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Archive for the ‘Georgian period’ Category

A guest post by LH Member Rob Smith. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from March 2015.

Next time you travel from Islington to Moorgate along City Road, spare a thought for Charles Dingley. In 1763 the Trustees of the new road were eager for it to be known as Dingley Road in honour of the entrepreneur who proposed and funded it. However, Charles Dingley said he had no pretensions to such grandeur – City Road it would stay. False modesty, surely, for a man with an eventful career as an adventurous trader, banker, improver of London’s infrastructure, and a would-be politician who learnt that in elections in the 18th century you had to be handy with your fists!

Charles Dingley was born in 1711, son of a London jeweller and goldsmith. By the age of 18 he was in business with his brother Robert and made a journey to St Petersburg to visit the court of Peter II – the teenage ruler of a Russia that was in turmoil. According to one traveller at the time:
“All of Russia is in terrible disorder … money is not paid to anyone. God knows what will happen with finances. Everyone steals, as much as he can.”

The Dingley brothers were there to sell jewellery and silver plate; with little tracking of expenditure and Peter II’s love of fine things there must have been a lot of opportunities to make money. The Dingley brothers made an impression – working for the Russia Company they were granted preferential status on the trans-Caspian routes to Persia. For the next thirty years Charles Dingley and his colleague Jonas Hanway travelled Russia and Persia, initially trading British wool for silk, but soon bringing cargoes as diverse as potash, hemp, iron ore and linen back to London. One interesting cargo advertised for auction at Dingley’s warehouse at Little St Helens near Bishopsgate were 8 casks of Russia bristles – used for paintbrushes. At a time when the Ottoman Empire controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and the War of the Austrian Succession made trade through Venice difficult, the profits from trade through Russia must have been immense.

Capital grew enough to invest – in 1754 the Dingleys built two sugar refineries in St Petersburg which were managed by another London merchant, Nicholas Cavanagh. Charles Dingley’s money also made him important in banking, he was a director at the Million Bank, and during the financial panic caused by the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Dingley is one of the people who wrote to the London Gazette saying they will honour bank notes.

The Seven Years War that breaks out in 1756 saw Britain and Russia on opposite sides, making trading conditions tough for Dingley, so he sought profits closer to home. He became one of the investors in the New Road – what we now know as Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville Roads. With the main routes between the City and Westminster involving a journey through the muddy streets of St Giles and crossing the steep valley of the River Fleet there were many advantages to building a bypass through the open countryside to the North, not least as a way to reroute the vast number of sheep and cattle on the way to Smithfield Market. The time saved getting between Marylebone and Islington was obviously worth paying for – the tolls on the New Road soon paid back the investors. However, the road still dumped traffic into the crowded road south of the Angel Inn. Dingley knew that the real time savings, and hence profits would be made by continuing the New Road on to the City itself. Hence in 1760 he started the project to build what was to become the City Road. Not long after completing the road, which ended at Doghouse Bar – near Moorgate, it was described as “the finest road in all London”. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that now, but the width of the road, its pavements and its solid surface transformed East – West travel in London. Improvements like this were the only way London could carry on growing in size without grinding to a halt.

Dingley didn’t restrict his transport improvements to roads. He was responsible for improving links between the Rivers Lea and Stort, opening up cargo routes from London to and from Essex and Hertfordshire, and he also built the canal called the Limehouse Cut. This meant that timber that had arrived from Russia to Dingley’s wharfs in Limehouse could go straight into the River Lea without making a tricky journey back around the Isle of Dogs and around the crazy meanders at the end of the Lea. Dingley’s Limehouse timber yard was the focus of his next operation. With a growing city there was a voracious appetite for timber – which Dingley was able to supply from Russian imports. However it was difficult to saw the wood into planks fast enough. Dingley commissioned the building of an innovative wind powered sawmill at Limehouse. It impressed the Royal Society of Arts enough for him to be awarded a Gold Medal, and there was even a poem praising it. Others were less impressed – London sawyers regarded the sawmill as a threat to their livelihoods and in May 1767 rioters pulled it down. In the end Dingley received compensation and the sawmill was rebuilt – producing planks for new houses at a fraction of the cost of the old hand sawn methods.

