hermit, William Phelippe, was living in a cell on the lower slopes of Highgate Hill – a great lump of London Clay rising to 423 feet above sea level, a formidable obstacle. William seems to have been that unlikely creature, a wealthy hermit, for he approached the King Edward III with the proposal that he pay for the excavation of gravel from near-by pits and use it to improve the road surface. In return he would set up a toll-bar to tax all wheeled traffic and pack-horses that passed carrying goods. The king duly granted a decree “to our well-beloved William Phelippe, the hermit” who charged two pence per week to each cart with iron-shod wheels, one penny if not iron-shod. Pack horses were charged one farthing a week.
It was north along this improved road that young Dick Whittington, a poor apprentice who had failed to make his fortune in London, was trudging one day, with, so legend tells us, his cat. He paused near to where the Whittington Stone now stands, to rest before tackling Highgate Hill and there he heard the bells of the City calling, “Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London.” So he did, and made his fortune and the rest is the stuff of traditional tales and modern pantomime.
But Richard Whittington did exist – he was Lord Mayor in 1397, 1406 and 1420, he was knighted, he was one of the richest men of his time and a notable philanthropist whose charities are still in existence. A succession of Stones has marked the spot – the current one was erected in 1821. The etching above shows the previous version, dated 1608.
By the late 18th century Highgate was a prosperous village with a tollgate on the Great North Road and a good coaching and posting trade, for all the traffic still had to climb the hill and go down its main street at the summit. It was a popular place for early commuters, amongst them Grimaldi the clown who was robbed on the hill by footpads in 1807 returning home from performing at Sadler’s Wells theatre. Fortunately when the thieves saw his pocket watch with his portrait in costume painted on the dial they apologized profusely and returned it!
But the increase in coaching traffic meant something had to be done about the hill. Ackermann’s Repository (November 1822) records that, “At Highgate-Hill, over which one of the great north roads branches from the metropolis, a formidable steep presents itself, and which, until about ten years ago, was endured, but liberally abused, by the sufferers obliged to pass it.”
First, attempts were made to tunnel through it but the tunnel collapsed in April 1812, fortunately after the workmen had left at the end of the working day. The tunnel was abandoned and a great cutting driven through, bridged by a massive archway designed by John Nash to carry Hornsea Lane. It took up a considerable width of the carriageway and was eventually replaced in 1900.
The new Archway Road was cut through on the eastern side of the old Archway Tavern which can be seen with the tollgate to the right in the black and white engraving at the top of the post. This is dated in Old And New London as 1825, but trying to accurately date the prints I have of the Archway is a nightmare.
The small rectangular coloured one above is from the Repository (1822) and shows the view beyond the tollgate. But the two rectangular images below are much more problematic if compared to the black and white one. They are two sides of a very large print that was too big to go in my scanner so the unfortunate cow in the middle has lost its hindquarters, I’m afraid.
One shows the Archway Tavern which, oddly, has lost the upper part of the right-hand wing which is clearly illustrated in the black and white print. Highgate Hill goes off to the side and the pond, which is shown in the black and white print as walled, has no wall. The other side shows Holloway Road coming in from the right and the tollgate before Archway Hill.
To the right just beyond the tollgate is a neo-Gothic building which, according to my early Victorian Ordnance Survey maps, is the Whittington College almhouses, one of Dick Whittington’s charities. The almshouses were moved to this site in 1809 but the neo-Gothic building was not erected until 1822 which means that the black and white print must have been made before that date. This print is an 1823 re-working of an 1813 print which has been changed to show the new almshouses. There’s an image of the original version on the Government Art Collection website.
It is difficult to reconcile this largely rural, village scene with the urban chaos on this site now – I doubt very much that Dick Whittington would have been able to hear the bells and hs cart would have probably been run over by a passing delivery van!