Category Archives: Science & technology

Scenes From a Regency Childhood – glimpses of a young Charles Darwin

This little boy is Charles Darwin, aged 7, painted in 1816. It is difficult sometimes to remember that great men and women, whose images we are so used to seeing when they are in their prime, actually had a childhood! Darwin is such a key figure in the Victorian world that coming across two locations that link to his childhood took me by surprise.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1809 and he was baptised (despite his father being a free-thinker) in the church of St Chad’s in the town. St Chad’s was then a virtually new church, a stunning circular building built in 1792 and designed by Scottish architect George Steuart. In the interior view the altar and stained glass are Victorian additions – in Darwin’s youth there would have been a three-decker pulpit in the centre, in front of the altar steps.

I was hoping to see the font where Darwin was baptised, but that was a silver basin which was later replaced by this one in oolitic limestone. I love the fact that it is full of fossils, a clue to the evolution Darwin so controversially revealed.

One final Darwin childhood scene I discovered in Shrewsbury was this rather plain house on Claremont Hill.

The house was built in 1689 and between 1715 and the 1920s was the manse for the Unitarian minister for the town. Many of Darwin’s family were Unitarians and the house also served as a school giving non-Trinitarian teaching. Both Darwin and his sister attended here in 1817 and I could just picture them climbing those steps. It has another Darwin connection – the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a candidate for the ministry here until a grant from Darwin’s grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, enabled him to work independently on his radial politics and philosophy.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Education, Science & technology

The Story of a Square 3: Lincoln’s Inn Fields

lincolns-inn0001

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the largest square in London and records exist concerning it from the 14th century when it really was a field – or rather, two – Purse Field and Cup Field. They adjoined the west wall of the grounds of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, and were the natural playground for the legal students’ ball games. The survival of this vast open space in the middle of the city, surviving Stuart property developers and massive Victorian road improvements and slum clearance, is due to an early example of NIMBYism.

In the Middle Ages, and well into the 17th century, there was nothing resembling a civilized park – the fields were leased out as pasture and, occasionally, used as places of execution. In 1586 the Babington Plot conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered there, Catholic martyrs were burned in the 1580s and Lord Russell was beheaded in about the centre in 1683 for his involvement in the Rye House Plot.

As London expanded outwards developers began to cast an eye over such a tempting expanse of open ground and the first attempt to build a house there was in 1613. This was successfully resisted by the Society of Lincoln’s Inn – lawyers powerful enough to influence the government on the subject. It was clear that improving the open space would assist in preserving this asset, so the Society and the neighboring parishes petitioned Charles I in 1617 that “for their general Commoditie and health [the fields should be] converted into walks after the manner of Morefeildes.” The proposal appealed to the King and the Privy Council supported the scheme “as a means to frustrate the covetous and greedy endeavors of such persons as dailye seeke to fill up that small remainder of Ayre in these parts with unnecessary and unprofitable Buildings.” Resistance to developers seems to be as strong then as it it now.

Neither development nor improvement as an ordered public space happened immediately, but in the 1630s the leaseholder of the fields petitioned the King to allow the building of 32 houses. After some wrangling the permission was granted but the developer agreed that the centre of the area was  “for ever and hereafter to be open and unbuilt.” The houses were built by 1641 and the area became a fashionable place to live despite the Fields themselves being a dangerous place with fights and robberies (and the odd execution) commonplace.

In 1716 John Gay wrote  in Trivia that, despite the square being railed, it was unwise to venture in at night. The beggar that the benevolent pedestrian had given coins to during the day would turn his crutch into a weapon at night “and fell thee to the ground” and the linkboy offering to guide him through the area will lead him into the clutches of robbers and “quench the flaming brand and share the booty with the pilfering band.”