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Dingley and his sawmill were depicted in a cartoon by an anonymous artist, showing him sawing through Magna Carta and The Bill of Rights. He was aiming to advance a political career, firstly by offering his Hampstead home to William Pitt. But Pitt was not a great house guest – he insisted that Dingley extend his house to provide the room he felt he deserved! Not long after this Dingley was in conflict with supporters of John Wilkes, matters coming to a head at a meeting at the Kings Arms in Cornhill. A political meeting ended up in what became known as “The Battle of Cornhill” with Dingley fighting with Wilkes’s attorney. When Wilkes stood for Parliament in March 1769 Dingley decided to oppose him. Standing against a populist candidate like John Wilkes was always going to be difficult and at the hustings in Brentford, Dingley was subject to violent attack by Wilkes’s supporters, forcing him to retreat for fear of his life. The knockout blow came from the papers though, with Dingley being accused of being unpatriotic for encouraging linen manufacture in Russia, to the detriment of weavers in London. He was also charged with evasion of stamp duty, a charge which was never proved, but Dingley withdrew his candidature shortly after the accusation was made. He died six months later.

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Dingley’s Hampstead estate went on to become what we now know as Golders Hill Park. He seems to have left few other traces. While his brother Robert had his portrait painted by Reynolds, no known portrait of Charles Dingley exists. He eschewed the chance of City Road being named after him but in the end he is commemorated by two unassuming streets in Islington – Dingley Road and Dingley Place. A shame perhaps – it was merchants like Dingley who aggressively engaged in global trade and then invested the profits in London infrastructure that allowed London to become the world’s first modern city.

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This review is a guest post by London Historians Member Hannah Renier. 

London-BridgeDorian Gerhold’s London Bridge and its Houses, 1209-1761 is a handsome illustrated volume based on extraordinary scholarship. An interest in any aspect of London before 1761 will be enriched by this book because the bridge (for almost its entire life the only one) was so intrinsically a part of Londoners’ lives.

You may already know the 1969 scale model of it, a wonderful, but static, exhibit in St Magnus the Martyr Church. Gerhold’s book offers a more dynamic view in which some of the details assumed by historians in 1969 have been revised. Here the bridge, its many inhabitants, and the events that affected it, come alive through time, thanks to diagrams, plans, plates, details from well-known images and imaginative coloured reconstructions.

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Gatefold spread pp 2-3 is a pre-1590 image from Samuel Pepys’s Library.

Peter de Colechurch and Henry Yevele were the first in a long parade of Masters employed to direct works on the bridge throughout its life. Diagrams show us exactly how, in the last decades of the twelfth century, mediaeval Londoners began to construct a bridge 283 metres long over a fierce tidal river – a feat as astonishing as today’s Tideway Tunnel project. Supplied only with manpower and horsepower, picks and shovels, winches and buckets, iron-tipped piles, tons of rubble, stone and timber, and determination, they made a populated landmark that endured, with maintenance and repair, for more than 550 years.

Almost everything on and around London Bridge changed in that time, and Gerhold has had access to the Bridge House and Common Council records among others. Copious details about the buildings, their interiors, the people who lived there and the rentals they paid are available from 1460 until the bridge’s final years, and a less complete record exists back to 1358. Essentially this was a roadway above the water from north to south, supported on 19 brick and stone piers which stood on starlings – these being east-to-west rubble-filled caissons up to fifty feet long, firmly lodged in the riverbed. As first built, it catered for commerce, religion and defence. At the north (City) end there was a convivial open space and plenty of room for upmarket shops, with modest living accommodation above, to line your path as you crossed the Thames. Near the middle stood more shops and a fine large chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. At the south (Southwark) end, from which any threat to the City was likely to come, the shops were cheaper and narrower. Heading north from Southwark you, or your horse and cart, would have to pass under a stone gateway with a portcullis, cross a military ground, and traverse a drawbridge.

