House of Frankenstein

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.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Advertisement

The Roman Baths

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.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Astronomers’ House

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).


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Best Address in Bath

“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.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Jane Austen’s Bath

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.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Tudors to Windsors (Part Two, Georgians to Windsors)

Continued from Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

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.

George IV (reigned 1820-30)

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.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Making of a Saint

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.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

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).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

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.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

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.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

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!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

London’s Canals

museum-waterside

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.

118625284_10220290866253242_1640991680655946000_o

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.

118652919_10220290870973360_8030926441496325164_o

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.

62bd98264258a2bf56959366fbf6f172
Legging in Islington Canal Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal, c.1916

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).

waterways1-1

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.

Operation of caisson lock

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.

Camden Lock

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!

Islington Tunnel Waymarker

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.

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The History of Gardening

The Garden Museum, housed in the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London, is Britain’s only museum of the art, history and design of gardens. The church, adjacent to Lambeth Palace on the South Bank of the River Thames, was deconsecrated in 1972 and scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, the building was saved when a tomb belonging to two 17th-century royal gardeners and plant hunters John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638) and the Younger (1608-62) was discovered in the churchyard. John and Rosemary Nicholson who found the tomb were inspired to turn the building into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardening.

The main section of the museum is on the first floor, which has been added to the main body of the church. The collection includes a wealth of information about the history of gardening and displays a collection of tools, art and other ephemera.

The Garden Museum

What constitutes a garden? Areas of land can be private, public, designed or wild, however, what makes it a garden is the activity within it. Gardens are usually maintained, cultivated or used for public and private enjoyment and recreation. The history of gardens begins in 1600, towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, when John Tradescant, the first great gardener, began his career, however, it was only the wealthy that could afford such privileges.

It was during the 18th and 19th century when the general public began enjoying their private gardens. Whilst farming has been a necessity throughout time, gardening for pleasure has increased rapidly over the last few centuries. Flower Shows began emerging in the North, the first taking place in Norwich in 1843; the show was dedicated to chrysanthemums. Three years later, the craze had spread across the rest of Britain.

Prizes were awarded at Flower Shows for various achievements. Gardeners competed for best flowers, biggest vegetables, neatest gardens and so forth. To begin with, these were held in small communities but today, some competitions have reached a national scale.

Advice for gardeners began being printed and distributed as early as 1826 when the first gardening magazine, The Gardener’s Magazine, was established. Initially, this was targetted at the gardeners of country estates but it soon found a more general readership. Taking advantage of this, The Amateur Gardening Magazine was founded in 1884, providing advice about plants, soil and seasons. The magazine is still published today.

Other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon, producing magazines such as The Garden Home Journal (1907), Understanding Gardening (1960s) and The Woolworth Gardener (1950s). The latter was published by Woolworths, then Britain’s biggest seller of seeds and bulbs. It included advice from many professional gardeners and boasted that it was “a guide to successful gardening for all“.

From the mid-to-late 20th century, gardening advice moved to televisions with programmes such as Gardeners’ World in 1969. The show was presented by Percy Thrower (1913-88) who had been professionally gardening since the age of 18. Thrower was known for his early work at Windsor Castle, promoting the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War, and designing the Blue Peter garden. In 1974, Thrower created the Master Gardener Series, providing simple guides about sowing seeds and other gardening tips.

Percy Thrower died in 1988, however, his legacy lives on in the continuation of Gardeners’ World and the introduction of other gardening programmes, such as Ground Force (1997-2002).

Growing flowers was by no means a new concept in Britain. People had kept window boxes and bought cut flowers from markets to display in their homes for hundreds of years before they began maintaining larger gardens. From the late 19th century, however, owning a garden was not just about growing plants, they became places of leisure. Croquet and lawn tennis became popular and children used gardens as a space to play and invent numerous games.

Around the same time, novelty items began to appear in gardens, for instance, the garden gnome and, later, pink flamingoes. Today, garden centres are full of traditional and contemporary sculptures specifically designed to stand on lawns or hide in flowerbeds. Since the mid-20th century, children’s playthings: swings, slides, climbing frames; have dominated lawns. Unfortunately, due to the modernisation of towns and cities, not everyone has the opportunity to own a private garden.

