Mystery Tunnel in Highgate



The image to the right – which you may recognise from this site’s banner – is used with kind permission of the Bishopsgate Institute who are very enthusiastic about this project. You can click, and then click again on the top right “X” to enlarge it for a better look.

The image is part of a collection of glass slides which were donated to Bishopsgate by the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society or LAMAS for short. The problem is that much as a dedicated team of volunteers have created a fantastic archive for us all to enjoy, they often had little to work with aside from faded old sellotaped-on labels when it came to identifying a lot of the locations featured in the slides.  You can read what finally made its way into the catalogue by way of a description here, where the tunnel is described as ‘Old Highgate Archway Underpassage’.

When I first approached the institute about the image, I found myself sharing their sneaking suspicion that the tunnel in the photograph may not be a representation of an underground foot passage by Archway Bridge, where the old Archway Tunnel was previously attempted.  The tunnel collapsed in 1812, resulting in the creation of Archway Road, and in 1813 the construction of the original bridge by which Hornsey Lane could continue to cross the thoroughfare.

An original £50 share in the Highgate Archway Company from 1810. The tunnel was not to be.
An original £50 share in the Highgate Archway Company
The original Archway Bridge
The original Archway Bridge


The present bridge, known locally as Suicide Bridge, was constructed around 1897 and opened in 1900. I am not aware of a present day footpath beneath the bridge.  Maybe everyone else knows about it except me, as I tend to get the bus down and especially UP Archway Road!

Archway Bridge in 2005
Archway Bridge in 2005

The mysterious image in question has been reproduced in various places on the internet without permission – perhaps more annoyingly without a correct description. Sometimes it is described as dating from circa 1920 whereas it’s faded label stated 1890. It is also sometimes described as the man-made tunnel of 1855 which leads from the chapel in Highgate Cemetery West under Swains Lane to the East Cemetery. I would think most readers would agree that the tunnel in the image certainly does not look practical for a coffin and pallbearers to navigate. Plus, it shows natural daylight, and electric light – not commensurate with the tunnel under Swains Lane.

Tunnel underneath Swains Lane seen from Highgate Cemetery East Photo taken by John Gay (c) English Heritage
Tunnel underneath Swains Lane seen from Highgate Cemetery East Photo taken by John Gay (c) English Heritage

Bishopsgate hold their hands up to not knowing exactly where this photograph was taken. If any readers have any suggestions, they are warmly encouraged to put them forward below! But I think I may have found the answer, thanks to “The Growth of Muswell Hill” by Jack Whitehead which is available in hardcopy from Amazon but also online. From Whitehead’s research I learned that by 1890

the 18 foot width of the roadway had become far too narrow for the traffic. Path-ways for pedestrians were opened up through the side arches, leaving the centre one solely for traffic.

The illustration below may well solve our mystery – that faded old label WAS right all along! Unless anyone out there knows otherwise …

This one’s for you, Stefan Dickers – thanks for all your help!

Nash's original Archway Bridge - longitudinal view - circa 1890
Nash’s original Archway Bridge – longitudinal view – circa 1890

8 thoughts on “Mystery Tunnel in Highgate”

  1. By chance after reading about this tunnel I lighted on this explanation in The History, Topography and Antiquities of Highgate (

