Category Archives: 17th Century London

The Royal Society (1660)

Hooke entertaining friends to dinner - Copy.jpg

On this day in 1660 was founded the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, nowadays generally known simply as the Royal Society.  The purpose of the Society, according to its Charter, was and is “To improve the knowledge of all natural things, and all useful Arts, manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engines and Inventions by Experiments – (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar [or spelling, presumably], Rhetorick or Logick)”.

The founder members of the Society included Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Robert Moray, John Wilkins, and William, Viscount Brouncker.   Christopher Wren was an architect and a  member of an aristocratic family who had finally found favour in the Restoration, after years in the wilderness during the Protectorate and Commonwealth.  He was also an anatomist and astronomer (one wonders whether he, like Sartre’s autodidact, acquired his learning by reading an encyclopaedia, starting with the letter “A”); a follower of the “New Philosophy” of Francis Bacon; and, in short, an archetypal (English) Renaissance Man.    Hooke was another architect, who worked alongside Wren on the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire of 1666.  He was also a pioneer microscopist and polymath, although curmudgeonly as well as brilliant, and memorably described by  Samuel Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”.

The Society’s first meetings were held at Gresham College, founded by a bequest by the financier and philanthropist Thomas Gresham, on the site of his house on Bishopsgate (now occupied by Tower 42).   Available to it here was not only a  room for its meetings, but also a separate room for its anniversary elections, another for its Repository and Museum of Curiosities, a Gallery, and a Great Hall.  Meetings were temporarily suspended in 1665 on account of the outbreak of Plague, and then temporarily moved to Arundel House after the Great Fire of 1666, when  the business of Gresham’s Exchange (the Royal Exchange), which had been burnt down, was moved to Gresham College, which had survived.

The Society’s meeting place and headquarters was later at Crane Court, from 1710-1780, at Somerset House,  from 1780-1857, and at Burlington House, from 1857-1967, and  has been at Carlton House Terrace since 1967.

London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

The Frozen Thames in 1677

On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.

Further records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Steps (1684).jpg

In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney.

Frost Fair in 1814.jpg

And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had  nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

“An Emporium for many Nations”

Cheapside-procession-of-Marie-de-Medici-1638-sepia-resized

Yesterday I attended the 53rd annual Local History Conference of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in the Museum of London, which featured seven talks and an additional  number of poster presentations on the theme of “An Emporium for many Nations” – London shaped by trade.

The highlight for me was the talk by Dr John Price of Goldsmiths’, University of London, on “Porters, sugar boilers, stone cutters and surgeons: trades in London on the eve of the Great Fire”.

Price demonstrated that the commonest occupations in London in 1666, based on Hearth Tax returns pertaining to 2000 householders (out of a total of 39000), were, in decreasing order, Merchant-Tailor, Seaman, Goldsmith, Victualler, Shoemaker, Silkman, Cooper, Haberdasher, Alehouse-Keeper, Porter, Draper, Druggist, Apothecary, Joiner, Tobacconist, Skinner, Vintner, Fishmonger, Blacksmith, Chandler, Barber, Bookseller, Carpenter and Clothworker (*).   He  also  demonstrated a certain amount of occupational zoning, with, for example, mercantile and ancillary trades concentrated in the parishes of St Gabriel Fenchurch, All Hallows Staining and St Katherine Coleman, in the area between  Leadenhall Market and Aldgate; and jewellery, luxury goods and book trades, in the parishes of St Botolph Aldersgate, St Anne and Agnes and St Martin-le-Grand, in the area around Cheapside and St Paul’s.

The  Hearth Tax dataset that formed the basis of his analysis may be accessed  through the “British History Online” website.

(*) Incidentally, the Baker Thomas Farriner, of the parish of St Margaret New Fish Street, is recorded in the returns as having five hearths in his household, and also one oven – the fateful one in which the Great Fire of London was to break out on the night of 1st/2nd September, 1666!

The Battle of Turnham Green (1642)

The battle of Turnham Green

Image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (www.lookandlearn.com)

The Battle of Turnham Green, in the English Civil War, took place on this day in 1642.