Fortunately, the lack of a garden does not prevent people from enjoying flowers and plants. Cut flowers have been available in London since Covent Garden Market opened in the 1630s. As modes of transport improved, different types of flowers became available at the market, for instance, daffodils from Lincolnshire, violets from Devon and, by the 1900s, carnations from southern France.

Today, florists sell flowers from all over the world, particularly from Holland. In Britain, the changing seasons control which plants can be grown throughout the year, however, thanks to air travel, it is possible to order whatever cut flowers we desire, whenever we want. The majority of roses sold in Britain, for instance, come from Kenya.

Statistically, Britain has the least native flora than any country in Europe other than Ireland. From as early as the 16th century, “plant hunters” were sent to other countries to discover foreign plants and introduce them to Britain. Snowdrops and tulips were found in the Ottoman Empire and Sunflowers arrived from Central America. Later, in the 19th century, explorers found rhododendrons and wisteria in the Himalayas.

Some of these expeditions were funded by aristocrats who wished to show off exotic plants in their gardens. Other trips were arranged for scientific reasons by the government. The plants that were gathered were brought to the botanical gardens at Kew where botanists could learn about the foreign flora and their potential economic and medical properties.

Buried in the gardens of the church/museum is Vice-Admiral William Bligh (1754-1817) who captained the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty in 1789. His main task was to transplant the breadfruit from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies as cheap but nutritious food for slaves. The breadfruit had been found when Captain James Cook (1728-79) had sailed to Tahiti in 1769. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the founder of the Botanic Gardens at Kew, who travelled with Cook was intrigued by this “miracle food” that bore fruit for seven months of the year. The fruit could also be easily stored and dried so that it was available for the remaining five months.

At 22 years of age, Bligh accompanied Cook on his final voyage where Cook, unfortunately, was killed on the island of Hawaii. Due to his experience at sea, Bligh was chosen by Banks to captain HMS Bounty and transplant the breadfruit tree. During a five-month stay in Tahiti, Bligh and two gardeners collected a thousand cuttings of the breadfruit, however, they never managed to transport them to the West Indies. Led by Fletcher Christian (1764-93), some of the Bounty’s crew decided to take over the ship. Unable to regain control of the mutineers, Bligh and his loyal sailors rowed over 4000 miles to safety.

Fortunately, Bligh was able to return to Tahiti in 1793 aboard HMS Providence. This time, the ship reached Jamaica with 1,281 breadfruit plants. Today, the plants grow abundantly across the Caribbean.

Bligh went on to serve in the Napoleonic wars before becoming the Governor of New South Wales, Australia in 1806. Unfortunately, due to his sympathetic attitude towards the poor settlers, he was overthrown by the rich colonists. Bligh returned to England where he eventually died at home in Bond Street, London in 1817. He was buried in a tomb at St Mary’s, which had been built for his wife Betsy.

1996-2392-rich-and-cooling-1

Initially, it was only the aristocracy that could afford to purchase the plants that explorers like Cook and Bligh collected, however, in the 18th century, nurseries were set up where the general public could purchase the seeds to sow in their private gardens. These nurseries were the precursor to today’s garden centres.

Unlike the nurseries, garden centres can assist with landscaping as well as maintaining plants. Garden design is believed to be one of the most challenging forms of design. The designer must understand the properties of plants and soils as well as be able to imagine aesthetically pleasing spaces. Garden designers are not only responsible for the positioning of plants but also walls, paths and features, such as ponds and fountains.

swscan00219

Plan of the Eden Project, 1998

Garden design can be studied as a profession, although many people save money by designing their family gardens. Public gardens, however, need the attention of professionals to make them safe as well as attractive for visitors. As an example, the museum displays a copy of Dominic Cole’s (b.1957) design for the Eden Project.

“Tools make the garden. We, the gardeners, may dream and scheme to our heart’s content, but with no more than our bare hands we can’t proceed far down the garden path with our imagined garden plan. We can’t even begin to make the path.”
– Christopher Thacker, garden historian

To design and maintain a garden properly, the gardener needs to have access to the right tools. Today, standard tools can be found in all good garden centres and DIY shops, however, in the 17th century, tools were made specifically for individual gardeners. For years, most gardeners relied on hand tools, however, techniques began to change in the 19th century.

In 1830, Edwin Budding invented the first lawnmower. Up until then, grass was cut using scythes or even sheep, but Budding, inspired by a factory machine for cutting cloth, developed a way to make maintaining lawns much easier.

