In Forest Hill, Southeast London is a museum devoted to anthropology, natural history and musical instruments. The Horniman Museum opened in 1901, although under a different name, and is now known for its extensive collection of taxidermied animals. The museum resulted from Frederick Horniman’s lifelong passion for collecting artefacts. Horniman gathered around 30,000 items during his lifetime, but the Horniman Museum now boasts a collection of 350,000 objects.
Frederick John Horniman was born in Bridgwater, Somerset, on 8th October 1835 to Quaker parents, John and Ann Horniman. John had founded Horniman’s Tea Company in 1826 in Newport, Isle of Wight. He later moved the business to London, the then-biggest tea trading port in the world. By 1891, Horniman’s was the largest business in the trade.
Horniman grew up in Croydon, where he attended the Quaker Friends’ School until age 14. Upon leaving school, he joined the family business. During the Victorian era, many immoral traders attempted to increase their profits by adding other items to their products. Tea companies frequently supplemented tea leaves with hedge clippings or dust. The Hornimans, on the other hand, refused to cheat their customers. Instead, John Horniman revolutionised the tea trade by using machines to speed up the process of filling pre-sealed packages. The process was quicker and cheaper than paying workers to fill the packets by hand.
During the 1850s, the government tried to put an end to traders cheating customers by secretly testing their products. In 1855, the test results declared Horniman’s Tea pure and safe for consumption. The company saw an increase in sales following this survey, much to the dismay of its competitors.
In 1859, Frederick Horniman married Rebekah Emslie (1825-95), with whom he had two children, Annie (1860-1937) and Emslie (1863-1932). As the only son, Emslie inherited the tea company on Horniman’s death and sold it to J. Lyons & Co. in 1918. Emslie received a private education and spent some of his youth travelling. He later became a Liberal Party politician. Annie also received a private education at home, but her interests lay in the theatre, which Horniman considered sinful. Nonetheless, Horniman allowed Annie to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, which kick-started her career in the acting world. In 1908, she founded the first repertory company at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester.
From around 1860, Horniman began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts of interest. He particularly looked for items belonging to ‘natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’. His passion for collecting soon became a quest to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’, where he and his family lived, and to educate and enrich the lives of the local community.
Horniman’s mission took him far and wide to places that either appealed to him or may hold a particular interest to people back home. Countries he visited include Burma, Canada, China, Egypt, Japan, Sri Lanka and the United States. Horniman’s family frequently travelled overseas with him, which inspired his son, Emslie, to dabble in anthropology.
For some time, Horniman’s family put up with his eccentric passion for collecting, but by the late 1880s, his wife Rebekah put her foot down. After giving her husband the ultimatum, ‘either the collection goes, or we do,’ Hormian agreed to move to a larger house on Surrey Mount, not overly far from their previous home in Forest Hill.
In 1890, Horniman organised his curiosities into two categories, art and nature, and opened the collection to the public as the Surrey House Museum. Sir Morell Mackenzie (1837-92), a London-based physician, officially opened the museum on Christmas Eve. Over the next nine years, the museum was open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2 pm to 9 pm and on bank holidays from 10 am to 9 pm, attracting over half a million visitors. During the first year, it received 42,808 visitors alone, prompting Horniman to build an extension to accommodate guests and his growing collection of artefacts.
Following the successful extension in 1893, Horniman converted the surrounding land into a public garden, which opened on 1st June 1895. Today, there are 16 acres of land to explore, including a “sound garden” inspired by musical instruments, a wildlife garden and a prehistoric garden.
Since the opening of the Surrey House Museum, Horniman’s vast collection rapidly expanded until it outgrew the building. In 1898, Horniman closed the house and began constructing a purpose-built museum. The work cost around £40,000, which Horniman could afford using the profits of the family tea business. He had also been elected as a Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth in Cornwall, which was another source of income.
The museum was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), who was simultaneously working on the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The new museum was built from Doulting stone from a quarry in Somerset, dating to the Middle Jurassic era (174.1 to 163.5 million years ago), which seems fitting for a museum featuring several ancient artefacts.
The new museum, known as the Horniman Museum, opened on 29th June 1901. Horniman appointed Dr H. S. Harrison as the Director of the Museum and gave him the responsibility of reorganising the collection. Harrison also introduced several more objects to the museum until his retirement in 1937.
On 5th March 1906, Frederick Horniman passed away and was buried next to his first wife, Rebekah, in Camberwell Old Cemetery. When Rebekah died, Horniman married Minnie Louisa Bennett, with whom he had two daughters. As Horniman’s only son, Emslie inherited the museum and the tea trade. Emslie generously donated money to extend the Horniman Museum, creating a library and lecture theatre in 1912.
When Emslie Horniman passed away in 1932, he bequeathed £10,000 to the London County Council to build further extensions at the Horniman Museum. In 1944, the Royal Anthropological Institute established the Emslie Horniman Anthropological Scholarship Fund to “promote the study of the growth of civilisations, habits and customs, religious and physical characteristics of the non-European peoples and of prehistoric and non-industrial man in Europe”.
Since Frederick Horniman’s death, the museum has been looked after by several Directors. Dr Otto Samson, who was interested in ethnomusicology, concentrated on developing a collection of musical instruments. Later, David Boston embellished the museum with his own findings.
Further extensions to the museum have included the conservatory, constructed between 1987 and 1989, and the Centre for Understanding the Environment (CUE) building. The latter was inspired by Walter Segal (1907-85), who developed a system of self-build housing. Local architects built the centre with sustainable materials, including a grass roof.
In 1999, the Horniman Museum held the first exhibition in Britain about African art and culture. It featured a mix of sculptures, religious or spiritual objects, and information about life on the continent. Gradually, the display expanded to include artefacts from South American countries, such as Brazil. In 2018, the World Gallery opened to contain the growing African and South American collections. It also features items from Europe, Asia and Oceania to educate visitors about the diverse cultures throughout the world.
The Natural History Gallery contains hundreds of taxidermied animals from all continents. There are over 250,000 specimens in the collection, which include 4,700 butterflies, 350 examples of British mammals, and 175,000 fossils. Some of these were collected by Frederick Horniman, such as the insects, and others joined the collection during the 20th century.
The largest animal in the Natural History collection is a walrus from Canada. It originally belonged to the explorer James Henry Hubbard, who exhibited it at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in South Kensington. When the exhibition closed, Horniman purchased the walrus and several other animals for the museum. Unfortunately, not many people in Britain had seen a walrus, so the taxidermists overstuffed it, removing all its natural wrinkles.
The majority of the Horniman Museum is free to visit, including the Natural History Gallery and the World Gallery. Ticketed temporary exhibitions are displayed throughout the year, and a fee is charged for the aquarium and butterfly house. The Grade II* listed building is also of interest, particularly the clock tower and mosaic.
The mosaic on the wall of the museum is a neoclassical mural entitled Humanity in the House of Circumstance. Although designed by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933), a group of young women pieced the 117,000 tesserae together over 210 days. The image reveals several classical figures representing Art, Poetry, Music, Endurance, Love, Hope, Humanity, Charity, Wisdom, Meditation and Resignation. An open doorway signifies birth, while another door symbolises death.
On display outside the museum’s entrance is a red cedar totem pole. Nathan Jackson (b.1938), a native Alaskan, carved the pole for an American Arts Festival in 1985. The carvings represent an ancient Tlingit story about a woman who married a bear.
In 2022, the Horniman Museum won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, and it is not difficult to see why. The museum contains a wealth of information about the cultures of the world, plus thousands of fascinating artefacts. There is no sense of prejudice or racism in the World Gallery, and the museum claims Horniman did not gain any of his money through slavery, even in the tea trade (although the same cannot be said for those with whom he traded).
The Horniman Museum and Gardens are open daily from 10 am until 5:30 pm. There is a lot to take in, so more than one visit may be required to appreciate all the artefacts. Look out for the earliest known example of a hoop-shaped horn and the Carlton drum kit in the Music Gallery, and the Apostle Clock on the balcony of the Natural History gallery, which shows Jesus’ twelve apostles bowing to Him at 4 pm every day (if it is working).
In the small London district of Rotherhithe is a museum devoted to the history of the “eighth wonder of the world”. Situated in the Brunel Engine House, the Brunel Museum celebrates the construction of the first underwater tunnel. Next to the building, the Grade II* listed tunnel shaft and the world’s first caisson marks where the beginning of the tunnel began, which eventually reached the opposite side of the River Thames, opening in 1843 as a foot passage from Rotherhithe to Wapping.
The Thames Tunnel was the result of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s architectural genius. Started in 1825 by Marc Brunel (1769-1849), the project faced several issues, particularly flooding, for which Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) sought solutions. Whilst the Brunels intended the tunnel for horse-drawn carriages, it was mostly used by pedestrians as a tourist attraction. In 1869, it became a railway tunnel for the East London line, and since 2010 is part of the London Overground railway network.
Due to the rapid expansion of the London Docks, Londoners needed a new land connection between the north and south banks of the Thames. During busy periods, people could hop from one boat or barge to another until they reached the opposite bank, but this was not a practical method of crossing the river. Whilst there are many bridges across the Thames, another would restrict the size of boats entering the dockyards. The only solution was to dig a tunnel under the water. Ralph Dodd (1756-1822), a British civil engineer, attempted to produce the first underwater tunnel in 1798 between Gravesend and Tilbury, but constant flooding prevented the construction.
In 1805, a group of Cornish miners made a second attempt to dig a tunnel under the Thames, this time between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Used to working with hard rock, the workers did not have appropriate tools for the soft clay by the river. After four years of trying and failing, the engineers concluded that “an underground tunnel is impracticable”. Marc Brunel, on the other hand, disagreed.
After studying the two failed tunnels, Marc Brunel invented and patented the tunnelling shield. This technology acted as a temporary support structure, preventing the tunnel from collapsing while under construction. Believing the shield was the solution to underwater tunnel building, Brunel sought funding for another attempt at the Rotherhithe and Wapping tunnel. With financial support from several private investors, including Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Brunel formed the Thames Tunnel Company in 1824 and began the construction the following year.
Brunel began constructing a shaft on the Rotherhithe side of the river, approximately 46 metres from the water. Using a steam-powered pump, Brunel cut through the earth with a 15-metre-wide iron ring. As the machine sliced through the ground, Brunel’s workers manually removed the soil from the hole. By November 1825, the Rotherhithe shaft was complete, and another was constructed in Wapping on the opposite side of the Thames.
To create the tunnel between the two shafts, Brunel used his iron tunnelling shield, which weighed over 7 tonnes. Whilst the shield worked well, the unsanitary conditions caused illnesses and delays. For hundreds of years, the River Thames served as London’s main sewage system, which slowly seeped through into the tunnel. The methane gas in the sewage often sparked small fires when ignited by the worker’s oil lamps. At best, the engineers only extended the tunnel by two metres a week.
Although the tunnelling shield prevented the tunnel from collapsing, water frequently leaked through the ceiling. On 18th May 1827, by which time the tunnel was 167 metres long, the tunnel flooded. Brunel’s son, Isambard, repaired the damage by lowering a diving bell to the bottom of the Thames and throwing bags of clay over the hole. To celebrate saving the tunnel, the young Brunel held an underground banquet. The artist George Jones (1786-1869) captured the event in a painting, revealing a long table set for 50 guests, including the Duke of Wellington. The Coldstream Guards played music during the meal, making it a rather noisy affair. In the foreground, Jones portrayed Marc and Isambard Brunel, although Marc Brunel did not attend the banquet.
Sixth months after work recommenced, the tunnel flooded again on 12th January 1828, killing six men. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was among the injured and dragged from the tunnel unconscious. Marc Brunel sent his son to Bristol to recover from the incident and attempted to continue the construction. By August, the project faced financial problems, forcing Brunel to halt the progress and seal the tunnel.
