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How Westminster’s secret hackers helped bring America into the First World War.

A guest post by London Historians Member Mark Lubienski.

Old Admiralty from Horse Guards Parade

Have you ever walked along Whitehall, or across Horse Guards Parade, and glanced up at the Grade I listed Old Admiralty Building? Perhaps you’ve pondered the Empire-changing events that were planned in its dimly lit and smoke filled rooms? You may know that it was once the office of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, or you may even be an admirer of the Robert Adam screen that was added to the Whitehall entrance in 1788. But you probably don’t know that it was at the centre of a dramatic chain of events that triggered America’s entry into the First World War. Those events began with a secret telegram sent from Berlin to Mexico City via Stockholm and Washington DC.

By January 1917 the First World War was in its third winter and had seen bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, but it was also at a stalemate. Despite calls from politicians in Britain and at home, and in the face of attacks on America domestically and at sea, US President Woodrow Wilson had steadfastly maintained his country’s neutrality. The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-Boat, with a loss of 1,198 lives including 128 US citizens, almost drew America into the conflict. But Wilson remained neutral despite acts of espionage and sabotage by German agents on the US mainland that included blowing up munitions trains, firebombing factories, and stirring up Mexican aggression towards America. The pressure on Wilson was increasing, but what would it take to finally bring the United States into the war?

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Reginald “Blinker” Hall.

Back in London, in a dusty corner of the Old Admiralty Building, the Royal Navy had set up the top secret Room 40; its own intercept and code-breaking outfit. Its name really did come from its room number, and it was located on the first floor a few doors along from Churchill’s office, overlooking a shady inner courtyard. The spymaster in charge of Room 40 was Capt. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall – he had a persistent and rather unnerving facial twitch – a man who was cunning, ruthless and rather fond of intrigue. Hall had built up a brilliant code-breaking team drawn from academia and through his own social connections, generally preferring recruits with backgrounds in modern and ancient languages. One of Hall’s first hires was Nigel de Grey, a Balloon Corps veteran fluent in German and French. Another was Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, an eccentric Cambridge classical scholar and hieroglyphologist. Knox soon had a bathtub installed in his office in the Old Admiralty Building, and he would spend hours lying in the hot water mulling over code-breaking problems, steadfastly refusing to allow anyone else to borrow it. His office cum bathroom was just around the corner from Room 40, and looked out over Whitehall from where you can still see its window today.

In the early hours of Wednesday 17th January 1917, prospects for the Allied powers changed dramatically. An intercepted telegram was handed to de Grey and Knox who had been manning the night watch in Room 40, and they quickly realized that it was in the newest and highest-level German diplomatic code called 7500. The telegram was tackled with the greatest urgency and within a few hours it had been partially decoded; it was from the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, and was destined for Mexico via Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador to the US. It was dynamite; an invitation to Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany were America to enter the war following Germany’s imminent resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Mexico, a country that made America both nervous and paranoid, would be rewarded with the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for attacking America with arms and resources to be provided by Germany. Today it sounds far-fetched, but in 1917 it was a genuine and serious proposal.

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de Grey and Knox.

De Grey immediately grasped the incendiary nature of the telegram’s content, and he ran as fast as he could to ‘Blinker’ Hall’s office with the partial decrypt, breathlessly exclaiming “Do you want to bring America into the war, Sir?” “Yes, my boy. Why?” exclaimed Hall. “I’ve got a telegram here that will bring them in if you give it to them.” Hall couldn’t remember a time when he had been so excited, but the telegram was only of importance if it could be used.

Persuaded of the telegram’s authenticity and understanding its explosive implications, Hall now had to tread carefully. If the contents of the telegram became public, the Germans would immediately realise that diplomatic code 7500 had been broken. Just as significantly, the Americans would realise that the British had been tapping into their diplomatic cables as the telegram had passed through a US diplomatic channel in Stockholm en route to Washington DC. Hall couldn’t allow either eventuality to happen and so he kept quiet, hoping that America would enter the war anyway. But America did not; so Hall, a master of deception and disinformation, acted cleverly and decisively.

