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This article, by London Historians member Laurence Scales, first appeared in our monthly members’ newsletter from April 2018. 

I recently had my hand on some squares of black silk lace, made by young girls of Bridgenorth in 1774, the residents of a workhouse. This was over fifty years before Sir Edwin Chadwick’s ‘reforms’ and some workhouses were enlightened. Training girls to make lace could save them from destitution.

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Black Silk Lace, 1774.

A few months ago I was invited by the Historian in Residence at the Royal Society of Arts (Royal since 1908), to help catalogue some papers. I cannot claim that they are new discoveries, just that they are little seen. No one has had the time to make the list, until now. So, once a week I commute into the 18th century to make more accessible for future researchers this stash of cultural heritage.

The RSA started in Rawthmell’s coffee house, Covent Garden, in 1754. Since 1774 it has lived in a fine Adam building nearby, now awkwardly equipped with lifts and network cables, and with one or two steps scattered in odd places as if to catch the unwary. The RSA, full name the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (n.b. it has not much to do with art), is not to be confused with the famous scientific Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nor the Royal Academy of Arts, nor yet the Royal Institution. Dr Johnson was a member of the Society of Arts, as was Benjamin Franklin, William Wilberforce and Karl Marx – and a few other members will make an appearance shortly.

Turnip rooted cabbages, starting a forest from acorns, new recipes for manures, hats made of wood shavings to rival those from Leghorn, cobalt glazes, carrot marmalade, medicinal rhubarb, whale harpoons, and zebra wood from the Mosquito Shore – these all became a focus for the Society of Arts in its first 50 years. It was a period just before progress began to be clearly identified with science, so prizes were awarded for enlightened and patriotic efforts to fill particular wants or shortages in agriculture, colonies and trade, manufacture, chemistry, mechanics and ‘polite arts’. ‘Art’ used to cover all the other things in the list, not just drawing and sculpture. There were also bounties awarded for unsolicited worthy efforts such as lace making at Bridgenorth.

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The ‘Great Room’ of the RSA as depicted c.1810. It remains, complete with allegorical paintings by Sir James Barry.

I see some intriguing items in a day – mostly letters, but sometimes there is drawing, or an ear of wheat, or a square of black silk lace – an exhibition in microcosm, in fact. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a later initiative by this Society, by the way.

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Drawing included with a letter about harpoons, presumably just for the joy of it, in 1777.

It may seem I have found a rather out-of-the-way interest at the RSA. Not so. That recipe for carrot marmalade was eventually copied to Captain Cook at Deptford to try out for a long voyage and avoid scurvy. But it turned out that he did not like it and watered his crew with pine beer instead.

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A Simple Diagram, Georgian Style. Yoke for Ploughing with Oxen Instead of Horses.

And who cares about acorns? Well, the Royal Navy did for a start. And people needed firewood. And then there was new interest in smelting. By 1775 England was going bald. Over 50 years or so the RSA prompted the planting of 50 million trees. (It is believed that the great storm of 1987 only toppled 15 million trees.) While deforestation was one concern, others were already starting to worry about pollution and occupational diseases, and to come up with remedies.

Those awarding the prizes at the Society often did not see the thing they were rewarding. It was a strangely egalitarian society in the sense that the Earl of Winterton, for example, to be considered for his medal had to get his illiterate farm hand (‘X, his mark’) to sign a certificate attesting to the fact that he really did plant all those acorns that the Earl claimed. Sometimes it was the other way round, the farm hand invented something and had to get his boss to testify to its efficacy – the fumigating bellows for example, against ravening caterpillars, tried out in the royal gardens at Kew.

Correspondence about manure and rhubarb criss-crossed the land, long before the penny post. The postal service was very good, even if the best address someone could give was the wagon stopping outside the Bear and Ragged Staff at Smithfield – or at the Artichoke, Radcliffe Highway.

Another member or fellow of the Society was John Howard, the first person ever to be described as a philanthropist. The Howard League for Penal Reform is a name you hear in the news sometimes. But he did not found it. It is named in his honour. John Howard was a landowner of Bedfordshire, interested in new strains of wheat. ‘I often eat some good puddings made of that Turkey wheat,’ he said in a letter to the Society in 1772.

