The tramway opened in May 1884 and ran from Archway Tavern to Southwood road. It cost 2d to ascend the hill, 1d to get off halfway and 1d to descend the hill. It was the first cable line tramway in Europe. A San Franciscan, W. W. Hansom was employed to design the line but he gave up and was replaced by William Eppelsheimer who had designed the grip system for the San Francisco cable cars. The Highgate Tramway had double decker cars carrying 26 passengers inside and a further 28 on the roof. There were 5 cars in service and the cable ran at 6.5 miles per hour.
Ironically they were using technology originally devised in the early days of the railways in Camden Town. During early industrialisation in the 19th century canals were the first modes of transport. The Regents canal had to take a curved course to the north of Regent’s park. In 1830 The London and Birmingham Railway Company planned a railway that would end in Camden Town. The north London line follows its original route. The roundhouse in Camden was for turning steam engines around. Eventually the line would connect Primrose Hill with the London Docklands. In 1835 the company was allowed to extend its line to Euston Grove. The line had been built on arches to accommodate Primrose Hill in the north had to pass over the canal and under the Hampstead road to reach Euston. This meant that the line had a 1:69 gradient between Camden Town and Euston, very steep for the engines of the time. The carriages would freewheel to Euston with a banksman in the last carriage manually applying a brake to stop in the station. The carriages had to hauled back to Camden Town by ropes operating in a continuous loop and driven by two large static steam engines in Camden Town. The system relied on the ropes being kept taught at all times, the ropes would expand with use and also with changes in weather. Robert Stephenson designed a system of movable trolleys to solve this.
Andrew Smith Hallidie was born in London in 1836 and had probably seen the railway carriages being pulled back to Camden as a youth. His father Andrew Smith had been an engineer and inventor; he held a patent for making wire rope. Hallidie trained as a mechanic and moved to San Francisco in 1852. He built various cable systems and cable suspension bridges. Including one over the Sacramento river. In 1873 he tested the first of the San Francisco cable cars using wire rope.
The cable was slotted in a concrete channel in the ground between the railway tracks and is kept moving continuously, powered by static engines at the top of the hill on the east side of the High Street in Highgate village. The cable car begins moving when a clamping device that resembles a giant pair of pliers called a grip is applied to the cable, conversely the car stops when the grip is released and the brakes applied. In order to navigate a bend the grip has to be released whilst the cable winds around a pulley and quickly reapplied afterwards.
The company was not a financial success. Service stopped after an accident in December 1892, the line opened again in 1897 and operated until 1909.
Submitted by Dilys Cowan