With the centuries, much of this changed. The monks of the chapel had been responsible for managing London Bridge when it opened, but they agreed before sixty years had passed to cede control and income from tolls and rents to the committee of Bridge House, an entity of the City of London which owned the Southwark abutment (the wide land-based approach).

During the Reformation, the chapel was destroyed. It was eventually replaced by a large shop, warehouse and accommodation. Stocks and a cage for offenders were installed at the Southwark end. There was a licensed lady apple-seller there in Tudor times: apples for hurling, probably. At the Stone Gate, wrongdoers’ decapitated heads were displayed on poles from 1577 until 1684, says Gerhold, who likes to be accurate (other sources suggest there were heads after that). The timber-framed shops became taller, wider, deeper and more numerous; most were more than four storeys high. Waterwheels were constructed in 1590 next to the north end, to supply piped water to local houses. At the south, waterwheels drove a corn mill as well as a water supply. There were communal latrines at the north and south abutments, although the one on the City side eventually crashed into the river (while in use).

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Representative spreads from this richly-illustrated book.

With time and less civil disorder, the portcullis and the drawbridge became redundant. Commerce took precedence, and more shops were built east and west of the military ground. The road was gradually, and piecemeal, widened, although pinch-points remained. It was no ordinary road, open to the sky along its length; from the thirteenth century for at least four hundred years cross-buildings (oversails) were popular. These were rooms that spanned the entire street from house to opposing house above the traffic.

So that this ‘bridge’ would not thereby become a tunnel over the river, cross-building was permitted only at alternate houses and from the first storey upwards. This left a height clearance of under ten and a half feet – not a lot for a laden cart. From the seventeenth century new crossbuilds had to spring from the second storey. Imagine sleeping high above the Thames with a gale whipping up the current, your house-timbers groaning and your trade sign screeching. People felt safer with an oversail that would peg their vulnerable homes to both sides of the road. For the houses, with their shopfronts, were not built on top of the road – they had only a toehold on it, and their main rooms overhung the river. This was never a cantilever arrangement. Instead they were supported on, and from, the piers by massive timber hammer-beams, or stone arches.

Dorian Gerhold names the traders and makers who lived above their shops at different times, and shows how the wares they sold changed over the centuries from warlike: bows and arrows made on site and sold – to luxury:imported silks and muslins, and books. Very few alehouses were permitted (rowdiness), and pastrycooks were discouraged (fire). But the seventeenth-century bridge’s coffee houses, promising well-informed discussions of culture and politics, became popular with City men.

The shopkeepers and their families had privies, cellars (often inside the piers), counting houses, garrets and ‘water rooms’ supplied with winches and buckets to draw water from the teeming gullets under the arches. Almost all their chimneys, hearths and kitchens were high above the river. Some houses had ‘walking leads’, which this reader imagines as lead paths behind the roof balustrades, perfect for an evening stroll and a view up or down river. For a long time, the ‘House of Many Windows’ straddled the road facing south; a frontage that was almost entirely crown glass must have twinkled magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The drawbridge building, with houses at either side, was eventually replaced by the spectacularly colourful late-Tudor Nonsuch House.

The bridge was threatened throughout its existence by the tidal tumult between its arches, bitter winters with the frozen Thames expanding, and riot and revolt. Also disease: the Black Death depleted it of traders, although those who remained took the opportunity to take on neighbouring empty properties. Fire was the biggest threat of all. The massive Southwark conflagration of 1212/1213 destroyed buildings as far north as the Chapel. Most of the City end burned in 1633. The Great Fire of 1666 rushed down Fish Street Hill and Pepys watched it destroying more bridge buildings at the north end. Afterwards, London Bridge houses were exempted from the new no-timber-building rule, so nobody was surprised when in 1725 there was another big blaze.

London prospered nonetheless, and so did the 500 or so bridge-dwellers. Their tapestries, looking-glasses, tables, pictures and furnishings are documented house by house. This may make the book sound so detail-heavy as to be a mere compendium of lists, which it isn’t ¬– the drier facts and figures are tabled in appendices.