It took seven years to raise enough money to continue building the Thames Tunnel, by which time the original tunnelling shield had rusted. After installing a new, improved shield, work started again in March 1836. Before completion, workers faced delays from five more floods, several fires and gas leaks. Finally, in November 1841, the tunnel reached the shaft on the Wapping side of the bank. After installing roads, lights, and spiral staircases and building an engine house on the Rotherhithe side, the Thames Tunnel officially opened on 25th March 1843.
The Thames Tunnel cost £454,000 to dig and a further £180,000 to make it safe for pedestrians. The original plan aimed to make the passage suitable for vehicles, but a lack of funds prevented this. Instead, people paid a penny to pass through the tunnel, which soon became a tourist attraction, with around two million visiting every year. The American traveller, William Allen Drew, described it as the “eighth wonder of the world”, although he had not yet experienced walking through the tunnel. When Drew finally visited, he admitted he felt “somewhat disappointed in it”.
There is no official “eighth wonder of the world”, and it is unlikely the Thames Tunnel deserved the title, despite being the first of its kind. Other nominations for the eighth wonder include Niagara Falls, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge. It seems far-fetched that the Thames Tunnel would win the position against these nominees.
In September 1865, the East London Railway Company purchased the Thames Tunnel for £800,000. They wished to use it as a railway link between Wapping and the South London Line. Sir John Hawkshaw (1811-91), an English civil engineer, built the railway track through the tunnel, which opened on 7th December 1869. Wapping Station, which repurposed the disused construction shaft, eventually opened in 1884. The East London Railway later became part of the London Underground, which wanted to make cheap repairs to parts of the tunnel. A Grade II* ruling in 1995 prevented this, meaning extra care must be taken to preserve the original architecture. As of 2010, the tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe forms part of the London Overground line.
Marc Brunel’s determination and invention of the tunnelling shield, alongside the support of his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, paved the way for future underwater tunnels. A second underwater tunnel opened in London between Tower Hill and Vine Lane in 1869, and Sir John Hawkshaw constructed the Severn Tunnel under the River Severn between 1873 and 1886. Hawkshaw belonged to the original Channel Tunnel Company, which aimed to build a tunnel under the Strait of Dover. This feat was not achieved until 1994.
With so many underwater tunnels in existence, the world’s first success is largely forgotten. The Brunel Museum aims to keep the history of the Thames Tunnel alive with a detailed exhibition inside the former engine house. In 2011, a concrete floor was added to the shaft above the tracks. Visitors can climb down to this level of the shaft and see the smoke-blackened walls caused by old steam trains. Occasionally, concerts and exhibitions are held in the shaft.
The engine house has been used as a museum since 1961 but has needed lots of work and refurbishment over the years. In 1975, the Brunel Exhibition Rotherhithe Trust prevented the building’s closure by providing money to repair structural decay. In 2007, the museum underwent major restoration work to create a larger exhibition space and better toilet facilities. These refurbishments coincided with the addition of the concrete floor inside the shaft.
Since 2019, the Brunel Museum has received development funding from the Heritage Fund to continue improving visitor experience and for the protection of the Grade II* listed building and shaft. The museum has recently acquired a collection of Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel watercolour designs, which detail his ideas and progress. Some of these are on display, and others are shown digitally on interactive screens.
The Brunel Museum is currently open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 am to 3:30 pm. From 1st April, opening times will change to Fridays, Sundays and Mondays between 11 am and 5 pm. General admission for adults costs £6, while children and the over 65s cost £4. Special events and group talks are available at various times of the year.
When thinking about the city of Bath, the author that usually comes to mind is Jane Austen, but she is not the only writer celebrated in the city. A couple of doors down from the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street is Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, which explores the world of Mary Shelley and her best-known fictional character. Shelley briefly lived in Bath in 1816, but the city did not leave a significant impression or influence on her work as it did with Austen. Nonetheless, the interactive museum pays homage to the author and the impact her imagination has had on the world.
Mary Shelley was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the British writer and women’s rights activist, who died shortly after Mary’s birth on 30th August 1797. Mary and her half-sister Fanny were brought up by her father, William Godwin (1756-1836), a political philosopher who endeavoured to keep his late wife’s achievements and memory alive. For the first few years of Mary’s life, her father fought to make ends meet, often leaving her in the care of the housekeeper, Louisa Jones. Eventually, Godwin’s financial situation forced him to look for a wealthy new wife.
In 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who already had two children, Charles and Claire. Most of Godwin’s friends disliked his new wife, and Mary hated her. Godwin’s hope of avoiding debts also backfired. Godwin and his wife set up a children’s publishing firm called M. J. Godwin, but it did not make a profit. Godwin only avoided going to debtor’s prison through the help of some friends and devotees.
Mary’s father did not have enough money to provide her with formal schooling, but he tutored her in a range of subjects at home. The children spent a lot of time in their father’s library or talking to his intellectual friends, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). As Mary got older, Godwin started to feel guilty for not educating his daughters in the manner their mother would have wished. With the little money he had, Godwin provided his children with a governess and allowed them to read books from his failed publishing company, particularly Roman and Greek histories. In 1811, Mary spent six months at a boarding school to complete her schooling. By 15, she was “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”
In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to Dundee, Scotland, where she stayed with the radical philosopher William Baxter. Godwin instructed Baxter to educate her in philosophy, per her mother’s wishes. During the holidays, Mary returned to London and became acquainted with poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who had agreed to help her father pay off his debts. When Mary moved home after her second trip to Scotland in 1814, Shelley, now estranged from his wife, had upset his family by denouncing the traditional models of the aristocracy. As a result, he no longer had access to the money he had promised Godwin.
Despite her father’s anger at Shelley, Mary began meeting the poet secretly in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, near her mother’s grave. Mary, then only 16, began to fall in love with the 21-year-old radical, and on 26th June 1814, they both declared their love for one another. When Godwin discovered the relationship, he attempted to put an end to the pair’s liaisons. Confused, Mary argued that Shelley was an embodiment of her parents’ liberal and reformist ideas and that Godwin had once said that marriage was a repressive monopoly. By this time, Mary had lost her virginity to Shelley, who was still legally married.
Unsure what else to do, Mary and Shelley eloped to France on 28th July 1814, taking Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), with them. Mary’s stepmother followed them, trying to convince Mary and Claire to return home, but they refused. For a few months, the trio travelled on foot, carriage and donkey through France to Switzerland, where they eventually ran out of money. With no other choice, they returned to England, landing at Gravesend, Kent, in September 1814. Godwin refused to have anything to do with his daughter, so Mary, now pregnant, and Shelley moved into Claire’s lodgings in London.
Mary suffered poor physical and mental health throughout her pregnancy, not helped by her lover’s growing infatuation with her stepsister. Although Mary believed in free love, she was jealous of Shelley and Claire’s relationship. Mary also disapproved of Shelley’s hints that she should begin an affair with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862). Eventually, Shelley ended his love affair with Claire, who quickly found herself another lover, the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Unfortunately, Mary had no opportunity to feel happy about Shelley’s return because, on 22nd February 1815, she gave birth to a two-month premature daughter, who only lived for a few days.
Throughout the spring, Mary suffered from acute depression, often seeing ghostly visions of her deceased daughter. By the summer, she had conceived again, and the hope of a new child greatly improved her mental health. Around the same time, Shelley received some money from his late grandfather, so he treated Mary to a holiday in Torquay. Following this, Shelley rented a cottage in Bishopsgate, where Mary gave birth to a son, William, on 24th January 1816.
In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary and their son travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to spend time with Lord Byron and his pregnant lover, Claire. The weather in Europe remained wet and dreary throughout the summer months, and the four friends spent many an hour sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, telling German ghost stories. Byron proposed that they write their own stories to share during the evenings. Mary initially struggled to think of a concept, but during a late-night discussion about galvanism, the theory that electricity could animate body tissue, Mary imagined using electricity to reanimate a corpse. Thus, Mary penned the first draft of her famous novel.
With encouragement from Shelley, Mary expanded her ghost story, which she published anonymously as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Shelley provided the introduction for the first edition, which led many people to assume he had written it. Mary’s name did not appear on the cover until 1821, but it took much longer for readers to accept her as the author.
Returning to England in September 1816, Mary, Shelley, and Claire took up residence in Bath, where they tried to keep Claire’s pregnancy secret. While there, Mary began receiving desperate letters from her half-sister, Fanny. Fearing for her mental health, Mary sent Shelley to check on Fanny at her home in Bristol, but he arrived to find her dead beside a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note. Two months later, Percy Bysshe Shelley learned of the death of his estranged wife, who drowned herself in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London. Wishing to assume custody of his children, Eliza (1813-76) and Charles (1814-26), Shelley’s lawyers advised him to marry Mary, which he did on 30th December 1816.
In March 1817, the court ruled Shelley was too morally unfit to take custody of his children. The Shelleys still lived with Claire Clairmont, who gave birth to a daughter, Alba, in January. Following the court’s ruling, the Shelleys and Claire moved to Albion House at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara. Soon, financial difficulties caught up with Shelley. Fearing he would lose Mary’s children too, he moved Mary, Claire and the children to Italy.
Lord Byron, who lived in Venice, agreed to help raise his daughter, Alba, so long as Claire stayed away. He also changed the child’s name to Allegra. Byron initially placed Allegra with a foster family but later moved her to a Roman Catholic Convent, where she contracted malaria and died aged 5. With one less child to worry about and believing Alba/Allegra would be safe in Byron’s hands, Claire remained with the Shelleys on their roving existence, moving from place to place without staying anywhere for long.
Tragedy struck the Shelleys again in 1818 and 1819, when both children, William and Clara, died within months of each other. The loss of all her children had a profound effect on Mary, who found solace in her writing. Mary wrote, “May you never know what it is to lose two only and lovely children in one year, and then at last to be left childless and forever miserable.” The birth of Mary’s fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89), was the only thing that managed to lift Mary’s spirits.
While living in Italy, Mary Shelley wrote two novels, Matilda (1820) and Valperga (1821-23), and two plays, Proserpine (1820) and Midas (1820). The first of the two novels, Matilda, was not published until after Mary’s death, but the money she earned for Valperga helped alleviate her father’s financial difficulties. Despite the family rift, Mary still deeply respected her father.
In June 1822, Mary suffered a miscarriage that nearly killed her if it had not been for her quick-thinking husband. The doctor was too far away from the Shelleys’ residence on the Italian Riviera, so fearing Mary would die from blood loss, Shelley placed her in a bath of ice to staunch the bleeding. When the doctor finally arrived, he commended Shelley’s actions. Unfortunately, neither Shelley nor the doctor could prevent the depression brought on by the loss of another baby. To make matters worse, Shelley began spending more time with other women than his wife.
Mary remained devoted to her husband despite his many affairs and questionable behaviour. For years, Mary followed him around Italy without hope of settling down and tolerated his immoral behaviour. Whilst Mary suffered from depression following her miscarriage, Shelley found himself a new plaything – a sailing boat. On 1st July 1822, Shelley and his companions set off along the coast to Livorno to see Lord Byron. After staying there for a week, Shelley set off for home but never reached his destination. Mary did not know when Shelley planned to return, so she did not worry until she received a letter addressed to Shelley saying, “pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed Monday & we are anxious.” Ten days after the storm, Shelley’s corpse washed up on the shore.
Following Shelley’s death, Mary lived with the poet Leigh Hunt (1785-1859) and his family in Genoa for a year. Mary spent time transcribing her husband’s poems, which she later published in 1839. Unfortunately, Mary’s financial situation prevented her from staying in Italy, so Mary returned to England with her son in 1823. Initially, she stayed with her father and stepmother in London until her father managed to find her some lodgings nearby. Mary also asked Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for help. The Baronet said he would only help if his grandson, Percy Florence, was handed over to an appointed guardian. Naturally, Mary refused to relinquish her only surviving child but persuaded Sir Shelley to provide an allowance of £100 a year. The amount increased to £250 following the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, Charles.