The introduction of new materials allowed for cheaper and quicker production of garden tools. In the 1960s, the plastic flower pot became popular and plastic was also used to make watering cans. The development of rubber hoses provided an alternative, faster way of watering the garden. Putting the current war on plastic to one side, these inventions made gardening accessible for everyone, regardless of skill.

The museum contains examples of tools throughout the years, examples of seeds, gardening magazines and a wealth of information. Located at various points around the displays are information boards about several people who have contributed to the world of gardening.

Humphry Repton (1752-1818)

800px-portrait_of_humphry_repton

Humphry Repton was the last great English landscape gardener of the 18th century. Born in Bury St Edmunds, Repton was destined for a life as a merchant until he visited the Netherlands where a wealthy Dutch family introduced him to the joys of drawing and gardening. Repton attempted a career as a textile merchant, however, he was unsuccessful and moved to a modest cottage near Romford, Essex. With no secure income to support his wife and four children, 36-year-old Repton turned to garden landscaping.

Repton’s first paid commission was Catton Park in Norwich in 1788. Despite having no experience, he became an overnight sensation. Repton began producing “Red Books” full of watercolours and text to help his clients visualise his proposed designs. The Garden Museum displays one of these books and a brief video showing Repton’s design process.

Sadly, Repton was involved in a carriage accident which left him unable to walk for the final seven years of his life. Fortunately, Repton’s work has secured his name in the history of gardening. Three roads in Romford and Gidea Park, near where he lived in Hare Road (now Main Road), have been named after him: Repton Avenue, Repton Gardens and Repton Drive.

Over the length of his career, Repton produced designs for over 70 grounds of country houses in Britain. These include Crewe Hall, Dagnam Park, Higham’s Park, Kenwood House, the Royal Pavillion, Russell Square in Bloomsbury, Stubbers in North Ockendon, Wanstead Park, Warley Woods, Wembly Park and Woburn Abbey. Jane Austen (1775-1817) referenced Humphry Repton in her novel Mansfield Park.

William Robinson (1838-1935)

William Robinson was an Irish practical gardener who popularised the English cottage garden. He began gardening at an early age when he became the “garden boy” for the Marquess of Waterford at Curraghmore, County Waterford. Following this, he worked for an Irish baronet in Ballykilcavan, County Laois where he was in charge of several large greenhouses. Possibly due to an argument as rumours suggest, Robinson fled to England in 1861 where he found work at the Botanical Gardens of Regent’s Park.

Robinson specialised in native British wildflowers and was sponsored by Charles Darwin (1809-82), David Moore (1808-79) and James Veitch (1792-1863) to become a fellow of the Linnean Society, dedicated to natural history. Robinson left Regent’s Park in 1866 to write for The Gardener’s Chronicle and The Times, and in 1871 he established the gardening journal, The Garden. Contributors to The Garden included John Ruskin (1819-1900), William Morris (1834-96) and Gertrude Jekyll.

Through his magazines and subsequent books, Robinson challenged the traditions of gardening, introducing new ideas, such as the herbaceous border containing a mixture of plants, and the wild garden where sections were allowed to grow naturally without too much interference from the gardener. His concept of the English Flower Garden was influenced by simple cottage gardens once favoured by landscape artists.

“The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures….And as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardener’s should be to keep for us as far as may be, in the fulness of their natural beauty, the living things themselves.”
– William Robinson, The English Flower Garden, 1883

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

(c) Elizabeth Banks; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Jekyll by William Nicholson

Gertrude Jekyll was one of the most influential gardeners of the 20th century. Born in Mayfair, London, Jekyll studied as an artist and became associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement before moving on to designing interiors. In her 40s, she progressed to designing gardens.

Jekyll’s gardens were influenced by the artistic training she had received. She was particularly inspired by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Impressionism and the use of colour. As well as designing over 400 gardens in Britain, Jekyll developed a colour theory, which she published in Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden and other works.

Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), an English architect, partnered with Jekyll who designed the landscapes for his impressive buildings. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood, the house where Jekyll lived in Surrey; Jekyll, of course, created the garden.

Unfortunately, many of Jekyll’s gardens are now lost or destroyed, however, her fame lives on. In 1897, Jekyll won the Victoria Medal of Honour, which was followed by the Veitch Memorial Medal and George Robert White Medal of Honour in 1929. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), a friend of the Jekyll family, used their surname in his famous novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934)

ellenwillmott

“My plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves, I read or write about them.”

