The 611 Trolleybus to Highgate

The following photo shows the junction of South Grove and Highgate High Street. The photo is one of my father’s and was taken in 1948:


The same view, 75 years later, in 2023:


It is remarkable that in 75 years, the buildings have hardly changed. There is now far more traffic, but perhaps the most significant change is the network of cables that were strung across the street in the 1948 photo.

The cables were to provide power for the trolleybuses that once ran up Highgate Hill.

London had both trolleybuses and trams. The key difference is that trams ran on rails, whilst trolleybuses ran on normal pneumatic rubber tyres and did not need tracks running along the road. They were therefore more flexible in movement, within the constraints of the overhead cables which provided the electrical power supply.

The photo was taken where South Grove meets Highgate High Street, and where the layout of the streets and space available provides a turning point for the trolleybuses at the Highgate end of the route.

One of the reasons for using a trolleybus rather than a tram was the steep street that is Highgate Hill. The increase in height from Archway up to the point of the photo is 226 feet in a distance of 0.7 of a mile.

The rubber tyres of a trolleybus provide a much better grip than the metal wheels and tracks of a tram, which may well have had problems trying to maintain grip whilst ascending or descending Highgate Hill.

It was the 611 trolleybus that served Highgate. The route of the 611 was between Highgate and Moorgate, with stops as follows::

  • Moorgate: Finsbury Square
  • Highbury Station
  • Holloway: Nags Head pub
  • Archway Station
  • Highgate Hill: Salisbury Road
  • Highgate Village: South Grove

During Monday to Friday, the 611 ran at a frequency of one every 5 minutes, with one every 4 minutes at peak times. On Sunday’s the longest time between 611 arrivals was 6 minutes, so it was a well served route, and ran from just after 7 in the morning until just after 11 at night.

It is a shame that my father did not take a photo of the 611 arriving and turning at the location of the photo. I do not know why he took the photo. It may have just been the architecture of the buildings and general street scenes, rather than a trolleybus, which would have been a normal sight across London in 1948.

Again, a theme throughout this blog is that it is the normal, everyday things that we take for granted, and are the things that will disappear and are worth a photo.

What did a trolleybus look like? I have not yet found a photo of one whilst scanning my father’s photos, but have found one on the Geograph site. The following photo was taken on the Romford Road at Manor Park, Ilford, and shows “two westbound trolley-buses, the front one being on Route 663”:

Attribution: Ben Brooksbank / Romford Road at Manor Park, Ilford / CC BY-SA 2.0

As can be seen from the above photo, a London trolleybus looked very much like a normal bus, but with the addition of the booms on the roof which took electrical power from the overhead wires. It was basically an electrically powered bus, and would be considered very environmentally friendly by today’s standards.

The trolleybus did not need the tracks in the street, which was a significant cost advantage for both the original construction and ongoing maintenance.

The trolleybus could move within the constraints of the booms, which rotated on the roof allowing the trolleybus to move around obstructions. Whilst this was a significant benefit in avoiding death and injury to pedestrians, it could also result in problems whilst manoeuvering, as this article from the Holloway Press on the 22nd of February 1952 demonstrates:

“Trolleybus Jammed: The crews of two L.T.E. breakdown vehicles worked for two hours on Saturday evening to free a No. 611 trolleybus which became jammed against scaffolding in Holloway Road, near Ronalds Road.

The crowded trolleybus driven by Mr. Thomas Kenefick of Lambton Road, Upper Holloway, collided with the scaffolding outside Messrs. G. Hopkins and Sons, engineers, after swerving to avoid a boy stepping off the pavement. The force of the impact burst the near-side tyre and smashed paneling on the top deck. Nobody was injured.”

The first London trolleybus service commenced in 1931, and a programme of replacement of trams by trolleybuses began, as they were far more economical and as illustrated by the newspaper article above, were a safer alternative when running along busy streets.

Trolleybuses lasted longer than trams on London’s streets, but from 1954, London Transport started to replace trolleybuses with diesel buses, and the last trolleybus ran on the streets of London on the 8th of May, 1962.

The Illustrated London News reported on the last day of the trolleybus: “The last 100 of the 1700 trolleybuses that once ran in London made their final runs on May 8th, before being honourably discharged. The changeover in South-West London began in 1959. London’s last trolleybus arrived at Fulwell, greeted by a large crowd at midnight.”