Mary continued to focus on writing for the remainder of her life. In 1826, she published the novel The Last Man and contributed to biographies about Shelley and Byron. Between 1827 and 1840, she wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) and contributed to a ladies’ magazine. Her primary concern was the welfare of her son, which prompted her to sell the rights to Frankenstein for £60 in 1830. She also persuaded Sir Timothy Shelley to help pay for Percy Florence’s education. The young Percy attended the prestigious Harrow School before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Percy Florence remained devoted to his mother and returned to live with her after completing his university studies. In the 1840s, mother and son travelled around the continent, gradually putting together the book Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. The following year, Sir Timothy Shelley passed away, leaving his estate to Percy Florence, who became the 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. For the first time in her life, Mary was financially stable.
Now that she had some money, Mary became the target of blackmailers, who threatened to publish various letters that could ruin her reputation or the memory of her late husband. Mary purchased a few letters but ignored other claims, such as someone posing as Lord Byron’s illegitimate son. These threats did not appear to have too much of an impact on Mary’s life. She remained living with her son, even after his marriage to Jane Gibson in 1848. Unfortunately, Mary’s final years were blighted by illness, and she passed away on 1st February 1851, aged 53, from a suspected brain tumour.
Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein devotes one floor of the building to the life of Mary Shelley. Her history is crammed into four rooms, leaving the rest of the museum to explore Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a fictional scientist who is determined to create a sapient creature through unorthodox scientific experiments. Frankenstein stitches together the body parts of recently executed criminals to create a creature and brings it to life using electricity. Scared of the monster he created, Frankenstein runs away, and the beast spends years trying to find a place for itself in the world.
Frankenstein received mixed reviews after its publication in 1818. Some praised the author for introducing the science-fiction concept to the Gothic horror genre, but others wrote disparaging reviews about the novel. The novelist William Beckford (1760-1844), who lived in Bath, called Frankenstein “The foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”
Despite some early criticism, there have been over 100 dramatisations of Frankenstein and several films. The first theatrical production, titled Presumption! Or, The Fate of Frankenstein opened in 1823. It included music and songs, and while it remained faithful to the storyline, the play was shown from the perspective of a new character, Fritz. In the show, Fritz was Frankenstein’s assistant, who later became the basis for the hunchbacked Igor in subsequent films. The monster, known as the Creature, was played by Thomas Potter Cooke (1786-1864), who wore a wig of wild hair and pale green face paint.
Since the first production of Frankenstein, the monster has usually appeared with green skin and scars, eventually developing a flat head held onto the neck with two bolts. The character is easily recognisable throughout the world and has become a commercial medium, with merchandise ranging from rubber ducks to flower pots. The monster or creature is definitely the most famous of Mary Shelley’s characters, leading to the frequent error that it is called Frankenstein, rather than that being the name of the scientist.
Mary Shelley never intended the monster to look like a green-skinned zombie. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein describes his creation as something quite different from the commercialised version. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Shelley also revealed the creature was 8-foot tall (2.4 metres).
For the first time, a model of Mary Shelley’s monster has been authentically produced as she described. The formidable animatronic creature is located in the laboratory on the second floor, whilst other rooms feature unusual artefacts and vintage objects, which set the scene for the world’s first science-fiction novel. On the top floor, visitors are invited to watch a handful of short films showing the first few appearances of the monster on screen.
Those feeling brave can visit the basement, where they can probe dark rooms accompanied by the unnerving hum of electricity and screams of torture. The more daring visitors can enter “The Cage” and try to find their way to freedom through a twisted metal maze, where there is no choice but to push past the bodies of The Cage’s previous victims. This exhibit is not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.
For an extra fee, Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein opens the doors to the attic, where families and friends can race against the clock to solve clues and escape from Frankenstein’s quarters. Based on the popular Escape Room games, visitors experience the mind of a madman who wants to harvest their organs to complete his latest maniacal quest. This feature is also included in the birthday, hen, and stag party packages.
Tickets to Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein cost £15.50 per person, although some concessions apply, including children and over 60s. The house is open every day but special attractions must be booked in advance.
Once upon a time, around the 9th century BC, Prince Bladud contracted leprosy. His father, Ludhudibras, banished Bladud from the court and sent him to work as a country swineherd. Accepting his fate, Prince Bladud took good care of his pigs, noticing that when the animals wallowed in the steamy, muddy swamp at the bottom of the valley, they emerged cleansed of their warts and sores. Braving the mucky water, Bladud plunged into the stream and emerged without a blemish. His leprosy had vanished, and his father welcomed him back home. The news spread of the miracle, and soon, a small town developed around the thermal waters, building the foundations of the city of Bath.
The water that cured Prince Bladud is the same water that fills the city of Bath’s top tourist attraction. The Roman Baths or thermae date to around 60-70 AD, during the first few decades of the Roman occupation of Britain. These baths attracted people from far and wide who wished to sample the healing power of the water. The city became known as Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) due to the Roman belief the hot spring that supplied the water belonged to the goddess Sulis Minerva. For this reason, the Romans also built a temple on the site.
As with most Roman buildings, the baths succumbed to the elements. Fortunately, parts of the original foundations survived, upon which 18th-century architects reconstructed some of the walls and columns. Today, swimming in the waters, which have turned green due to algae, is not possible, but the baths are open to the public as a museum. Next door, the Grand Pump Room sells samples of the curative water to taste – something that gets mixed reactions from visitors.
The water in the Roman Baths may be many hundreds or even thousands of years old. It originally fell as rain on the Mendip Hills and percolated down through limestone aquifers measuring a depth of 2,700-4,300 metres (8,900-14,100 ft). The deeper the water travelled, the higher the temperature rose, reaching between 64 and 96 degrees Celsius. Under the pressure of the limestone, the water eventually rises back up to the surface through cracks, forming heated springs. Scientists have studied this phenomenon to develop enhanced geothermal systems.
Around 1,106,400 litres of water rise every day to fill the baths. This is approximately 13 litres per second. It rises from the Pennyquick fault, which thanks to Roman engineering, flows directly to the bathing pools. There are an estimated 43 minerals in the water, including calcium, sulphates, sodium and chloride. There are also some traces of iron, which causes orange stains on rocks and stone. Sometimes, the water may appear to bubble. This is caused by gases escaping.
Archaeological evidence suggests the site of the baths was a worship centre for the Celts. They dedicated the springs to the goddess Sulis, a life-giving mother goddess, who the Romans associated with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. When the Romans invaded, they kept the name Sulis, as seen in the name Aquae Sulis, but frequently referred to the goddess as Minerva-Sulis or Sulis Minerva. Before constructing the bathing complex, which took around 300 years, the Romans built and dedicated a temple to the goddess.
Builders began by creating a wooden foundation in the mud surrounding the thermal spring, then constructed a stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd century AD, a wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling enclosed the building, dividing it into several sections, including a caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (lukewarm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath). Bathers usually started in the tepidarium, heated by underground lead pipes, which directed water from the spring into the baths. Here, the bathers acclimatised to the heat before moving on to the considerably warmer caldarium. The rich usually brought attendants to rub their bodies with fragrant oils before taking a plunge into the freezing water in the frigidarium to close the pores.
Bathing was not the only activity available at the baths. Alcoves provided spaces for business meetings, philosophical discussions, or a place to meet friends. Evidence suggests visitors played board games, gambled and consumed food and drink. In other areas, musicians performed while people received certain treatments, such as manicures and pedicures.
Many Roman towns contained a bathing house, but people travelled far and wide to experience the curative waters provided by Sulis Minerva. People with various ailments travelled to Bath to drink the water or submerge their ailing bodies. Others visited to ask the goddess for advice or vengeance. Over 130 lead or pewter curse tablets have been discovered, asking Sulis Minerva to punish a wrongdoer. Many of these relate to petty crimes, such as the theft of a towel. Often, the accuser did not know who committed the crime, but they believed the goddess would know and mete out punishment accordingly.
Excavation has also revealed thousands of coins, jewellery, dishes and cups, many containing a dedication to Sulis Minerva. When not asking the goddess for requests, people gave sacrifices and gifts. Unlike contemporary religions, where gods and goddesses are worshipped across the world, the Roman baths and temple became the point at which the human world could communicate with the presiding deity.
Not much remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, which stood next to the baths. During excavations and sewage works, a handful of artefacts have been unearthed, which are now in the Roman Baths museum. A gilded bronze head belonging to a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered by workers in 1727. Its body has never been found, but it is believed it once wore a tall Corinthian helmet. Other items once belonging to the temple include a relief carving of the goddess wearing a gorgon mask and parts of a carved pediment, which may also feature a gorgon. According to Greek mythology, the hero Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa and gifted her head to the goddess Athena, the Greek equivalent of Minerva.
The baths remained popular for many years, permitting both men and women entry. At one time, men and women could not visit together, but further construction provided separate changing areas for the different sexes. Builders also raised the floors of the baths to escape the rising water levels caused by the frequent flooding of the nearby River Avon. These floods also sent mud into the water system, which accumulated in the Sacred Spring. The higher the bath floors, the further away they got from the underground heating, rendering it useless. The number of visitors dropped rapidly, and the inhabitants of Aquae Sulis gave up the losing battle against the floods. Eventually, mud and debris found their way into the temple, damaging the walls and causing the building to collapse. The baths suffered a similar fate, and the ceiling crashed into the swamp below, where people once bathed in the thermal water.
The story of the Roman Baths did not end there. During the 12th century, John of Tours (d.1122), the Bishop of Wells, built a new bath over the once-Sacred Spring. The pool became known as the King’s Pool and is where Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), the wife of King James I (1566-1625), bathed on 19th May 1613 on the recommendation of the court physician, Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655). Anne returned in 1615 to bathe in the newly constructed Queen’s Bath, decorated with the inscription Anna Regnum Sacrum (Anne’s Sacred Kingdom).
During the 18th century, father and son architects John Wood, the Elder (1704-54) and John Wood, the Younger (1728-82), designed a new building to house the King and Queen Baths. Basing the design on the original Roman Baths, the neoclassical building also contains the Grand Bath, which the general public used. Next door, they built the Grand Pump Room, where visitors could “take the waters”, in other words, drink it, or attend social functions.
Further expansion of the baths continued during the Victorian era. During the late 19th century, statues of Roman Emperors and Governors of Roman Britain were placed on the open terrace surrounding the Grand Bath. Over time, the elements have eroded some features, particularly the faces, but a new protective wash prevents further damage. The statues represent Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius, Emperor Vespasian, Governor Ostorius Scapula, Governor Suetonius Paulinus, Governor Julius Agricola, the Head of Roma (symbolising Rome), Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Constantine the Great. These men lived between 100 BC and 337 AD, and all had significant connections with Britain, or Britannia, as it was then known.
The Roman Baths stayed open until October 1978, when a young girl contracted naegleriasis and died. The fatal brain infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, more commonly known as a “brain-eating amoeba”, which lives in untreated waters. The Baths closed for several years to tackle the microorganism, but it never reopened for public use. In 1979, the psychiatrist Herbert Needleman (1927-2017) documented the dangers of lead exposure. Lead interferes with the normal functioning of cells in the body, chemically displacing vital elements, such as calcium, zinc and iron. Although Naegleria fowleri still poses a risk, the lead piping delivering water to the baths is also a health risk.
In 1982, a new spring water borehole was sunk to provide safe, clean water for drinking in the Pump Room. This water also fills the pools at the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006. Here, visitors can experience the effects of the healing waters in a modern environment and receive various treatments.