Portrait

Hall realised that an amended version of the telegram in an older lower-level code, called 13040 and which Room 40 had previously broken, would need to be forwarded by von Bernsdorff in Washington DC to the German ambassador in Mexico City. If this version could somehow be obtained and made public, the Germans would assume that the cyber-theft had happened in Mexico. Hall contacted a British agent down in Mexico City who infiltrated the local telegraph office and had the telegram stolen. Hall now had what he needed, and it was the Mexican version that he handed to the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, who in turn presented it to the US Ambassador in London on 23rd February 1917. Just a day later, President Woodrow Wilson had the Zimmerman Telegram in his hands, exclaiming “Good Lord! Good Lord!”. When Wilson published the telegram a few days later, the American newspapers and public were appalled and called for action against Germany. Any remaining doubts about the authenticity of the telegram were removed in early March when Zimmerman himself admitted that the telegram was real, and it proved to be the catalyst that finally brought America into the First World War on 6th April 1917.

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And what became of our cryptographic heroes Nigel de Grey and ‘Dilly’ Knox? Both went on to play distinguished roles in Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, where today an exhibition remembering the work of Room 40 and the First World War code-breakers includes, as its central exhibit, a bathtub.

*****

Mark Lubienski is a Westminster Guide from the Class of 2014. He is also a co-founder of London War Walks and gives occasional talks on the secret world of intelligence and espionage.

 

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A guest post by London Historians member Roger Williams.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 08.50.45Regulars at The London Historians’ monthly meetups in the Hoop and Grapes will be familiar with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay. The beer is dispensed from the barrel, and the label on the pump handle describes it as a being from ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’. This name was first used to mark the acquisition in the late 18th century of a five-horse-power steam engine, which made the brewery one of the first outside London to join the Industrial Revolution. The engine was supplied by the Birmingham pioneering manufactory of Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose portraits are on the £50 note. This is the last note to be transformed into polymer, and there is even speculation that this note is so unused — or, perhaps, only used for drug dealing and money laundering — that it may disappear altogether.  It would be a shame if Boulton and Watt slipped back into history, for these are the men who drove the Industrial Revolution and brought Britain incredible wealth.

Their headquarters was the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, in a district named, like London’s West End quarter, after a hunting cry. But you don’t have to go that far to appreciate their work, and the first stop must be the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew, where one glance at the monster Boulton & Watt beam engine gives an immediate sense of what giants of industry these two men were.  Steam engines were designed initially by the likes of Newcomen and Trevithick to pump water from Cornish mines. By 1800 80 percent of the world’s coal was mined in Britain,  and today 75 per cent of electricity in use in Britain is provided by steam. Built in 1820, the year after Watt’s death, for the waterworks at Chelsea, this machine was moved to Kew in 1840. It is the oldest known working waterworks beam engine in the world, and it still gets fired up. Watching the leviathan 15-ton beam ease into graceful action is a vision of the hand-wrought world of man at its height.

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James Watt’s workshop at his house in Handsworth, near Soho, was a popular place to visit during and even after his lifetime. In 1924, more than a century after his death, his house was due to be demolished so  the Science Museum organised the transplantation of the workshop to South Kensington.  It is still there, behind glass, a glorified shed, which has the oldest circular saw in the world, musical instruments and devices to copy sculpture, early 3D printing machines, which occupied Watt in the last years of his life.
The Science Museum’s Engine Hall also preserves Old Bess, one of the world’s oldest surviving beam engines, built in 1777 and used at the Soho manufactory. Buyers might be shown around Old Bess and could purchase the parts and assemble their machines for themselves in situ, with the help of a manual. David & Charles published a reprint some time ago, and it included the use of olive or ‘Spanish’ oil for lubrication. Soho engineers were sometimes sent out to help build or mend machines. It was this idea that gave me the idea to write Burning Barcelona, an historical novel based on solid fact, that imagined an engine erector installing the first steam engine in Spain for Josep Bonaplata’s textile mill in Barcelona, only for it to be attacked by the mob.