The last trolleybus service on the 611 route between Moorgate and Highgate ran on the 19th of July, 1960, after which diesel buses would take passengers up and down Highgate Hill.

In my father’s photo, there is a pub on the corner, as the street disappears down towards Highgate Hill. The pub is the Angel Inn:

Angel Inn Highgate

The pub has an interesting plaque which states that Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Drank here often and copiously”:

Angel Inn Highgate

The Angel Inn is a very old establishment, although the current building is relatively modern. The photo below shows the frontage of the Angel Inn on Highgate High Street:

Angel Inn Highgate

There has been a building on the site from at least the fifteenth century, when it was known as the Cornerhouse. From 1610, and probably earlier, it was a coaching inn, and continued in this use for the next few centuries. There is a cobbled yard round the back of the Angel where horses would have been stabled.

The earliest written reference I could find mentioning the Angel was from the Oxford Journal on the 28th of June, 1755, when “On Sunday last, about five o’Clock in the Afternoon, the Roof of the Angel Inn in Highgate was split by the Thunder and Lightning, which was very violent about that Neighbourhood.”

The Angel was completely rebuilt between 1928 and 1930 which explains why this old establishment has such a modern appearance.

The previous version of the Angel was from around 1880, when a new façade had been added to a late Georgian building.

Back to my father’s 1948 photo, and I love enlarging, and looking at the detail of some of these photos. Looking across the street, we find C.G. Willis & Son, General Ironmongers who appear to have an array of pans hanging outside the shop. The shop is now a Cafe Nero:

Highgate shop

To the right of the above shop, was Garden Layout Specialists, with a couple of small children in a pram parked outside:

Highgate shop

Garden Layout Specialists was an interesting name, and presumably refers to some type of shop selling gardening supplies. The shop is now an estate agents.

As with the above two shops, the 611 trolleybus has disappeared from the streets of Highgate.

Bus route 271 was introduced to replace the 611 trolleybus. The 271 covered much of the same route, starting from Moorgate, and later being extended to Liverpool Street.

The 271 ran until a couple of months ago, when it was replaced by the 21 and 263 routes. These two existing routes were part diverted from their original route to cover for the closed 271. All part of TfL’s gradual reduction in the number of bus routes across the city.

So there are still buses running up and down Highgate Hill, however for some exercise, and a view of some interesting buildings, it is well worth a walk up Highgate Hill.

For more of my father’s photos of Highgate, see this post on Highgate’s pubs, history and architecture.

40 thoughts on “The 611 Trolleybus to Highgate

  1. Annie Green

    I well recall riding trolleybuses when a child in Yorkshire, in the early 1960s. They seemed quite cumbersome but otherwise just like any other bus. Strange things.

  2. Maggy Simms

    Another fascinating post! Couldn’t help noticing that the buildings on the left in the second photo featured as a location in ‘The Capture’ on BBC.
    Manchester also had a trolleybus network on its eastern side, which long outlived the old trams. Now we have some trams, but no trolleybuses.

  3. Tessa

    Thanks again for another wonderful post. I live in nearby Muswell Hill. Am always particularly interested in local posts. Did your dad take any photos of Alexandra Palace? Any chance you will be doing anymore guided walks this year? I would love to join you. Such a fan of these fascinating insights. Thanks for much enjoyment over the years.

  4. Alan Walker

    Great article.

    Trolleybuses weren’t operated in preference to trams on Highgate Hill; they simply replaced the earlier tram service.

    Between 1884 and 1909 the hill was served by San Francisco style cable trams.

  5. michael chick

    Loved the recent article.
    I lived in Pemberton Terrace as a young boy and at the bottom was a bus depot, there still is. When the trolly buses came out of the garage it took them a while to climb up the road, it being quite steep. mu friends and I used to run behind the trolly bus and try and take the long bamboo cane out of its sleeve that was under the trolly bus. The long cane was used to put the arms back on the overhead cables when they were dislodged. Sometimes the conductor would ring the bell and chase us but we still tried to “steal” the canes!
    One other thing worth mentioning was the reference to how high Highgate is above sea level. In Waterlow Park which is a short walk down the hill there is a sundail which states that it is the same level as the top of the dome of St Pauls.