Although the waters at the Roman Baths are out of bounds, visitors to Bath can wander around the Grand Pool where people of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries once congregated, and before them, the people of Roman Britain. The entry fee also incorporates the Roman Baths museum, which houses artefacts from the Roman period. Objects include over 12,000 Denari coins and the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva.
The museum building preserves the remains of the original Roman Baths. With the help of projections and CGI, the museum recreates scenes in the original changing rooms and saunas to help visitors understand how the original baths were used. The 1.6 metres deep frigidarium or plunge pool is also part of the self-navigated tour, as is part of the Roman drainage system.
Visitors should expect to spend a couple of hours at the Roman Baths. There are thousands of objects on display in the museum, spanning four centuries. Many of the items were found in the sacred pool and are presumably offerings to Sulis Minerva. Several metal pans, known as paterae, are inscribed DSM or Deae Sulis Minerva, suggesting people used them to make offerings of holy water. There are also many curse tablets on display, which are some of the earliest examples of prayer in Britain.
The Roman Baths is a very popular tourist destination, and it is not uncommon to see queues of people waiting in the courtyard outside Bath Abbey. For this reason (and the recent pandemic), visitors must book their tickets in advance. Ticket prices change throughout the year depending on school term time, bank holidays, and so forth. They also cost more at weekends. In November, for example, an adult ticket costs £20 on weekends and £17.50 on a weekday. Students and seniors (65 +) received £1 off their entry, and children cost between £10 and £12.50. Visitors can expect to pay at least £3 more during peak times.
For more information about booking tickets, visit the Roman Baths website.
In the back garden of 19 New King Street, Bath, a German-born British astronomer doubled the known size of the solar system when he discovered a new planet in 1781. Initially named Georgium Sidus after the King, the discovery earned the astronomer instant fame across Europe and the attention of King George III, who hired him as the astronomer of the Court. The man in question was William Herschel, and the planet is known today as Uranus.
In 1981, 19 New King Street opened as a museum about William Herschel and his family, exactly 200 years after he discovered Uranus. The house forms part of a terrace originating from 1764. Whilst it is not pretentious like some neighbouring buildings (the Royal Crescent and the Circus), the house has five floors, including a basement. Although very little documentation exists of the house’s original decor, careful research into the era revealed the style and fashions of the day, which the William Herschel Society used when returning the interior of the building to the 18th and 19th century. Today, the museum is open on Tuesdays to Sundays for those wishing to see where the astronomer once resided.
Born in 1738, Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel grew up in Hanover, Germany. He was the fourth of ten children born to Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. As a keen oboist, Issak encouraged his children to study music and enrolled a couple of his sons as musicians in the Hanoverian Guards regiment. When war with France seemed imminent, Isaak sent Wilhelm and another son, Jakob, to England, where Wilhelm changed his name to the English equivalent, Frederick William Herschel.
Known mostly by his middle name, William quickly learnt English and earned money playing the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ. In 1761, he acquired the position of first violin in the Newcastle orchestra and started writing symphonies. He wrote a total of 24 symphonies and several concertos during his career as a musician. In 1766, Hershel took on the role of organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath and encouraged one of his younger sisters, Caroline, and three brothers, Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob, to join him in the city. Together, they performed many concerts, with Caroline singing soprano solos. Later, in 1780, Herschel became the director of the Bath orchestra.
Herschel’s interest in music led to his fascination with astrology. After reading Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), by the mathematician Robert Smith (1689-1768), Herschel came across another work by the same author. Entitled A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), the book explained how to build a telescope, which led Herschel to seek more information on the subject. A local mirror-builder gave Herschel lessons, which helped Herschel develop light-gathering surfaces for use in his hand-built telescopes. He dedicated many hours of the day to grinding and polishing mirrors, often assisted by his brother, Alexander.
At the time of Herschel’s developing interest in astronomy, he and his sister, Caroline, lived at 7 New King Street, a few doors down from the current Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline, who took on the role of housekeeper, despairingly wrote, “It was to my sorrow that I saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop.” Although Herschel continued to practice music, giving students lessons in various instruments, he spent his spare time working on his telescope.
In 1774, Herschel and his sister moved to Walcot in the suburbs of Bath, where there was plenty of space to build a large telescope. Here, Herschel began studying the rings of Saturn and the Great Orion Nebula, noting his observations in an astronomical journal. Unfortunately, the location proved too far from the centre of Bath, where Herschel and his sister still performed in concert halls and churches. In 1777, they returned to New King Street, taking residence at number 19. The house had a larger garden than it does today, making it a perfect spot for Herschel’s telescope. Unfortunately, he also crammed his instruments into every room of the house, much to Caroline’s disgust. Since Herschel used horse dung for his telescopic mirror moulds, Caroline can hardly be blamed for her protestations.
In 1779, the Herschels briefly moved to 5 Rivers Street, although it is unclear why. Whilst it was closer to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Bath, where Herschel hoped to become a member, the house had no garden. Herschel set up his telescope in the street, where he quickly drew attention. Whilst some saw Herschel and his telescope as a fascinating landmark, horse-drawn carriages had difficulty navigating around him.
Herschel moved his telescope back to 19 New King Street in March 1781, where on the night of the 13th March, he made a discovery that changed the world. The discovery of Georgium sidus, later Uranus, earned Herschel the Copley Medal and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year, George III appointed him “The King’s Astronomer”. Herschel and Caroline moved to Datchet, near Windsor, to be closer to London, where he could focus on his astronomy career. By this time, Caroline was more than a housekeeper. In Bath, she became her brother’s assistant and helped him record his findings, which resulted in three catalogues of stars and nebulae. Caroline made a few discoveries of her own, using a telescope built for her by her brother. (For more information, see my blog about The Lost Heroine of Astronomy.)
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy explores William Herschel’s life in Bath and his achievements throughout his career. It also recognises Caroline as an astronomer in her own right and includes the work of John Herschel, William’s son. Herschel married Mary Pitt in 1788, with whom he had one son in 1792. John proved just as intelligent as his father and studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won the Copley Prize in 1812. Despite embarking upon a legal career, John abandoned this in favour of his father’s passion, astronomy.
In 1820, John Herschel became one of the founding members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and after his father’s death in 1822, completed William Herschel’s catalogue of nebular stars with the help of documentation kept by his aunt, Caroline. John is also recognised for his pioneering work in the field of photography, in which he worked closely with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) at Lacock Abbey. He coined the words “positive” and “negative” concerning photography and developed a fixing agent.
Like his father, John Herschel also had a passion for music and often played the flute or violin in concerts. Later in life, he became the Master of the Mint, a post once held by the scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Failing health put an end to his career, and John passed away in 1871. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
John Herschel never lived at 19 New King Street, but his portraits currently feature on the walls of the ground-floor reception room. The room also houses illustrations by John, which he produced while using a camera obscura. Other objects include mirrors made by William Herschel and a model of the 40-foot telescope he made when living at the Observatory House near Windsor.
Also situated on the ground floor is the dining room. Handprinted wallpaper gives visitors the impression of 18th-century fashions, as do the framed maps and cartoons. The wooden table in the centre of the room was once part of a larger extending table from the Observatory House. At some stage, the table was divided by various members of the Herschel family, most likely during an inheritance dispute.
Not all the objects in the dining room date to the time of William Herschel’s time in Bath. A longcase clock made by John Roberts of Bath dates to the early 19th century, as does a stick barometer made by Jacob Abrahams. Nonetheless, Herschel likely owned similar items because they would have been of use during his nocturnal observations of the sky.
William Herschel used the first-floor drawing room as a study and workshop. It is also surmised that he slept in the room amongst his machinery and tools. Most of the items on display relate to astronomy and are on loan from the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the Royal Astronomical Society. A brass drum orrery made by George Adams around 1782 demonstrates the movements of the planets in relation to each other. This particular machine includes Uranus and its moons. Whilst some people, such as George III, used orreries as playthings, Herschel and other scientists found them useful for practical demonstrations during talks and lectures.
The drawing room leads into the music room, where scientific instruments resting on the harpsichord indicate Herschel’s fascination with astronomy encroached on his musical career. John Bernard (1756-1828), an actor who received singing lessons from Herschel, recalled, “His lodgings resembled an astronomer’s much more than a musician’s, being heaped up with globes, maps, telescopes, reflectors etc, under which his piano was hid, and the violoncello, like a discarded favourite, skulked away in a corner.”
The basement of the house features a typical Georgian kitchen, complete with an early 19th-century cooking range. With the help of a servant, Caroline prepared food here for her brother, whilst in the next room, Herschel used a furnace and smelting oven to make his telescopic lenses. When setting up the workshop, Herschel had the foresight to create two exits. According to Caroline’s diary, Herschel and one of his brothers attempted to pour 538 pounds of molten metal into a handmade mould, but the liquid splashed onto the ground, causing bits of stone flooring to fly in all directions. Both men survived after hastily escaping through separate doors. The cracks on the workshop floor are still visible today.
The basement leads out into the garden, which is below street level. It is hard to imagine a large telescope in the considerably shortened garden, but its original length is what initially attracted Herschel to the property. When the Herschels lived at 19 New King Street, they benefitted from an orchard at the back of the house. The current layout, designed by the Bath Preservation Trust, features cypress trees and maintained borders.
Within the garden is a statue of William and Caroline Herschel by Vivien Mousdell. Commissioned for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Herschel, the stone sculpture depicts Herschel gazing up at the sky whilst Caroline holds a quill pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, on which is drawn the solar system with Uranus at the centre. The statue was unveiled by Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), the president of the British Astronomical Association. Another sculpture, entitled Seedhead by Ruth Moillet, represents the position of Uranus in the solar system.
A small extension at the rear of the house contains a small exhibition and a few hands-on activities for children. These include simple arts and crafts and a toy version of an orrery. During half-term and end-of-term holidays, the museum hosts specific events targeted at children to teach them about the universe.
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy provides an insight into Herschel’s life and discoveries. It also allows people to imagine life in 18th and 19th-century Bath. Whilst other museums in the city, for instance, No. 1 Royal Crescent, explore the lives of the rich and their servants, William Herschel’s former residence introduces the typical home of the general population. Yet, Herschel was by no means an ordinary man. His genius, passion and perseverance earned him a place in British and international history.
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5pm. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children, except during the Summer Holidays (£11.50 and £5.50).
“The best address in Bath” is how The Times describes No. 1 Royal Crescent. The address is the first building on the eastern end of the Royal Crescent, built in the 18th century. The curved row of terrace houses has significant architectural and historical importance and is safeguarded by the Bath Preservation Trust. No. 1 Royal Crescent belongs to the Trust and is decorated and furnished as it might have been between 1776 and 1796. Open to the public six days a week, visitors can learn about life in Georgian Bath, including the differences between upper and lower classes.
The Royal Crescent was built by John Wood the Younger (1728-81) between 1767 and 1774. It was probably designed by Wood’s father, John Wood the Elder (1704-54), who planned many other buildings in Bath before his death, including Queen Square and the Circus. Both men were known for constructions that defied usual geometric architecture in favour of curved lines, such as the crescent shape of the Royal Crescent.
The grandeur of the terraced houses made the Royal Crescent a fashionable address. It was also the first crescent-shaped terrace of townhouses in Europe, which made it all the more appealing to the upper classes. The houses were rented out to many notable people, including Prince Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827), and his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia (1767-1820). The royal couple frequently visited Bath and stayed at No. 16 when in the city.
The first resident of No. 1 Royal Crescent was Henry Sandford (1751-1814), a landowner and future baron from Ireland. Details in his commonplace books record some of the goings-on in the crescent, including wild parties at No. 30 that frequently got out of hand. Sandford’s commonplace books, of which two survive, are held in the National Library of Ireland. As a widower, he left his Irish estates in the capable hands of his sons and moved to Bath to take advantage of the healing properties of the waters.