Nell Gwynne had lodgings here, and another of Charles II’s mistresses, the Duchess of Portland, had a house. Numerous aristocrats, politicians and high-ranking lawyers lived around the Fields in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries but the person whose name is nowadays most closely associated with the square is the architect Sir John Soane. His house is now one of the most atmospheric and eccentric museums in London and is located in the middle of the north side. The print at the top of this post, from Ackermann’s Repository, shows the view from the north-west corner in 1810 and you can get more or less the same view today by standing at the point where Gate Street and Remnant Street enter the Fields. (The Remnant name reflects the fact that this was once the end of Great Queen Street before the Victorians drove Kingsway through the tangle of medieval streets to the west of the Fields.)

The tall buildings to the right of the print occupy the site of what is now the Royal College of Surgeons which contains the extraordinary Hunterian Museum, a fascinating, if gruesome place to visit for anyone interested in the history of surgery and anatomy.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is included in Walk 7 of Walking Jane Austen’s London (an excellent stocking-filler for any history buff’s Christmas stocking!) As well as the two museums there are still a number of fine 18th century houses and the gardens themselves to enjoy – open to the public since 1894.

 

Save

Save

Save

2 Comments

Filed under Buildings, London Parks, Science & technology, Walks

Captain James Cook 1728-1779

Jane Austen was born in 1775, four years before Captain James Cook was killed in Kealakekua Bay in the Hawaiian Islands, so he might seem somewhat early for this blog. Yet Cook was one of the pioneering explorers and scientist who created the world Jane lived in, a world of scientific discovery and dynamic maritime trade with London at its centre. (The portrait below is c1775, by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland)

Plus I seem to be bumping into Captain Cook everywhere I go on holiday!

captainjamescookportrait

At the age of eighteen, after a prosaic start in life on a Yorkshire farm and as a shopkeeper’s assistant, Cook was apprenticed to John Walker, master mariner, at Whitby. The red house in the photo is where Cook lived, occupying the attic with the other apprentices.apprentice-house

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where I met him most recently, landing by Zodiac from a small ship and seeing the lovely little port somewhat as Cook had seen it. A half-scale replica of his little ship, The Endeavour, is tied up in the harbour (picture below, right). Even at twice the size it is hard to imagine circling the globe in her.

In 1755 Cook, by then a mate on a merchant ship, joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer and proceeded to demonstrate what a farmer’s son, with a village school education, talent and ambition could achieve in the navy. By 1763, at the age of thirty five he was appointed Surveyor of Newfoundland and in 1768, Lieutenant Cook, in command of the Whitby collier Endeavour, was tasked with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.

endeavour

Observations of the planet Venus passing in front of the sun from various positions on the globe would, the astronomer Edmond Halley predicted, enable the distance of the earth from the sun. (Too complicated to go into here, but there’s a useful explanation on this site).

The Admiralty needed a navigator with exceptional accuracy and rigour and had chosen well: Cook made the observation successfully, then went on to complete the circumnavigation of New Zealand, landing in the bay he called Ship Cove. He revisited the Cove again on his voyage. He went on to survey the east coast of Australia, landing at Botany Bay. (Below: Ship Cove by John Webber, 1778 and the modern memorial in the cove)

ship-cove

cook-memorial

Cook returned home in 1770 and was then sent on his second great voyage in 1772 which involved sailing around the world from west to east, making Cook the first man to have circumnavigated the globe in both directions. He explored far into the south towards what we now know is Antarctica, seeking for the great southern landmass that was believed to exist. His was the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle and he returned with evidence that the southern continent, of which Australia was supposed to be part, did not exist.

He landed in New Zealand again and we were lucky enough to visit Pickersgill Harbour, a tiny, wild patch in the South Island’s fjord area that Cook had used for observations. It still looked just as the artist had depicted, even to the fallen trees that Cook made such good use of – ideal for the shallow-drafted Endeavour. (Below: on-site information board and Pickergill Harbour today)

dusky-sound-notice

pickersgill-harbour

On his way home Cook explored Easter Island, the Tongan Islands, aNew Caledonia and the New Hebrides, returning in 1775.

