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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A guest post by LH Member Jane Young. 

Review: The Domestic Herbal Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century
by Margaret Willes


71odrpmARdLA meticulous study of the role and uses of herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers during the seventeenth century. The extensive research covers medicine, cookery, brewing and distilling, laundry, personal hygiene and cosmetics, dyeing and weaving and even dressing a table and floristry, alongside the cultivation of these essential plants and botanicals.

Every aspect of domestic life is explored within this tour of the seventeenth century house, beautifully illustrated with exquisite plates from publications contemporary to the period. Many of these depict the numerous skills of the housewife which included the important task of growing and tending to the flora and fauna intrinsic to running the household in smaller homes or overseeing this task in large establishments. The well known Herbals from Gerard and Culpeper are featured with numerous recipes found in receipt and commonplace books. Explanations of how the grocery trade supplied prized exotic ingredients, the importance of market gardens and customs and traditions of the changing seasons interweave with accounts from botanists and diaries. The writing is captivating and engaging and will be a delight for anyone interested in the history of horticulture and botanicals, the evolution of the kitchen garden, methods of cookery and domestic households and interiors in the seventeenth century.

Chapters are arranged room by room describing in wonderful detail the myriad of applications for every aspect of maintaining the home be it large or small. The inclusion of a select Herbal of fifty herbs is a lovely addition.

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A selection of what the Tudor physician, William Bullein, considered the most useful medicinal herbs.

Whilst the book rightly states it is not intended to provide medical advice or remedies for readers, it is interesting to note that there is nothing much new under the sun. The current trend towards natural and herbal solutions that are experiencing something of a renaissance in food supplements and cosmetics include many of the ingredients that were in common use during the period this research concentrates on. Modern gardening methods have also to some extent gone full circle in recognising the benefits of long forgotten plants which are being reintroduced to domestic gardens and allotments as companion planting for organic solutions to enrich soil, ward off predators and encourage wildlife. The artisan faction of the textile industry is returning to natural plant dyes which are now highly regarded and sold at a premium in a move away from using harmful chemicals amidst the debate over climate change. The amount of new publications on herbal remedies for everything from infusing alcohol, making herbal teas and aromatherapy preparations to toiletries and cleaning products are prolific. However, these new manuals all share the basis of practices established long ago as exemplified in this narrative.

The Domestic Herbal is a gem of a book to grace any bookshelf as a source of reference to seventeenth century domestic life as much as it will be at home in every academic library.


The Domestic Herbal: Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century (256 pp, hardcover, 60 colour illustrations) is published by the Bodlean Library on 26 June with a cover price of £25 and available on pre-order now.

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Guest book review by LH Member Laurence Scales.

Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation
by Anton Howes


coverHistories of institutions are usually either exercises in public relations ‘puffery’, or of interest only to their own coterie. Happily, here, we have a distinguished exception from Anton Howes, a young economic historian, formerly lecturing at King’s College London, with a particular interest in innovation – economic, institutional, social and technical. He has been attached to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (known today as the RSA) for a couple of years as their Historian in Residence and has neither had the time to be institutionalised himself, nor the long term self interest to whitewash its history. He therefore charts both the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the bright ideas and foibles, and the occasional venality and intrigues of this grand old organisation off Strand.

I must declare an interest, but also a qualification for writing this review. When some manuscripts needed cataloguing Anton invited me to help (unpaid) as we have professional interests in common, and so I was inducted into the RSA’s archive and began weekly visits. (See my previous LH article on the subject.) This has helped me to understand the territory as the RSA is a very difficult institution to characterize compared with, say, the different and more famous scientific Royal Society, or the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, which had a very specific purpose. Anyway, my views here are my own, and not those of the RSA!

If, after reading this, you are still confused by London’s abundance of Royal Societies you can read my Londonist guide here!