According to the Bath Journal, Sandford passed away in February 1796 and was buried in St Swithin’s Church in the parish of Walcot. Several residents passed through No. 1 Royal Crescent during the following century, including Eliza Evans, who ran a school for young ladies between the ages of eleven and fifteen. At the beginning of the 20th century, the property became a lodging house run by Stephen and Elizabeth Thomas and family until it was divided into two properties in 1967.
One of the lodgers at the house was George Saintsbury (1845-1933), a highly influential critic and literary historian. He moved into rooms on the ground floor in 1916, which were originally the servants’ quarters, after retiring as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Sainstbury wrote on a range of literary topics and was close friends with other authors, including Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).
Whilst living in Bath, Saintsbury wrote Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920), filled with tasting notes, menus, and robust opinions about wine. Saintsbury was a keen wine connoisseur who inspired the French wine merchant André Simon (1877-1970) to set up the Saintsbury Club in 1933 in his honour. The Saintsbury Club continues to meet today in Napa Valley, California, where a vineyard was also named after Saintsbury.
Following Saintsbury’s death, the Bath Preservation Trust began campaigning for the protection of historic buildings in the city. The Royal Crescent is one of several important residences in Bath, but it was not until 1967 that someone came up with the idea of turning No.1 Royal Crescent into a museum for posterity. The man with the vision was Bernard Cayzer (1914-81), a man of some wealth who supported the Trust and their work. Unfortunately, the sale only included the upper wings of the house, making the servants’ quarters a separate dwelling.
Restoration and refurbishment began in 1968, gradually restoring the building to its original 18th-century appearance. This involved removing partitions and raising the level of the first-floor windows. Cayzer established a house committee to oversee the interior design of the rooms. Members included Philip Jebb (1927-95), a restorer of Georgian buildings, and Peter Thornton (1925-2007), the keeper of furniture and woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a curator at the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Only the main rooms, including the dining room, library, and one bedroom, were given Georgian furnishings, the others were converted into offices or flats. The restored rooms were eventually opened to the public as a museum on 20th June 1970.
In 2006, No. 1a Royal Crescent came on the market, and the Bath Preservation Trust jumped at the chance to purchase it and reunite it with the rest of the property. With the help of a local philanthropist, Andrew Brownsword (born 1947), who made his money by establishing the Forever Friends teddy bear company, the Trust bought the property. Between 1968 and 2006, knowledge of Georgian interiors had increased significantly, and the designs of the rooms in the museum were not historically correct. Instead of only refurbishing the servant quarters to their Georgian roots, the Trust decided to give the museum a complete make-over and open more rooms to the public.
Nicknamed “The Whole Story Project”, building works began in October 2012. The original courtyard, which separated the servant quarters and the rest of the house, was reintroduced, as were Venetian windows. Carpets and wallpapers were produced in Georgian styles, and a sensitive lighting system was installed. Whilst the architects and designers aimed to be faithful to 18th-century fashions, they made an exception for a modern lift to give access to all levels of the museum. Finally, the museum reopened on 21st June 2013.
Visitors to No. 1 Royal Crescent are accompanied on a self-guided tour by disembodied voices belonging to imagined inhabitants of the building. Discussions range from idle gossip, preparing for an evening out and worries about a wayward son. Additional information about each room and particular objects are accessible by scanning QR codes with a mobile phone.
On the ground floor is the dining room, an essentially masculine space for entertaining guests. Decorated with family portraits, the room symbolised the host’s wealth and importance in society. Wealthy families dined a la française, meaning numerous dishes were placed on the table for guests to help themselves to what they desired. The food was served on elegant porcelain dining sets, which typically cost over £30, the equivalent of £2,000 today.
The dining table at No. 1 Royal Crescent is set for dessert. This course was another way for the host to boast of his wealth, providing his guests with expensive sweet treats and impressive sugar sculpture table decorations. Unfortunately, these luxuries came at the cost of thousands of enslaved Africans, who were forced to grow and harvest sugarcane and other commodities under the British transatlantic slave trade.
The parlour was a less formal room for breakfast, tea and daily activities. No. 1 Royal Crescent furnished their parlour with a table set for the early morning meal, a bureau for letter writing and a bookcase containing the types of literature available in the Georgian era. Amongst the latter is the Guide to Watering and Sea Bathing Places, which details the benefits of spas, such as the natural spring in Bath.
Next to the parlour is a small room known as the Gentleman’s Retreat. Here, the man of the house could escape his family to read or study subjects of interest. Many cultured Georgians enjoyed science, the natural world and “modern” inventions. The 18th century is sometimes known as the Age of Enlightenment because explorers were discovering new things about the world and beginning to understand the workings of the universe. Several cabinets at No. 1 Royal Crescent reflect this period of discovery, with items such as animal skulls, fossils, a globe and a replica of Edward Nairne’s Patent Electrical Machine.
Ladies did not have a retreat like their husbands. Instead, their sanctum was their bedchambers. Situated on the first floor of the house, the bedroom functioned as a place to sleep and undertake their toilette. The latter involved the assistance of a maid who styled the lady’s hair and applied make-up. Husbands and wives usually slept in separate rooms, so the lady was free to invite guests into her chamber. While getting dressed, friends often arrived with gossip about the goings on in society, including the latest fashions.
Of course, the bedroom was only an appropriate place to receive visitors when dressing for the day’s activities. After meals, women usually headed to the Withdrawing Room to drink tea while the men remained in the Dining Room with alcoholic beverages. Eventually, the men joined the women to play card games or listen to music played on the harpsichord, usually by one of the daughters.
At No. 1 Royal Crescent, the table in the Withdrawing Room is set with teacups and a plate of biscuits. The teacups resemble small dishes with no handles, inspired by fashions brought over from China. There is no sugar bowl on the table, which references the anti-saccarite movement of 1791 onwards, where women refused to put sugar in their tea in protest of the transatlantic slave trade. Since women could not vote to abolish the trade, they often found other ways to express their opinion.
On the second floor, the museum has furnished one room to resemble a gentleman’s bedroom. It is not too dissimilar from the lady’s bedchamber, but it is unlikely any guests visited the room. For this reason, the furnishings are less elaborate, although they still suggest significant wealth.
The basement area of the house is a stark contrast to the upper levels. The kitchens of 18th-century townhouses were always “downstairs” in the servant quarters. Whilst the family lived in carpeted and wallpapered rooms, the servants had stone floors and bare walls. Until the 18th century, cooks were traditionally men. Large households often employed Frenchmen, believing them to be the most skilled. They were also the most expensive. During the Georgian era, smaller houses began hiring women, paying them a much lower wage.
Wealthy Georgian families employed a range of staff, some who worked upstairs, such as the lady’s maid, and others who worked downstairs alongside the cook. The lowest paid position was the scullery maid, who was responsible for cleaning the house and doing the laundry. She washed pots and pans, scrubbed floors, and cleaned up after the servants. In Bath, families often sent their linen elsewhere for laundering, but the scullery maid performed the occasional clothes wash. These tasks took place in the scullery, where the maid probably slept. She was generally aged between 10 and 13 and received only £2 10 shillings a year (approximately £12 today).
Male servants received more money than the women, particularly the Butler, who received approximately £25 per year (£2,181 today). Unlike women, men were taxed on income to fund the American War of Independence. Nonetheless, the Butler also received extra rations of tea and other benefits. In houses the size of No. 1 Royal Crescent, the Butler also took on the role of Footman and Valet, making him the only male servant. As a footman, he would accompany his master around the city or conduct errands on his master’s behalf. He also answered the door to visitors, cleaned and polished shoes, and set the table for meals. The Valet was the equivalent of a lady’s maid and performed tasks such as maintaining his master’s clothes, running his bath and so forth.
The most important female servant was the House Keeper. She was usually an older woman and received her own room, where she slept, dined and organised the household bills. Her main task was to oversee the servants and make sure everything was running smoothly. She usually answered to the Mistress of the house, who gave instructions to pass on to the servants. As a salary, the House Keeper earned around £15 per year (£1,308 today) but also received extra rations of tea and sugar.
Whilst the House Keeper dined alone, the rest of the servants ate in the Servant Hall, except for the Scullery Maid. The latter looked after the kitchen until the others finished eating. The servants lived by the saying “Waste Not. Want Not” and usually ate the remains of the food their employers did not finish.
Servants were given a set of rules to follow in the Servants Hall, for which they faced a forfeit if they broke. Examples included no swearing or arguing, only using their own knife and fork, and never wearing a hat inside. Each rule broken cost the servants one penny, which came out of their wages at Christmas.
The way No. 1 Royal Crescent is set out provides visitors with a sense of what it would have been like to live there. Both the rich and poor lived under one roof but had completely different lifestyles, which seem alien compared to the 21st century. It is thanks to organisations, such as the Bath Preservation Trust, that the lives, fashions and buildings of the past are available for people to explore.
No. 1 Royal Crescent is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5:30pm. Tickets cost between £11 and £13 for adults, depending on the time of year. Children can visit for half the price. Pre-booked tickets are recommended.
Situated at 40 Gay Street in Bath is a museum dedicated to Jane Austen, her writings and her experience in the City of Bath. All six of Jane’s completed novels mention the city, and two, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, are set in Bath. Although Jane Austen only lived in Bath for a short period of her life, the city had a huge impact on her interests and writing.
Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775 at Steventon, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. She was the seventh child of George Austen (1731-1805) and Cassandra Leigh (1739-1827), who married in Bath in 1764. George Austen was a rector and began taking in boarding pupils at the rectory in Steventon a couple of years before Jane was born. Although Jane attended a boarding school for a couple of years, most of her education came from her father and older brothers.
Jane had seven brothers, James (1765-1819), George (1766-1838), Edward (1767-1852), Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Francis (1774-1865) and Charles John (1779 1852), and one sister, Cassandra (1773-1845). For reasons unknown, Jane was the only sibling not given a middle name. Neither Jane nor Cassandra married and relied on six of their brothers for money later in life. The second-eldest brother, George, had little to do with family matters and was sent to live with a relative due to his mental disabilities. References in Jane’s letters to talking “with my fingers” suggests George may have been deaf or unable to communicate verbally.
In late 1797, when Jane was 21, she visited Bath for the first time with her mother and sister. During the six weeks they spent in the city, Jane experienced a different lifestyle from the quiet village life to which she was accustomed. Social events were high on everyone’s agenda in Georgian Bath, which Jane’s letters home described as exciting scenes. “I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am home again – I do like it very much.”
Two years later, Jane returned to Bath with her brother Edward, who wished to “take the waters” to aid his ill-health. The Roman Baths in the city centre were renowned for their healing properties, as was the experimental electric shock treatment provided by local physicians. Jane took the opportunity to learn about the area, which helped form the setting of her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey.
Jane, Edward and their mother stayed at No. 13 Queen’s Square for a couple of months, during which time Jane worked on her novel. She had started writing a book called Susan before coming to Bath for the second time and continued working on it while in the city. Despite selling it to a publisher for £10, the book was never published during her lifetime. After her death, Jane’s brother Henry published it under a different title, Northanger Abbey.
There are similarities between Jane Austen and Catherine Moorland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey. Both young women grew up in the countryside and experienced Bath as innocent, inexperienced girls. Like Jane, Catherine was enthralled by the hustle and bustle of the fashionable city and exclaimed, “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?”