Towards the end (which may have begun with the great overhaul and sloppy rebuild of 1683-96), maintenance began to fail and corners were cut. The enormous timbers that supported the original bridge were perhaps no longer available or too expensive, but somehow regulation was relaxed with predictable results. New, poorly supported houses threatened to topple. At this time, in the early 1700s, bridges with buildings – which in the thirteenth century had been fashionable in northern Europe – were understandably considered rather a nuisance. The commercial world was in a hurry and immigrants from all over the kingdom were pouring into London. Traffic bottlenecks were bad for trade. And nearby bridges finally defeated Bridge House’s monopoly: Westminster in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Waterloo in 1815.

George Dance produced an ominous report on the high cost of repairing London Bridge. The City’s solution was house clearance. Despite protests from their inhabitants, the bridge houses were demolished, the piers cut down, an arch removed and the road widened to 45 feet. That happened between 1757 and 1761. Afterwards London Bridge was not itself. It had lost its world-class sparkle in exchange for improvements which were incomplete. It now provided clear passage for carts and carriages, but the remaining arches continued to obstruct river traffic.

Following the British victory at Waterloo, money was found and a wholly new London Bridge commissioned. In the 1820s work began on John Rennie’s sturdy and serviceable design. It was completed, a few pulls of the oars upstream, by 1831. The London Bridge, Old London Bridge which had been opened in 1209 on the site of many previous timber bridges, was demolished. It ‘vanished without leaving any visible trace’. It had been, as this book shows, one of the liveliest parts of London.


London Bridge and its Houses c1209 – 1761 (168pp) by Dorian Gerhold is London Topographical Society Publication No. 182, 2019. It is priced at £21 for LTS members*, £28 for non-members. Plus postage.

* Note that LTS members automatically get one copy of the annual book free of charge as part of their membership.

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Review: Night Raiders by Dr Eloise Moss. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Tony Moore, a former policeman and now police and crime historian.

night raidersThe day I received this book to review in June 2019, Asrit Kapaj, a 43-year-old Albanian, known as the ‘Wimbledon Prowler’, was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after netting a believed £5 million over a ten year period; it is estimated he broke into approximately 200 homes. He is just the most recent in a long line of burglars going back centuries.

The blurb on the back cover suggests Night Raiders charts how burglary has been at the heart of national debates over the meanings of ‘home’, experiences of urban life and social inequality. We are also told elsewhere that it exposes a rich seam of continuity in relation to three areas, the stereotyping of gender roles in the home, gendered forms of criminality and hierarchies of state protection against crime structured by class and wealth.

Reading that you might think it is an academic book but it is much more than that. Using official records, newspaper reports, books, films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, the author has put together a vivid account of the history of burglary, primarily concentrating on the period from 1860 to 1968. Where did the title come from? The term ‘Night Raiders’ was used by an American criminologist to describe a masked man who climbed through windows dressed in black and silently, stole items before melting away into the darkness.

Stories glamorising criminals has a long tradition in Britain, The graphical tales of Robin Hood, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, along with the modern-day, notorious Kray Brothers are prime examples. To this list, add Charles Peace, a burglar who entered homes in the Blackheath and Greenwich areas of London in the late nineteenth-century. Peace was prone to violence if confronted, and was eventually hung for murder. But what makes the book more appealing, is the author’s inclusion of fictional characters such as the Gentleman Thief, A.J. Raffles, a burglar created by Earnest Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also happened to be an excellent cricketer!

Only a few women have been the instigators of burglary. Up until 1931, when those charged with crime in London ceased to be recorded by gender, only three women were charged with burglary compared to every 120 men. Despite the small number, the author describes the activities of some of these women under the title of the Marvellous Mrs Raffles?

A chapter is devoted to the Cat Burglar, a so-called ‘professional’ among thieves because of his daring. Describing the roofs of houses as a neglected oasis of relatively unprotected access points to homes, the author claims the burglars, rather than the police, were masters of this particular landscape, As a consequence, in the 1930s, the Metropolitan Police sought younger and fitter police recruits to take part in what became a contest between law-enforcers and burglars.

