Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution remembers Nazi bombs and patrons like Michael Palin and John Betjeman with 175 year anniversary celebration

It survived a Nazi bomb explosion and has welcomed hundreds of distinguished figures through its doors – from poet John Betjeman to national treasure Michael Palin – over the last 175 years.

The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI), which has been at the cultural heart of Highgate Village since 1839, marked the landmark anniversary with a tribute to its illustrious history on Tuesday.

The HLSI has hosted lectures from eminent speakers ever since it was founded on January 16, 1839, around a table at The Gatehouse pub in North Road.

A year later it moved into 11 South Grove, where it has remained ever since, hosting more than 2,000 lectures and offering society members access to an extensive library.

Speakers have included James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Labour politician Michael Foot, ethnographic writer Mary Kingsley and novelists AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel.

Current HLSI president Stephen Hodge, who will step down in May, said the institution has not changed in essentials in 175 years.

“We’re not very different to how the founders set it up,” the 72-year-old, of Highgate Close, said.

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“The idea was to improve people’s minds so they didn’t fall into dubious opinions, by going to lectures and so on – a splendid way to stop people falling into idleness and sloth.

“We haven’t quite got that mission now but we are still providing intellectual stimulation with lectures and classes every week.

“To keep something going more or less as the founders intended is in itself an achievement.”

Mr Hodge was joined by four past presidents, Peter Benton, David Solomon, Isabel Raphael and Elisabeth Thom, to blow out the candles on a birthday cake at the anniversary celebration.

The institution was one of dozens of societies that popped up all over Britain in the mid-1800s with the aim of helping residents to better understand scientific discoveries and literary classics.

Regulations were soon adopted, including the rule that “no book, pamphlet, publication, or paper of any kind shall be introduced into the Institution, except by an order of the committee,” suggesting the founding committee was wary of dissenting views.

This rule has since fallen by the wayside, but many of the founding regulations remain in place today.

After a healthy first few decades, the institution’s membership nosedived in the late 1800s, though numbers soon recovered.

The society’s biggest test came towards the end of the Second World War, when a flying bomb exploded in nearby Waterlow Park, bringing down the library’s ceiling and seriously damaging the lecture hall’s roof.

Then-president Robert Whipple had to reach into his own pocket to fund the necessary repairs, during which time membership sank to an all-time low.

But as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Highgate residents started to sign up again.

Today, the society has about 1,100 members and not only offers lectures and classes, but also hosts a film group, opera circle, theatre club and a science group.

“We always need members,” Mr Hodge added. “People are always welcome to join, and we particularly like the idea of having people with young children as we work very hard on our children’s library.”

Mr Hodge was joined by seven other speakers at the anniversary celebration to give talks about all aspects of the institution, from its founding through to the present day.

For more information, visit www.hlsi.net/default.aspx