In 1892, Ellen Ann Willmott inherited Warley Place at Great Warley in Essex on the death of her father Frederick Willmott. The 33 acres of land had become the family home when they moved there in 1875. When she was 21, Willmott was permitted by her father to plant an alpine garden, which included a gorge and rockery.

Willmott employed 104 male gardeners, insisting that “women would be a disaster in the border”, who helped her to grow more than 100,000 different plant species. Recognised for her efforts, Willmott was elected to the Royal Horticultural Society’s narcissus committee and received the Victoria Medal of Honour – a medal that only two women ever receive, the other being Gertrude Jekyll.

800px-ceratostigma_willmottianum_a

Ceratostigma willmottianum

Expeditions to China and the Middle East were financed by Willmott to bring exotic species to Warley Place. Willmott spent so much money on Warley that she died penniless. Warley Place was abandoned to the wild, although it is now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Ellen Ann Willmott is remembered by over 60 species of flowers, which have either been named after her or Warley Place. Examples include Rosa willottiae, Ceratostigma willmottianum and a species of sea holly nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost”.

Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003)

graham_stuart_thomas

Graham Stuart Thomas

“Whether you look upon gardening as a hobby, a science or an art, the fundamental point returns again and again: that we garden because of the beauty of plants.”
– Graham Stuart Thomas, The Art of Planting, 1984

Graham Stuart Thomas declared he would become a gardener at the age of six when he was given a fuchsia as a gift. At seventeen, he joined the Cambridge Univerity Botanic Garden and then the Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage in 1930. The following year, he became the foreman at the nursery T. Hilling & Co (Hillings) in Surrey.

rose_graham_thomas_img_2912

‘Graham Thomas’ Rose

Whilst working at Hillings, Thomas met Gertrude Jekyll who became his mentor. She taught him how to combine plants into colour patterns and inspired him to collect samples of roses. This led to several books: Old Shrub Roses (1955), Shrub Roses Of Today (1962) and Climbing Roses Old And New (1965).

Thomas began working with the National Trust at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire in 1948. He later worked at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent; Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland; Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire; and Sezincote House, Gloucestershire.

Graham Stuart Thomas is remembered for his many books and a species of honeysuckle and rose have been named in his honour.

John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638)

john_tradescant_the_elder

John Tradescant the Elder was an English gardener and collector. Not much is known about his early life other than he began his career as head gardener to Robert Cecil (1563-1612), 1st Earl of Salisbury at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Following this, Tradescant worked for George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham, remodelling his gardens at New Hall in Essex. Later, in 1630, Tradescant was made the Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms by King Charles I (1600-49).

Tradescant travelled to other countries and continents in search of seeds and bulbs. Places he visited include Arctic Russia (1618), the Levant (1620), the Low Countries (1610 and 1624), and France (1624). As well as looking for plants, Tradescant assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history, that he displayed in a large house known as “The Ark”, which later opened as a museum – the first-ever museum, in fact – to the public: the Musaeum Tradescantianum.

The Ark

The curiosities from “The Ark” are now housed in the Garden Museum, although they have no link to gardening. Tradescant intended the collection to be a representation of the nature, art, religions and ways of life of all nations on earth. Items include an alabaster figurine of St Fiacre, the patron saint of gardening; Roman coins; medallions; reindeer antlers; a cast of a dodo head; shells; and the vertebrae from the spine of a North Atlantic whale.

St Mary-at-Lambeth

A church has been on the same spot on the south bank of the Thames since before the Norman conquest. The crypt of the present building and some of the burials date back over 950 years. The church, whilst not the original, is a combination of medieval and Victorian architecture and is the oldest structure in the London Borough of Lambeth.

A stone tower, dating to 1377 although repaired in the 19th century, is still intact and accessible to visitors. One hundred and thirty-one stairs lead up to the roof of the tower, which provides an impressive view of London.

The churchyard was a place of burial until it was closed in 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place, although many were interred without tombs or monuments. As well as the Tradescant and Captain Bligh, notable names in the churchyard include Anne Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth (née Howard, c.1480-1538), Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk (1443-1524), Richard Bancroft (overseer of the production of the King James Bible, 1544-1610), and Frederick Cornwallis, Archbishop of Canterbury (1713-83).

