Woolsthorpe Manor

The past year and a half has been challenging for everyone. For some, it has resulted in the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, ill health, depression and anxiety. Yet, for others, it has been an opportunity to spend time with family, take up new hobbies, redecorate the house, and learn something new. Perhaps someone has even made a scientific discovery. At least, that is what Sir Isaac Newton achieved during the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Known as his Annus Mirabilis or ‘Year of Wonders’, Newton spent lockdown at his childhood home in the countryside, where he filled his time learning and discovering new things about the world.

On Christmas day in 1642, Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, to Hannah Ayscough (1623-79). Christmas day babies were special, but Newton was also considered blessed because he was born three months after the death of his father, also called Isaac. When Hannah remarried the rector, Barnabas Smith (1582-1653), from North Witham, three-year-old Newton remained at Woolsthorpe Manor with his maternal grandparents.

Woolsthorpe Manor was a yeoman’s farmstead, which principally reared sheep. While Newton was not adept at farming, the environment and landscape inspired his curious mind to observe and experiment with nature. His quiet, contemplative personality set Newton apart from other boys his age, particularly when he started attending the Grammar School in Grantham at the age of 12.

Rather than travel several miles to and from school, Newton lodged with Mr Clark, an apothecary. Mr Clark’s daughter remembered Newton as “a sober, silent, thinking lad who never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad.” Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to study the workings of mechanical devices, such as the newly built postmill nearby. As soon as he had an opportunity, Newton constructed a working model of the postmill from wood.

Visitors can see an example of Newton’s postmill model at Woolsthorpe Manor, which now belongs to the National Trust. The house has been refurbished since Newton lived there, but recent discoveries suggest some sections remain as they were in the 17th century. On a wall in the kitchen, a faint carving of a postmill suggests Newton drew on the walls as a child. Other carvings have also been discovered around the room.

Newton’s notebooks reveal some of the experiments he undertook at school and home during his childhood. These included staring at the sun until he almost went blind and squeezing his eye-ball with a large blunt needle to see what would happen. He also had a keen interest in astronomy, time and mathematics.

At 17, Newton’s mother removed him from school and set him to work on the farm. Rather than look after the sheep, Newton spent his time reading or designing waterwheels and such-like. A disastrous nine months persuaded Newton’s mother to send him back to school, where he gained enough knowledge to enter the University of Cambridge. In June 1661, at the age of 18, Newton left his rural lifestyle behind in exchange for the city.

History books about the Great Plague tend to focus on London, but most major cities across England were affected. In 1665, Charles II (1630-85) tried to halt the spread of the plague by imposing a lockdown to prevent people from mixing. This was not too dissimilar from Boris Johnson’s decisions in 2020. Likewise, if someone came into contact with a plague victim, they had to quarantine for 40 days, painting a red cross on their door to warn others to stay away. Those who could, fled to the countryside where the population was much lower than in the cities.

Newton retreated to the safety of his childhood home in the summer of 1665. Despite being away from his university studies, Newton’s lockdown resulted in some of his best theories that changed the course of science. “For in those days, I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” (Isaac Newton)

One of Newton’s aims was to understand how light worked. He observed that glass used in chandeliers sometimes changed white light into a rainbow of colours. With a glass prism, Newton experimented with light in his bed chamber. By boring a hole into the wooden shutters, Newton let a thin beam of light into his darkened room. When he placed the glass prism in the line of light, the colour changed, creating a rainbow pattern on the opposite wall. To ascertain whether the prism caused the light to change colour, Newton placed a second prism in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism. He noted the colour remained the same, thus proving that the glass had not altered it. From this experiment, Newton inferred that white light was made up of several colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Renovations to the house removed any evidence of Newton’s experiments, but his notebooks reveal the measurements of the room he used. Newton recorded the room had a width of “22 feet from the south-facing shutter to the wall”. Only one room in the manor house fits this description and has since been known as Newton’s chamber. For the benefit of visitors, the National Trust has filled the room with furniture from the 17th century and decorated the white walls with diagrams from Newton’s notes. Despite the carved drawings in the kitchen, it is unlikely that Newton wrote his findings on the wall. To demonstrate Newton’s experiment, a torch shines a light onto a prism, which produces a rainbow on the wall above the bed.