    After various attempts to render the ascent of Highgate Hill less
    difficult and dangerous, a scheme was projected in 1809, by Mr. Robert
    Vazie, for diverting the road and forming a subterraneous arch, or tunnel,
    24 feet wide, 18 feet high, and 375 yards (afterwards altered to 358
    yards) long, through the body of the hill. The original plan of Robert
    Va/.ie was subsequently altered under the advice of Mr. Rennie, the civil
    engineer, who recommended the tunnel to be shortened, at least from 358
    to 255 yards, by open cuttings of 45 yards on the north and 58 yards on
    the south side of the hill, and Mr. Rennie recommended further open
    cuttings, to the extent of 44 yards, if the Company could agree to the
    expense, thus reducing the length of the tunnel to 211 yards; and a
    private Act was obtained, in May 1810 (50 Geo. III., c. 88), incorporating
    the proprietors by the title of ” The Highgate Archway Company.”
    This Act placed the affairs of the Company under twelve Directors,
    to be elected annually, and authorised them to raise ^”40,000, by shares
    of ^”50 each, with an additional sum of ,20,000, if necessary, and empowered
    them ”
    to levy perpetual tolls, not exceeding sixpence for every
    horse or other beast drawing any carriage ; not exceeding threepence
    for every horse or mule not drawing a carriage ; not exceeding twopence
    for every donkey ; and not exceeding one penny for every foot
    The work was commenced, and the tunnel constructed, to the length
    of about 130 yards, when the whole fell in, with a tremendous crash, on
    the morning of the i5th April, 1812, fortunately before the workmen had
    commenced their labour for the day Hornsey Lane, although rendered
    impassable for carriages, was nevertheless traversed by foot passengers,
    who descended into the hollow formed in the sunken road, and ascended
    on the opposite side. A row of trees on the north side of the lane presented a singular appearance, by their heads closing in upon each
    The scheme was then altered, in accordance with the plans and
    recommendations of Mr. John Nash, and an open road, in the line of
    the intended tunnel, was formed. A further Act was obtained in 1812
    (25 Geo. III., c. 146), enabling the Company to raise further capital to
    the extent of .70,000.
    This road, by which upwards of 100 yards are saved, and the hill and
    village both avoided, was opened on August 2ist, 1813. It passes under
    an arch, over which Hornsey Lane, an ancient cross-road, is continued.
    The foundation stone of the arch was laid on October 2 ist, 1 8 1 2 ; it is built
    of brick, faced with stone, and surmounted by three semi-arches, supporting
    a bridge, along which the lane passes, and is 64 feet in height
    and 36 feet in width.
    The failure of the tunnel was not the only, or the chief difficulty in
    making the road. The subsoil was sand and gravel, and the road being
    in a deep cutting was exposed to the frequent and sudden influx of water,
    and all attempts to form a firm roadway for a time were unsuccessful.
    The road, it is true, was formally opened in 1813, but after trying
    numberless experiments, at a great outlay, the works were practically
    unfinished till 1829; when, by extensive and judicious drainage, and by
    laying the road metal in a thick bed of Roman cement, Telford, with his
    able assistant Macneil, brought the road into an excellent state. So marked
    was the success, that the Archway Road occupies an important place in the
    annals of road-making ; whilst the experience gained from the failure of
    the tunnel is said to have been of material service to Stephenson in constructing
    his early ‘railway tunnels through the London clay.
    The disastrous issue of the tunnel was made the subject of a dramatic
    entertainment, called “The Highgate Tunnel, or the Secret Arch,”
    introduced at one of the London theatres. 1
    The total capital of the Company, raised by shares, mortgages, and
    annuities, amounted to ^103,608 155., which was spent on the work and
    its approaches.
    The original Act gave the proprietors the right of exacting toll in
    perpetuity, but a dispute having arisen with the Government who had,
    under the powers of the 9 Geo. IV., c. 75 (an Act for Improving the
    Mail Road between London and Holyhead), become large creditors of
    the Company for moneys expended in improving the road and for interest
    thereon and the Highgate Archway Company, being unable, owing to
    the traffic being diverted to the Railway, to pay the amount claimed as
    due from them, an arrangement was made with the Government in 1861,
    in accordance with the Act 24 and 25 Viet., c. 28, by which the Company agreed to pay ^9,000 in satisfaction of the Government debt, in fifteen
    years from April 1861, by annual sums of ^400 for the first five years,
    ^600 for the second five years, and 800 for the third five years ; and at
    the end of such fifteen years namely, in April 1876 the toll was to
    cease, and the road was to become reparable by the parishes of Islington
    and Hornsey, through which it passed. The compromise authorised by
    this Act was duly carried out, the tolls ceased, and the road was thrown
    open to the public on the 3Oth April, 1876.
    For many years no dividend was paid to the shareholders, the toll
    being barely sufficient to keep the road in repair and to pay the necessary
    expenses, and the shares were considered worthless, but, as the value of
    land in the neighbourhood increased, the Directors were enabled to sell
    off the surplus land in their possession, and to recoup the existing proprietors
    almost the whole amount of their shares.
    The object for which the Company was formed having been attained,
    it is now in course of winding-up under the provisions of a Private
    Act, passed May 1884 (47 Viet., c. 21), empowering them to clo so,
    and probably before the close of the current year (1887) it will become

  2. Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. And do you know, I think you may have gone some way to solving the mystery! I have been debating the tunnel in emails with another reader, and he was puzzled that the tunnel does not appear to be straight, and may therefore be somewhere else, perhaps in a raised basement at Holly Lodge. However, as we can see in the image in your link, the tiny door to the tunnel is cut at a right angle into the bank, so it would have to curve to get through to the other side. In this later image we can also see that a wall has been built around the suspected path to the tunnel, and that a lamp identical to the one in the mystery pic is mounted on the wall of the main archway. Additionally, two grilled windows have been cut into the archway, which would account for the light source on the left of the mystery pic! Thanks so much!


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