The Garden Museum is open Monday – Sunday, 10:30 – 17:00. Tickets are £10, although some concessions are available. The entrance fee includes both the museum and the tower. A tower only ticket is available for £3. More information is available on their website: www.gardenmuseum.org.uk


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Valence House – A Place of Discovery

about-us-image-600x400

Listed as one of the top 50 best free things to do in London, Valence House is the only surviving Manor House in Dagenham, East London. In medieval times, Dagenham, Barking and Ilford were part of the Manor of Barking owned by Barking Abbey. Valence House was one of the smaller manors on the land, rented out to generate income for the Abbey. Now a museum, Valence House provides details about the history of the manor house and surrounding lands. The curators have also travelled back much further to the first settlers, explaining how the area developed into the place it is today.

The earliest reference to Valence House is in approximately 1269, however, the first-named inhabitant moved to the property in 1291. This was Agnes de Valence (born 1250), the youngest daughter of William de Valence and Joan de Munchensi (1230-1307). The family had a strong influence on the politics of the 13th century, particularly William de Valance who was the half-brother to Henry III of England and uncle to Edward I. Initially Agnes was married off to an Irish man, however, he died soon afterwards and she returned to England. Agnes was then married off to the Scottish magnate Hugh de Balliol, however, once again, it was not to last. After a third short arranged marriage, Agnes de Valence moved to the manor house, which to this day retains her name.

Nothing is known about Agnes’ life at Valence House or those directly following her, however, by 1435, Barking Abbey had sold the manor of Valence to St Anthony’s Hospital in London (now in the London Borough of Sutton). Four decades later, Edward IV (1442-83), the first Yorkist King, granted the hospital and Valence House to the Dean and Chapter of Windsor. Meanwhile, the house continued to be let out.

image15-fanshawe-375x600

The lease of the house found its way into the hands of the Fanshawe family, whose portraits fill one of the rooms of the museum. Unfortunately, Henry Fanshawe died while his daughter Susanna (1567-1610) was still a baby, leaving the lease of the house to her, which she would gain upon marriage. In 1583, Susanna married Timothy Lucy of Charlecote Park, Warwickshire and moved into Valence House until they sold the lease in 1596 to Sir Nicholas Coote, during which time they had eight children.

wall-painting-full

During redevelopments of the museum in 2008, a sixteenth-century wall painting behind a false wall was discovered. It has been dated to the time that Susanna Lucy may have lived at the manor and is believed to be one of many panels that would have once decorated an entire room. The painting depicts a grotesque satyr-like creature with red hair carrying a basket of fruit on its head. The chains around the legs suggest the satyr is a prisoner or slave.

Whilst the dating of the painting suggests it may have been commissioned by Timothy Lucy, dating a centuries-old painting is a difficult task and some experts suggest that it may have been produced the following century. One of the reasons for this suggestion is the subject matter. Traditionally, satyrs represent lust and boar-like creatures, which also feature in the artwork, represent rudeness and wildness. This is a strange topic for a family man to commission, therefore, it may have been the purchase of a future tenant: Thomas Bonham.

Thomas Bonham (d.1676), a London merchant rented the house from 1635. If his tombstone inside Dagenham Parish Church is anything to go by, Bonham led an aberrant life and was involved in many scandals. On one occasion, both he and his wife ended up spending time in Colchester jail.

Stay wayfarer! Lest you be ignorant who is buried here, it is worth your while to know that it is Thomas Bonham Esquire, Lord of Valentia in Essex. He is ever to be praised and can never, alas, be sufficiently lamented. This marble cannot contain his other virtues, nor indeed scarcely would the quarry itself from which it is hewn.
– Inscription on Thomas Bonham’s tomb

Each new tenant of Valence House modernised the building and landscape. When the estate was leased to Henry Merttins (d.1725), a merchant tailor, in 1719, he remodelled the property to make it more appropriate for his genteel family. The Merttins used Valence House as their main family home, adding fashionably large windows and touches of grandeur. Henry Merttins was a fairly wealthy man – his brother was the Lord Mayor of London, Sir George Merttins (1664-1727) – and when he died in 1725, passed the lease of the house to his son John Henry Merttins (d.1776) who remodelled the east wing of the house and built a new staircase.

In 1776, Henry Merttins Bird (d.1818) became the next tenant of the house. Henry was in full support of the development of the United States of America and liaised with George Washington (1732-1799) after the American War of Independence.