As a result of the novel, I gave a paper at Birmingham University in 2009 at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference*, which helped to bring the coin and ‘toy’ manufacturer (at his own expense he gave every man serving at Trafalgar a medal) into modern consciousness. I was subsequently invited to Westminster Abbey when a memorial to Boulton ‘Pioneer of the Industrial Revolution’ was installed in the floor of St Paul’s chapel.

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Boulton and Watt built the giant Albion flour mills by Blackfriars bridge, which spectacularly burnt down in 1791, five years after it was installed, The Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street near the Barbican, also had one of Watt’s first rotative steam engines, built in around the same year, which operated for more than a century. The brewery closed in 1976 and has become a Grade II listed venue with a James Watt Room, while the engine, transported to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is still going strong.

James Watt spent much of his life fighting copyright infringements. In London one of his biggest rivals was Henry Maudslay, who built the first beam engine for the Kew Bridge works in 1838. The company’s main erecting shop was in Lambeth where it ran a training school for a whole generation of engineers. Maudslay was a pioneer of machine tool technology, and he specialised in marine engines, providing the power for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched at Millwall in 1854.

If the £50 note does get issued in polymer form, perhaps Henry Maudslay could take the place of Boulton & Watt.
———————-

London Museum of Water & Steam, Kew, www.waterandsteam.org.uk

* Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World, paper from the Bicentenary Conference, can be seen on https://boultonwattpaper.blogspot.co.uk
Burning Barcelona on Amazon: https://goo.gl/5jQ2dR


London Historian member Roger Williams is a London-born journalist and former travel guide editor. His fiction is based on historical events that have caught his imagination (Burning Barcelona, Lunch With Elizabeth David, Hotel Bristol Stories). A tourist at home, he is constantly drawn to the Thames, and his books on London include Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries, The Temples of London, Father Thames and London’s Lost Global Giant – in search of the East India Company. Other London books are The Royal Albert Hall: a masterpiece for the 21st century, London Top 10, The Most Amazing Places to Visit in London and Royal London.

 

A guest post by LH member Nigel Pickford. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from March 2014.

Detailed recording of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure only really starts from the 1850s onwards (1). So, if you want to know what the weather was like in London 350 years ago you have just two possible approaches. There is retrospective science in the form of dendroclimatology (2). The limitation of this is that it’s very broad brush. It’s not going to tell you whether it was raining on Sunday, 12 February 1682, for instance, the day that Mr Thynn was gunned down in the street. But this was the level of detail that I needed to know about when writing my new book, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn. The alternative is to study the literary and artistic ephemera of the day in the shape of contemporary diaries, letters, travel journals, early broadsheets, ships logs, paintings, astronomical almanacs and so on.

One thing was quickly evident. The winters were a lot colder than they are now. The end of the seventeenth century experienced a sharp spike of chilliness during what was anyway a cool period that had already been going on for several hundred years, a period now known as the little ice age (3). There is plenty of personal anecdote to support this. For a start the River Thames was in the habit of freezing right across, a freak weather occurrence which was quick to be commercially exploited in the form of the famous frost fairs. There was sledging, skating, coach racing, bull baiting, pop up shops, and roasting of oxen, as well as ‘ puppet places and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places’, to quote John Evelyn’s rather coy phrase. (4)

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River Thames Frost Fair, 1683, by Thomas Wyke.