Behind our industry and even our landscape, and our social and economic systems the RSA has been something of a benign eminence grise for over 250 years. It was established in 1754, a product of coffee house and enlightenment culture, a mainland echo of the Dublin Society for Improving Husbandry, Manufactures and other Useful Arts. But, based in London, the crossroads of the world, it grew to be better known, more ambitious, and more significant. By 1801 even Napoleon felt that France needed something similar, a Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. The Society of Arts, as it was then abbreviated, later returned the compliment by staging a great international exhibition in 1851 to surpass the French national expositions. It is high time that the RSA’s part in history, not just its own history, becomes known to a wider public. The RSA is almost invisible but it has long been a catalyst in the sense of promoting a reaction (social, economic, technological, institutional and artistic) without ever taking a permanent role in what it is changing. It remains to ferment enlightened change in other areas, both tangible and intangible, another day.

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The first medal awarded by the RSA.

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A meeting of the Society in 1804.

So, the first thing to say about the book is that it gives a hidden history behind Britain’s public history, whether it be planting great swathes of forest, founding the Royal Academy, curbing the exploitation of children to sweep chimneys, organizing the Great Exhibition of 1851, establishing school examinations, fostering modern environmentalism, or filling the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It answers some of those how and why questions about events where, previously, we may have just taken them for granted. It is therefore a book for everybody interested in British social and economic history including the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the storms and stresses of the twentieth century.

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The Great Exhibition, 1851.

But there is something very British about such an odd organisation, one that lacks both narrow membership criteria and a grand plan other than to suggest plans to others and maybe find some them initial support. It has periodically slumbered and then been roused to new efforts and a new direction by a newcomer. From its early days of awarding monetary prizes or medals for worthy inventions and initiatives such as tools for the one-handed or for slicing turnips, it is (among other things) the inspiration behind a group of academy schools in the midlands at the present day.

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Turnip Cutter

Of its unlikely movers and shakers the best known is probably the Victorian, Sir Henry Cole, railway journalist, but a force behind the Great Exhibition, South Kensington Museum, penny post and much else besides. We learn something of Cole’s motivation, and the special fanaticism he had for making the world more beautiful, which was an aspect of his story that certainly I had not heard before.

In this extraordinary organisation we discover a strange alternative to politics. If politics is about ordering the way we all live, we find here a parallel world in which strong personalities strive through research evidence, consensus and a certain amount of skillful intrigue to make a better life for us all – but without the conceit, unthinking reflexes, tribalism, and hunger for power of parliamentary politics. The RSA would claim not to be political. And yet it undoubtedly has had, and continues to have, an effect on the way we live.

The last and most important thing to say about the book is that it is simply a very good read. Anton avoids the trap of writing as if for a dissertation and laying on the jargon, and simply tells a rattling good story, full of eccentric characters and colourful detail.


Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation Anton Howes is published by Princeton, available in Hardback and Kindle eds.

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London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

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From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.

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Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)

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In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!

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What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.

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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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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 Laurence Scales. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for February 2015.

London has been at the forefront of exploration beyond the naked eye by telescope and microscope. But another inspiration behind this article was Will Self, the sesquipedalian writer, who recently left London for the underground particle collider at Geneva to see if he could ‘feel the wonder’. (Self Orbits CERN, BBC Radio 4.)

He could not, and who could blame him? The instrumentation engineers, metaphorically looking under the bonnet of the detector, were somewhat detached from the wonder, and the absurd public relations people were bowling him sound bites as if he were a person unused to thinking. Nobody seemed to say to him that particle colliders are continuing an age old exploration of both the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large. A succession of Russian dolls has been opened up, often by Londoners. We may regard ourselves as one doll somewhere in the middle of the set.

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Particle collisions studied at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, known as CERN)

Through the Lens
The first astronomers were limited to studying where the heavenly bodies appeared, and it helped them to cultivate and to navigate. A few weeks before Galileo obtained his telescope in 1609 Thomas Harriot at Syon Park pointed one at the moon and, drawing its imperfections, made the kind of observation that we are all capable of: ‘[It] lookes like a tarte that my Cooke made me last Weeke.’ Galilieo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons was probably more significant in the long run.

In simple form the optical microscope and telescope both involve a pair of lenses. The main difference lies in where the focus of the lenses needs to be. Robert Hooke bought a microscope from Christopher Cock and published, despite terrible lenses, fine drawings he made of familiar objects such as a body louse in Micrographia in 1665. (Familiar? Eek!)