  6. Don

    Didn’t take the 611, but the 667 trolleybus from Hammersmith to Hampton Court was a regular part of weekend days out in my childhood. I always looked foward to claiming the front seats on the top deck, where the windows seemed massive compared to those on the ordinary buses of the time; and of course, to a child, the journey seemed to be going miles out of London..

  7. Greg

    I remember trolleybuses from my youth in Toronto. In fact, they ran until 1992, which the fleet needed to be replaced and it was decided that it was cheaper to run the regular diesel buses on the rest of the route. As Toronto had (and still has) on-street trams running in mixed traffic, one of the advantages of the trolleybuses were if a car broke down or there was an accident in the lane were a tram would run, they could divert around it by moving to another lane (the booms on the top gave enough space to be a lane either side of the overhead lines).

  8. Michael Hill

    I may be alone in this but I think the arc of overhead wires in the first photo make the scene rather more interesting than the more recent picture. A spiders web in the sky.

    1. Karen Watson

      Yes, my first thought was to recall that a major junction in the town near where I live used to be known as “Cobweb Corner”.

  9. Carole Mason

    I remember that trolley buses were very quiet as they moved along the road. Trams, by contrast, clattered along.

  10. Kim Fox

    I am not sure why trolleybuses should evoke such fond memories in me, but they do so to the extent of prompting me to reply to your posting. Unquestionably their removal from the streets was a massive own goal by the MoT – always much cheaper/greener to run than their diesel replacements, the car lobby was likely to be the main reason for their demise
    Having lived in Manor Park many years, it was joyous to see a key crossroad being highlighted – the junction of Romford Rd and High Street North. At or around the time of the photo High Street North was a major shopping destination with a music hall (East Ham Palace) at its centre of gravity. If there was ever an object lesson in the decline of the high street in the last quarter of the twentieth century, surely it is High Street North. The Palace was pulled down in the 1960’s, then became a C&A store and was last observed (we left the area a couple of years ago) as a Aldi store.

    1. David ayres

      Trolley buses no problem. It’s when you can remember riding on trams You know you are knocking on
      I need to know what year You covered the Smithfield area. I would like to find a picture of J Lyons café, which has now become Club Gascon
      Thank you for your weekly history lessons. They are absolutely fantastic David AYRES CRIPPLEGATE. WARD

  11. Nick

    A lot of people were unhappy when the tram service ended but to be honest for a city like London they weren’t very good because they were extremely slow even slower than todays bus service which is actually made slower on purpose by TFL for passenger comfort and the need to change buses because over the past 30 years many routes have been cut or split up and only night buses like N20 are a shadow of the once super long bus routes that take you from towns like Barnet to Central London. Trams are in existence in Croydon and Wimbledon but those areas are far out in suburbs and a large number of bus routes were sacrificed for it.

    Also the Northern Heights project was officially cancelled in 1950 meaning what is now parklands walk would have been a railway in 1948 when this picture was taken and that is one of many reasons for heavy traffic in the area, when we lived in Colney Hatch lane in Muswell Hill we had to use Highgate for the Northern Line or jump on the 232 bus along the north circular to Wood Green or Turnpike Lane for the Piccadilly line. It’s highly unlikely that the project will ever happen again even though Boris Johnson when mayor said he was keen to explore that option when a light railway service because it is classed as a nature reserve now.

  12. Justin Ward

    I wasn’t sure if I actually remembered them, but thanks so much for confirming that it would have been possible for me to see (and ride in) trolleybuses in London (Putney), if only up to age 6!
    And now, of course, I remember the difference the removal of the overhead cables made; it was (to a kid) as if the buses wouldn’t know which way to go.