It wasn’t just the frequency of sub-zero temperatures that made the London weather experience very different from what it is today. The ‘Metropolis’, as it had recently come to be called, was also a lot more susceptible to noxious fogs. One tends to associate the trademark London smog with the Victorian period, partly because of the marvellously atmospheric descriptions in Dickens’s novels. But the roots of London’s industrial pollution problems go back to the seventeenth century when smog was probably even more pernicious and ubiquitous than it was in Dickens’s time. John Evelyn’s fascinating little book Fumifugium, published in 1661 (5), describes the effect of the growing use of sea coal on London’s micro climate. He refers to ‘that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea Coal’ which caused Londoners ‘to breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fulginous and filthy vapour’ and which caused the inhabitants to suffer from, ‘Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions’. He blamed all the ‘Brewers, Diers, Lime Burners, Salt and Sope Boylers’ who belched forth a ‘cloud of sulphure’ from their ‘sooty jaws’. Evelyn was a founding father of the environmental movement and his suggested solution was to move all the polluting industries to an area East of Greenwich which would be downwind from the main centres of habitation. He was also keen on the idea of planting a ring of sweet smelling trees and shrubs right around the periphery of London, a sort of early green belt. Fumifugium was dedicated to Charles II, who received Evelyn’s ideas with enthusiasm and did nothing about them.

A fascination with daily weather was just as much a preoccupation with seventeenth century Londoners as it is with its modern inhabitants. Food supplies depended on a good harvest, transport was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and, of course, it affected everyone’s general sense of wellbeing. Even the Duke of York (the future James II) typifies that unchanging tendency to moan about the elements when he writes to his niece about not being able to get out for his usual morning walk ‘as for the weather it is the same with you, that it is with us, only it keeps us prisoners, for there is no sturing out farther than the little Parke, the waters being still so much out and the ways so durty, that I have not been able to go further, and this day has been so very rainy that I have not been able to walke abroad at all but a little in the morning early upon the terrasse’. (7)

There may have been no meteorological office but weather forecasting was still a thriving business left largely to the professional astrologers and almanac writers. One of the more interesting and lesser known works in this genre is John Gadbury’s Nauticum astrologicum: or, The astrological seaman…unto which is added a Diary of the weather for XXI years together, exactly observed in London. (8) Gadbury had a client base of merchants and shipowners who need to know whether it was a propitious weather moment to launch a new boat or start on a new voyage. Astrology was very much on the defensive towards the end of the seventeenth century against accusations of being little more than necromancy and Gadbury was anxious to prove to his readers that his work was commensurate with the strictest scientific standards of the age being full of ‘New and Real Observations or Experiments to credit his opinions’.

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John Gadbury, unknown artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Part of the point of the weather diary which extended from November 1668 to December 1689 was to validate his astrological predictions. So, the studious reader can apparently discern from his daily record that ‘the sun in Leo, generally brings along with it, parching hot air; and in Aries dry but lofty winds; in Pisces much moisture.’ or again ‘we have a fall of wet upon every New or Full moon.’ The actual daily entries are more down to earth. On 7 November 1681, for instance, the day of Lady Bette’s sudden flight from London, he notes, ‘close air, great wind East.’ That East wind was all important. It could result in the boat she hoped to escape in being trapped in the river for days if not weeks. She can’t have consulted him.

Notes:

  1. The Meteorology Office was established in 1854 with its main purpose to help predict storm and avoid shipwreck.
  2. The study of tree rings to establish changes of weather pattern.
  3. The little ice age is now thought to have lasted roughly from around 1400 to 1800.
  4. The Diary of John Evelyn, Ed. E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford 1955).
  5. Quotations are taken from the 1976 reprint published by Rota, Exeter.
  6. This idea was developed in the works of Samuel Hartlib and John Beale, contemporaries of John Evelyn.
  7. Windsor April 30th 1682, from Some Familiar Letters of Charles II and James Duke of York ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon (1902).
  8. The astrological seaman was thought to have been written in the last decade of the seventeenth century but was not published until 1710. Gadbury died in 1704.

 


Nigel Pickford is an author and historian whose book Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn was published by Orion Books in 2014. He is also a specialist maritime historian who has made documentaries for Channel 4 and published books with Dorling Kindersley and National Geographic. He is a Member of London Historians.

A guest post by LH member Lissa Chapman. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from February 2014.

I remember exactly where I was at 1am on 1st February 1994. Standing at the top of an eighteenth century staircase in Hackney at the end of a sixteen-hour day, wondering if I had the energy left to walk down the stairs, let alone organise a press launch later that morning. This was the culmination of six years’ hard work involving hundreds of people: Sutton House was about to reopen after its restoration – although that one word hardly does the story justice.

