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Blake

Review: William Blake, at Tate Britain. 

Very recently the precise location of William Blake’s body was identified in Bunhill Fields nonconformist cemetery just north of the City. There followed the unveiling of a brand new grave stone on 11 August last year. The organisers were caught out by the many hundreds of Blake fans (including around a dozen London Historians) who turned up to honour this eminent painter, poet, engraver, printer and visionary.

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Dedication of William Blake gravestone, 11 August 2018.

That occasion made it clear that he is revered, among Londoners in particular; he commands a place on the pantheon of British artists with fellow sons of the captial Dobson, Hogarth and Turner.

Apart from four years spent in Sussex (1800 – 04), Blake spent his whole life in London: in Lambeth during most of the 1790s but the rest always a stone’s throw from his birthplace in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). It is horrifying to learn that the Blake family home was demolished as recently as 1963, replaced by an ugly block of flats named William Blake House, adding insult to injury.

It is marvellous that so soon after that momentous event of last year, Tate Britain is hosting the most comprehensive William Blake (1757 – 1827) exhibition in a generation. Over 300 of his works are on display, arranged chronologically. This is broken down in to distinct phases of his professional life. In Room 1 we learn about his family background and training as an engraver and how he rejected the methods and strictures of the Academy; we then go on to find out how he went on to earn a living, first as an engraver and then as a illustrator and printer, exploiting a printmaking technique of his own devising: ‘relief etching’. This allowed him to illuminate text on the same page. Subject matter came from many sources including the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare and of course, his own mysterious, other-worldly poetry. Out of this, emerged the likes of The Tyger and Jerusalem, though the larger body of his copious writing is forgotten by all but aficionados.

And here the medium commands the format, so virtually everything that Blake produced was perforce quite small, tiny even. Book size or smaller. Except for four or five pieces near the end of the exhibition, the largest pieces in this show a the roughly A3 sized series of 12 (including the rather unhappy Nebuchadnezzar, and bizarrely naked Newton) But it is mostly exquisite and no, you can only really appreciate it properly in the original rather than a modern book, however well printed.

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Nebuchadnezzar

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Newton

But what about the art? I’m a bit conflicted about Blake. All those beardy scary old men, endless in the biblical stuff; all those wraith-like female spirits whooshing diaphanously through the air or sea or stars; all those muscular bottoms! I feel I like him because I’m supposed to like him and that he’s a Londoner. I don’t think he’s technically good as an anatomical illustrator: all those muscles flatter to deceive. That said, his style and his imagination are unique. There’s an El Greco quality to the stretching of body and limb; there’s a Bosch quality to his animals, monsters and nightmare visions. You can examine all these 300 plus works and not become inured to the eeriness: all is fresh. There’s also a graffiti style to a lot of periphery of the illustrations which is quite interesting.

Very few of Blake’s images are standalone; mostly they are series, and mostly for publication. The Tate has assembled many complete series for this exhibition, one of my favourites of which is America A Prophecy, in 18 plates. Here, below, is possibly my favourite, Plate 15, ‘What Time the Thirteen Governors …’ The series was made in 1793 during Blake’s Lambeth spell, a nice mid-career example. What attracts me to this particular plate are the scary fish at the bottom which very much have a cartoony quality. There are, here and there throughout the show, images that make you smile a bit. You’d like to think that this is Blake having fun, being playful. But even for Blake experts, one feels you cannot be sure.

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Almost as you walk out of the exhibition, Blake bids you farewell with a version of the Ancient of Days, originally from 1794 as the frontispiece for Europe: A Prophecy. Yes, because it’s probably his most famous painting, yes, because it was one of his favourites but more than that because he was still creating versions of it right at the end of his life.  Like most of the works in this show, it is smaller than you imagined.

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Our Man from the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke, called this exhibition ‘over-curated’. As a perfectly straightforward chronological romp through William Blake’s life, surely the opposite is more likely to be the case? No, I think the Tate has kept it simple: displayed as many works in as much light as the mainly watercolour medium will allow; given visitors as much space as possible to get around these quite small works; and given just enough background information to prick the sufficiently curious to find out more.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Blake – I reckon I’m far from alone in that – but I do know I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and should have given myself at least another hour. I must go again.

