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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

© London Met Archives 28160 Frost Fair low_500

London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

© London Met Archives 32422 Archway low_500

Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

© London Met Archives 305674 St Pancras low_500

Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

© London Met Archives 233962 Skylon_500

South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

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If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

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As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.

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“the liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country” ~ John Wilkes

wilkes by hogarth

Wilkes by Hogarth.

In the immediate wake of the defeat of Leveson 2 in the House of Commons, it’s an appropriate historical coincidence that today is the 250th Anniversary of the St George’s Field Massacre, which occurred on 10 May 1768.

It resulted from the trial of John Wilkes for seditious libel for anti-government items – some pornographic – published in his magazine, the North Briton, in particular the notorious issue Number 45 from 1763.

During the trial a pro-Wilkes crowd assembled in St George’s Field in Southwark, swelling to an estimated 15,000 in number. The Riot Act was read and troops were called in. They opened fire on the throng, resulting in the deaths of at least six protesters with many more injured.

Wilkes paid his fine, did his time and decided to become an MP.

Spurned multiple times by Parliament, he instead built a successful political career in the City, eventually becoming Lord Mayor. It was here that he did his best work for press freedom. In 1771, several newspapers reported on the proceedings of Parliament. This was strictly against the law. In February, Parliament tried to arrest the printers of two newspapers in particular – the Middlesex Journal and the Gazetteer. Wilkes afforded them protection within the City. The Government, probably realising the effort to be futile, never really opposed Parliamentary reporting after this.

It was a key moment in the history of freedom of the press in this country. So let’s remember those who died on this day 250 years ago and reflect that freedom of the press was hard won.

 

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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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A guest post by LH Member, George Goodwin.

Today, 18 March 2016, is the 250th anniversary of an event in Britain that was the cause of great celebration in America. This was the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, which, a year earlier, had been foisted on the American colonists by the British Parliament. However, today also marks the 250th anniversary of another British Parliamentary Act, which was ultimately to have far greater consequences for the relationship between Great Britain and its American colonies.

Contemporary cartoon illustrating the funeral of the Stamp Act.

Contemporary cartoon illustrating the funeral of the Stamp Act.

Unlike other imperial crises, the Stamp Act controversy was not a product of military defeat. Completely the opposite: it was caused by the complete success of Britain in the Seven Years’ War that ended in 1763. The French had been routed in both the West and East Indies and their power destroyed in North America. Britain was now the greatest power in the world, but it had come at a cost – the national debt had increased by over 50%. The British Government thought the American colonists should fund the ongoing cost of the British Army on American soil. This may or may not have been unreasonable. However the means they used to bring it about – the Stamp Act – most certainly was. It was unconstitutional. According to the charters of the American colonies, it was their right to introduce internal taxation and not a power of the British Parliament.

There was uproar in the American colonies, because the stamp duty was a tax on all paper products – all licences, newspapers, even playing cards. In fact it was a tax on everyday living. Opposition in the colonial assemblies was matched by mob violence in the Streets.

Sensibly, in response to months of protest, the British Government set up a Committee of the whole House of Commons to consider repeal. Expert witnesses were called, including most importantly, Benjamin Franklin (then living in London), who convinced them of the necessity of repeal.

Yet, the government needed a sop to give to the Parliamentary backbenchers who had been appalled by the violence in the colonies. This was The Declaratory Act, which declared the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonies. Americans, including, at this point, Benjamin Franklin, were assuaged by the assurance that it was a mere assertion of a right and would never be enforced. In the event, after a change of government, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer did enforce it with duties on glass, paint, paper and tea. But that is another story…….


George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father, just published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) and Yale University Press (North America).

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Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin.

Benjamin Franklin in London by George GoodwinThe great American Founding Father and scientist, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), spent 20 of his long 84 years living in London. I suspect not many people know that. One hopes, with the publication of this excellent new book, more will come to do so.

Franklin spent three spells here, each distinctly different, even the two latter ones in the 1750s to 1770s which were separated by an 18 month spell back home in Philadelphia.

First, in 1724, he arrived as a very young man of 18 ostensibly on a business mission which turned out to be something of a fool’s errand. But as a fully trained and skilled printer, he soon found work in the Little Britain area, then a nexus of the print trade. Barely a decade following the first daily newspaper, there could barely have been a more exciting time to be a printer in London. This was the London of Defoe and Addison and young Ben wallowed in it, hanging out in the coffee houses, soaking up the atmosphere, the intellectual buzz, a vibrant, competitive and intellectual landscape like nowhere else in the world. As a supremely confident and un-selfconcious American, he approached Sir Hans Sloane and sold him an asbestos purse, still in the collection of the Natural History museum. While he was diligent and hard working, he enjoyed hanging out with young fellows who were anything but, losing a lot of money in their hare-brained schemes. Investing money wisely was not always Franklin’s strongest suit as we discover later in the book. Ben returned home to Philadelphia in 1726.