  13. Janet Kumar

    Oh Joy, a post about the district in London where I have lived for 75 years. Born and bought up on nearby Holly Lodge Estate. Worth a post all by itself, and due to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024. My brother was in a band (or group in the 1960’s) and Graham Chapman, who lived nearby, liked the leader so used to make a nuisance of himself in the Angel where they all drank. When the landlord complained Chapman would offer to pay for any damage he had caused.
    In about 1969 my friend who worked for Apple Records, moved into a flat above Martin Motors (now Tesco on the Haringey side of the road in the village) that had just been vacated by Keith Moon, drummer of The Who. I remember going to the flat and there certainly was evidence of a very recent move by a very disorganised tenant , someone had just got up one morning and walked out leaving their furniture, clothes, food, and even a sink full of washing up in the kitchen. There was a full bottle of champagne stuck in the wall where it had been thrown and there was also a lot of newly bought stuff. I can clearly remember some rather expensive looking dresses for a small child. I had a child – and not much money – but they were all too fancy, even though my friend offered them to me.
    Most of my trolley bus recollections refer to the nearby bus terminus which was at the wide road junction where Swains Lane joined Highgate West Hill. The trolley busses arriving from Kentish Town had to negotiate the tight turnaround, attempting to keep their rooftop trolley poles attached to the overhead wires. We were always rather hopeful that they would slip off, as we were entertained by the bus conductor leaping out and pulling an immensely long bamboo pole from beneath the bus, then carefully, expertly, reaching up with it to reattach the poles to the circle of wires overhead. There was also a rather grim concrete bus shelter with a small side office for the inspector, who would emerge from time to time with a pad of bus timetables to check that they were being adhered to.

  14. David ayres

    Trolley buses no problem. It’s when you can remember riding on trams You know you are knocking on
    I need to know what year You covered the Smithfield area. I would like to find a picture of J Lyons café, which has now become Club Gascon
    Thank you for your weekly history lessons. They are absolutely fantastic David AYRES CRIPPLEGATE. WARD

  15. David AYRES

    Another brilliant article
    Trolley buses were a great mode of transport.
    They were a great improvement on the trams. They superseded, although trams are still being used in many countries.
    Blackpool is a good place if you want to try one out. Thanks again for such a good history lesson

  16. Don

    I think the trolleybuses were ultimately seen off by their relative lack of flexibility in ever-increasing traffic; even though the overhead poles allowed quite a wide arc to and from the kerb, if there was serious congestion a conventional bus stood more chance of getting round the jam. With private car ownership increasing so much by the 60s, LT, as then was, presumably decided the trolley era was over. And to bring back either trolleybuses or central London trams (which would be a real benefit) today, it’d probably be necessary to create dedicated lanes similar to cycle “superhighways”.

  17. c.dale

    Post-trolley bus era on Highgate Hill was the amazing 210 single-decker bus route. It survives today as a double decker with a slightly extended route to Brent Cross. A life-saver, in the 1960s it trundled from Golders Green Station to Finsbury Park Station passing through extended areas where no other bus route ran. It skirts Hampstead Heath and Kenwood through to Highgate Village and down the Highgate Hill all the way to Finsbury Park via Archway and Stroud Green. What a route! I picked up the bus at Whitestone Pond one late afternoon in early May 1964 and rode it all the way to see Chuck Berry at the Finsbury Park Astoria on his first concert ever in the UK. Thank you for your great post today bringing back memories.

  18. Peter Holford

    In 1959 I started secondary school and that entailed catching the trolleybus on Putney Bridge to Hammersmith Broadway. Various memories include the height of the rear entrance – it was a big step up. The early sixties was a time of tight skirts and winkle-pickers (pointed shoes). Two young women attempted to board the trolley bus but couldn’t raise their legs high enough and the points of the shoes kept catching the tailboard. The conductor pulled them up while the first one was pushed by her mate amid lots of giggling.

    They also had a fearsome acceleration compared to a bus. More than once I saw somebody attempt to board as the trolleybus moved away, usually hanging on to the rail and dragging behind before letting go as their foot missed the tailboard.

    At Hammersmith the overhead wires split into three routes that went in parallel around the Broadway. If the lever was pulled wrongly at the junction of the wires a trolleybus could find itself on the wrong line. On one occasion the arms were stretched further across the road as the bus veered away from the cables until the arms became detached, the trolleybus stopped and the arms waved manically around between the wires. At that point a very long pole that hooked over the arms was used to pull them in and track them back on the wires.

    The Routemasters that replaced them weren’t as interesting!

    Thank you for triggering some great memories. By the way, waiting for a bus on Putney Bridge in the mid-winter was a very raw and cutting experience.