Twenty years on, Sutton House has the glossily cared-for, slightly corporate look of most National Trust properties It is hard to remember, and must be harder still to imagine, that only seven years before that triumphant reopening, Sutton House was derelict, filthy, much of its past forgotten and its future likely to take the form of redevelopment as private flats. Yet it had been in National Trust ownership for half a century.

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Sutton House from Homerton High Street.

The background to this unlikely-seeming story is this. Sutton House was presented to a less than enthusiastic National Trust in the 1930s, long before such a modestly sized house in a run-down urban area was much valued. So it was given basic repairs and let, latterly serving as offices to the trade union ASTMS until their sudden departure in the early 1980s. At that point the house, empty, leaking and forlorn, was regarded by the management of the National Trust as a “Pandora’s box of problems”. And soon those problems were compounded when squatters moved in. It was at this point that the conversion proposal was put forward. And it was a close-run thing.

Three local residents wrote separate letters to the Hackney Gazette deploring the neglected present and uncertain future of Sutton House; this quickly resulted in the birth of the Save Sutton House campaign, and the first open day was held in December 1987. I first visited the following summer. The poster had described a Tudor house: I almost walked past it. But once in, I soon became involved – early memories include rare breed sheep in the courtyard, fortune tellers in the west cellar and baking vast numbers of cakes to sell. Almost anything went – on one occasion a group of decorous young folk dancers were joined by a patient from one of the supposedly locked wards of Hackney Hospital. It took the audience a few seconds to realise he was naked from the waist down, and a few more to conclude that he was not a new sort of Morris man.

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The state of the courtyard in 1991.

Once the National Trust had changed its mind about Sutton House, planning began for its future. And the final agreement was that the house should be made available after restoration not only for formal education purposes and individual visits, but as accommodation for meetings, parties and performances. One room on the second floor became a National Trust office, and into this moved a project manager and fundraiser – It was discovered that it would be necessary to spend over £2 million to restore the house.

While these battles raged, the true history of the house began to emerge, winkled shred by shred out of Hackney and other archives. Much of it was unearthed by a photographer called Mike Gray. It turned out that the name “Sutton House” was the invention of a Victorian historian who knew that Thomas Sutton had lived somewhere in Hackney (he was almost right – Sutton’s house had been close by). In Sutton’s time, Hackney was a village, famous for its healthy air and its market gardens, located at a convenient weekly commuting distance from London. Wealthy City merchants built houses for their families here, conveniently close to their place of business yet away from the ever-present risk of disease in the crowded city.

The true builder of what was at first known as the “bryk place” turned out to be a man named Ralph Sadleir, a self-made millionaire who began his career in the household of Thomas Cromwell and who survived not only his master’s fall but lived to be an octogenarian and the richest commoner in England. This was the house he built when he was on his way up in the world, and the home where his children spent much of their early years. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign he was not only established as a valued royal servant, but had become rich, owning thousands of acres across southern England. So he sold his modest Hackney property, and the house became home to a succession of mercantile families, later serving as one of the girls’ schools for which Hackney was known in the seventeenth century (the ever-susceptible Samuel Pepys made special trips to the local church so he could ogle the school girls, stopping off at a pub for cherries and cream).

Over the following centuries the “bryk place” was transformed, extended, renamed, given new identities, new surroundings and new neighbours. It was in turn one house, two houses, flats, several different schools, a church youth club, a warehouse and assorted offices. Its 30-acre home farm shrank to a small courtyard: it was refaced, re-fenestrated, re-roofed and re-used. It was small enough and useful enough to survive while every one of the other Hackney mansions was destroyed.

All these transformations had left their evidence in the fabric – and these layers of time were kept when the house was restored. Now visitors can open inset doors in panelling to see what is beneath, lift floorboards in the Great Chamber to see the structure of the joists, walk through a room that looks unequivocally Victorian, open the door of the adjoining Tudor garde robe and examine preserved cobwebs, then go up a floor and see one of the squatters’ wall paintings still in place.