The site of the battle is marked by a series of informative plaques.  According to the plaques, after losing the Battle of Brentford on November 12th, 1642, the Parliamentarians took up a strategic defensive position at Turnham Green, with their left flank protected by the river, and their right by a series of enclosures.  It was here that the following day  they  essentially faced down the Royalists, who found themselves unable to manoeuvre past, in one of the largest-ever confrontations on English soil (albeit a substantially bloodless one), involving some 40000 troops.   This was a decisive moment in the history of the war, the country, and its  capital.

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The Battle of Brentford (1642)

The Battle of Brentford, in the English Civil War, took place on this day in 1642 …

Monument

Informative plaque

The site of the battle is marked by a granite memorial and by a series of informative plaques.

According to the plaques, what happened here was as follows:

“Parliamentarians had arrived in the prosperous market town on Friday 11 November.  The following day the royalists marched from Hampstead Heath and in the early afternoon broke through a parliamentary barricade at the bridge over the Brent.  Near this information panel, the royalists were delayed, fighting two or three hours until the parliamentarian soldiers fled.  This position was defended by about 480 of Lord Brooke’s regiment and survivors of the earlier fighting, with two small pieces of artillery. The royalists soon gained the upper hand.  There seem to have been no civilian dead despite the capture of the town.  About 20 royalists were killed, and perhaps 50 parliamentarians died in the fighting with more drowning in the Thames.  Parliamentary Captain John Lilburne was amongst those captured”.

And what happened next was as follows:

“Later that afternoon the royalists pressed on towards London.  There were more parliamentary troops in a large open area, probably Turnham Green and Chiswick’s Common Field.  These green-coated men of John Hampden’s regiment of foot charged five times, holding the royalists back.  But with night coming and the royalists exhausted from fighting both sides disengaged.  The royalist soldiers who had captured Brentford ransacked the town … The Battle of Turnham Green took place the following day”.

John Gwyn, a royalist soldier, wrote:

“We beat them from one Brainford to the other, and from thence to the open field, with … resolute and expeditious fighting, …  push of pike and the butt-end of muskets, which proved so fatal to Holles’ butchers and dyers that day”.

Map

The Lord Mayor’s Parade (Bassompierre, 1626)

The Lord Mayor's Show in 1746, by Canaletto.jpg

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London …

On this day in 1626, the visiting Alsatian Chevalier de Bassompierre wrote in his journal:

November 9th, which is the election of the Mayor, I came in the morning to Sommerset [House] to meet the Queen [Henrietta Maria], who had come to see him go on the Thames on his way to Westminster to be sworn in, with a magnificent display of boats.  Then the Queen dined, and afterwards got into her coach and placed me at the same door with her.  The Duke of Boukinham [Buckingham] also by her commands got into her coach, and we went into the street called Shipside [Cheapside] to see the ceremony, which is the greatest that is made for the reception of any officer in the world.  While waiting for it to pass, the Queen played at primero with the Duke, the Earl of Dorchit [Dorset] and me; and afterwards the Duke took me to dine with the Lord mayor, who that day gave a dinner to more than 800 persons”.

London prepares for Civil War (Giovanni Giustiniani, 1642)

The Civil War star fort at Vauxhall, as depicted in c. 1800.jpg

On this day in 1642, Giovanni Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador to the court of Charles I, wrote in a letter to the Doge and Senate of Venice:

“They do not cease to provide with energy for the defence of London … .  They have sent a number of parliamentarians to the surrounding provinces with instructions to get together the largest numbers they can of their trained bands, with the intention of despatching these subsequently to where the remains of the parliamentary army are quartered.  They have brought a number of the companies of these trained bands … into this city.  All the troops are kept constantly at arms.  There is no street, however little frequented, that is not barricaded …, and every post is guarded … .  At the approaches to London, they are putting up trenches and small forts of earthwork [“Lines of Communication”], at which a great number of people are at work, including the women and … children.  They have issued a new manifesto to the people full of the usual representations against the … king, for the purpose of arousing their enthusiasm still more in the support of this cause”.

George Vertue's plan of London's Civil War defences.jpg