Attempts to design burglar-proof homes brought a new set of visible and invisible defences with the development of technologies, including the aptly named ‘Buzzer-Light Shriek Alarm’. Security companies, some encouraged by insurance companies, were set up to handle much of this growth. From 1950 onwards, Crime Prevention Campaigns organised by the Home Office and the police, with the encouragement and support of insurance companies, were regularly held both in London and nationally.

Finally the author examines the role of spy-burglars in London during the Cold War. They were perpetrated by Russian agents living in London or by British operatives which, on occasions, resulted in escalating tensions between the Soviet and British governments. The bungalow in Ruislip, occupied by Peter and Helen Kruger, who were heavily involved in what became known as the Portland Spy Ring, was a relative fortress, given all its security devices to avoid their detection. Comparisons are drawn between these real events and the fictitious world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Given that anyone can be the victim of burglary, the book should be of interest to a wide range of readers. It will be of particularly interest to police historians, those who are responsible for designing buildings which make them less vulnerable to burglary, agents who insure property against burglary and those who are interested in fictional burglars such as Raffles.


Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968,  272pp, by Dr Eloise Moss is published by Oxford University Press on 4 July. Cover price £25.

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Review: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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It seems obvious now you mention it, but it took someone to notice and then do something about it: Hogarth’s pictures are often very noisy. Whether outdoors or in, his compositions variously feature musicians, crying babies, street criers, yapping dogs, yowling cats, noisy children, yelling crowds and sometimes all of the above. Cacophony. This new exhibition at the Foundling Museum is called Hogarth & The Art of Noise.

Anyone who knows a little Hogarth if prompted about noise, will of course cite The Enraged Musician (1741), for many, his most amusing piece.

The Enraged Musician 1741 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

The curators claim 19 sources of racket in this image. I only managed to pick out 14. How about you? Here’s a bigger version.

But the centrepiece of this exhibition, the painting from which all else in the show is derived, is the museum’s own Hogarth masterpiece: The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750). It is Hogarth at his most opinionated, prejudiced and spiky. In short, at his best. It depicts the then fairly new Guards regiments in their mitre style headgear carousing in Tottenham Court prior to marching off to quell the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Many of the noisy elements from The Enraged Musician are present – e.g. yowling rooftop cats: Hogarth was never shy of recycling a good visual joke. The point of the picture is to contrast the virility and virtue of Hanoverian Protestant Britain on the left with the weak, immoral and Catholic late Stuarts on the right.

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Larger version of this painting here.

Elsewhere in this quite small exhibition we have other examples from many of Hogarth’s work and noise, e.g. The Laughing Audience, alongside comparisons with his near contemporaries. To add further context, you can also listen via headphones to readings from Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and others.

William Hogarth and the Founding Museum are inextricably connected. He was a founding Governor of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (1739)  for (mainly) illegitimate babies. Along with GF Handel and others, he did pro bono work for the hospital, such as designing its logo, as well as participating in fund-raising art exhibitions along with contemporary artists. He and his wife Jane – childless themselves – also occasionally fostered children from the hospital at their home in Chiswick.

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition. It’s further reassuring to see one of its consultants was Elizabeth Einberg, author of  the most scholarly book on Hogarth’s work ever produced. Most of all, though, it presents the opportunity to examine a Hogarth masterpiece completely unhindered by glass, distance or crowds. Don’t miss it!


Hogarth and the Art of Noise runs at the Foundling Museum until 1 September 2019.

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Guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article was first published in our Members’ Newsletter from February 2015.

In 1775 my ancestor went to Leicester Square to see an exhibition of natural curiosities at a museum recently opened by Ashton Lever. He wrote “Went with Wife, Daughter and Son Francis to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Collection of Natural Curiositiers, and curious they indeed are. Din’d at a beefstake house.”