In 1773, when he was aged 52, he suddenly began an obsessive round of visits to hundreds of prisons. Having been appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he took the job sufficiently seriously (unlike some) that he visited his local jail, and was horrified to find that the only pay received by the jailer had to be found by the prisoners. And many of the prisoners were there because of their debts! It was the same everywhere else in England. Howard then devoted himself to improving prisons for the next 17 years until he died of typhus, from poking his nose into a prison in the Ukraine. Holland produced the best prisons, but at least Britain produced John Howard.

His modest Bloomsbury home rightly wears a blue plaque, the heritage scheme started by the Society in 1866. That scheme has now landed with English Heritage, and imitators. The RSA starts things and then hands them on.

Did the Society find a space for women? Yes. An intriguing 18th century correspondent was Ann Williams, post mistress of Gravesend who hatched silkworms in her dead letter pigeon hole, and reared them in a hatbox, sometimes referring to her little creepy crawlies as ‘reptiles’ with the imprecision of the time. The Society awarded her 20 guineas (equivalent to several thousand pounds today). She wrote, ‘I shall ever think it the happiest period of my life.’

The RSA continues good work. I risk sounding like a commercial. But my real point is that I always come away from the RSA with a feeling of optimism about what people are capable of, even those who are not superhuman. Georgian life was a hard grind, and often cut short. Here was a bunch of rich Georgians rewarding a bunch of usually less well-off people for doing something outside their usual toil, public spirited, worthwhile, perhaps risky, often something as little as planting experimentally a few rows of medicinal rhubarb. Not selling it, mind – just planting it to see if it would grow, for a better future. That spirit is real cultural heritage.

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Another happy ending, from 1768.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in offbeat historical walking tours focusing on intriguing and amusing tales of discovery, invention and intelligence. He is a volunteer working at the Royal Institution for which he has devised walking tours, and also guides walks and tunnel tours for the London Canal Museum. Welcoming residents and visitors who want to look beyond the main London attractions he reveals a wealth of lesser known historic sites and offers a double-take on some famous ones.
Please contact Laurence via his web site.

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Just downriver of Tower Bridge you have Wapping on the North bank (Middlesex, as was) and Bermondsey to the South (Surrey). To generalise a bit, the Wapping side has traditionally been about docks and wharfs – logically goods needed to load and offload near the consumers and manufacturers – that’s to say the City of London and what we know as the East End. The Bermondsey side tended to be where ships were manufactured, fitted out and repaired. Here were the homes and neighbourhoods of shipwrights and associated trades craftsmen.

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Before the modern docks were built from the beginning of the 19th Century, this section of the Thames was choked solid with thousands of vessels – an unbroken forest of masts and rigging of merchantmen with service vessels, river taxis, lighters and the like weaving between them as best they could.

Today at low tide, archaeologists go down to the river’s beaches and try to make sense of past from the valuable but shifting clues left behind. Last Thursday professional archaeologists and volunteers from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) hit the mud on the Bermondsey side to study a section. All tape measures, clipboards and wellies. One of their number, Eliott Wragg, gave a public tour of the area and the operation to about 20 of us “civvies”. We kicked off with a nice surprise: some ruins of an ancient manor house or possibly a hunting lodge dating from around 1350 . I knew of this building but not exactly where it was. Now I do.

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King Edward III’s manor house. Possibly.

Bermondsey.

Archaeologists at work.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Eliott explains.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Rudder of an 18C frigate, re-purposed as part of wharf or dock structure.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Heading upriver.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

“A Fine Summer’s Day in London”

Fellow LH Member Hannah Renier and I really enjoyed our outing with the TDP as we did at Vauxhall a few months ago.  We managed to squeeze in some mudlarking while we were at it. I was very excited to find my first clay pipe stem; an hour later we’d amassed dozens. Obvious, really, that “finds” should be more plentiful just down from the City.

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Eliott, Hannah, Eddie the dog.

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Some of the stuff we found. Crockery bits, rusty nails, clay pipe stems.

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The Thames Discovery Programme is an archaeological group comprising around 300 volunteers and a tiny complement of full-time staff (2.5 members, to be precise). Its mission is to record, measure, monitor the largest archaeological site in Britain: the Thames foreshore. A major part of its remit is public engagement: walks, talks, site visits. With a little training, you can join them as a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), i.e. volunteer. Or just tag along for an outing as we did. It’s all on their web site.

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Wellcome library, London.I’ve spent several pleasurable hours yesterday and today poking around the vast and growing  Wellcome Library archive online, using my new reader card. Remarkably, they have managed a photo of me that is a reasonable likeness and less thuggish than usual. This is the most trivial of many very good reasons to embrace this excellent institution, right in our midst on the Euston Road, a matter of minutes’ walk from Euston Square and Warren Street stations. If you are researching social history in any way, or are perhaps simply curious, I recommend you do so too.