The asbeston purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

The asbestos purse which the young Franklin sold to Sir Hans Sloane. Natural History Museum.

Fast forward thirty years. Franklin had made his fortune as a writer, a printer and a publisher. He co-founded libraries and Pennsylvania’s first college. Early on he also started an intellectual gentlemen’s club: The Junto. He didn’t forget London though, corresponding with – among others – the Royal Society about his scientific endeavours, being awarded their Copley Medal in 1747. In 1753 he had become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, by his 50th birthday a very big fish indeed.

Pennsylvania was different from other colonies in that it was under the proprietary rule of the Penn family since its founding charter of 1681. This was personified by Thomas Penn who ruled in absentia from London. Franklin’s 1757 mission as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agent was to gain concessions from Penn himself or failing that, from the king and parliament. He sailed to England with his son William and two slaves [whither #FranklinMustFall?]. They soon found digs at 7 Craven Street near the Strand (today renumbered number 36), which was Franklin’s base almost continuously until he left London for the last time in 1775.

Franklin’s second mission to London (1764 – 1775) was entirely different. First he was without William (who thanks to his work in London previously had won himself the governor-generalship of New Jersey). Second, this time his brief was to wrest government from the Penns and to direct rule of the crown. However this aim became completely sidetracked through the unforeseen Stamp Act, Townshend duties and other impositions which led inexorably to war and American independence. This third stay in London was also characterised by Franklin’s growing disillusionment with successive administrations leading finally to his hasty return to America in time to escape arrest. It had an altogether darker aspect.

Franklin's London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Franklin’s London home in Craven Street, W1. Today open to the public.

Although Franklin met with some success – in particular with regard to the hated Stamp Act – both of his missions ended in failure. This through no fault of his own it must be said, although he did make some major misjudgements. Problems included’ rapidly changing administrations: there was no cohesion of policy; a change in the monarchy; more pressing issues for the government, such as the Seven Years War and frequent street violence typically by followers of John Wilkes; post-war recession and criminality; probably most damaging of all, having the anti-American Lord Hillsborough as Secretary of State for the Colonies and also the Board of Trade for four years. In other words, America was just another problem, and it was far away.

These, then, are the bewildering issues that Franklin in London was faced with and which lie at heart of this book. Author George Goodwin does a wonderful job of navigating us through the whirlpools and rapids of a neo-colonial administration run by aristocratic big beasts. Franklin was no less an Empire builder than they, but their vision of how that should play out was utterly, utterly different from his.

More than anything, then, this book demonstrates through Franklin’s experience the casual (and fatally misjudged) disdain with which the London political establishment treated the American colonies. This was also very much a class issue. Franklin may have dined with kings, dukes, earls and prime ministers, it is true. But he was among them as a famous and feted scientist, never as an equal (except possibly Pitt, of course “the Great Commoner”). He may have been primus inter pares in America, but in London to the ruling elite he was still – and always would be – Trade.

Especially enjoyable are the accounts of Franklin’s man to man meetings with his enemies, in particular Thomas Penn (whom he had called in print a “low Jockey”!) and dastardly Lord Hillsborough. You sense the air crackling with tension.

I have spoken here mainly of the politics of Franklin’s second and third stays in London, because this is the real value of this work, particularly to historians of the mid-Georgian period, the British Empire and the American War of Independence. It’s important to note that the author does not neglect the more biographical aspects of Franklin’s life. There is plenty on his family, his writings, outlook, philosophy, religious beliefs, diet, likes and dislikes, foibles and so on. To the historian of London there is plenty to enjoy on Craven Street, his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly. And of course, Goodwin addresses Franklin’s scientific achievements, theories and inventions. I particularly enjoy his ahead-of-their-time thoughts on fresh air and keeping fit.

The book has two colour sections, mainly comprising portraits of the men and women of his circle plus other worthies – friends and enemies alike. Like all good history works, this has a comprehensive bibliography, index and end notes.

This is a deeply researched, well-balanced and thoughtfully written book of an American Great living in a rapidly changing, fascinating period of London and world history.

Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin is published today by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a cover price of £25. The dust jacket features a rather pleasing image of the 1767 David Martin portrait (The White House) superimposed on the 1762 William Marlow painting of Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s (Guildhall Art Gallery), an image which featured on London Historians member cards a few years ago!

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Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street is open every week Wednesday to Sunday.

A signed copy of Benjamin Franklin in London is London Historians’ member book prize for March 2016.

George Goodwin is giving two talks hosted by London Historians and Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, W1. The first is fully booked. The second on 28 April still has places at time of writing.

Benjamin Franklin in London is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week starting on Monday.

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