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

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

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Black Silk Lace, 1774.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another happy ending, from 1768.


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

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200_Portrait of Samuel Pepys, Attributed to John Riley, c.1680, The Clothworkers Company

Pepys, Attr to John Riley, c.1680, © The Clothworkers Company

Can any Londoner have led a more interesting life than Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703)? Violence, tragedy, pain and enlightenment. He experienced all in good measure and at very close quarters.

Pepys wrote what became a famous diary, he buried his cheese during the Great Fire and he canoodled with the maid. That is what most people know about this man. He was by no means great in the way Wellington, Nelson were great. Or hugely talented like Shakespeare, Hogarth and Wren. Or a great brain box like Newton. But he was an important and influential figure in his day, he mixed with the best, had the ear of kings, was a more than competent administrator. And from our point of view, he was a Londoner of great note. Literally.

A new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Plague, Fire and Revolution – celebrates the life of Samuel Pepys. But it is as much about his times as it is about the man himself. But what times they were!

The English Civil War; The regicide of Charles I; The Great Plague; The Great Fire of London; The re-building of London; The wars with the Dutch; The Glorious Revolution. Pepys directly influenced some: he was touched by them all.

Painting of the Fire of London, 1666. Artist unknown. © National Maritime Museum

Painting of the Fire of London, 1666. Artist unknown. © National Maritime Museum

These momentous events are here represented and celebrated. Portraits, panoramas, print, costume, pottery, armour and personal objects all combine to give you a strong sense of Pepys’s world, that is to say the world of the 17th century ruling class in London. The people Pepys rubbed shoulders with were kings and princes, scientists and admirals. Never has there been such a concentration of eminence, ambition and talent. But it wasn’t all blood, guts and distaster. The emergence of London as a world city. The era was characterised by the emergence of international trade and modern scientific discovery. Exotic consumer goods – tea, tobacco, coffee. All of these things are represented in this show which to sum up in a word: lavish.

Wedding outfit of James II. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Wedding outfit of James II. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Memoirs relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England for ten years determined December 1688 by Samuel Pepys © The National Maritime Museum.

Memoirs relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England for ten years determined December 1688 by Samuel Pepys © National Maritime Museum.

Pepys's tobacco box. © The Clothworkers Company.

Pepys’s tobacco box. © The Clothworkers Company.

Chinese teapot, mid 17C. © The Burghley House Collection.

Chinese teapot, mid 17C. © The Burghley House Collection.

The curators have gathered together a group of objects from their own archives and combined them with material from the Royal Collection, Museum of London, livery companies and elsewhere to serve up a true feast. A very accessible, informative and enjoyable show.

 

Samuel Pepys – Plague, Fire and Revolution at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich runs until 28 March 2016. Adult entry is £12. Free for Friends, half price for Art Fund members.

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This ceremony is held on an occasional basis at the Tower of London. It originates in the 14C when, under Richard II, it was decided that any large navy vessel which traveled upstream to the Tower must pay a levy to the Constable. This takes the form of a barrel of rum and is one of a raft of lucrative privileges enjoyed by the Tower’s constables for use of the Thames or London Bridge, the underlying principle being that the Tower provides protection to visitors.

This morning it was the turn of HMS Defender  – a new Class 45 Destroyer – to pay the Dues. Led by Commander Stephen Higham and supported by the band of the Royal Marines, the sailors delivered the barrel to the current Constable, the Lord Dannatt, formerly commander in chief of the British Army.

Visitors to the Tower were clearly delighted at this unexpected treat. My thanks to LH Member Chris West for the tip-off.

More on the Contable’s Dues. 

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Band of the Royal Marines.

Band of the Royal Marines.

Commander   addresses the reception party.

Commander Higham addresses the reception party.

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Constable of the Tower, the Lord Dannatt, speaking to the media.

Constable of the Tower, the Lord Dannatt, speaking to the media.

Matelots enjoying a well-served drink afterwards in the Yeoman Warders' Club.

Matelots enjoying a well-deserved drink afterwards in the Yeoman Warders’ Club.



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trinity house

Trinitas in Unitate.

Many happy returns to Trinity House which was granted its Royal Charter this day in 1514 by Henry VIII, early in his reign when he was yet young, handsome and worthy.  Trinity House is the charity which takes care of all of our lighthouses and coastal buoys, ensuring the safety of thousands of mariners down the ages.

As with many ancient organisations, Trinity House has a religious foundation and a wonderfully convoluted name: The Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford-Strond in the County of Kent. Deptford, of course, was in times gone by London’s major centre of ship building and maritime marine. The initial function, according to the Charter, was “so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King’s streams”.

As a fraternity, the top of the organisation comprises 31 Elder Brethren, led by a Master. Today’s Master is HRH The Princess Royal, the latest in a long line of senior royals who have held the position. Former non-Royal Masters have included Samuel Pepys (as you’d expect), The Duke of Wellington and William Pitt the Younger.

The Trinity House HQ is in Trinity Square, overlooking the Tower of London and the Tower Hill Memorial which commemorates all merchant seamen and fishermen lost in the two world wars. All Hallows by the Tower, which also remembers seafarers, is close by. The late-Georgian building by Samuel Wyatt dates from 1796. It has a magnificent staircase, beautifully-appointed rooms and is festooned with portraits, ships models, silverware and other seafaring objects.

Trinity House

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Trinity House, London

Last Saturday as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations, Trinity House was open to the public, a rare occurrence. These photos are from our visit, all by LH Member Fiona Pretorius. It will next be accessible one day on Open House weekend this September and booking will be necessary, so look out for that.

 

Further Reading.

Our Trinity House photos on Flickr.
Trinity House History.
Trinity House History Blog.
Trinity House home page.
Trinity House FAQs.
Trinity House on Wikipedia.

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