“I presume to offer the services of the house of Henry Merttins Bird, Benjamin Savage & Robert Bird, known under the firm of Bird, Savage, & Bird, American merchants of London, in which I am a partner.”
Henry Merttins Bird in a letter to George Washington

Henry campaigned for trade with the USA to be restored, however, in the early 1800s, his banking company collapsed and he was forced to sell the lease on Valence House.

exhibition1-crop-thomas-and-helen-may-of-valence-house-c.-1900-1910-bd4-452-300x300

Mr and Mrs May of Valence House (c. 1910)

The following tenants included Mrs Greenhill and her eight children, who moved to Australia in 1861 where they also lived in a house called Valence.

In 1879, Thomas May, his wife Helen, six children and mother-in-law Eliza Luxmoore moved into Valence House. A further five children were born whilst living in the manor house, bringing their total up to eleven. Thomas was a farmer and became famous for introducing tomato growing to Dagenham. He also bred shire horses and founded the Essex Foal Show Society. In the walled garden, the May family grew grapes, apricots and peaches in greenhouses. The children loved to play in the gardens, often conducting funerals for and burying their dolls.

When Thomas May died in 1913, the same year as his mother-in-law, the lease was inherited by his eldest son Robert. Unfortunately, the family were forced to move when the London County Council purchased the property in 1921. They moved to Gidea Park where they named their new house Valence. A model of the estate as it looked in 1921 is located in the first room of the museum.

71822041_10217445501600904_6650440877112033280_n

The London County Council purchased Valence House as well as the manor houses of Parsloes, Porters and Jenkins to use the land for its new Becontree Estate housing scheme. All the manor houses were scheduled for demolition, however, Valence House was saved in 1926 when it was purchased by the Dagenham Urban District Council for use as an office. The building was extended to create a council chamber on the first floor of the house. The council remained at the house until 1937 when it became the headquarters of the Borough’s Library Service.

During the Second World War, Valence House became a post for the Air Raid Precautions (ARP). They provided locals with gas masks and ration books, and clothing to those who found themselves homeless. After the war, the Library Service continued to use the premises until 1974 when Valence House opened as a museum of the history of Barking and Dagenham.

image

The oldest exhibit in the museum is a wooden figure known as the Dagenham Idol. It was discovered in 1922 in Dagenham’s marshes and is thought to be the earliest known carving of a human form to be found in Europe. Made from Scots Pine, dendrochronology has revealed that it belongs to the Late Neolithic period, circa 2250 BC, making it a thousand years older than Stonehenge.

Although the Idol proves people lived in the area 4000 years ago, no one knows its true purpose. It was discovered next to a skeleton of a deer, suggesting it had been deliberately buried, perhaps as part of a religious ceremony. It is generally believed the figurine may have been a fertility symbol but for arable farmland rather than people.

The first settlers during the Neolithic age were most likely farmers. The marshes would have been sources of both water and food and the nearby woodlands provided abundant timber for fires and buildings. Little evidence remains from these pre-historic times, however, many changes to the land occurred during the Roman, Saxon and Medieval eras.

The Romans were responsible for the Londinium (London) to Camulodunum (Colchester) road that lies north of Valence House. They established towns in the area, such as Durolitum (Romford) and Uphall Camp (Barking). Roads were gradually built to connect towns and settlements, allowing people to be able to travel more freely.

During the Saxon era, more towns began to appear, including Dagenham and Wanstead, which were followed by many more in the early Medieval period. Barking Abbey was founded in 666 AD by a priest named Erkenwald for his sister Ethelburga. Despite suffering from Viking raids, the Abbey became the owner of the surrounding land, which extended as far as the Parish of All Hallows Barking by the Tower of London.

The abbess of Barking Abbey was given the title of Lord of the Manor, allowing her to control the lives of the inhabitants in Barking and Dagenham. She was in charge of all the farms and manor houses whose earnings went towards the upkeep of the abbey. In 1536, however, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) began the Dissolution of the Monasteries, closing down and seizing religious properties. Barking Abbey survived longer than most because the abbess, Dorothy Barley, was a close friend of the King’s representative. Nonetheless, the abbey was eventually surrendered in 1539.

The Tudor Monarchs gradually sold or gifted the lands once belonging to religious buildings to people within the royal court. Towns developed and spread to accommodate an increasing population. Farmland was replaced with houses, shops, schools and so forth until little evidence remained of the former abbey.

