On 16 January 1839 Harry Chester, a young civil servant and Highgate resident, called a public meeting in the Gatehouse tavern. He had been caught up in the movement sweeping the country in the wake of the Reform Bill of 1832. Groups all over Britain were starting societies – Literary & Scientific Institutions and Mechanics Institutes – where people would be helped to better understand new developments in industry and discoveries in science.

Chester wanted to form ‘a society for the improvement of the mind … in subservience to the interests of morality and the glory of God’. A provisional committee was elected and some seventy people joined on the spot – gentlemen, professional men, schoolmasters and local shopkeepers, a representative cross section of the life of the village at that time. The committee got busy, drafted rules and began to look for premises. Another meeting was called; the members now included ten women. Rooms were rented in Southwood Lane where a library and reading room were set up. Lectures were held in the Gatehouse until permanent premises were found in 1840, the handsome building in South Grove which the HLSI still occupies today.

Harry Chester was chosen to be the first President. His portrait, and those of all the forty-six presidents who succeeded him, hangs in the downstairs corridor of the Institution. Until 2002 the presidents were men. All deserve our gratitude and admiration: they steered the HLSI through good times and bad, and it is one of very few such institutions remaining in the country. At the start, ‘discussions and debates’, or eating and drinking were forbidden in any of the rooms. ‘Irrational or demoralising novels and romances’ were banned from the library, for such reading ‘effeminates the mind, and lowers the whole tone of the character’. Today we are pretty well without taboos. We may have lost the religious fervour of our founders but not their enthusiasm and missionary spirit.

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