On his third voyage , beginning 1776, he landed in Tasmania, revisited New Zealand and landed in Tahiti and Tonga. In 1778 he was the first westerner to see the Hawaiian islands but carried on to attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Stopped by ice he returned to winter in Hawaii, but on 14th February 1779 he was killed, along with four marines, when a dispute with the islanders exploded into violence.

It was a tragic incident, not least because Cook had been rigorous in setting out rules for his crew to ensure their interactions with the local people was peaceful and fair wherever he landed. It seems that Hawaiian society was very different from the southern Pacific peoples he had become used to and a series of tragic misjudgements and misunderstandings led to the fight.

His body was disembowelled, baked and the bones carefully cleaned and removed, all in accordance with local customs showing respect for dead chiefs and important elders. The crew managed to reclaim some of the remains which were buried at sea.

Cook was only fifty one at the time of his death and one wonders what discoveries he would have made if he only had a few more years to explore.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

3 Comments

Filed under Science & technology, Travel

Georgian Comet-Mania and the Man Who Began It

Last month I set out to research the Bath Road and stayed for a few days in Bath. Although I hadn’t intended finding out about the astronomer Sir William Herschel I found he was hard to miss and soon realised that his would have been a name on everyone’s lips in Georgian London – the instigator of a Georgian “comet craze.”

Looking at the comet.

“Looking at the comet.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born in 1738 in Hanover, Germany which was, at the time, also ruled by the King of England, George II. His father was an army musician and he followed in his footsteps, joining the band of the Hanoverian Guards. When  the French occupied the state in 1757, he came to England, embarked on a career in music and in 1766 he was appointed organist of a fashionable chapel in Bath.

His music seems to have been accompanied by an interest in mathematics which led him to the science of optics and the construction of telescopes and from there to the study of the night sky.

Before long William was determined to study the distant celestial bodies, and as this meant he needed telescopes with large, exceedingly expensive, mirrors he began to produce his own from discs of copper, tin, and antimony. What he wanted proved beyond the local foundries so he started to cast his own in 1781 in the scullery of his house. His early efforts resulted in floods of molten metal across the floor – the cracked flagstones are still visible in the photograph below– and almost poisoned himself with the toxic fumes. Eventually he was making telescopes which were superior to those at the Greenwich Observatory.

DSCN7353

His sister Caroline, a plain little woman whose growth had been stunted and face pockmarked by childhood illnesses, escaped a life of domestic drudgery at home in Hanover when William invited her to live with him in Bath in 1772. Like William she was an accomplished musician and gave public performances.

Soon she was drawn into her brother’s astronomical work, sitting outside in their garden (shown below) for hours at night taking notes as he studied the sky.

DSCN7352

Herschel’s fame began to spread but he became nationally known when, in 1781, he saw something that he recognised as highly unusual – he had discovered a planet. He called it after the king, but the astronomical establishment insisted on Uranus – the first new planet to have been discovered since ancient times.

William was awarded the Copley Medal, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, given a royal pension of £200 which enabled him to devote himself entirely to science and was appointed as astronomer to

Caroline Hershel

George III. The Herschels moved to Datchet, near Windsor Castle because the royal family insisted on having ‘their’ astronomer on hand to give demonstrations.

He gave his sister her own telescopes and, as well as recording his observations, she began her own work, studying nebulae and the deep sky, searching for comets and making her own highly significant contributions to the science. Eventually they moved to Observatory House Slough in 1786 (demolished with a fine disregard for history in 1960) which sat right by the Bath Road. A vast shopping centre now covers the site.