Lever, who went on to be knighted by George III, had been a remarkable magpie of a collector of everything from stuffed birds, historical artefacts, fossils, shells and other natural history items. For a number of years in the early 1770’s he had exhibited them to casual callers at his home at Alkrington House near Manchester. He was used to getting more than 1000 visitors in a single year, scrambling to inspect his vast collection which filled over 1300 glass display cabinets. Running an open house with that number of visitors cannot have been easy. He hit on the idea of bringing the collection to a wider audience – and that meant opening a museum in London. He chose Leicester House, and took a lease of the premises in 1774. He then spent time and a considerable amount of money, in adapting it as a suite of display rooms, twelve in all, leading off a staircase in one long gallery. Walls were knocked down, doorways opened into wide archways, so that visitors could walk through from one room to the next without hindrance, looking at the 24,000 exhibits, mostly displayed in glass cabinets.

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View of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, 1785.

He opened to the public in February 1775, giving it the name ‘Holophusicon’ (a made-up word from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’ and ‘phusikon’ meaning ‘of nature’). It must have been an extraordinary sight, with stuffed animals such as elephants and monkeys, alongside fossils and shells, stuffed birds, and Oliver Cromwell’s armour. Captain James Cook was apparently an admirer of the erudite Sir Ashton, and gave him a considerable amount of material brought back from his first and second voyages. This helped fuel a mania for Oceania – the public were enthralled at the display of artefacts from Tahiti etc, all displayed in a special Otaheite Room. After Cook died on his third voyage, further items were purchased for display in a Sandwich Islands Room, with weapons such as clubs and spears, ceremonial robes, paddles, utensils and so on.

The public were required to pay a fee – either by taking out an annual membership at a cost of two guineas, or by paying a single entrance fee of a quarter of a guinea (5/3d). Sir Ashton was forced to reduce this to half a crown (2/6d) because of falling visitor numbers. Poor Sir Ashton, he spent more and more money on his exhibits until the obsession got quite out of hand – the exhibits were independently valued at over £50,000. Facing bankruptcy, Sir Ashton wanted to sell the collection to the British Museum, which had opened thirty years earlier, but the trustees declined. It was also offered to the Empress Catherine II of Russia but she too turned down the chance to acquire the display as a single collection. Following the example of the jeweller James Cox, who had tried to sell his exhibition of automata by private lottery, in 1784 Sir Ashton applied to Parliament for permission to “dispose of the contents of his Museum, as now exhibited at Leicester House, by Way of Chance.”

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Sir Ashton Lever.

Parliament approved the scheme but only eight thousand tickets were sold, at a guinea each, out of a planned figure of 36,000. It was a pretty poor return for a man who had laid out thousands of pounds over many years. The lottery prize was drawn in March 1786 and went to a Law Stationer called James Parkinson, who got some 26,600 exhibits including over 1850 ethnographic items from the Pacific. After a year at Leicester House, where the entrance fee was dropped to one shilling a head, Parkinson decided to relocate the collection to the Rotunda in Albion Street, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. He dropped the name ‘Holophusicon’ and called it the Leverian Museum. By then Sir Ashton had died, and had nothing further to do with the museum which bore his name. For twenty years the exhibition continued to amuse and amaze the public at 3 Blackfriars Road, but in declining numbers. In 1806 the decision was made to sell the entire collection by auction. Once again the British Museum declined to have anything to do with it, and instead this remarkable collection was spread to all corners of the globe, furnishing many important museums with the cornerstone of important collections. These include Museums in Vienna, Honolulu, Berlin, Wellington and Sydney. The auction lasted a full 65 days, with the collection divided into 7879 lots. It raised a mere £ 6,642 13s 6d. For anyone wanting more information about the collection and the way it was divided up, have a look at Adrienne L. Kaeppler’s book Holophusicon, the Leverian Museum which came out in 2011. She is Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and she has put together a remarkable detective work in establishing ‘what went where’.