During his time at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton contemplated the workings of the universe. While sitting under an apple tree outside the house, he observed an apple fall to the ground. This incident sparked questions, such as, why did the apple fall straight down and not to the side? Many who have heard this story believe this was the moment Newton “discovered” gravity, yet gravity was hypothesised by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1604 and confirmed by Italian Jesuits, Grimaldi (1618-63) and Riccioli (1598-1671), in the 1640s.

The apple incident encouraged Newton to explore the theory of gravity in greater depth. He theorised that gravity was a key component in the working of the universe. Through numerous calculations, Newton developed a universal law of gravitation, which explained that all things with mass or energy are attracted to one another. Newton expanded upon theories suggested by Ismaël Boulliau (1605-94) and Giovanni Borelli (1608-79), who claimed the planets in the solar system are drawn towards the sun. Newton continued to explain that all planets, stars, galaxies, and even light are attracted to one another.

Newton did not tell the story of the apple tree until much later in life, leaving many people wondering if it actually happened or whether it was an example of gravity in action. Nonetheless, the incident was immortalised by Newton’s biographer, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who wrote, “the notion of gravitation… was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.” Legend or not, there is an apple tree standing by Woolsthorpe Manor, which has enticed pilgrims and tourists to the area since Newton’s death in 1727.

An apple tree has stood at Woolsthorpe Manor for at least 400 years. Many visitors ask if the tree is the same one Newton sat under, but the answer is not straightforward. In 1820, a storm blew the tree down, prompting many people, including students at Cambridge, to attempt to preserve it. Parts of the broken tree were used to make wooden trinkets and such-like, but the roots remained embedded in the ground. From these roots grew another tree, which remains at Woolsthorpe today. Dendrochronologists have determined it is technically the same tree, and the Tree Council has listed it as one of 50 Great British Trees.

Since the National Trust took over the property, the apple tree has been regularly pruned and looked after. It is a Flower of Kent tree, which produces green-red cooking apples. This type of tree was first mentioned in the 15th century and, despite its name, originated in France. At certain times of the year, the apples are used in the cafe at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Not only are these apples famous for their association with Isaac Newton, but they are also rather rare. After almost losing the tree in the storm of 1820, a graft was taken by Reverend Charles Turnor (1768-1853), who propagated the tree at Belton Park in Lincolnshire. During the 1930s, the Fruit Research Station at East Malling in Kent took grafts of the tree at Belton and gave them to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. In the 1970s, Kew Gardens in London grew apple trees from the stock in Cambridge, one of which stands outside the Physics Department at the University of York.

Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, which derived from the incident with the apple tree, were recorded in his most important written work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. Shortened to Principia, the Latin document includes details about Newton’s experiments during lockdown and his further studies at Cambridge University. Whilst at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton also produced three papers on calculus, which he continued working on once life returned to “normal”. Six months after returning to Cambridge, he was elected as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Then, two years later, he was appointed as the second Lucasian Professor. 

Principia is one of the most important books in the history of science and brought about the beginning of the Age of Reason. Yet, Newton usually kept to himself at Cambridge, almost in a state of self-isolation and rarely discussed his ideas with others. Without the prompting of one student and future astronomer, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Principia may never have been printed. Halley coaxed Newton through the writing process by asking questions and demanding written proof. The young astronomer even paid for the publication of Newton’s work.

Although science has moved on since Newton’s era, Principia remains a respected piece of work. When asked to name his 2015 mission to the International Space Station, British Astronaut Tim Peake (b. 1972) chose Principia in honour of the famous scientist and mathematician.

“Not only does it have the link with space and gravity but also it’s a celebration of science and that is what the space station is about now.”
Tim Peake

As well as an English translation of Principia, Peake took seeds from the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor on his trip to the International Space Station. Peake and the seeds spent six months floating in microgravity before returning to Earth in 2016. Then the UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew took care of the seeds, nurturing them into saplings.

In January 2020, one of the “Space Saplings” returned to Woolsthorpe Manor, where Tim Peake planted it a few yards from the original tree. Many people have joked about potential alien DNA picked up by the seeds while in space, but chances are the sapling will grow into a normal Flower of Kent tree.