In 1789 he constructed in the garden a vast telescope (left) with a focal length of 12 metres (40 feet).herschel-40-foot-telescope-e1426015573941 Herschel was knighted in 1816 and died in 1822 while Caroline lived to be 98, dying much honoured by the scientific community in 1848. She held the record for the number of comets discovered by a woman (eight) until 1987. (She is caricatured, right)

With the flood of new astronomical sightings the public interest was caught and  “Comet-mania” swept the country. Gentlemen could purchase a cometarium to study them, an expensive little instrument. “A Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical & Philosophical Instruments made and sold by W & S Jones 135, next Furnival’s Inn, Holborn London” lists them: “Cometariums for exemplifying the motion of comets from £1 11s 6d to £5. 5s.” cometarium

Comets became a source of popular entertainment, speculation, wild theories – and proved irresistible to the cartoonists.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy at 19 New King Street, Bath preserves William and Caroline’s Bath home, right down to the cracked paving slabs and the garden where they did so much of their early work. (Their dining room is shown below with a full-size replica of one of the telescopes Herschel used in the room beyond.)

DSCN7351

9 Comments

Filed under Regency caricatures, Science & technology, Women

Electrical Sparks, Icy Draughts and Pendulous Parts – Dr James Graham and the Celestial Bed

Catherine MacauleyPopular science has always attracted the gullible and those who prey on them and a combination of sex and science is an almost infallible recipe for making money. Or so the notorious Dr James Graham thought – and for a few years he was proved right.
Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh where he was born in 1745 and, although he does not appear to have taken the examinations, began to style himself Doctor. He sailed to Baltimore in 1769 where he encountered the new craze for electricity – Philadelphia was full of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods – and began to form his theories for the prolongation of life and vigour.catherine-macauley
On his return to England in 1774 the “doctor” set up a practice in Bristol promoting health, long life and happiness through a regime of healthy living involving eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, taking exercise and ensuring bodily hygiene by the application of quantities of cold water. The basic routine would doubtless be approved by modern doctors and there is no evidence that it did not genuinely help his patients. But Dr Graham’s money-making twist was to add electricity, promoting it as a miraculous aid to long life and health.
He was so successful that he moved to Bath, by which time his approach was gaining a reputation for increasing vigour and especially for improving patients’ sex lives, helping cases of infertility and curing impotence by applying “Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric.”
While in Bath he met Mrs Catherine Macauley, a 46 year old widow who was feted for her intellectual activities and egalitarian views. This meeting provided him with a fortuitous piece of PR when his brother, a 21 year old surgeon’s mate, was introduced to the lady and they married almost immediately. The resulting gossip and scandal was a wonderful advert for the older brother’s treatments – here was a middle aged woman who, rejuvenated, could satisfy her lusty young husband. The lady shown in the portrait (above right) would not appear to be someone much amused by such talk.
In July 1780, on the wave of celebrity that the Macauley scandal produced, Graham moved to London and opened the Temple of Health (or Temple of Hymen) in Adelphi Terrace, the hugely fashionable new development by the Adam brothers. (Shown below) Adelphi
The Temple’s centrepiece was a suggestively phallic electrical conductor with a pair of semi-globes attached. The whole place was scented, cunningly lit, luxurious and mysteriously erotic. Electricity was generated by a series of Leyden jars to produce sparks, flashes of lightning and spectacular effects and soon the Temple was hung about, as one visitor observed, with “walking sticks, ear trumpets, visual glasses etc left and placed as most honourable trophies by deaf, weak, paralytic and emaciated persons, cripples etc. who being cured had no longer need of such assistance.”
It proved so successful that Graham opened a second Temple at Schomberg House in Pall Mall with the infamous Celestial Bed, stuffed with wild oats and hair from the tails of, naturally, stallions. Draperies, lights, mirrors, organ music and perfume and the enticements of Vestina, Goddess of Health created an exotic sexual playground. Rumour has it that Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, played the role of Vestina, but this is now disputed.
Graham claimed that the bed, surrounded by lodestones or magnets, was an aid to pleasurable sex and the creation of healthy offspring. Charges to use it are said to range from 50 guineas to £100 a night.Celestial Bed
To quote one of his pamphlets, “The venereal act itself, at all times, and under every circumstance, is in fact no other than an electrical operation…those heart-piercing and irresistible glances shooting at critical moments from soul to soul are no other than electrical strokes or emanations.”
Nor was it all luxury. Dr Graham had not lost his enthusiasm for very cold water and recommended washing the genitals in it frequently, especially “…certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be[come] like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet.”
For many people these claims fed into popular beliefs about Animal Magnetism and a new interest in the workings of the body. But more critical observers saw through his claims from the start – Horace Walpole remarked it was “the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw.”
By the 1780s debts and scepticism overcame Graham and he had to sell up. He fled to Edinburgh where he was gaoled for “publishing lascivious and indecent Advertisements & delivering wanton & Improper lectures.”
He gave up his electrical therapies and developed new theories on the virtues of mud baths which he claimed were the secret to immortality. Perhaps influenced by popular tracts on the virtues of sea bathing, which maintained that valuable mineral salts could be absorbed through the skin by immersion, he argued that soaking in mud would allow all the nutrients essential for life to be obtained. He claimed that he himself had lived for two weeks immersed in mud with only a little water to drink. The fact that this would be a miserable existence did not appear to have occurred to him.