Other views:
Londonist
Evening Standard

 

The Blake Society
William Blake on Wikipedia

 


William Blake runs at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020. Standard adult entry is £18 with various discounts from there, including £9 for National Art Pass/Art Fund holders.

Two Last Nights!

Review: Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain.
Foundling Museum. 20 September 2019 – 5 January 2020

title250Having made a spirited recovery in the late Stuart period following the Restoration and into early Georgian times, public entertainment venues in London remained few. This all changed as the 18C progressed and more of the population found themselves better off and with more leisure time. Pursuits that were mainly the domain of the well-off spread to the growing middle class. Simultaneously, forms of entertainment became more diverse, notably the emergence of pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Bagnigge Wells and others.

This is the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum. While the growth of the entertainment industry was nationwide, the fountainhead was inevitably London. This show examines primarily the business of public entertainment rather than the forms on offer, although we get a bit of that too. So we are primarily looking at the theatres themselves, the marketing, the consumes, the fashions and – most entertainingly – how the theatre-goers were perceived, and also satirised.

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Miss Rattle dressing for the Pantheon, 1770s.

Entering the exhibition we are first met with marketing materials mainly in the form of printed handbills. all are in the distinct period multi-typeface, centre-ranged, capital-heavy form of the time. Nonetheless, competition was stiff and it’s quite sophisticated stuff from which the title of this show derives.

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Handbill for Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Most of the ephemera on display relates to tickets. Except in the cheapest of cheap seats in the pit or the ‘pidgeon holes’ (crammed sections in the Gods with heavily constricted views), theatre-going remained quite pricy and I think this is reflected in the beauty of the engraved tickets which often featured the architecture of the theatre and other classical forms. Some even bore wax seals. They could be anything from modern post card size almost up to A4 in some cases.

But for me, the most fun part was relating to the audience. Hogarth’s famous Laughing Audience is here, of course, but there are many more along the same lines including the best of Rowlandson – one in particular which makes the point that country audiences in rough and ready theatres enjoy themselves far more than the stiffy, sniffy city types. It is a point which one might care to refute knowing the reputation of a typical London audience which – as is shown in several pictures – is separated from the players literally with a rows of metal spikes.

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Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London. By Rowlandson.

I would have liked to have seen something on two forms of public entertainment which were invented in this period: Satire, as presented by Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777) at his own patent theatre in the Haymarket; and Astley’s Circus, as presented by Philip Astley (1742 – 1814). Both were almost instantly successful and the latter in particular begat imitators which have continued down to today.

Print, satire, entertainment, fashion. All flourished in the Georgian period, and all are bought together here in this exhibition in a most pleasing way.


The entry to Two Last Nights! is free with your Foundling Museum ticket which is £13.20 for adults. National Art Fund members get into the museum entirely free of charge. 

 

This article is a guest post by Dr Mary L. Shannon. It first appeared in London Historians Members’ newsletter of May 2015.


Last week, I turned a street corner near Oxford Circus and bumped into a friend from university who I had not seen in a good while. We both exclaimed at the coincidence which had brought us both to this same spot at the same time. If one of us had chosen a different route, or been delayed by a few minutes, we would never have even been aware that we had been in such close proximity. What a chance encounter, we both exclaimed, in a city of 10 million people.

And yet, when I thought about it afterwards, the encounter was not so much of a co-incidence after all. The same factors which made us friends in the first place (age, interests, values) brought us to the same city and then made us familiar with the same areas of it: the same locations, the same streets. Our work and social lives brought us to similar places, week in, week out; it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths again. This kind of encounter is not unusual, I think, for many people who live in London. This may be a city of strangers, but it is also a collection of villages, and on a surprisingly regular basis I find myself bumping into friends on busy tube station platforms, on bridges, and at the theatre. When you share similar interests and lifestyles, London can begin to feel like a much smaller place. When you work in the same part of London, it feels localised. When you work on the same street, it feels simultaneously large and small at the same time.

