Hampstead and Highgate’s history of hedonism and religious dissent

For as long as they have existed, the lure of Hampstead and Highgate has been their “urbs in rure” atmosphere; their identity as villages against the backdrop of a capital. While this has always attracted rich and famous clientele looking for an idyllic retreat, the area’s origins tell a lesser known story of sex, alcohol and political dissent.

In her new book Landscapes Of London: The City, The Country And The Suburbs 1660-1940, writer Elizabeth McKellar examines the history of north London and how geography, social demographics and art have all shaped its formation. With their lofty, hilly locations providing a healthy retreat from the “moral and physical pollution below”, both Hampstead and Highgate have a rich history that makes for a compelling read.

Hampstead’s fashionable reputation, for instance, is originally attributed to the opening of its spas in the late 17th century. The area’s waters were known by many as “the fountain of health” and those in the city would flock to the area to rest and recover. “Taking the waters” however was just the morning activity, for “the tea table dominated the afternoon and alcohol the evening’s entertainments”.

With such evening revelry, McKellar reveals how spas like Hampstead became well-known and socially diverse “pleasure grounds”. She writes: “The spas around London promoted themselves for their health-giving purification, fresh air and open countryside, but they were also known as venues for drinking and gambling and gained a more ambiguous reputation as places of sexual immorality[…]the less respectable inns and pleasure grounds, particularly those of Islington, became a staple of sex tourism guides and low-life accounts of the city.”

Influx of nobility

Highgate, on the other hand, began to develop as an outer London resort in the 16th century, when the lack of any major landowner caused an influx of nobility building mansions in the area. By the mid-17th century, though, McKellar says these aristocrats made way for the middle classes as Highgate, like Hampstead, became a retreat – albeit for significantly different reasons.

“Highgate’s position just over five miles to the north of the centre made it particularly attractive for Dissenters following the Five Mile Act of 1665 – which banned Nonconformists from preaching within five miles of the centre – and it became known as ‘a nest of Puritans’. 1665 was also a peak plague year, which again prompted flight from the City to the more salubrious outparts.”

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McKellar’s book is full of intrinsic local detail, literary and artistic reference and is backed up by a host of historic photos and paintings. Largely focusing on how the formation of Greater London occurred, her interest in its northern quarters is no surprise, for in many ways it appears to be her most fitting case study of the capital’s fringes.

“The background landscape,” she continues, “provided plenty of opportunities for pleasure and recreation, with Hampstead Heath, Highgate Ponds and pleasure grounds such as the Spaniards Inn all contributing to the rustic ambience of the area. This provided a quite different and distinctive environment from that of the centre, one that we might call the first modern suburbs.”

Landscapes Of London: The City, The Country And The Suburbs 1660-1940 by Elizabeth McKellar is published by Yale University Press priced £45.