SONY DSC
Somehow, by 1786, he was back in London in Panton Street, Soho, with an establishment promoting mud-bathing – demonstrated by semi-naked women.
He became steadily stranger and, in the grip of religious mania, founded “the New Jerusalem Church” which attracted no followers at all. His extreme behaviour escalated and eventually he was arrested in 1793 for persistently stripping off his clothes as he walked and handing the garments to the poor. The unfortunate Dr Graham died soon afterwards at the age of 49.
The connection of electricity, magnetism and sex did not however die out with the disappearance of the Celestial Bed. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, for example, included Miss Harriet Jones who practised the “Grahamitic method”. She was, apparently, a “desirable bed-fellow who after every stroke gives fresh tone and vigour to the lately distended parts.”
The red brick Schomberg House – without the Bed, unfortunately – can still be seen in Piccadilly on the South side, just past St James’s Palace. (Detail of the front shown right) Later it housed the upmarket and fashionable draper Harding, Howell and Co. (shown below. Ackermann’s Repository 1809)) but there are no reports of any beneficial electrical impulses lingering and the ladies shopping in the fabrics department appear decidedly calm.

Harding, Howel0001

 

6 Comments

Filed under Love and Marriage, Medicine & health, Science & technology, Sex & scandal

Bell Rock Lighthouse – A Regency Engineering Marvel

I’m back north of the Border again for today’s blog, visiting an engineering feat by one of Regency Britain’s greatest engineers which, although located in Scottish waters, imust have been a wonder for the entire country. When I was in the delightful little fishing port of Arbroath ( in pursuit of the famous and delicious Arbroath Smokies) I spotted an elegant and unmistakeably Regency building on the shore. It looked like a miniature lighthouse but turned out to be the signalling station for the Bell Rock lighthouse and home to the families of the lighthouse keepers.

04-DSCN9403

Bell Rock is 11 miles (18 km) off the coast at Arbroath and is part of the lethally dangerous Inchcape reef that had proved a major hazard to shipping on this busy coastal route for centuries. In the Middle Ages an abbot had a bell fixed to a floating platform anchored to the reef, which was some warning, but the frequent storms repeatedly destroyed it. The reef is virtually invisible except at low tide when about four foot of it is above the water. Building a lighthouse seemed an almost impossible technical feat, but following the loss of HMS York with all hands in 1806 pressure grew for a solution. In that year a bill was passed through Parliament for a stone tower at a cost of £45,000 to be paid for by a duty on shipping between the ports of Peterhead and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Two of the greatest engineers of the day were inv12-DSCN9411olved – John Rennie, who as Chief Engineer, was responsible overall for the project, and Robert Stevenson, who as Rennie’s assistant and the resident engineer, risked his life on the reef along with the workmen. On shore the signalling station allowed communication with the lighthouse and provided a home for the keepers’ families and accommodation for them when they were not on duty. Now it is an excellent little museum all about the Bell Rock and its construction.