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A guest post by LH Member Julian Woodford.
Review: Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry.

orphans of empireThe spirit of William Hogarth runs vividly through Orphans of Empire, Professor Helen Berry’s latest book, which explores the story of what happened to the orphaned or abandoned children of London’s Foundling Hospital. Before reading it, I knew that the hospital was the brainchild of the shipwright, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. I knew too from Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Hogarth that the artist had been Coram’s friend and an enthusiastic and active patron of the hospital. But I hadn’t realised just how firmly the Foundling Hospital story was seated in Hogarthian London until I read Berry’s fascinating account, which draws heavily on Hogarth’s work for its illustrations and for two of its principal chapter headings.

I am somewhat red-faced to admit that I had never managed to visit the Foundling Museum, tucked in the north-east corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, next door to Virginia Woolf’s former residence and adjacent to the former site of Coram’s hospital. So it was a treat to follow Helen Berry’s directions, taking the road less travelled by the throngs of British Museum or Covent Garden-bound tourists leaving the Underground at Russell Square and instead heading, via Brunswick Square and its giant plane tree, to Coram’s Fields. The Foundling Museum, with its poignant collection of foundling tokens and its impressive recreation of the hospital’s Court Room, (not to mention several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait and ‘The March to Finchley’) is a humbling yet hugely rewarding experience, but I can state wholeheartedly that its enjoyment is magnified several-fold by the contemporaneous reading of Professor Berry’s book.

Berry’s account interweaves two themes. She is not the first historian to articulate the broad general history of Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital in the context of the eighteenth-century charitable movement among London’s governing elite. But she has broken new ground in exploring the rich seam of the Foundling Hospital archive (seventeen double-decker buses-worth of shelving, as Berry points out). This has enabled her to supplement the institutional story with snippets from the remarkable diary of George King, a foundling who went on to experience life as an apprentice in the City of London before running away to sea, fighting at Trafalgar and teaching in South Carolina before ending his days as he had begun them, institutionalised in London as a Naval Pensioner and as clerk to the Greenwich Hospital. As Berry touchingly puts it, the ‘single precious thread’ of King’s diary, punctuated by the ‘smaller broken whispers’ of other former foundlings, has allowed her to illuminate how Britain’s imperial progress shaped the fates of some of the poorest in society.

Orphans of Empire’s many highlights include Berry’s moving and vivid description of the grief of young mothers as they handed over their new-born babies to the hospital, almost certainly never to see them again. Throughout the book, Berry knits together a most interesting recap of the persistent central role played by the orphan/foundling in myth and literature, from Moses to Romulus and Remus, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Her statistical analysis hammers home the sheer scale of failure of eighteenth-century society and parochial government to provide social support for children. Survivors like George King were lucky: two-thirds of the almost 15,000 children admitted to the hospital between 1756-1760 died while in its care, a mortality rate that sometimes rose to as high as 90%. And I was intrigued to learn that several of the hospital’s main benefactors, including Thomas Coram and Hogarth themselves, along with Georg Friedrich Handel, were each themselves childless and that this lack may have been a driving force of their philanthropy.

My only disappointment in this otherwise excellent book is some careless editing. I became confused by the interchangeable use of the terms ‘General Reception’ and ‘General Admission’ (compounded by distinct index entries) to describe the failed experiment in 1756-1760 when parliamentary funding led to the hospital becoming a national, rather than just a London-based, concern and which led to an explosion in demand that almost overwhelmed the institution’s ability to cope. In a similar vein, the statistical analysis of admission numbers and mortality could have been presented more coherently in a single place instead of being scattered throughout, with some resulting unnoticed editorial duplication (pages 58, 97).

This small gripe is not enough to spoil an enlightening account of one of the peripheral but important byways of Britain’s imperial history. Helen Berry’s use of detailed archival research to amplify and vivify the tale of a famous London institution is instructive and exemplary. Orphans of Empire is a super book, nicely produced, with good black & white illustrations, clear endnotes and indexing, and I recommend it to all London Historians.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By HELEN BERRY. pp. xv + 364 + 20 illustrations within text, indexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. £20.00, but available for less. ISBN 978-0-19-875848-8. Hardback. Published 11 April.

This book is London Historians members’ book competition for March 2019.


The Foundling Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, admission £10 for adults.


Julian Woodford is a historian and author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London. @HistoryLondon

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