No.5 Dear Bloody England. ‘Half Spam Half Biscuit’ or ‘A Builder formerly known as Prince’


John Betjeman loved Cornwall. His impassioned lyric ‘Cornish Cliffs’ runs

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles, With, as the everlasting ocean rolls, Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Today, 25-strong congregations have more than halved. The once bustling, cold, drafty, splendidly galleried chapels have thankfully been saved, converted for domestic use. Small fields too are being lost as piecemeal development has pushed the towns into the surrounding, poorly protected, green belts. Predictably the ocean stills rolls in but now laps against a changing coastal landscape where the ‘…wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills’ are at risk to scattered developments looking out onto horizons of wind turbines.

Split pediment with en-suite garage

Split pediment with en-suite garage

Close to the north Cornish coast, at Newquay, is Tregunnel Hill, a new eco-spam-development being built in phases by the Duchy of Cornwall. It is a cut-and-paste version of Poundbury near Dorchester, alien to the surrounding landscapes and unconvincing in its conception and design. It is in fact the polar opposite of Betjeman’s idyllic, calm, green, ‘Cornish lanes [that] lead inland to a usual Cornish scene, Slate cottages with sycamore between’.

And this is the main problem, there is nothing ‘usual’ about Tregunnel Hill. There are no slate cottages, no Cornish lanes, in fact nothing indigenous to Cornwall other than some locally sourced materials, mostly slate, that weatherproofs buildings like the bizarre Deco inspired, part rusticated, commercial style, mid-European office block.  Alongside this piece of retro-modernism (and dwarfed by comparison) is a Spamadian town house, shamelessly cribbed from the Palladio inspired early 18th-century Enys house in Truro (below).

5.1       5.4

There is more than a hint of Dorset cookie in this Duchy Original, indeed the builders C.G. Fry & Son and Morrish Builders have worked on Poundbury − the very antidote to the Hardyesque − for many years now. Within seconds of arrival at Tregunnel the Dorset comparisons shout loud. The council house model  with poor stone to glass ratios and beach hut style porches, house’s so cramped in plan that ‘bolt on’ chimneys are needed for articulation, the playschool house, the slate hung house, the ever-so-slightly-but-no-so-you-would-notice Georgian pastiche house and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Classic Colonial. Throughout the development we get glimpses of the same Chamberesque or Adamesque details that Captain Poldark (if we were passing through to see his cousins at Trenwith. Or should that be Chevanage!) would do a double take at.

5.3Amongst these styles there is no hint of the locality, no touches of Cornish vernacular, no place for a take on the Cornish engine house. Sad that. Clive Aslet in the Daily Telegraph (15 July 2008) wrote

‘Then there is the vexed question of architecture. Hugh Petter of Robert Adam Architects has drawn up a detailed pattern book of the Cornish vernacular, showing the type of house features that builders might adopt’.

What happened there then? Were they stolen? Sold by those ruthless bastards, the Warleggan’s no doubt, to raise money for their failing mines? Whatever happened, these invaluable designs were clearly never used, to the detriment of the overall design.

Of course, in the spirit of balance, it’s not all bad. The masterplan for the site works well. Hatched by the Prince’s Foundation and the wild-haired architectural theorist and urban planner Leon Krier, well over a decade ago, the scheme was produced by Adam Urbanism and endorsed by Cornwall Council in 2011. The vistas are good at times and when fully landscaped will, I am sure, become more sympathetic in its surroundings. The houses look onto the busy road into the town which adds some much needed character to Newquay’s approach.

5.2Experiencing Tregunnel Hill has prompted me to publish my first (and possibly last) ever poem entitled ‘The Song of the Cornish Vernacular’ which has been inspired by heroic Arthurian legend and the inappropriate use of heroic characters as non-heroic names of houses that inhabit the development.

Camelot, Carlion and Pellam, King of Listeneise.

Galahad, Normandy, Merlin and Morgause.

Saracen, a Pagan ripe to convert.

Good Knight Dinadan, with garage and forecourt.

Princely New Urbanism near the coast it doth sit.

This Duchy Original sure takes the biscuit.

Clearly I am no poet. My poem hardly rhymes, nor does it have good metre or alliteration. It has no emotion, conveys little meaning and relies on repetition to achieve incantatory effect. Nonetheless, it is a poem in the same way that Tregunnel is a mixed use estate.

My poem’s purpose is not to say that everything in is past was great nor to decry everything since is crap. It is not to hark back on some utopian Betjemanic state that only existed on the words of a page. Nor is it to gracefully and respectively suggest that some ducal architectural critic and theorist has turned poacher. Rather I am conveying a real concern that good architecture now appears less important to people than it did in the past. Such developments trivialises good design and by merely mimics the past but not in a good way. My questions include − what identity does Tregunnel Hill bring to Cornwall? Arguably little, as this development could be in Dorchester, Ayrshire, Herefordshire or Gloustershire. Is Tregunnel for the many? No Tregunnel is for the few. It is a product of those who perceive that good architecture is no more important than any other commodity.