Last week a group of London Historians Members had an after hours tour of the library with Ross MacFarlane, its Research Engagement Officer, followed by a lecture and show-and-tell of items from the archives with Senior Archivist Dr Chris Hilton. All of us were struck by both the scale and scope of materials that the library keeps. On the open shelves alone, in addition to books, there is a vast collection of academic and popular periodicals.

Most people who have heard of the Wellcome Library but not visited it will think that it’s a medical library. It is that, of course, but it is also so much more. For while Wellcome does concern itself with disease and medicine, it is – to be more accurate –  a rich repository of social history. So hygiene comes into it, and therefore engineering. Diet comes into it, and therefore cuisine and recipes. Dermatology, and therefore tattoos. Alcoholism, alcohol and therefore gin and beer and Hogarth. And so on.

Apart from books and periodicals noted above, the library is a huge repository of primary source material: diaries, papers, prints, pamphlets, photographs, paintings and film. Even the prostitute cards from London phone boxes! Eclectic. Thorough. It also keeps the records from many institutions but notably hospitals. Digitisation of these objects, documents, papers, records is a massive ongoing project and constantly being put online for researchers.  Again: get your reader card!

All of this is the legacy of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853 – 1936), the London-based American pharmaceutical magnate – massively wealthy – who poured every penny he could spare adding to his collection of books, papers and artifacts, with an eye to establishing a public museum and library after his death. The handsome neo-classical building on the Euston Road which is the home to the Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Library was built in 1932 and extensively refurbished in the mid-2000s. It has a rather good cafe to the right of the spaceous entrance foyer: do give it a go.

Here are a few pictures from our special visit.

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Ross MacFarlane in full flow: such an enthusiast.

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How a good library should look.

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Dr Chris Hilton tells us about Sir William Petty, 17C stats pioneer; the 1930s Peckham Experiment; Patrick Abercrombie, town planner; the 1858 diary of James Patterson; until we ran out of time: lovely stuff.

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Ross and Chris (foreground) doing show and tell.

Thanks to Ross and Chris for a superb evening. For more information on Wellcome, the Wellcome Library and more, here are some great links Ross sent me:

Library website: http://wellcomelibrary.org/
Info on joining: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/joining-the-library/
How to… http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/how-to/
Remote access resources: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/how-to/remote-access-to-e-resources/

Wellcome Images: http://wellcomeimages.org/ (which you don’t have to be a registered Library member to use)
Wellcome Film YouTube page (including films from 1930s Bermondsey films): http://www.youtube.com/user/WellcomeFilm
Library Blog: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/
Library Twitter: https://twitter.com/wellcomelibrary

Archives sources Guides: http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/subject-guides/ (note those divvied up for different parts of London)

And elsewhere…
Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey and Hospital Records Database http://wellcomelibrary.org/about-us/about-the-collections/archives-and-manuscripts/finding-medical-archives-elsewhere/

And two projects that will be of interest:
Medical London (http://www.medicallondon.org/)
Sick City (http://sickcityproject.wordpress.com/)

One of our group, the Westiminster Guide Joanna Moncrieff, has mentioned Wellcome Library in a recent post on her blog, plus other good London research institutions you should know about.

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure of joining two fellow Members, Victor Keegan and Hannah Renier, on a mooch around the Thames foreshore with the good people from the Thames Discovery Programme (Sunny, Eliott, John, Roger). They are a volunteer archaeology group whose mission is to discover and record as much as possible of the river’s shoreline: it is in constant flux and requires essential and frequent monitoring.

Afterwards we stopped at the local caff for much needed hot coffee and I was introduced to David Coke, co-author of the award-winning book Vauxhall Gardens: A History. I remember seeing this magnificent tome at the Vauxhall Gardens exhibition at the Foundling Museum last year, so it was nice to make the connection. My eyes popped out on cartoony stalks as David produced over a dozen historical maps of the tightly focused stretch of the river we had just explored going back many centuries and then right up until quite recent Ordnance Survey. Fascinating stuff.  David’s web site on Vauxhall Gardens is here.

On our beach stroll itself, Vic Keegan has beaten me to it (of course he has: he’s a Journalist with a capital J) and written this up on his fine blog, London My London. So I’ll simply share some captioned pictures.