    1. Lori

      It must have been the last trolleybus on the Camden Town route which my grandma and mum took me to see. They were very nostalgic about it, seeing it as an end of an era, to me as a little kid the trolleybus seemed quite scary, large, unstoppable and with sparks coming out of the top of it !
      Now my gran and mum are long gone but that day lives on. One of the reasons why
      I value this website so much is the memories it brings back for me ( and judging by the amount of today”s comments to other Londoners as well ) .

  19. Jonathan Wadman

    Trolleybuses certainly produced no emissions at the point of use, but in a time when almost all electricity was generated by burning coal I wonder how environmentally friendly they were really.

  20. Jeremy Buck

    `Photo of trolleybuses at Highgate Village here:
    As Alan says above, the trolleybuses replaced trams, Trams were double-ended so could just reverse in the main road and return to Moorgate, but trolleybuses needed space to turn round. So a couple of shops had to be demolished to make the space seeen in David’s photos.

  21. Tony

    Loved the article but needed to correct some statements about trams v trolleybusses.
    So a brief synopsis courtesy of London Transport Museum and the London Transport Omnibus Society.

    In 1884, a cable tram was introduced for Highgate Hill, the first cable tramway in Europe. this system was replaced in 1909 by electric trams.
    Tram route 11 was introduced to replace the cable tram and was able to continue to Moorgate. These trams were built with more powerful motors and brakes to cope with the steep hill.
    By 1914, the London tram operators formed the largest tram network in Europe but the onset of the Great War saw a halt in the expansion of the trams
    After the Great War, money for investment and maintenance became harder to find, as passengers migrated to the new motor bus services.
    In 1933, a unified London Transport (LT) incorporated all of London’s Underground, bus and tram networks. LT took over 2,600 trams and 327 miles of track. The system was in poor condition and in need of repair and investment.
    Increasingly, trams were seen as noisy and dangerous to road users, and costly to taxpayers. In 1931, a Royal Commission had recommended replacing trams with trolleybuses. LT adopted this policy, and the conversion programme began in 1935.
    On 10 December 1939 trolleybus route 611 replaced directly tram route 11. These trolley buses were fitted with Run Back and Coasting Brakes to cope with the steep hill.
    The trolleybus was the obvious replacement for London’s trams, being cheap to run and more manoeuvrable. Existing equipment could be easily converted at half the cost of modernising the tram system. The trolleybuses were popular. They were fast, clean and quiet, and gradually wooed passengers away from trams. At the peak of its service in 1952, following the demise of the tram, London’s trolleybus fleet was the largest in the world, with 1,811 vehicles on 254 miles of route.
    By 1940, half of London’s trams had been scrapped. Those surviving were restricted mostly to south of the river.
    Ironically, the Second World War, which was to cause so much damage to London’s transport, brought a temporary reprieve for the tram, as necessary repairs and maintenance were done to keep the system running.
    In 1946, LT announced that there would be no more tram to trolleybus conversions, and trams were to be replaced by diesel buses. This was done in stages between 1950 and 1952.
    The age of the trolleybus was short-lived. In 1954, LT decided to replace them with motor buses, including the new Routemaster. New diesel buses could use cheap fuel, readily available at the time. By contrast, the cost of maintaining and renewing electric overhead wires was high. New routes were needed to serve the growing suburban areas, and buses were not hindered by fixed overhead equipment.
    The replacement programme began in 1959. On 19 July 1960 trolleybus route 611 was replaced by bus route 271 using new Routemaster buses.
    London’s last trolleybus ran on 9 May 1962, from Wimbledon to Fulwell. After more than sixty years, electric street transport in London was at an end.

    If we ignore the cable tramway then electric trams and trolleybuses were on Highgate Hill for approximately 30 years apiece.