A competition was held to find homes for the remaining saplings. They have since been planted at the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire, the Brogdale Collections in Kent, the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Cheshire, Bushy Park in London, the Rosliston Forestry Centre in Derbyshire, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. To win the competition, the applicants demonstrated their commitment to science, physics, space and horticulture. As well as looking after the young trees, the centres are expected to encourage education, break down barriers to allow access to science for people of all ages, genders and abilities, and inspire potential future Isaac Newtons.

Whilst the apple tree is one of the greatest draws to Woolsthorpe Manor, the museum-like house provides an insight into Newton’s everyday life. By studying Newton’s diaries and letters from his family and friends, the National Trust has recreated Newton’s childhood home to the best of its ability. Newton had very few possessions and not much wealth of which to speak. From the outside, his home life appeared typical of the seventeenth century, yet Newton saw the world in a very different way.

The house reveals Newton’s human needs, making him appear no different from everyone else. Despite his genius status, Newton had his foibles and, according to a list of sins, quite a temper. Newton’s background did not reflect his achievements, which may give hope to many young visitors who feel their circumstances hinder them from reaching their full potential. In the barns and stables, hands-on activities demonstrate some of Newton’s ideas and discoveries. Not everyone can understand the workings of Newton’s mind, but seeing things in action certainly helps break Science down into manageable portions.

Woolsthorpe Manor is open from Thursday to Monday between 11am and 5pm. Access to the Manor House is by guided tour only, which can be booked online. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.75 for children over the age of five. National Trust members can visit for free.


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Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

During his career, English architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, worked on several buildings, including the New Bodleian Library, Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. He blended Gothic and modern styles in his architectural designs, resulting in many well-known landmarks. Yet, it is not only these buildings for which we remember him. Scott’s most famous creation was the iconic red telephone box, which still appears on streets in the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Born in Hampstead, London, on 9th November 1880, Giles was one of six children born to George Gilbert Scott Jr. (1839-1897) and Ellen King Sampson. Both his father and grandfather were architects, and the latter, Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78), produced designs for the Albert Memorial in Kensington and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station. Yet, neither man inspired the young Giles’ interest in architecture; that was his mother.

In 1883, Giles’ father experienced a mental breakdown, which resulted in a lengthy stay at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. The children rarely saw their father and grew close to their mother, who lived in a flat in Battersea. At the weekends and school holidays, they often visited Hollis Street Farm, near Ninfield, Sussex, bequeathed to them by their uncle. On such occasions, Ellen took her sons on trips around the county to study the architecture of impressive buildings. No doubt she wanted her children to learn about their father’s passions rather than his mental illness.

The Scotts were Roman Catholics and Giles attended Beaumont College, run by the Society of Jesus. Yet, the choice of school had little to do with religion, but rather the architecture of the establishment. Due to his father’s reputation and his mother’s encouragement, Giles naturally sought an apprenticeship with an architect after finishing school. In 1899, Giles joined the office of Temple Moore (1856-1920), who once studied with his father. As well as teaching Giles about architecture, Moore taught his pupil about his father’s work, making him feel closer to the man who had been absent for most of his childhood.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning design

In 1901, the diocese of Liverpool announced a competition to design a new cathedral. Two well-known architects were assigned to judge the submissions: George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), who had connections with the decorative arts manufacturer Morris & Co., and Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), the designer of the Piccadilly Hotel in London. At least 103 architects entered the competition, including Temple Moore who also allowed his pupil to submit an entry. Remarkably, Bodley and Shaw selected Scott as the winning architect.

Unsurprisingly, many contested the result, arguing that a 22-year-old with no experience was not a good enough architect for the job. Nonetheless, the diocese accepted Bodley and Shaw’s choice, although asked Bodley to oversee the work. Unfortunately, Bodley had commitments in the United States and was rarely on hand to support the young architect. As a result, the process was slow and frustrating, causing Scott to contemplate handing in his resignation. Before Scott could put this thought into action, Bodley unexpectedly passed away in 1907, leaving Scott in charge of the project.

Scott’s 1910 redesign

Without Bodley to hold him back, Scott made rapid progress with the cathedral, but he no longer liked his original idea. After receiving permission from the diocese, Scott redesigned the building, making it simpler and symmetrical, allowing for more interior space. By the end of 1910, the first part of the building – the Lady Chapel – was constructed and consecrated, but the First World War slowed down the rest of the work.