The museum leaps forward in time to the 19th and 20th centuries as visitors progress from the ground floor to the first floor. On the wall of the staircase, illustrations of people demonstrate the changes in fashion over time until, at the very top, it ends with an image of Sir Bobby Moore (1941-93). Moore is one of the famous locals celebrated in the museum. He grew up in Barking and began his football career as captain of Barking Primary School’s football team. In 1958, he joined West Ham and, by the end of his career, he had made 90 appearances as England Captain.

There are a few other sporting legends that have come from Barking or Dagenham. Sir Alf Ramsey (1920-99), for instance, attended Becontree Heath School, and midfielder Terry Venables (b.1943) was born in Valence Avenue, Dagenham. John Terry (b.1980), the assistant manager of Aston Villa F.C. is also a local celebrity.

Other famous faces include comedian Dudley Moore (1935-2002), who attended Dagenham County High School, Eurovision winner Sandi Shaw (Sandra Goodrich, b.1947), Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (b.1935) and Quaker Minister Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845).

The Valence House Museum provides a concise history of the past century, which includes Suffragette activity and a visit from Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) in 1931. Fairs, festivals and pageants were a strong part of Dagenham’s past and attracted thousands of people. In 1931, the Barking Pageant and Industrial Exhibition attracted 200,000 people. Twenty years later, the Dagenham Pageant attracted a similar amount and Valence House was used for some of the festivities.

As previously stated, Valence House was almost demolished to make way for the new Becontree Estate. Although it was saved from such a fate, the Estate plans went ahead and in 1934, 27,000 new houses provided homes for over 100,000 people. Each house contained inside toilets, fitted bathrooms, gas and electricity. In order to maintain the upkeep of the new estate, tenants were issued rule handbooks and the London County Council employed inspectors to check on the standard of housekeeping. Regulations included cleaning windows once a week, scrubbing front and back doorsteps, and keeping gardens neat and tidy. Families who failed to meet these standards risked being evicted from their homes.

In the early 20th century, Dagenham became an industrial area; the complete opposite to the rural farmland it once was. By 1929, Dagenham Dock, which was only twelve miles from London, was a thriving industrial estate. In 1931, the Ford Motor Company opened its factory on the Docks, eventually extending to cover an area of more than 600 acres. By the 1950s, Ford Dagenham was the largest car production plant in Europe and one in three cars on British roads has been made in Dagenham. Soon, the names Ford and Dagenham were synonymous.

Barking was granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1931, which promoted the area to an Essex Borough complete with its own mayor. Dagenham followed suit in 1938. By 1965, London had expanded so much that it claimed both Barking and Dagenham, joining them together as the London Borough of Barking. Naturally, Dagenham residents were upset about the name and eventually persuaded the council to retitle the borough as the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in 1980.


There is so much to take in at Valence House and there is an endless amount of information about the history of Dagenham. Photographs, videos, voice recordings and objects help to tell the story of the borough as well as the bygone days of the manor house. A tiny cinema provides visitors with the chance to sit down and learn a little about particular aspects of the past. The current film comprises five animations about Barking’s industrial heritage and its pungent past. Titled The Barking Stink: A Scented History, the 25-minute film made in collaboration with Thames Festival Trust focuses on Barking’s fishing past, the developing factories and the problem with sewers.

Next to Valence House is the award-winning Herb Garden. Having achieved the Green Flag and London Bloom Awards, the historic garden features a green pergola, box hedging, rose beds and herbs. One section has been transformed into a World War Two ‘Dig for Victory’ Garden, complete with a replica Anderson Shelter.

Valence House also keeps bees and their honey is available for purchase in the gift shop. The Oasis Cafe provides hot and cold lunches, cakes and a variety of drinks, plus the opportunity to rest before or/and after visiting the museum.

Valence Park, which includes the remains of a moat, was once part of the Valence House grounds. As well as a fishing lake, children’s playground and open lawns, the park is full of trees, including the Holm Oak, which has been judged to be one of the greatest trees in London. Other trees include the tulip tree, a ginkgo biloba, an English Oak and an ancient coppiced hazel.
Free to visit, Valence House is a fantastic place for people of all ages. There are activities to keep children interested, fascinating information about the area, and a walk down memory lane for older people. The house and cafe are open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and free parking is available in Valence Park.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!