  22. Tony

    Just re reading my post and my calculation was wrong
    Electric trams on Highgate Hill 1909 to 1939 – 30 years
    Trolleybus 611 1939 to 1960 – 20 years

    For completeness in London as a whole the two systems operationally overlapped
    Electric trams in London 1900 to 1952 – 52 years
    Trolleybusess 1931 to 1962 – 31 years Trams in

    Electric road traction ( before second generation Tramlink) – 62 years in total

  23. Robert Wells

    It may interest you to note that Cardiff city south Wales also ran trolleybuses I lived on Clive street in the grangetown area of. The city until 1957 when we moved away.
    But I remember our area being served by the no.6 grangetown to Gabalfa trolleybuses which terminated on Clive street which was a dual carriageway so the turning of the trolleybuses was relatively simple in that it ran up to the top of the road on one side then turned around the end of the central island and ran back down the other side to do the return leg toward the city centre I’m not sure when they were replaced probably around 52-54 ? I’m not sure but it was replaced by the no. 7 diesel service at around that time. I also have a vague memory of the trams in Cardiff city but I think they must have been terminated some time earlier.
    So I guess most cities in the UK must have gone through these changes at roughly similar periods. And much later in the 1980s we were living in Blackburn Lancs and purchased furniture from a shop called Tramways on darwen street which was near the tram sheds in that town also.

  24. Paulette Herring

    I remember the trolley buses as a child – born 1950. I lived on Parkhurst Road, N7 ( just down from the Holloway Prison). No.29 bus stop down to Nags Head was just opposite us. The trolleys had a long cream coloured pole that slid away under the bus carriage. Either driver or conductor would slide it out then reach up with the hook on.the end of the pole to sort the connection to the wires. Often there would be blue sparks from the connections. I think on cold nights but not too sure about that memory.

  25. Mario Phillips

    I was so captivated by your Highgate blog my father in law was a manager there in 1974 he worked for John courage brewery I lived there with my wife for about a year and worked the bar during that time I’m a holborn lad from guildford st I wll be staying in London in may and will plan a trip to visit they angle for old time sake keep up the great work love it

  26. Andrew Sugden

    Thanks for another interesting post. What did a trolleybus look like? You are straying into some well charted territory here, but there is the David Bradley site at javascript:popUp(‘../fullsize/jane/161.jpg’,’161′,’London Trolleybus on route 611 at Highgate Village terminus’,1358,916); with a picture at almost the same angle as your’s and showing two vehicles at the turning circle. With a regular 5 minute frequency a vehicle sitting at the terminus was more likely than not, so maybe your father waited for some time in order to get a clear view! As you say, they had a similar look to an ordinary bus, but the important difference was a much larger capacity, 70 seats for a trolley v 56 seats for LT’s post war bus the RT. Thats 25% larger, so its no surprise the trolleys were used on the busy routes. Modern buses are more trolleybus sized than they were in the 1940s. Also in the picture, as you noted, is the Angel Inn, but in your father’s picture it was Ye Olde Angel Inn. In view of your notes about the rebuild c1930 I wonder when it got that name, as it was obviously false by 1948. By the 1970s that sort of wording was routinely mocked as a self conscious appeal to clueless tourists but its use in 1948 shows a longer history for heritage marketing

  27. MR Ronald Wallman

    Highgate Hill in particular was worked by cable trams but replaced by conventional trams but here, fitted with additional brakes. Later these brakes were not used as regular tram brakes were adequate. Trams can climb 1 in 10 and the tracks in Southampton Row are still there to prove it and even two motored trams such as E3 were stopped on the gradient waiting for police to wave them out of the subway. Practically every tram on this route had to start with full load on 1 in 10, not just the more powerful HR/2 types. Trams are very much histories orphan, LT only saved three out of 2600 and one of these, (LCC 108), was heavily adapted as a snow broom and finally rebuilt but not by LT and unlike LT examples can be ridden upon. Effectively LT only kept one LCC car and one West Ham car the others they had to buy back as it were. The history of London’s trams has a lot more to do with politics and especially the general incompetence of the MET police in never allowing progress until forced to. The city of London never allowed trams until they were forced to and other areas did not want common people in their areas so never allowed trams. Look at London tram map and you will see blank areas. The whole system was always controversial and the history is very complicated as catering for opinion and restrictive laws led to massively expensive and inflexible systems that was a financial liability. London trams were built to never exceed 29 MPH hence could not exceed the speed limit and did not have speedos. When the 70 MPH speed limit was imposed new Routemasters had to be allowed extra delivery time. A BEA Routemaster with a trailer on the M4 could easily leave a car such as an A35 in the dust as it disappeared. Urban myth says an ungoverned Routemaster could exceed 90MPH.


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