Several notable locations are mentioned in Northanger Abbey, which Jane experienced during her first two visits to the city. Catherine Morland met her love interest, Mr Tilney, by the River Avon in what is now known as the Parade Gardens. This was the location of the Lower Assembly Rooms in Jane’s time, to which she referred in her novel. Catherine attended services nearby in Bath Abbey and visited the Pump Room daily. “As soon as the divine service was over, the Thorpes and the Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent.“
The Royal Crescent is one of the most iconic sights in Bath, as is the Circus, which was built between 1754 and 1756. Jane had friends living in the round circle of terrace houses, so it was only natural to refer to the area. Jane also mentioned the Upper Assembly Rooms, where she enjoyed attending dances and performances. The fictional Catherine also visited the Rooms for similar entertainment. Today, it is the location of Bath’s Museum of Costume.
In 1801, Reverend George Austen surprised his family by announcing his retirement and decision to move to Bath. They moved to 4 Sydney Place, a recently built Georgian townhouse in the Bathwick area of Bath. The nearby Sydney Gardens supplied public breakfasts, which Jane regularly attended. The breakfasts included tea, coffee, and rolls, and towards midday, they served Sally Lunn buns, followed by music and dancing. During the summer, galas were held in the gardens in honour of the King and Prince of Wales’ birthdays and the annual Bath races. During Austen’s time at 4 Sydney Place, André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823) took off from the gardens in his hot air balloon in September 1802. Garnerin was well-known for his balloon demonstrations and visited Bath as part of his tour of England.
The Austens remained in Sydney Place until the lease expired in 1804. Her father quickly sought cheaper lodgings, and the family moved to No. 3 Green Park Buildings East. Jane often complained about the dampness in the building but still declared it was “so very desirable in size and situation”. Unfortunately, Jane’s father died suddenly in January 1805 and Jane, Cassandra and their mother were forced to seek smaller accommodation.
The Austens found temporary accommodation at 25 Gay Street, not far from where the Jane Austen Centre is today. In the summer of 1805, they moved to a cheaper address in Trim Street, a less fashionable region of Bath. Although Trim Street boasts luxurious apartments in the 21st century, in Jane Austen’s time, prostitutes frequented the area. Needless to say, the Austens did not remain there long before deciding to leave the city for Southampton.
Despite witnessing the poorer side of Bath, Jane never lost her love of the city. During her time in Southampton, she wrote Elinor and Marianne, which she published under the title Sense and Sensibility in 1811, shortly after moving to Hampshire. Although the novel was set in Sussex and London, the characters reference their “earnest desire” to go to Bath.
In 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice and finished writing her next novel, Mansfield Park. Both these stories mention minor characters visiting the city of Bath, as does Emma, which was published in 1815. “If she is really ill, why not go to Bath Mr. Weston?”
Nine years after leaving Bath, Jane Austen started working on Persuasion. At the beginning of the story, the Elliot family move to Bath to settle in a cheaper home until their financial situation improves. The protagonist, Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman, is unsure she will like the city but cannot upset her parents by making a fuss. Jane was a similar age when she moved to Bath, but she had already a favourable impression of the city from her visits in her early 20s. To write from Anne’s point of view, Jane imagined how she would have observed Bath and its social customs for the first time as a mature woman.
Several locations in Bath are written about in Persuasion, for instance, Milsom Street, where Anne first meets her ex-fiancé Captain Wentworth in the city. Jane set the encounter in Molland’s sweet shop, which, whilst no longer there, must have held significant memories for Jane. Gay Street, where Jane briefly stayed after her father’s death, also receives a mention. Although Gay Street contained cheaper housing, it still had a genteel atmosphere.
Behind the back gardens of Gay Street is a gravel walk known as Lover’s Lane during Jane Austen’s time. Young lovers used to meet for a romantic stroll along the lane, making it the perfect setting for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to have a romantic encounter. Other locations in Persuasion include Camden Crescent, where Sir Walter Elliot lived. The houses with their position on a hill symbolise Sir Elliot’s lofty views of his self-importance. Dowager Lady Dalrymple and the Honorable Miss Carteret, cousins of the Elliots, lived in Laura Place, one of the most prestigious groups of houses in Bath. Their way of life greatly contrasted with the general public.
Jane started feeling unwell in 1816 but tried to make a start on another novel, Sanditon. After twelve chapters, she gave up and moved to Winchester with her sister Cassandra and brother Henry for treatment. Unfortunately, Jane passed away a couple of months later, on 18th July 1817, at the age of 41. Jane’s cause of death is still debated today due to Jane’s letters in which she made light of her symptoms. The two most accepted diagnoses are Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
The Jane Austen Centre at No. 40 Gay Street focuses on Jane’s relatively short time in Bath. Visitors are given a talk by members of staff dressed up as well-known Jane Austen characters, such as the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and remain in character throughout the visit. The talk covers Jane’s family background, her trips to Bath, the inspiration for her books, and her untimely death.
A short film provides a brief tour of Regency Bath, particularly the locations relevant to Jane Austen and her books. A map of the tour is provided in the souvenir guide, so visitors can explore the area if they wish. The rest of the museum contains images, books and letters written by or concerning Jane Austen. There is also an opportunity to dress up in Regency clothing and pose next to a Colin Firth-look-a-like wax figure of Mr. Darcy. Before leaving, visitors are invited to try writing with a quill pen and visit the Regency Tea Room for tea, cake, scones and sandwiches.
One of the highlights at the Jane Austen Centre is the waxwork model of the author. A small watercolour painting by Cassandra Austen is the only existing image of Jane, but it was described as “hideously unlike” Jane by another family member. Fortunately, there are many written descriptions of Jane’s physical appearance from friends and contemporaries, which the forensic artist Melissa Dring used to bring Jane Austen to life.
Melissa Dring unveiled her drawing of Jane Austen in 2002. Nine years later, the Jane Austen Centre commissioned the portrait sculptor Mark Richards to produce a waxwork model of the artwork. Working with Dring, the hair and colour artist Nell Clarke, and costume designer Andrea Galer, Richards spent three years carefully crafting the model until he revealed it to the world on 9th July 2014. Many visitors to the centre comment on Jane’s height of 5 ft 8 in. Cassandra’s portrait of her sister led people to assume Jane was a short woman, but several accounts record her as “tall and slender”.
The Jane Austen Centre is open every day of the week. Due to popularity, booking is strongly advised with the option of reserving a table for afternoon tea. Adult tickets cost £12.50, but there are various concessions for children, students and the over 60s. Tickets are available on the Jane Austen Centre website.
To recap: The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.
George I (reigned 1714-27)
According to the 1701 Act of Settlement, only a Protestant could succeed to the British throne. All of Queen Anne’s children predeceased her, leaving no heir. Since Anne’s nearest relatives were Catholic, Parliament traced the family tree back to James I, then invited the former king’s great-grandson to take the throne. George of Hanover (1660-1727) accepted the crown, although he did not speak much English.
George I was the first king of a new dynasty, and not many people knew what he looked like. It was necessary to produce several portraits to prepare for new coins to make him more recognisable as the country’s monarch. Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the Principal Painter to the Crown, produced a portrait of George I for the Royal Mint. It shows the king in profile wearing gold-edged armour draped in silk. Although George wore royal regalia in his coronation portrait to emphasise his power and status, Kneller presented him in military garb, indicating his determination to defend both his position and his faith.
George II (reigned 1727-60)
The public never quite warmed to George I, which was not helped by his frequent disappearances to the continent. Relations started to improve during the reign of George II (1683-1760), the son of the previous king. His coronation portrait was commissioned by the Corporation of London and painted in the studio of Charles Jervas (1675-1739), an Irish painter. The king’s power and majesty are evident in his clothing and the table with crown, orb and sceptre. Through the window, Westminster Abbey is visible, which is where George’s coronation service took place.
Like his father, George II spent months at a time abroad, but this was often due to warfare. He was the last British king to lead his troops into battle, where he defeated the French at Dettingham in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession. Two years later, a grandson of James II (1633-1701), nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-88), led an uprising in an attempt to reestablish the Catholic Stuart monarchy. George and his troops eventually defeated the rebels at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.
Despite the wars, Britain prospered during the reign of George II. The country experienced rapid financial growth and political stability. This helped to increase the king’s popularity, resulting in the national anthem God Save the King. The author and composer of the anthem are widely debated, and the first line differed slightly from the standard version sung today.
God save great George our king, Long live our noble king, God save the king. Send him victorious, Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us, God save the king!
George III (reigned 1760-1820)
Following George II’s death, the Hanoverian line skipped a generation and welcomed the late king’s grandson to the throne. George II’s son, Frederick (1707-51), predeceased his father, so the crown passed down to the next in line, George III (1738-1820). Unlike his great-grandfather and grandfather, George III was born in England. He publicly celebrated his identity as the first British-born Georgian king, declaring that he “gloried in the name of Briton”.
One year into his reign, George met and married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). George had never seen Charlotte before their wedding day, and she only spoke German, whereas George only knew English. Despite this, they formed a strong bond and had fifteen children. To celebrate their union, the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713-84) produced a pair of State portraits, in which the sitters wear gold and ermine costumes, the same clothing worn at George III’s coronation. At 23 years old, George appears young, graceful and dignified, but by the end of his reign, the king became unrecognisable from the portrait.
George reigned for 60 years, during which time Britain lost the American colonies. George prefered to live like the “middling sort”, i.e. wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs. Although he did not associate with the lower classes, George received the nickname “Farmer George”, which his children rebelled against by embracing their royal status. George’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for example, was known for his lack of self-restraint and often got himself into debt. The prince caused many problems for his father, which on top of the pressures that came with being king, proved too much for George III. The king’s final decade was plagued with mental illness and in 1811, the Prince of Wales was installed as Prince Regent.
As the Prince of Wales, George IV (1762-1830) caused a lot of trouble for parliament and the royal family. He was a womaniser and had many lovers, including Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837). Mrs Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow, who George married in secret in 1785. The marriage was illegal because all heirs to the throne were forbidden from marrying outside of the Protestant faith. It was thus considered void, which soured the prince’s relationship with parliament.
A miniature painting of the Prince of Wales by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) is thought to be a love token for Maria Fitzherbert or another of George’s lovers. George wears a powdered wig and a masquerade costume, which reflects his love of partying. The painting is mounted in a gold locket measuring 2 3/4 in. x 2 1/4 in. (70 mm x 57 mm).
Before becoming king, George was persuaded to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). This was a financial arrangement to help settle some of the prince’s debts, which he had accrued by purchasing an enormous collection of artwork. He did not love Caroline and abandoned her shortly after the birth of their daughter, Charlotte (1796-1813). The public was horrified with George’s poor treatment of his wife and placed their hopes on Charlotte coming to the throne. Sadly, Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, leaving George IV without an heir.
William IV (reigned 1830-37)
By the end of his reign, George IV was obese and suffering from many health problems. Without an heir, Parliament looked towards George’s younger brother, William (1765-1837), as the next in line to the throne. William had spent most of his life as a naval officer, as he is depicted in a portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850). He is depicted wearing the full-dress uniform of an admiral and was known for speaking like a sailor, rather than a member of the royal family.
With all eyes on him, William had to change his way of life, which involved ending his 21-year affair with the actress Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had ten illegitimate children. William was forced to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (1792-1849), after whom the capital of South Australia is named. William was not pleased about the match, writing to his eldest illegitimate son, “She is doomed, poor dear innocent young creature, to be my wife.”
In 1830, William IV became king following the death of his brother. One of William’s first roles as king was signing the Great Reform Act in 1832. The Act disenfranchised many British people and altered the method of selecting borough representatives. It largely benefitted Whig politicians and their supporters and emphasised that women were to play no part in politics. As a result, William had many enemies, and when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, Queen Adelaide believed it was divine punishment for passing the Great Reform Act.
Despite several pregnancies, Adelaide did not give birth to any living children. Once again, Britain had a monarch with no heir. William’s younger brother, Edward (1767-1820), had passed away, leaving Edward’s daughter as the next in line to the throne. On the 20th June 1837, William IV passed away, and his 18-year-old niece Alexandrina Victoria became queen.