The main body of the cathedral was erected in 1924 and consecrated in the presence of King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953). The Second World War caused problems with the construction and, although Scott worked on the project for the rest of his life, he never saw the finished cathedral. The building works finally came to an end in 1978.

Although Scott spent his entire career working on Liverpool Cathedral, he simultaneously produced designs for other buildings. His first completed construction was the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Bournemouth, followed by other churches in Norfolk, Kent, and the Isle of Man. He also worked on a house in Surrey with his brother, Adrian (1882-1963). During the First World War, while work on Liverpool Cathedral slowed, Scott became a Major in the Royal Marines and oversaw the construction of sea defences on the English coast.

While working in Liverpool, Scott met and married Louise Wallbank Hughes. His mother expressed disapproval about their relationship because Louise was a protestant, but the marriage was a happy one. The couple had three sons, although one died in infancy. One son, Richard Gilbert Scott (1923-2017), worked on several buildings at the London Guildhall amongst other constructions.

During the 1920s, Scott’s reputation as an architect soared, earning him many commissions. Cambridge University, for example, hired him to design a memorial court outside Clare College. Several churches also sought Scott’s expertise, including the Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey, for whom he produced a new nave. In Bath, Scott received the commission to design the Church of Our Lady & St Alphege, which he described as his “first essay into the Romanesque style of architecture.” He later declared the church one of his favourite works.

Chester House

Scott did not produce many domestic buildings during his career, but he is celebrated for the Cropthorne Court mansion block in Maida Vale. Scott also designed a house for his family in Clarendon Place, Paddington, called Chester House, where he lived for the rest of his life. The construction earned him the medal for London street architecture of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1928 and is now on the Grade II list for the National Heritage List for England.

K2 red telephone boxes preserved as a tourist attraction near Covent Garden

Scott’s most iconic design of the 1920s was his entry to a competition held by the Royal Fine Art Commission. They asked architects to submit ideas for the General Post Office’s new public telephone box. The first standard public telephone kiosk (K1) installed in 1921 did not meet everyone’s approval, particularly in London. The competition of 1924 aimed to find a design that suited the London Metropolitan Boroughs.

The dome of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum

Shortly before the competition opened, Scott became a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The museum, formerly the home of the neo-classical architect, John Soane (1753-1837), contains drawings and architectural models of Soane’s projects, plus the paintings and antiquities he collected throughout his career. With this new position fresh in his mind, Scott based his entry on the dome of Soane’s mausoleum, which Soane designed before his death. 

The Post Office selected Scott’s entry as the winning design, although they wished to make a few changes. Whilst they kept the shape, they decided to paint it red like their postboxes, rather than silver with a greeny-blue interior as Scott suggested. They also rejected Scott’s proposal to build the kiosk from steel, in preference to cast iron. By 1926, the new telephone box (K2) appeared on the streets of London. Over time, alterations were made, but the general shape of Scott’s design remains the same. K4, for example, combined the telephone box with a stamp-machine, but various technical issues rendered them useless. K6, a shorter, streamlined version, appeared in 1936 to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V (1865-1936), and it is this version that proved most popular. Examples of the original K2 boxes are displayed near Covent Garden.

Battersea Power Station

At the beginning of the 1930s, the London Power Company hired Scott as a consulting architect for their new power station at Battersea. Electrical engineer Leonard Pearce (1873-1947) had already drawn up designs for the building, but they desired Scott’s input on the external appearance. The public was not happy about a coal-fired power station appearing on their doorstep, so Scott’s task was to make it look as attractive as possible. Scott opted for a brick-cathedral style, remodelling the four chimneys to look like classical columns. The interior designer tried to match Scott’s design by adding Art Deco components to the control rooms. When Battersea Power Station opened in 1933, critics labelled it “one of the finest sights in London”.

In 1933, the Royal Institute of British Architects elected Scott as their president. He encouraged architects to think about their choice of technique and materials to create practical but beautiful buildings, as he was then doing in Cambridge. The University asked Scott to build a library next to the memorial court he developed the previous decade. The library was to replace the old, impractical building that did not have room for Cambridge University’s growing collection of books. Scott designed a large reading room featuring a 12 storey tower, which is visible for several miles around the city.

