Highgate Lads and Countrymen
“On moonlit heath and lonesome bank”: An engraving by Agnes Miller Parker for the 1940 edition of “A Shropshire Lad” (©COURTESY OF LITTLE, BROWN
Highgate Woods, complained A.E. Housman, had been ruined by developers. In a letter to the Standard newspaper in 1894, ironic and disdainful, he wrote that only a few years ago so thickly were the woods overgrown with brushwood “that if you stood in the centre you could not see the linen of the inhabitants of Archway-road hanging to dry in their back gardens. Nor could you see the advertisement for Juggins’ stout and porter which surmounts the front of the public house at the south corner of the Wood.”
If one wanted to see the scarlet flannel petticoats much worn by the girls of Archway, he continued, one now had only to repair to the centre of the woods. A few screening trees still stood, Housman noted. Mightn’t the authorities cut those down, too, to give walkers a clear view of the railway lines and the new red-brick villas on the east side of the wood? He had all but given up on Highgate and was taking his daily afternoon walk on Hampstead Heath, though even there the developers were doing their worst.
Who were the middle-class upstarts moving to the new streets of Highgate and Hampstead? One of them was Arthur Waugh, prolific book reviewer — more than 6,000 in his lifetime — and publisher’s adviser, who in 1895, the year Housman was writing A Shropshire Lad, moved to 11 Hillfield Road, a Victorian terraced house in a cul-de-sac. Here he and his wife Kate got to grips with the craze of the decade: the safety bicycle. In July 1898 their first son Alec was born, followed by Evelyn in October 1903. “Oh good,” said the cricket-mad Alec, “now we’ll have a wicketkeeper.”
In 1907, the family moved to Underhill, a new-build suburban villa on the North End Road, on what had formerly been open fields. Evelyn later wrote that his father had been among the area’s first “spoliators”.
It was perhaps a mercy that by this time Housman had escaped the banging of Hampstead bricklayers for Pinner in Middlesex, where he lived with his landlady from 1905 until 1911 when he accepted the Chair of Latin and a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge.
It is curious that Housman wrote his Shropshire elegies — in “willy-nilly” order as they came to him — at 17 North Road, Highgate, hemmed in by rising brick terrace and banners for Juggins’ Stout, while Evelyn Waugh could only write his novels of London parties, clubs and society by escaping to Oxfordshire pubs and the country houses of sympathetic friends.