Victoria (reigned 1837-1901)
Although born Alexandrina Victoria, the new queen chose to reign under the name Queen Victoria (1819-1901). English painter George Hayter (1792-1871) captured the queen’s youth in her coronation portrait, but also made her look the part of a powerful ruler. Victoria had the right to reign alone, and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61), was not allowed to take the title of king. Traditionally, a king is more powerful than a queen, so no one could hold the position of a king while Victoria was on the throne. Yet, conventional gender roles at the time made life as a sovereign difficult for Victoria. Parliament rarely let the queen give her opinion on matters, and Prince Albert made many decisions behind closed doors.
Major changes occurred during Victoria’s reign, particularly developments in science and technology. New technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution of 1760 to 1820 increased the number of discoveries during the following century. Famous names, such as Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage and Charles Dickens, were on everyone’s tongues, inspiring others to join the scientists, mathematicians, authors, geologists, astronomers and philosophers in changing the world.
The British Empire expanded to encompass Canada, Australia, India and West Africa. The results of colonisation and enforced religion are still felt today, although most countries have declared independence from British Rule. Several wars took place in the 19th century, most notably the Crimean War (1853-56), which paved the way for modern nursing with the help of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81). Whilst the government gradually reduced the effects of the Great Reform Act, women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections and other roles that were deemed masculine. Even Queen Victoria, who experienced the harshness of sexism, opposed women’s suffrage, describing it as a “wicked folly”.
A crucial development during Victoria’s reign was the advent of photography. This invention dramatically changed the way the public viewed the royal family. Previously, many people never physically saw the king or queen; they were only familiar with the monarchs’ painted portraits, which were not always accurate representations. Photography made it easier to distribute Victoria’s image across the country and capture moments far quicker than a painter. Initially, photographs were staged due to the complexities of the camera, but as technology improved, it became easier for members of the public to capture the queen on film. Soon, the royal family had no control over when or by whom photographs were taken.
When Prince Albert passed away in 1861, the devastated queen chose to permanently wear black. Nevertheless, she continued her duties as queen, reigning for a total of 64 years. As the queen aged, her health deteriorated. By the age of 80, Victoria suffered from rheumatism in her legs and cataracts. During the autumn and winter of 1900, she felt increasingly unwell and passed away on 22nd January 1901. Her eldest son Albert, who was present at her death, succeeded her as King Edward VII.
Edward VII (reigned 1901-10)
Sir Luke Fildes’s (1843-1927) state portrait of Edward VII (1841-1910) is more reminiscent of the Georgian era with the white ermine than Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait. Several copies of the painting were made for embassies across the world, and a team of artists were hired to produce them. Although Fildes painted the original, it is not certain whose hand produced the version belonging to the National Portrait Gallery.
Photography made the need for state portraits redundant, so there are very few paintings of Edward VII in comparison to his predecessors. Edward also had no interest in the arts, preferring sport. Edward had hoped for a military career and was awarded the rank of colonel on his 17th birthday. Queen Victoria discouraged his future with the British Army, preferring Edward to focus on his role as the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.
As king, Edward VII reorganised the British Army, which finished fighting the Second Boer War in 1902. He was known as the “Peacemaker” for his attempts to better Britain’s relations with other European countries, most notably France. New technologies, such as the telegraph and telephone, made it easier to communicate with people around the country and abroad. It was also easier to travel from place to place in steam trains and motorcars. Unfortunately, Edward’s reign was short, and he passed away in 1910, aged 68.
George V (reigned 1910-36)
Until 1892, the future George V (1865-1936) had no notion of becoming king. Whilst his father was heir to the throne, George had an older brother, Albert (1864-92), who was second in line. Unfortunately, Albert died from pneumonia shortly before his 28th birthday. The following year, George married his deceased brother’s fiancee, Mary of Teck (1867-1935), with whom he went on to have six children.
In 1913, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) painted a family portrait of the king with his wife and two of their children, the future Edward VIII (1894-1972) and Mary, Princess Royal (1897-1965). It was commissioned by the English printer Hugh Spottiswoode (1864-1915), but the royal family wanted to be involved with the painting’s development. As well as posing for the artist in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, the king and queen regularly visited the artist’s studio to keep an eye on his progress. On one occasion, they insisted on putting the finishing touches of royal blue paint to a Garter ribbon. The completed painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1913, where it was labelled a work of “romantic impressionism”.
Shortly after the completion of the painting, World War I broke out in Europe. George V and his family felt it was their duty to participate in the war effort. The king made at least 450 trips to visit British troops, as well as 300 visits to military hospitals. He also turned up at shipyards and munitions factories to thank the workers. Aware that the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded German, George V announced in 1917 that all descendants of Queen Victoria would bear the name Windsor. He wished to make it clear that the royal family did not affiliate with the enemy. Windsor is a castle with a long association with the monarchy, which is one of the reasons for the choice of name.
Edward VIII (reigned 1936)
As Prince of Wales, Edward was forbidden from fighting in the First World War, despite being part of the Grenadier Guards. Instead, he visited troops with his father and was admired for his charming personality and good looks. Frank Salisbury (1874-1962), “Britain’s Painter Laureate”, painted Edward in uniform during a visit to the Western Front in 1917.
When George V died in 1936, Edward became king, but he reigned for less than a year. Edward VIII had a difficult decision to make. He wished to marry Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), a twice-divorced American socialite, but the Church of England did not allow divorcees to marry at the time. As king, Edward was also the head of the church, so could not go against its rules. After causing a constitutional crisis, Edward realised he could not marry Wallis and remain on the throne, so he chose to abdicate. Edward and Wallis married the following year and moved to mainland Europe. Although granted the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they had little contact with the royal family.
George VI (reigned 1936-52)
George VI’s (1895-1952) favourite portrait was painted by British painter Meredith Frampton (1894-1984) in 1929, when the future king was still Prince Albert, Duke of York. Wearing the full uniform of a Royal Navy Captain, the photorealistic portrait commemorated Albert’s presidency of Dr Barnardo’s Homes, a charity set up to care for vulnerable children. The prince had no idea he would one day be king. He had grown up in his brother’s shadow, suffering from a stammer, which made his duties as Duke of York difficult.
Unlike his brother, Albert served in the navy and airforce during the First World War. Usually, the heir to the throne cannot participate in warfare, but no one imagined Albert one day becoming king. Albert was thrust into the limelight in 1936, when he reluctantly replaced his brother on the throne, assuming the regnal name George VI. It has since come to light that the late George V wished Albert was his heir rather than Edward, who he thought would “ruin himself in twelve months”.
Not long after becoming king, Britain was at war again. George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (1900-2002), and daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (b.1926) and Margaret (1930-2002), visited sites affected by the Blitz, which the public appreciated. After the war, George oversaw the dismantling of the British Empire and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Whereas the Empire controlled other countries by force, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent states.
The stress of war combined with heavy smoking paid a toll on the king’s life. During the late 1940s, he developed lung cancer and suffered from various problems with his arteries. In 1951, his left lung was removed, which severely limited his everyday activities. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, took on many of George VI’s roles, including touring. Six days after waving the princess off at London Airport (now Heathrow), George VI passed away from a coronary thrombosis on 6th February 1952, aged 56.
Elizabeth II (reigning since 1952)
When Elizabeth was born in 1926, her parents never imagined she would one day be queen. Unlike her father, who had the throne thrust upon him, Elizabeth had 16 years to prepare for her succession to the throne. At the time of George VI’s death, Elizabeth was in Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021). She immediately returned to Britain and picked up her duties.
Hundreds of photographs exist of Elizabeth II, far more than any British monarch. Due to the efficiency of the camera, there are far fewer paintings. Over the past two centuries, new art styles have emerged, and there are no painted portraits resembling the Queen’s ancestors in the 19th century. Yet, throughout the queen’s reign, artists have been commissioned to paint her likeness in their preferred style. Artists include Andy Warhol (1928-87), Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Pietro Annigoni (1910-88).
Italian artist Pietro Annigoni first painted Elizabeth II two years after her coronation. In 1969, he was invited back by the National Portrait Gallery to produce another portrait. Rather than depict the queen in a royal setting, Annigoni chose a neutral background, emphasising the queen’s red clothing. He explained his decision saying, “I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility”.
Annigoni’s portrait symbolises Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign as a female monarch during an era more accepting of women’s roles in society. Unlike Queen Victoria, whose male family members and government attempted to overrule her decisions, Elizabeth has reigned in her own right. Admittedly, the queen has less power than her predecessors, but during a crisis, the country looks to her for reassuring words of comfort and support. She is a patron of over 600 charities and organisations and has regularly attended events and special occasions to celebrate their work.
Elizabeth II has ruled longer than any monarch in British history, and the majority of the population have never experienced having a king. Over the last few years, she has delegated some of her duties to her heirs, who have in turn grown in popularity, particularly her grandson, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (b. 1982). At the time of writing, the heir to the British throne is Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948), with Prince William next in line, and his son, George (b. 2013), third.
By looking at 500 years of royal portraits, it is possible to notice the changes in art style, particularly in the later years, as well as the upkeep of certain traditions. Early monarchs were depicted in formal regalia, which gradually changed in preference to military uniform. Artists painted the kings and queens as the royal family wished to be seen by the public. Early rulers came across as self-centred and greedy due to the jewelled clothing and ornaments that signified their status. Since Queen Victoria’s reign, the paintings appear more modest, with the kings revealing their support of the country through their military garb. The increased use of photography also helps to make the royal family appear more human, caring, and deserving of respect.
The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, is open daily throughout October 2021 at the National Maritime Museum. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children, although members can visit for free.
Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.
Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.
Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.
Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).
It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.
The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.
On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).
Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.
Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.
Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.
On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”
According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)
Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.
The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.
On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.
Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.
Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.
A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.
On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.
“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)
The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.
St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.
One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.
Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.
On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.
Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).
Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.
Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!
London is known for its tourist attractions, tall buildings and river; however, a short walk from King’s Cross Station in a former ice warehouse, is a museum that tells a little known history of the city. The London Canal Museum, established in 1992, displays information about the history of London’s canals. Today, these canals are a peaceful area away from the busy roads, but they were not always like that. Once vital for industrial London, these canals had a significant part to play, a role that is gradually disappearing from memory in an increasingly technological world.
On entering the museum, the first thing visitors see is the remains of an unpowered narrowboat named (rather unfortunately) Coronis. Built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff, an offshore construction company, Coronis accompanied a motorboat known by the (even more unfortunate) name, Corona, on the Grand Union Canal. Carrying goods, such as wood, metal, fruit and grain, Coronis regularly travelled from London to Birmingham and back again.
Narrowboats are unique to the United Kindom and were built to fit the narrow canals and locks that had a much shorter width than the canals in Europe. The average narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide and no longer than 72 feet (21.95 m). Despite the lack of space, narrowboats were also used as floating homes for many people. The rear portion of the boat, known as the boatman’s cabin, was designed to make use of every bit of space. Although rather cramped, the cabin contained a stove, a folding table and a couple of folding beds. These would fold out of cupboards meaning the floor space could be kept clear during the day.
What inhabited narrowboats lacked, however, were bathroom facilities. Instead, families had to use rather primitive methods, such as going to the toilet in a bucket and washing with rainwater collected in a “Bucky” can on the roof of the cabin. These cans were usually decorated, as was the rest of the narrowboat.
By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to either decorate a narrowboat with painted flowers or with images of castles. The origin of these designs is unknown but may have been influenced by Romani communities.
Today, narrowboats are motorised, however, during the 19th and early 20th century, they were powered by horses. Running alongside the canals is a towpath, which the horses used to walk, pulling the narrowboats behind them by rope. Some people regarded this as cruel, however, bargemen maintained it was far easier than dragging a carriage through the street. The hardest part for the horse was to get the boat moving, but once this had been achieved, the narrowboat would move easily across the water. The horses were regularly changed, rested and fed throughout the day.