So as an academic who works on nineteenth-century literature, I began to wonder about Victorian London, and whether Dickens and his associates experienced a similar kind of interconnected city. With his network of friends, colleagues and rivals at work in journalism, literature, and the theatre, Dickens operated in a shared environment of print culture and visual culture: newspapers, magazines, serial fiction, plays, playbills, prints, and illustrations. Indeed, Dickens’s biographer Forster declared that Dickens had a favourite theory as to ‘the smallness of the world’, and the many coincidences and connections in his fiction seem to attest to this idea. But could I find any more concrete evidence of the importance of networks and face-to-face connections in Dickens’s professional (which was of course tied up with his social) life? And what might this tell us about the importance of physical proximity in the city for the development of the nineteenth century periodical press and publishing industry?

Often in research you need a bit of luck, and my serendipitous moment came when I compared the office address on the back of Dickens’s magazine Household Words (1850-59) with the office address on the back of Reynolds’ Newspaper (1850-62). This newspaper was established and edited by one of Dickens’s biggest rivals G.W.M. Reynolds, who was also developing into something of Dickens’s arch-nemesis. Reynolds made his name initially through publishing imitations of Dickens’s popular fiction: Dickens published Pickwick Papers, Reynolds published Pickwick Abroad; Dickens published Master Humphery’s Clock, Reynolds published Master Timothy’s Bookcase. By 1850, Reynolds and Dickens were conducting a war of words in their publications; by this point Dickens was objecting to Reynolds’s political radicalism and revolutionary politics as much as his literary appropriations. In March, Dickens delivered his opening appeal to the readers of Household Words in which he described Reynolds as one of the ‘Panders to the basest passions of the lowest natures – whose existence is a national reproach’. In June that year, Reynolds returned the favour in his own new publication, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, by publishing a scornful denunciation of Household Words:
[Dickens] sees the condition of [London’s] population but dimly […] and hopes to cure all the complaints and troubles of its inhabitants by a little small talk, ‘familiar as household words’, and about as much use as lip-sympathy to a starving man.

This attack, similar to others in the Chartist press, aims to separate the politics, writings, and publications of ‘true’ radicals from those of Dickens. The implication is that if Dickens sees the true state of London ‘but dimly’, Reynolds not only observes it correctly, but transforms his observations into publications which are much better placed to help the poor. However, my comparison of their office addresses showed that this denunciation of Dickens and of Household Words was published from the same street as the very periodical which it attacked. Reynolds’s office was just across the road from Dickens.

The street they both worked on was Wellington Street (home then as now to the Lyceum Theatre), which today finishes at the Strand just above Waterloo Bridge and begins at Bow Street below Covent Garden Opera House. These two significant mid-century rivals, then, vented their diatribes in publications that were based just a few yards away from each other: Dickens was at 16 Wellington Street North from 1850, and Reynolds was across the road at number 7. When they visited their offices, they could easily have passed each other on the street. As I investigated further, it became apparent that Wellington Street was in the heart of the publishing world of London, and indeed of the burgeoning Empire. St. Paul’s Churchyard and Paternoster Row remained the key bookselling district, and Holywell Street was the place to go for cheap pornography, but printers and publishers clustered around the Strand well into the mid-19th century, so Reynolds and Dickens were surrounded by the networks, and suppliers and distributors, for their trade. But they were also surrounded by many other well-known writers and editors.