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London Historians’ group visit to Sutton House in 2015.

The next chapter Sutton House’s history began in late 2014 when the plot of land next door, which was a car repair yard in 1994, opened as a community garden. Archaeological investigation had revealed some of the brickwork of the house that stood next door in Ralph Sadleir’s day.

For the record, I did manage to get to the bottom of the stairs. And most of what could then still be termed Fleet Street wrote about the house and its restoration. In 1994 few journalists found it easy to believe anything good could be happening in Hackney. But a lot has happened since then.


Lissa Chapman is co-founder of Clio’s Company which specialises in London-based site-specific theatre. Among many previous adventures, she was the first press officer for the newly-restored Sutton House. 

A Georgian Wizard

A guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter of February 2014.

One of the really fascinating characters in Eighteenth Century London was a certain Mr John Joseph Merlin. He was born at Huys, near Maastricht, in Belgium on 17 Sept 1735. If he is known at all, it’s for inventing a form of roller skate and crashing into a mirror when making a spectacular appearance at a soiree. While playing the violin and wearing his skates…(as one does).

The earliest mention of this Grand Entrance appears to come from a work entitled “Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes” written by Thomas Busby in 1805.
He relates:

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.”

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John Joseph Merlin by Gainsborough.

There was, however, rather more to Mr Merlin than inventing skates-sans-brakes. Indeed, he is one of my heroes of the century – a man whose accomplishments fitted perfectly into the Georgian era. Merlin was an inventor, a showman, a fine musician, a clock maker and much more besides.

It appears that he studied for six years as a maker of clocks, automata and mathematical and musical instruments at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He came to the notice of the Court and arrived in England in May 1760, aged twenty-five, as part of a diplomatic entourage. He soon made valuable friends and connections, including Johann Christian Bach, Thomas Gainsborough and many others.

Merlin was also a popular visitor at the household of the musicologist Charles Burney, father of Fanny Burney. She observed: “He is a great favourite in our house…He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom. He does not, though a foreigner, want words; but he arranges and pronounces them very comically.”

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Charles Burney by Joshua Reynolds.

He set to and developed many refinements to existing musical instruments – to the harp, the harpsichord, the new-fangled pianoforte and so on. He invented and patented a harpsichord with pianoforte action. By 1763 he appears to have been involved in the preparation and finishing of a large barrel organ as a gift for the mother of George III.

By 1766 he had started working with James Cox, the brilliant showman, jeweller and goldsmith who opened a museum at Spring Gardens at Charing Cross. Merlin became Cox’s “chief mechanic” developing the mechanism for the famous Silver Swan, now the star of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.
When Cox got into financial difficulties, Merlin decided to set up on his own. In 1783 he acquired premises at 11 Princes Street off Hanover Square and called the place Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. Here he offered refreshments to visitors, charging two shillings and sixpence to go in during the morning session and three shillings in the evening.

What they saw was an impressive array of his automata and various inventions. One of the people attending the exhibition was a young schoolboy from Devon called Charles Babbage. The story goes that Merlin took Charles upstairs to see his workshop and to show some more exotic automata. Babbage later recalled: “There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high”. One of the figures was “an admirable danseuse, with a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings and opened its beak”. Babbage was completely gob-smacked. “The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible”. In 1834 Babbage actually managed to buy the two exhibits which had so profoundly affected him.

He was later to go on and invent the forerunner of the modern computer.