This photograph is of one of the models in the museum showing the difficulties that Stevenson had to overcome to build the lighthouse. First a wooden tower was built to house the men when the tide came in and then, whenever there was low water, they came out onto the exposed reef and worked on the tower itself, building it up with a jigsaw of interlocking stone blocks that had been cut during the winter months when no building could take place on the rock. The ingenious design of the blocks is shown in this model.
11-DSCN9410Despite the dangers and difficulties the tower was completed in only four years and became operational in 1811. It has been in continuous operation ever since, saving innumerable lives. These days the light is fully automated.

Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) was educated at a charity school when the death of his father left the family almost destitute. His future career was determined when he was fifteen and his mother married Thomas Smith, a tinsmith, lamp maker and mechanic who was engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Robert became his assistant and by the age of nineteen had built his first lighthouse on the River Clyde. Bell Rock is considered his masterpiece, but he was responsible for many other lights as well as roads, bridges, harbours, canals, railways, and river navigations. Three of his sons followed in his footsteps as civil engineers and his grandson was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Science & technology, Transport and travel

Receiving the News – the Telegraph System

In my blog posts about the weeks leading up to the battle of Waterloo I mentioned how long it took for the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba to reach Paris. This was particularly surprising because the French had a magnificent telegraph system – defeated on this occasion, just when it was needed most, by poor visibility. The first visual telegraph system was the invention of Claude Chappe, a French engineer, working with his brothers. The French government seized on the invention and installed a network of 556 stations covering the entire country. Stelegraph codestations were updated and added to and the system continued in use until the 1850s when electric telegraphy took over. A Chappe telegraph and the posible positions are shown on the left.
During the French wars the Allies were handicapped by poor communications while the French had this excellent system – provided visibility was good. The brothers invented a simple and robust system with two arms, each with a short upright at the end. This could be controlled by counterweights by one man. A message of 36 letters could reach Lille from Paris in about half an hour. Codes were also developed, so messages, including numbers, could be sent in plain, or code. in addition there was a 3-armed system  used from 1803 onwards at coastal locations to warn of invasion. The Emperor was so convinced of the benefits of the telegraph that he took portable versions with him on campaign.
The British government was quick to see that without a telegraph system they were at a distinct disadvantage. The Admiralty’s Shutter Telegraph was created in 1795 to a design by Lord John Murray and had six rotating shutters which were used to indicate a complicated code. It required a rectangular framework tower with six, five feet high, octagonal shutters on horizontal axes that flipped between horizontal and vertical positions to signal. One was set up on top of the Admiralty building in Whitehall – more or less where the modern telecommunications masts can be seen today doing much the same job.
With a staggering disregard for security it was possible to visit the telegraph station, provided one tipped the operator. Presumably only reputable persons were permitted to enter the Admiralty in the first place, but it is still hard to believe that this was not a security loophole. The newspapers kept an eye on telegraphSt Alabans activity and could deduce when something major was about to happen by the volume of traffic and where it was going, even if they could not decipher it
The first line ran from the Admiralty to the dockyards at Sheerness and on to Deal. It had 15 stations along the route and a message took an astonishing sixty seconds. The second went south from London to the naval base at Portsmouth and then on to Plymouth and was opened in May 1806. The third to Yarmouth on the east coast opened in 1808. The image on the left shows the telegraph array on top of the church on St Albans, Hertfordshire.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The intermediate stations were  wooden huts and with a staggering lack of foresight they were all abandoned in 1814 when peace was declared and had to be recommissioned hastily in March 1815 when the news of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba reached London.
When peace came the enterprising Chappe brothers promoted their system for commercial use and some of their stone towers can still be found – there is one in Saverne, for example, and one at Baccon on the Loire, just west of Orleans which I visited a few years ago. (Photo, left, shows it with its restored telegraph arms).
Later in 1815 the Admiralty secured funding for a new system using arms rather than shutters and used the system – weather permitSONY DSCting, until 1847. The brick tower on the right is the semaphore tower at Chatley Heath on the line to Portsmouth. It is now in the care of the National Trust.

7 Comments

Filed under Buildings, Napoleon, Science & technology