Wellington Street, bi-sects the Strand on this map of 1851. Collection of Hawk Norton.*

On Wellington Street, you could find the offices of some of the most well-known and influential newspapers, miscellanies, and serials of the mid-Victorian period. In the 1840s and ‘50s it was home to more than twenty newspapers or periodicals, and thirteen booksellers or publishers. The Punch office was at 13 Wellington Street South until January 1844. When Reynolds arrived at number 7 around 1846, number 14 was the office of the Athenaeum. This highly respected literary journal was published by John Francis, who helped to prop up the Daily News after Dickens had abandoned his ill-advised job as its editor. Until 1849, number 14 also contained the offices of the Railway Chronicle. This was edited by John Scott Russell, who had been railway editor for Dickens at the Daily News. A two-minute stroll away, at number 5 Wellington Street South was the office of the Examiner, edited by Dickens’s close friend and literary advisor John Forster. At 17 Upper Wellington Street lived briefly one of the most famous contributors to Household Words, G.A. Sala, while Henry Mayhew published the serial version of London Labour and the London Poor from an office in 16 Upper Wellington Street.


Henry Mayhew.

These writers and editors wrote for multiple publications, collaborated again and again in different combinations, and helped each other through shared contacts and shared publishing ventures. Punch-ites Gilbert a Beckett and Jerrold both had plays or adaptations of their fiction performed at the Lyceum Theatre on Wellington Street; many of their circle visited the local coffee rooms, and set up informal clubs in local taverns. London’s publishing world in the Strand area in general, and in Wellington Street in particular, was made up of interconnected social and business networks.


View of Wellington Street today. Pic: Mary Shannon.

So although the novel and the newspaper were intended for an anonymous mass reading public, the experience of Dickens and his contemporaries on Wellington Street was one of working in a remarkably interconnected community, made up of interlocking networks. This makes Dickens’s fascination with coincidences and connections in his fiction seem much less surprising, I think. This networked way of working and socialising fed into the ways in which writers such as Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew represented their readers. Editors and writers on Wellington Street frequently addressed these anonymous readers as friends, as if they were part of their immediate social network. Despite advances in literacy, print technology, and communications, London in the 1840s and `50s was not a place where face-to-face interactions (more commonly associated with the print trade in smaller Renaissance cities) disappeared. The modern city is not a place where you can escape connections, partly because it is made up of such interconnected villages. That this can be a threatening possibility for the urban writer, as well as an enabling one, is revealed by the work of the writers and editors of Wellington Street.


Dr Mary Shannon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.

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.

This article, by journalist, author and academic Brian Cathcart, was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from April 2015.


June 18th this year is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and it will be marked in many events and ceremonies. Of course, on that Sunday in 1815 no one in London had any idea what was happening in Belgium. They didn’t even know that hostilities had broken out. News of the battle did not reach the capital in reliable form until late on Wednesday, but it did so in the most dramatic manner.

The battle was won by the Sunday evening, but the Duke of Wellington did not hurry to inform his government and so his famous Waterloo Dispatch did not leave Brussels until early the following afternoon. Travelling over drenched and battered roads, and no doubt stopping frequently on his way to share his news, the messenger, Major Henry Percy, made slow progress to the coast. Then, embarked upon the sloop HMS Peruvian, he was becalmed at sea. By the time the Kent coast finally came into sight it was late on Wednesday morning and so desperate was Percy to complete his mission that he abandoned ship, stepping into a rowing boat with four sailors who rowed him the last twenty miles to Broadstairs.

In the meantime, London went a little mad. Monday’s evening papers brought word that fighting had begun in Belgium and then early on Tuesday came a report of a great victory for Wellington. A scoop for the Morning Post newspaper, this briefly electrified the population – but it was all a mistake, a distorted and exaggerated account of an indecisive encounter two days before Waterloo.

A ferment of confusion and debate followed, captured vividly by the Morning Herald:

The evening of yesterday [Tuesday 20th] having been fine, and the placards of the many-edition papers having been very profuse of various, if not contradictory, intelligence, groups of people remained to a late hour in the Strand, some arguing for one, some arguing for another construction of the news from Flanders. About the Horse Guards the crowd was greater, and the Park [St James’s] was thronged, all the evening, with people waiting for the dispatches. The feeling was evidently and strongly British, notwithstanding the laborious arts of the Bonapartian journals to produce a contrary spirit.