As if inspiring the Father of Computing was not enough, Merlin invented a host of other items:

  • A mechanical chariot equipped with a mechanical whip and an early form of odometer called a “way-wise.” The distance covered was shown on a dial at the side of the vehicle. Apparently Merlin liked to advertise his chariot by riding it through Hyde Park on Sundays.
  • A Dutch oven or Rotisseur with a mechanical jack to turn meat (patented 1773).
  • A bell communication system to summon servants, with a list annexed to the bell push.
  • A ‘Gouty Chair’, propelled and steered by the user turning winches on the arms. 1811.
  • A mechanical garden.
  • A revolving tea table with a robotic 12 cup central samovar for the perfect Georgian hostess.
  • A Hygeian pump to “expel foul air out of Ships Hospitals Bed clothes etc”.
  • A gambling machine which, once wound up, would play a game of ‘odd and even’ for up to four hours!
  • A set of whist cards for the blind (a sort of braille precursor).
  • A prosthetic device for a “Person born with Stumps only” which apparently enabled a person to use a knife and fork, hold a horse reins, “and even write with great freedom”.
  • A personal weighing machine in satinwood called Sanctorius’s Balance.
  • Various exquisite clocks.
  • A set of weighing scales with a built-in micrometer screw for measuring the size, thickness and weight of golden guineas (and their divisions, the half guinea and quarter guinea).
  • A perpetual motion clock (with James Cox). The change of pressure in the Earth’s atmosphere acted as an external energy source and caused the winding mechanism to move. Somehow it failed to catch on…
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The Gouty Chair.

Merlin died at Paddington in May 1803 at the age of 68. In his will he directed that his 30 year old horse should be shot – presumably because he could not tolerate the thought of anyone else riding him, or of the horse suffering in old age. Having died unmarried, he left his property to two brothers and a sister.
All in all, a prolific inventor and a fascinating chap.

Merlin you old wizard, I salute you!


Mike Rendell is a founder member and great supporter of London Historians. Also known as the Georgian Gentleman he has written several excellent books about the period and runs a very active blog. He is on Twitter as @georgiangent.

A guest post by LH Member Valerie Colin-Russ.

London’s oldest lion statues are not native Londoners but took up residence here many years ago.  The very oldest pair, five thousand years old, were two of three brought to London at the end of the nineteenth century by the eminent Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie.  Both unfortunately broke into fragments on the journey and remained in the crates in which they arrived until archaeologists reconstituted them between 1980 and 1982, since when they have found a home in University College.  The third lion was smaller and arrived intact and was used as a model for the others’ reconstruction.  This smaller one now lives in the Ashmolean at Oxford.

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London’s oldest lion, one of two held in University College London.

Various London museums are home to several other ancient foreign lions (who have not been shattered and reconstructed) who are now long-established London residents.   For instance in the British museum can be found several such, including two beautiful Egyptian ones, made of  red granite, dating from 1400 BC, an Assyrian lion dating from 860 BC  and one from Halikarnassos from the fourth century BC.  One from Knidos (the date is disputed between the fourth and second centuries BC) stands in the museum’s Great Court.

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Halikarnassos Lion in the British Museum.

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Egyptian Lion, British Museum.

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Assyrian Lion, British Museum.

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Knidos lion in the Great Court of the British Museum.

The oldest native London lion dates from Roman London and was found in Camomile Street  in a bastion of the City wall but probably came from a Roman cemetery nearby and was  then reused as building material in the construction of the wall.  This lion has an animal in its mouth and is thought to represent the all-devouring jaws of death.  He dates from the fourth or fifth century AD and now lives in the Museum of London.

The oldest London lions still in their original position, although inevitably considerably weathered, are the pair on the York Watergate dating from 1626.  The gate is all that remains of York House, the home of the Duke of Buckingham, and once led from his garden to the river when the Thames was much wider before the construction of the Embankment.  One other seventeenth century lion survives in much better condition, standing guard (with a companion unicorn) at the beginning of Palace Avenue, the road leading from Kensington Road to Kensington Palace while a rather grumpy-looking pair sit atop the Lion Gate at Hampton Court and date from about 1700.

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York Watergate near Victoria Embankment.

However, the heyday of London’s lions was from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the start of the second world war; it was essentially in the days of Empire that the London lion really flourished!


DSC00653_250These facts have been extracted from a book by one of our members, Valerie Colin-Russ,  which was published in 2012 by Frances Lincoln Ltd called “London Pride”; she had tracked down over 10,000 lion statues in Greater London. All images in the above article are by Valerie Colin-Russ.