If you’re a London Historians Member, we’ll be organising an outing with the Thames Discovery Programme later this year, look out for it on the web site and in your monthly newsletter.

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Mooching about the foreshore with the Thames Discovery Programme.

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Hardy LH Members, Vic and Hannah, with Ed the Dog.

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Wooden moldings for a concrete structure, not yet identified or dated.

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One of several bronze age piles thought to have supported a jetty or possibly even a bridge. As featured in the unlamented (by me) Time Team.

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Upriver or down, it’s impossible to take a photo of lovely Vauxhall Bridge without an ugly tower stinking up the joint.

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Vauxhall Bridge, very pretty. Opened in 1906, it replaced the original bridge of 1816.

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One of eight statues representing arts, sciences and manufacturing which decorate the bridge. This one is Pottery. Sculptors Drury and Pomeroy also made Justice on the Old Bailey.

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Vauxhall Bridge showing structure from the old paddle steamer jetty from before any bridge existed.

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Where lesser know tributary the Effra meets the Thames. Prior to embankement it was a tad upstream from here.

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Downstream of the bridge, the Albert Embankment, by the mighty Bazalgette. Serpentine lamposts reflect those on the Middlesex bank opposite.

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The beautiful Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster has always been overshadowed by its famous sibling for lack of a large clock. It is not an attention-seeker in that way. And doesn’t need to be.

The tower was one of the last parts of the new Palace to be completed, in 1860, twenty six years after the destruction by fire of the old Houses of Parliament, and a matter of days after the death of Sir Charles Barry, its creator.

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Architecturally, the function of the tower is to lend symmetry as a counterweight to the Clock Tower at the Thames end of the palace complex. But more important than this, the Victoria Tower is the home of the Parliamentary Archives and designed specifically for this purpose. While most of the Commons’ records were lost in the conflagration of 1834, the Jewel Tower, housing the records of the House of Lords, fortunately survived and these documents are included in the collection.

The archives are housed in the floors above the entrance archway in fireproof and atmosphere-controlled conditions. They comprise (among many other items, see Factsheet, below), thousands of Acts of Parliament on parchment scrolls dating back to 1497. These come in all shapes and sizes, the biggest of which is estimated, unrolled, to be 345m long!

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The tower was originally to be named the King’s Tower after William IV, the sovereign at the time of the 1834 fire, but since its building only started some seven years after his death, it became the Victoria Tower instead. It is 120m to the tip of the flagstaff and has twelve floors of archive space, accessed – before a lift was installed in the 1950s – by a 553 step cast-iron spiral staircase.

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The staircase, from below.

An intriguing feature of the Tower is the octagonal aperture in the roof of the entrance. Its function is to allow the winching of heavy materials up to the first floor level. Even now its sliding door has to be hand-cranked to open it. I resembles a perfect execution mechanism used by a James Bond villain to drop its victim some 60ft (my estimate) to the pavement below. It’s also used by the army during the Opening of Parliament. Fully opened, an observer can see the exact moment that the Queen passes below and signal to the chaps on the roof to pull down the Union flag and to hoist the Royal Standard.

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The partially-opened aperture for hoisting heavy items into the tower.

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Clearly visible from below.

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View of the Clock Tower from atop Victoria Tower

To find out more about the Victoria Tower, there is an excellent book Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives by Caroline Shenton, David Prior and Mari Takayanagi. It is richly illustrated with stunning photographs. It’s available from the Parliamentary Bookshop at £17.99, here. (If you’re a London Historians member reading this, pull finger and enter the competition to win a signed copy by all three authors, per October members’ newsletter).

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My deepest thanks go to Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records (and London Historians member), for giving me a personal tour of the Tower. It was a privilege and a delight.

More information on the Parliamentary Archives.
Parliamentary Archive Services.
Factsheet (PDF file).

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I must share with you an article by Patrick Baty, who is an “architectural paint researcher” and runs a business in Chelsea which does much consultancy work in buildings conservation projects.  Dr Johnson’s House is a good example.  Reading his blog you can clearly see that what Patrick does is very much a bona fide branch of archaeology. This post in particular shows a detailed analysis of a 5mm thick sample comprising 71 layers of paint!

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Old Maps

Who doesn’t love an old map? I know I do.

I’d just like to share with you something I came across over the weekend: Cassini Maps, a web site where you can select an old map on any scale from various eras and purchase them online (as a file or as a print) at really reasonable prices, in my opinion. I’m going to give them a go.

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