Behind the doors of Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution

The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution is undoubtedly at the cultural heart of the Village, but over the years it has acquired a reputation of being an exclusive community for an older audience.

The society has welcomed thousands of intellectuals through its doors to peruse its large collection of books and to attend weekly lectures ever since it was founded in 1839.

It is easy to see why the lofty institution, which employs a membership scheme for cultural enthusiasts, could be seen as an exclusive club.

I decided to step inside the Victorian building to take a look at what the institution has to offer Highgate residents young and old – and to see whether its locked doors are truly reluctant to welcome newcomers.

The grand white building sits in the centre of Highgate Village, next to the Highgate Society opposite Pond Square.


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Those locked doors do present the illusion of exclusivity, but president Stephen Hodge assures me that, while borrowing one of the 26,000 books from the library and using the members’ room are members-only activities, non-members are free to attend lectures, film screenings, exhibitions and book time for private study in the Coleridge Room.

“Sometimes people who don’t know about the institution think that it is exclusive, that you can’t join or that you need a proposer and a seconder,” Mr Hodge said.

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“But the place runs on volunteers and if anyone wants to get involved in any part of the organisation, there is lots of room for everyone.”

The front and original, part of the building houses the peaceful members’ room, where culture vultures can choose their preferred reading material from dozens of magazines and newspapers (including the Ham&High, of course) and escape from the hectic world outside in a plush armchair. Just behind is the Victoria Hall, which is used for everything from art exhibitions to wedding receptions.

A Victorian royal coat of arms is proudly displayed on the wall at the back, which Mr Hodge tells me was given to the – now demolished – Fox and Crown pub after the landlord stopped Queen Victoria’s out-of-control coach as she travelled down Highgate West Hill in 1837.

Although it is steeped in history, the librarian makes a concerted effort to order in the latest Booker Prize nominees and to expand on the already extensive children’s section.

I quickly become engrossed in the story of this fascinating place, but Mr Hodge admits the institution is not seeking out new 20-something members.

“It is quite a niche sort of place and I would be lying if I said we were going after 25-year-olds,” Mr Hodge said. “People who are working don’t want to come home and then go to a lecture. But we would love to pick up more people in their 50s or 60s, people who are interested in cultural things.”

While not entirely shedding its reputation as a place for older residents, the institution is a unique and still untapped place, waiting for more people to discover its hidden history.

n To find out more visit www.hlsi.net.

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