Weston Library, Oxford

After completing the Cambridge University Library, Scott travelled to Oxford to work on their main research library. The Weston Library, or New Bodleian Library as it is also known, needed to be large enough to accommodate several millions of books. So as not to produce a construction that towered high above the surrounding buildings, Scott dug deep into the ground so that only part of the library is visible at street level. Conscious that the rest of the street featured a mix of architectural styles from Gothic (16th century) to Victorian (19th century), Scott opted for something in between: Jacobean (17th century). Unfortunately, it is not considered one of his greatest works.

Scott often searched for the “middle line” when producing designs. He combined modern architecture with the age of the surrounding buildings. Whilst this technique generally worked well, the Bishop of Coventry, who wished him to draw up plans for a modern cathedral, rejected his proposals. The Royal Fine Arts Commission, on the other hand, thought the new cathedral should resemble the old and not contain any contemporary elements. Despite working on the project for five years, Scott resigned in 1947 because he felt unable to satisfy both parties.

The Second World War temporarily halted many projects, but in the aftermath, many bombed-out buildings needed reconstructing. The House of Commons hired Scott to rebuild the Commons Chamber at the Palace of Westminster. On this occasion, Scott decided not to search for a middle line, but rather design something that complemented the rest of the palace. After a fire in 1834, British architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), remodelled the building in a Gothic style, which designer Augustus Pugin (1812-52) augmented with the interior design. Scott argued that any other architectural style would clash with the surviving parts, and after much discussion, Parliament approved his proposal.

Tate Modern

Gradually, post-war repair work died down, and Scott became available to accept other commissions. Although he opposed the mass construction of industrial buildings, Scott agreed to redevelop Bankside Power Station on the River Thames. In some ways, Scott’s design resembled a modern church, with the 99-metre tall chimney standing in the centre. Nonetheless, it was a stark contrast with the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral on the opposite bank. 

Bankside Power Station closed down in the 1980s, and the Tate Modern art gallery took over the building in 2000. Despite disliking industrial buildings, Scott agreed to design North Tees Power Station in Durham and Rye House Power Station in Hertfordshire. Neither building still stands today.

Scott worked as an architect for the rest of his life, mostly on religious buildings. He designed many Roman Catholic Churches, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Kensington and St Anthony’s Church in Preston. He worked on two Anglican churches: St Leonard’s Church in Sussex and St Mark’s Church in the London Borough of Bromley. Scott also drew up the plans for the Trinity College Chapel in Toronto, Canada.

During his late seventies, Scott developed lung cancer, but he was determined to finish all his design projects, even if he would not live to see them built. When he was admitted to the University College Hospital in London, Scott took his plans for the Church of Christ the King in Plymouth with him and worked on them from his hospital bed. By the time he passed away on 8th February 1960 at the age of 79, his final design was complete.

Scott’s grave at Liverpool Cathedral

Giles Gilbert Scott’s funeral took place at St James’s Roman Catholic Church, London, on 17th February 1960 before his body travelled north for burial outside Liverpool Cathedral. Although the cathedral was Scott’s first project, the construction did not finish until 1978, 18 years after his death. In the plans, Scott stipulated that burials were not to take place inside the church because he did not want the cathedral to become a mausoleum. Nonetheless, the Diocese of Liverpool honoured the architect with a memorial stone set into the floor of the cathedral.

For an architect, Scott’s gravestone is rather modest, but who needs a monument when buried next to a cathedral of his own design? Since not many people know his name, Giles Gilbert Scott was probably not a great celebrity during his lifetime, but he did win a few awards. Early in his career, Scott received a knighthood from George V. In 1944, George VI appointed Scott a Member of the Order of Merit (OM).

During his career, Scott designed many buildings, including some that are now familiar landmarks. Arguably, his most famous design is the K2 Telephone Box. Although it is rare to see one in use, the design is synonymous with London and a great tourist attraction. But how many people look at a telephone box and think about the man who made them? The same goes for buildings. We are aware buildings do not just appear, but without the vision of an architect, they would not be built. We must remember and celebrate the lives of people such as Giles Gilbert Scott, for, without them, many famous landmarks would not exist.


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