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From this we get the Hooke’s word ‘cell’ for the biological building block. Samuel Pepys found the book ‘so pretty that I presently bespoke it.’ Even before Micrographia, Pepys was already succumbing to the wonders of the microscope in 1664.

‘After dinner up to my chamber and made an end of Dr. Power’s booke of the Microscope, very fine and to my content, and then my wife and I with great pleasure, but with great difficulty before we could come to find the manner of seeing any thing by my microscope. At last did with good content…’

A lens usually has a spherical surface because it is easy to make it that way. Unfortunately it is not quite the right shape to focus properly and, even if it were, it would not focus the different colours in the same place. For the telescope, Isaac Newton solved the problem in 1668 by using a curved mirror instead of a lens, bouncing rather than bending the rays. Optician John Dollond, one of the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, was able to correct the problem for the lens by adding a layer of a different glass in 1758 (Actually, the idea came from a barrister of the Inner Temple). It is sad that such a name as Dollond should be discarded from the high street by the Philistines of our own time.

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1852 saw the construction of Reverend John Craig’s telescope on Wandsworth Common. The lens, two feet in diameter, was flawed and the tube dangled at the mercy of the wind. Not a failure of Victorian big science, this was one man’s folly.

Similar problems afflicted microscopes but as the microscope was more a toy than a scientific instrument it had to wait until 1826 for a similar solution by Joseph Jackson Lister. In 1827 botanist Robert Brown of Soho noticed pollen grains jiggling about under the microscope as if pummelled by unseen fists. This ‘Brownian motion’ is caused by invisibly small atoms and molecules striking the pollen. But no one knew it at the time. Atoms were, in 1827, only a theoretical abstraction.

We probably associate the microscope more with microbiology now than any other discipline. It is no coincidence that Lister’s son, the famous surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, unlike so many others, was receptive to the notion that invisible particles might contaminate and putrefy wounds. A few stones of Joseph Jackson Lister’s house remain in an east London park. Most accounts of the house do not bother to mention him.

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Joseph Jackson Lister

New Images
Particle physics had to be developed over the next century before there were further significant advances in microscopy, such as the electron microscope. If you can crystallise a substance then X-ray diffraction can reveal the structure. The beautiful patterns captured by researchers, some at the Royal Institution, sufficiently excited interior and fashion designers to incorporate them in their products and at the Festival of Britain in 1951. An X-ray image made at King’s College London in 1952 resolved the structure of DNA. Atomic force microscopes now make it possible to see single atoms as fuzzy blobs. Poking about inside the blobs is where particle colliders come in.

Early Victorian astronomers such as those at Greenwich were still limited to studying the position and motion of the heavenly bodies. William Hyde Wollaston, who lived just off Fitzroy Square, found in 1802 that the light from the sun, refracted to display a spectrum, was missing certain narrow bands of colour. It was found on the continent around 1860 that chemical elements held in a flame burn with light characteristic of that element. The two discoveries were combined and for the first time it was possible to consider stars as objects of varied substance rather than points of reference.

Three people who explored that substance through studying spectra were draper William Huggins of Tulse Hill who had his own observatory there; Margaret Murray whose own interest in spectroscopy led to her marrying Huggins in 1875; and civil servant Norman Lockyer whose first purchase of a telescope was sparked by socialising at the Wimbledon Literary and Scientific Society and having a house there with a good hilltop position. He identified a new chemical element, helium, in the sun in 1868. Today we need liquid helium to cool magnets in MRI scanners in hospitals.

Dig for the Sky
The nuclear reactions in the stars that forge those elements also produce splinters in the form of cosmic rays. Paradoxically the rays are often studied underground so as not to overwhelm the detectors. We now know that all of the heavier atoms in our own body (the iron from your spinach) formed inside stars.

In the 1930s nobody was thinking of building a 27km cavern for research underground but a cosmic ray detector (an instrument called a cloud chamber originally created to study… clouds) was installed in the unused Aldwych platform at Holborn underground station. Cloud chambers like this one were designed so that invisible particles stealing across them would photograph their own visible trails. This development won Patrick Blackett a Nobel Prize. Some of the detectors at CERN (bubble chambers and spark chambers) are descendants of his cloud chambers.