Wednesday, as the Observer newspaper would recall later, was ‘an interval of painful suspense’. It dawned with London expecting to find the official messenger in town, but Percy was then still a hundred miles off and the unaccountable absence of news deepened fears that the battle must have been lost. Soon unofficial reports of a victory began to trickle in, but people would not trust them, especially as counter-rumours of a defeat were also circulating. (Claims that the banker Nathan Rothschild was the first to know, by the way, are not supported by the evidence.)

Tension mounted as the hours passed. On Wednesday evening the streets were again filled with expectant Londoners, while War Department officials manned their desks for a second night running. At the theatres and the society parties across the West End, one topic dominated. Meanwhile Major Percy was at last making swift progress in his post-chaise and four. Changing horses at Canterbury, Sittingbourne, Rochester and Dartford, he crested Shooters Hill in time to see London in the fading light of dusk. Then soon after 11pm his yellow carriage, with two captured French eagle standards thrusting from its windows, crossed Westminster Bridge into a delirious crowd.

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Major Percy sets out, with Napoleon’s eagles.

With this happy throng in tow, Percy made his way to Downing Street, where he was told that the Cabinet was dining at Lord Harrowby’s in Grosvenor Square. These unfortunate ministers had thus far passed an evening of all but unbearable tension. One account goes:

They dined, they sat. No dispatch came. At length, when the night was far advanced, they broke up. Yet, delayed by a lingering hope that the expected messenger might appear, they stood awhile in a knot conversing on the pavement when suddenly was heard a faint and distant shout. It was the shout of victory! Hurrah! Escorted by a running and vociferous multitude, the Major drove up. He was taken into the house and the dispatch was opened.

Sixteen pages long and written in the most sober terms, the dispatch took time to digest, but eventually delighted ministers were able to announce the news to the crowd outside, who greeted it, according to the Morning Post, with ‘universal and ecstatic cheering’. Now Percy had to report to the Prince Regent, who that night was the dinner guest of a banking family, the Boehms. Carriages were summoned and most of the Cabinet followed Percy’s chaise through the streets, once again trailing a crowd behind. Dorothy Boehm, the hostess, describes their arrival at 16 St James’s Square:

The first quadrille was in the act cf forming and the Prince was walking up to the dais on which his seat was placed, when I saw every one without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows, which had been left wide open because of the excessive sultriness of the weather. The music ceased and the dance was stopped; for we heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob, who had just entered the Square and were running by the side of a post-chaise and four, out of whose windows were hanging three nasty French eagles. In a second the door of the carriage was flung open and, without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy – such a dusty figure! – with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone who happened to be in his way, darting up stairs, into the ball-room, stepping hastily up to the Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet, and pronouncing the words ‘Victory, Sir! Victory!’

The jubilation was mixed with shock at the casualties, but for the next three days London partied. Some never made it to bed that night and were present next morning to witness the spectacular military display staged in St James’s Park by the Duke of York. Both Houses of Parliament cheered themselves hoarse, while perhaps the most vivid personal recollection comes from the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon:

Sammons, my model and corporal of the Life Guards, came, and we tried to do our duty, but Sammons was in such a fidget about his regiment charging and I myself was in such a heat, I was obliged to let him go. Away he went, and I never saw him till late next day, and he then came drunk with talking. I read the Gazette the last thing before going to bed. I dreamt of it and was fighting all night. I got up in a steam of feeling and read the Gazette again, ordered a Courier for a month, called a confectioner’s, and read all the papers till I was faint.

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Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo. Detail, engraving by Burnett after Wilkie.

On Friday and Saturday came the illuminations, with spectacular lantern and candle shows at all the big houses, public buildings and businesses. The St James’s Chronicle wrote:

The streets were thronged with people beyond conception. The whole was one moving crowd, carriages going slowly and forcing their way through the populace. The fair sex were equally numerous with the male. Bands of music paraded the streets until two o’clock. Dustmen, with their bells, kept up a perpetual din. Many persons lost their shoes opposite the Admiralty and Horse Guards. The pickpockets were very busy.


Brian Cathcart is the author of The News from Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, published in 2015.

Gunpowder & Geometry

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

charles dingley sawing through magna carta_500

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

dingley road_500

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