… is what I might have called this superb exhibition.

This coming Monday is the anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1649 on a scaffold outside his beloved Banqueting House, the ceiling of which he commissioned Rubens to decorate with a paean to his father, James I, strongly emphasising the divine right of kings. One of Rubens’s preparatory sketches for this work is featured at the new exhibition at the Royal Academy: Charles I: King and Collector. It opens on Saturday and runs until 15 April.

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Apart from literature and to a lesser extent architecture and fashion, England lagged horribly behind Europe when it came to the visual arts, in the case of Italy by over a century. We were bumpkins. Sure, we had an appreciation for a fine portrait and used some of Europe’s top practitioners to produce that genre, but that was pretty much it. Owing to the English Reformation, religious art never took off, in fact most had been ravaged. As to myth and allegory, beloved by Renaissance princes across the continent… here we had tumbleweed.

Charles set out to change all that. Having been exposed to the collection of Philip IV of Spain on a visit in 1623 the then Prince of Wales was hooked. The Spanish king gave him century-old portrait of his ancestor the Emperor Charles V by Titian – a spectacular gift. This painting features in the exhibition, next to the famous Velázquez portrait of Philip. Charles immediately became a serious collector, determined to have a collection the equal of any European prince. Among his many acquisitions he scooped up almost the entire collection of the once mighty Gonzaga family of Mantua, notably the output of Andrea Mantegna, here represented by all nine monumental paintings of the Triumphs of Caesar from Hampton Court Palace.

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Andrea Mantegna (1430 – 1506). The Triumph of Caesar, Vase Bearers.

Naturally, Anthony Van Dyke looms large. The famous triple portrait, a guide for Bernini to fashion the king’s portrait bust; the two monumental equestrian portraits, so powerful; the artist’s self-portrait, glancing over his shoulder, anxiously it seems. All are here.

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Anthony Van Dyk (1599 – 1641). Charles I in Three Positions.

Then there are here assembled many dozens more of the king’s fancies by the leading European painters – mainly contemporary but going back 150 years – Correggio, Bronzino, Bassano, Tintoretto, Vernonese, Holbein, Durer. Galleries – notably El Prado and the Louvre, but many others – have joined the Royal Collection to bring together the best assemblage of Charles’s collection since that cold, fateful January day in 1649.

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Titian (1490 -1586). The Supper at Emmaus.

Virtually all artistic talent at Charles’s disposal was foreign, apart from Londoner William Dobson, here represented by a marvellous portrait of Charles II when prince of Wales. I always look out for Dobson, the first great English painter, who died in poverty an alcoholic, aged just 36.

For the historian, what happened next is fascinating. As we know, virtually the entire collection was sold off over the next three years or so by the commonwealth: it needed money, not fripperies. Thanks to the catalogue of the first Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, Abraham van der Doort, we know where all these pieces were kept down to the very room. Mostly it was the now long-lost Palace of Whitehall, but also Hampton Court Palace, the Queen’s House, Denmark House etc. We also know what each piece fetched at the various commonwealth sales. Each label in the exhibition carries this information. Hence we see, for example, that a piece by Correggio featuring Venus, Mercury and Cupid fetched £800, whereas another – hung here next to it – of Mars, Venus and Cupid by Veronese commanded just £11! Poor old Veronese. A religious painting from the Circle of Raphael also fetched £800 whereas a gorgeous picture by Titian – many times bigger – could only draw £150. These were substantial amounts of money at that time, of course, but the interest lies, I think, in the relative perceived merits of art at the time, by artist and no doubt also by subject.

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Correggio (1489 -1534). Venus with Mercury and Cupid.

After the Restoration, Charles II had to build from scratch the Royal Collection, including the crown jewels. How he did this is featured in a companion exhibition to this one: Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery.  Do go to both. They are sumptuous and wonderfully curated.


This exhibition and RA250 is supported by BNY Mellon.