The Hugginses and others assayed the stars and interstellar dust. But from Hubble telescope observations it turns out that the substance we have come to understand over several centuries only adds up to about 5% of the mass of the universe. The collider will help to find the rest. So, we now find ourselves down a hole, using a descendant of the microscope, to explore what is too distant or too ephemeral to see with the telescope. Do you feel the wonder yet? Would you want the exploration to stop? The hole may be in Geneva, but London has always provided explorers, and a vital prerequisite: scope to wonder.

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A guest post by LH Member Val Bott, @BottValbott.

Review: The Hidden Horticulturists by Fiona Davison.

hidden Horticulturists coverWhen the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden closed in 1904, greenhouses, fixtures and fittings and plants were moved to Wisley. Amongst the items taken from Chiswick was a modest volume labelled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. Soon after she became Librarian at the Lindley Library, Fiona Davison came across this in the stores there; its record of 105 young men who had been selected as trainees in the Chiswick Garden in a six year period starting in 1822 set her off on a significant piece of research.

The Society began offering training to raise horticultural standards nationally and the young trainees had succeeded in a very competitive selection process. Each wrote in the book in his own hand a short CV, all covering similar ground; often they were the sons of gardeners or had worked on estate gardens, sometimes both. Each recorded his horticultural experience, the name of the person who had recommended him (usually a Fellow of the Society). This demonstrated his literacy and the fact that he fulfilled the eligibility criteria for admission. Most were young men from England and Scotland but a few came from abroad.

Using this apparently modest and limited source Fiona Davison has traced the life stories of 32 of the apprentices to introduce to her readers. Using the clues offered by the entries in the Handwriting Book, she has asked many questions of the sources. While one was the famous Joseph Paxton, much less was known about others and some had rather lowly lives in comparison. From my own research into 18th century gardeners I am aware how difficult it can be to trace the lives of such individuals and, while she had the advantage of additional sources, like the Census and local newspapers in the 19th century, I can see how hard the author has persisted with her inquiries over three years of spare time research to bring us this book!

She has grouped them according to types of experience, from “The Horticultural Elite”, through the “Deserving Men” lower down the horticultural ladder and “Fruit Experts”, to “Criminals in the Garden”. She writes sensitively and almost affectionately about the young men’s experiences at the Chiswick Garden, describes their successes and failures, traces their future careers, as gardeners on large estates, as plant hunters on the other side of the world or as nursery gardeners some of whom had little business acumen.

Many of the trainees went on to have the kind of lives which would not ordinarily have attracted a biographer, though others left their mark on significant gardens which have survived. Nevertheless the narrative is surprisingly rich because it provides the context offered by their family histories and their horticultural activities in a variety of locations in the UK and abroad. Correspondence and press reports show the difficulties encountered by men who went to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia and South America; some were caught up in difficulties in far-flung colonies or became ill in hostile climates.

The records of the Old Bailey reveal the foolishness of young men caught out selling stolen seeds. But she found in the archives evidence of Joseph Sabine’s poor management of the Chiswick Garden and his failure to spot embezzlement by a protegé which led to serious financial difficulties for the Horticultural Society. So stealing seeds may have been an act of desperation for the men involved, when the Society cut labourers’ wages from 14 to 12 shillings a week and the pay of the under-gardeners from 18 to 14 shillings weekly.

This makes for a thoroughly readable book full of good stories about real people; its glimpses of 19th century history will have a wider a wider appeal than pure garden history. Though attractively designed with rich colour plates, its only shortcoming is the fact that a few of the black and white images in the text are rather grey. However, I am already thinking of the friends for whom it will make an excellent gift!

An RHS exhibition about the Hidden Horticulturists at the Lindley Library runs until 6 May.


The Hidden Horticulturists, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books/Royal Horticultural Society
published 4 April 2019, £25.00 cover price.


Val Bott. Some of Val Bott ‘s research on gardening history can be seen on nurserygardeners.com. She is the Editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.

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