The main danger for the horses was losing their footing and falling into the canal. This was most likely to occur during thick fogs when it was impossible to see anything in front of you. Whilst this problem could not always be avoided, horse slips or ramps were built into the canal walls so they could easily climb back out. Passing trains often spooked the horses, which also caused many to fall into the canal. As a result, it was made certain there were horse ramps within 100 yards of train bridges.
By the 1950s, horses were replaced by tractors. Of course, many faced the same fate as the horses and found themselves in the canals. To prevent this from happening, railings were added in areas where the towpath was harder to navigate.
As roads and railways were developed, more bridges were built over the canal. This, however, caused problems for horses and tractors because, unless a towpath had been built into the construction, they could not go through the tunnel. Therefore, bargemen had to “leg” the boats through. This involved a couple of men lying on planks hooked at right angles to the front of the boat who would use their legs to “walk” along the tunnel wall, gradually inching the narrowboats through.
For some years, the main canal in London was the Grand Junction Canal, which was built between 1793 and 1805 to connect the River Thames to the Midlands. Since 1929, this canal has become a part of of the Grand Union Canal, which the narrowboat Coronis used to sail. Today, London’s most famous canal is Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and stretches across the north of London to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, a total of 8.6 miles (13.8 km).
Regent’s Canal was first proposed in 1802 by Thomas Homer, although it was not constructed until after 1812 when it was agreed by Parliament. Designs for the canal were drawn out by John Nash (1752-1853), who is better known for designing Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Most of Nash’s architectural work was financed by the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830), which is why the canal was named Regent’s Canal.
Nash appointed his assistant James Morgan (1776-1856) as the chief engineer of the canal company and construction began on 14th October 1812. The first section, Paddington to Camden, was completed by 1816 and the rest was opened in 1820. There were, however, a couple of problems along the way.
The first problem was the hydropneumatic locking system invented by William Congreve (1772-1828), which did not work when first installed. A lock is a device used to raise or lower boats between different water levels in a canal. Usually consisting of two gates, the boats enter through one, which is then sealed shut while the other gate gradually lets water in or out until the water inside the two gates is level with the outside. Once this has been achieved, the other gate opens and the boat continues on its journey.
The most common type of lock is known as the mitre lock and is based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), which he produced to show how improvements could be made to the canal system in Milan. This type of lock was first used in England on the River Lee in 1577, however, Congreve wished to impress the Prince Regent with a more impressive design.
In 1813, Congreve patented a “hydro-pneumatic double balance lock”, which involved a boat entering a box or caisson submerged in a cistern. The cistern would then either descend or ascend and release the boat onto the new water level. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for this to work in Regent’s Canal, which was only discovered after its construction. Various alterations were made to the lock, however, it was soon replaced by a more conventional design.
Today, there are nine locks on Regent’s Canal between Islington Tunnel and the Thames: City Road, Sturts, Acton’s, Old Ford, Mile End, Johnson’s, Salmon Lane, Commercial Road and Regent’s Canal Dock. These were initially manned by lock keepers who would open and close the gates for the passing boats for a small toll fee. Today, narrowboat owners each have their own Windlass Handle, which opens the majority of the locks around the UK, therefore, lock keepers are no longer needed.
The second problem faced during the construction of Regent’s Canal involved money. It cost a total of £772,000 to build the canal, which was twice the amount predicted. Getting an adequate water supply was a big issue, therefore, further digging needed to be done to create dams, make reservoirs and build basins. This, however, was not the main money problem.
Thomas Homer, the man who first proposed Regent’s Canal, became known as the Villain of the Regent’s Canal after embezzling funds in 1815. Homer was born on 27th March 1761 and was one of seventeen children born to the Rector Henry Sacheverell Homer, who was considered to be the finest classical scholar of his day. Out of the twelve sons, Thomas Homer was the only one not to go on to become a clergyman. Instead, he followed his father’s passion for canals.
After completing an apprenticeship in Coventry in 1782, Thomas Homer was qualified as a solicitor. By 1795, Homer had become the Auditor of the Grand Junction Canal Company and began making plans for what would become Regent’s Canal. All seemed to be going well until 1815 when the canal construction ran into some difficulties. The company was also facing financial problems caused by shareholders not paying up or, if they had paid, not paying directly to the treasurer but Thomas Homer.
Suspicions about Homer’s actions began to arise after he repeatedly failed to produce records when requested by the company’s chairman, Charles Monro. Homer soon fled the country and it came to light he had been declared bankrupt. It also became clear he had been syphoning off money from the company in an attempt to cover his debts. The company immediately reported Homer and offered an award for his arrest.
Thomas Homer was arrested and brought back to London where he was placed in debtors’ prison. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. It appears, however, that he never went and there are no records about how he spent the rest of his life. Despite his arrest and admission, the Grand Junction Canal Company was unable to claim any money back as there was no knowledge of how much money Homer had stolen.
Fortunately, funds were found to complete the construction of Regent’s Canal and it officially opened in 1820. Yet, within two decades of its completion, the canal was already under threat from the increase in railways. Several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway and the idea to run a track alongside the water was also rejected. As a result, rail construction companies built bridges over the canal, however, these caused their fair share of problems, such as scaring the horses and making it difficult for narrowboats to pass under the bridge.
Bridges were also built over the canal for cars to pass over the water. One famous incident involving one of the bridges occurred in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a barge called The Tilbury exploded underneath Macclesfield Bridge. The barge was carrying a couple of barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder when it caught light passing under the bridge at the north of Regent’s Park. The resulting explosion destroyed Macclesfield Bridge and killed all three men on board.
The explosion was heard up to 25 miles away and many people mistook it for an earthquake. Animals in the zoo were frightened and debris flew in all directions, damaging nearby buildings and shattering windows. Eyewitnesses claimed that dead fish from the canal “rained from the sky”.
Fortunately, the majority of the iron legs of Macclesfield Bridge were salvaged and the bridge was successfully reconstructed. The explosion caused the government to amend the laws about selling and buying explosive substances to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Although explosive substances had been limited on canals, barges became vital during the World Wars for transporting munitions and equipment across the city. On one occasion, Londoners were surprised to see a tank being sailed along the canal. After the Second World War, the usual trade resumed upon the canals, delivering goods and materials that could not easily be reached by ships and cars. Horses continued to be used to tow the crafts until 1956 when they were replaced by tractors. By the late 1960s, however, commercial traffic on the canals had almost disappeared and it was opened to the public. Today, Regent’s Canal has become a leisure facility, used by those who own narrowboats for fun rather than for work or domestic living. The towpaths are also opened to the public and have become a popular place for cyclists.
Before canal boats were motorised, the most difficult sections to pass through were the tunnels. In London, there are three tunnels, all of them on Regent’s Canal. Getting a barge or narrowboat under a bridge without a horse or tractor was difficult enough but a tunnel required far more strength.
Two of the tunnels were opened as early as 1816 before the full extent of Regent’s Canal was completed. One of these is the Maida Hill Tunnel, which lies to the west of Camden Locks. It was not a part of the original plan but, due to protests about the route of the canal, it was agreed a tunnel would be constructed.
It took a while to complete the Maida Hill Tunnel, not least due to damage caused by the water. Eventually, the 272 yards (249 m) long tunnel was completed, however, due to its narrow width, there was no towpath. The only way for narrowboats to get through was to manually “leg” it through. This required much more energy than walking a boat under a bridge and, in 1825, two people lost their lives in the process. Three men were legging a boat through Maida Hill Tunnel when the boards they were lying on slipped. One man was seriously injured and another was crushed to death. The body of the third man was never found.
The other tunnel constructed in 1816 was Eyre’s Tunnel, also known as Lisson Grove Tunnel, near St John’s Wood. It was originally called Eyre’s Tunnel because it went through land belonging to Richard Eyre. Today, more people refer to it as Lisson Grove after the name of the road that passes above. Often mistaken for a bridge, Eyre’s Tunnel is only 52 yards (48 metres) and has a towpath that was once used by horses and tractors.
The third tunnel on Regent’s Canal was Islington Tunnel, which was completed in 1818. At 960 yards (878 m), the tunnel, which travels under Angel, Islington, was built by the canal’s engineer, James Morgan. When Morgan began the project, he had little knowledge of locks and tunnels, so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to hold a design competition.
Advertisements were placed in August 1812 for the competition with a 50-guinea (£52.50) prize for the winner. William Jessop (1745-1814), who had designed the Grand Canal of Ireland, was invited to judge the entries along with two engineers, Ralph Walker (1749-1824) and Nicholson. Unfortunately, the competition was not as successful as they had hoped and they only received a handful of entries. Although the prize was awarded, the designs were not considered suitable, therefore, the project fell to Morgan once again.
By 1816, the company were low on funds, so work had to temporarily cease on the tunnel. Before then, Morgan had also discovered the construction of the tunnel was not as easy as he had hoped. To begin with, there were protests from landowners to overcome before work could commence. To dig the tunnel, men had to be lowered down on shafts with their equipment, which added to the cost of the project. The tunnel also needed to be straight for boats to pass through easily, which was a difficult thing to achieve. Although slow, progress was going well until they neared the other side where the earth was a lot less stable than Morgan had anticipated. It was at this point the company’s money ran out.
The company needed at least a further £200,000 to complete the tunnel and canal but had no means of raising the money. Fortunately, a chance meeting with the Society for the Relieving of the Manufacturing Poor resulted in talks about government loans and providing opportunities for poor people to work on the canal’s construction. Following this discussion, the Poor Employment Act was passed in 1817 followed by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. On behalf of the commissioners, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who had built canals in Shropshire, was sent to survey the canal’s construction progress. After reading his report, the commissioners agreed to provide the company with a loan of £200,000 if they could raise at least £100,000 in match funding.
Finally, work on the tunnel and canal was able to continue and was opened on 1st August 1820. Islington Tunnel alone had cost £40,000 to build, making it the most expensive section of Regent’s Canal.
Islington Tunnel has no towpath, so before motors were added to the boats, they had to be legged through. This was extremely hard work due to the length of the tunnel and people were grateful when the steam chain tug was invented in 1826 to pull the narrowboats along – although some complained of almost being gassed out in the tunnel!
Due to the length of the tunnel, it was not as simple for the horses, and later tractors, to meet the boat at the other end. To help people find their way, towpath link waymarkers were placed on the pavements for people to follow. By following the waymarkers, people are taken up Duncan Street, through Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road into Chapel Market, then through Penton Street, Maygood Street and Muriel Street where they finally rejoin the towpath.
Today, the canal is less busy than it was in its early years and is no longer used for commercial purposes, except for short boat trips near Camden. Whereas narrowboats tended to be owned and worked by the poorer people of London, it is the richer citizens that own them now for pleasure. Yet, the history of the canal will not be forgotten thanks to the London Canal Museum, which has collected personal records and memories of those who used to live by and work on the canal. There are plenty of happy memories but also stories about the dangers of the canal.
For a small fee, visitors can explore the London Canal Museum and learn about the background of England’s canals and the introduction of canals to London, including information about locks and horses. As well as this there are exhibits of painted items belonging to narrowboats and decorative pottery, a history of the life on the canal and examples of narrowboats and barges, including Coronis, which visitors are welcome to enter. Also, there is a history of Carlo Gatti’s icehouse that once stood on the site.
Of course, there is no better way to explore the canals than by walking along the towpath. If you do, look at the architecture of the bridges and tunnels, marvel at the engineering of the locks and enjoy seeing the narrowboats going past, all the while remembering the work that went into the canal’s construction.
The London Canal Museum is usually open Tuesdays to Sunday (Friday – Sunday at the moment due to Covid-19) from 10 am-4:30 pm. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £2.50 for children between 5-15 years old.