It is therefore sentimentalist spam, mock-heroic Arthurian sentimentalist spam, but sentimentalist spam nonetheless.

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No.4 Dear Bloody England. ‘Heritage in the Rail Age II’


DBE2 Architecture is consumable −as with any used and abused everyday product decay is inevitable and authenticity fated. John Betjeman was wise to such philosophy when, in 1960, he wrote ‘Heritage of the Rail Age’ in the Daily Telegraph. Apparent in his writing was his blind-passion for the Euston Arch, Philip Hardwick’s 1837 granite monolith that became a symbol, for many, of the railway’s magnitude. The futility of his campaign to save the arch however became evident in December 1961 when the arch was demolished.

Of course the Euston arch was more symbolic than useful, in reality it was a monstrous exaggeration, a sculptural form even, of what was practically needed. Betjeman was acutely aware of the many thousands of utilitarian buildings that served as foot soldiers to the ever expanding railway infrastructure, indeed these signal boxes, waiting rooms and ticket offices can still be seen from any window of any train as it races between station to station.

As I write I am travelling along the Great Western Railway, passing over Brunel’s awe-inspiring Royal Albert Bridge across the river Tamar (1859) from Plymouth, Devon, into Saltash, Cornwall (above).  As the rail tracks touch Cornish soil for the first time so the train adopts more pedestrian pace, the guard dons his Bermuda shorts and flip-flops and begins to hum ‘Happy days are here again’. The increased volume of animated conversation in the carriage is palpable. Yet, the euphoria is short lived. Excitement gives way to anxiety. Hushed tones, sombre even, are assumed as the train pulls into Saltash. Commuters that only two minutes prior where gazing in wonder up- and down-stream of the river Tamar devoid of all discontent thoughts, now fretfully overt their eyes away from the carriage window towards fellow commuters, the roof, the ceiling, anything to avoid the embarrassment of connecting with the shameful sight on land.

DBE3

Adjoining the grade 1 listed bridge, Saltash ticket office and waiting room (c.1860) was once a handsome, modest, almost toll-like, building that once facilitated travellers to purchase an onward ticket towards Paddington or Penzance (above). Today, the building is on its knees, derelict, a blemish on the picturesque scenery that surrounds it. Then a comforting lodge-gate into Cornwall today a neglected and unloved ruin. Horticulture grows through the roof, slates have fallen, windows smashed or bricked-up, Harris fencing surrounds the site as it has for the last decade. A sense of relief is felt as the train pulls out of the station.

DBE1The mood lifts at St Germans, where a beautifully restored station graces the platform (left); alongside, stranded, redundant and recycled rail carriages now function as holiday lets. From the mainline we get all too fleeting glimpses of Port Eliot, the magnificent home of the Eliot family, where John Soane, Henry Harrison and Robert Lenkiewicz all applied their respective trades and William Moyle’s mid-16th century almshouses.

From Liskeard the train follows the magnificent Glynn Valley, densely wooded at times, constantly dotted with the remnants of Cornwall’s agricultural past, buildings built around need, incidental to the landscape. To the right we cheat glimpses of Lord Vivian’s mansion house of Glynn, an early 19th century pile rebuilt after a fire before, pulling into Bodmin Parkway where the old signal box now feeds and water weary travellers and the neglected, over scaled, bridge looms overhead.

DBE5Onwards, the Fowey Valley flows seamlessly on from the Glynn. Its beauty is incomprehensible. At Restormel −look up and you see the Black Prince’s spectacular medieval castle ruins, look down to see the charming Gothic Duchy house. At St Austell something is amiss. The character of the station has been ripped apart with the removal of the Victorian Ruskinian bridge (above) and the installation of a space-age ‘off the shelf’ bridge from ‘Bridges R Us’ (below).  It is a real shame. On the left, the ancient church spire and town, to the right well-to-do Victorian merchant and banker houses, handy for the train station, yet, dominating the skyline is a flimsy, soulless, characterless, bridge which does nothing to enhance the heritage of the of the rail age.

DBE4

Regardless the train rolls on. The Gothic cathedral of St Mary dominates the Truro vista from the viaduct before the train docks into the handsome Victorian station. We depart simultaneously with the branch line to Falmouth, behind us a patchwork of agricultural and pasture lands, ahead the patina of a mineral rich landscape. Here engine houses stand as ‘memorials to Trevithick and Hornblower’, church towers punctuate a landscape dotted with small killas rubble and granite cottages. The line hugs the fringes of large landed estates as it weaves and rises through the countryside, a landscape that  Betjeman described as ‘undeveloped’ −but for how long? We can only wonder as the Cornish planners work hand-in-glove with national developers to scar and build over this unspoilt land in an attempt to add 50,000 new homes to the county.

This journey has made me realise that rail heritage is still being diluted., as it was when Betjeman wrote 55 years ago. The architecture, the infrastructure, the views, all eroding before our eyes, a casualty of changing needs and opinions. At St Erth station Network Rail plan to rid themselves of the antiquated historic bridge in favour of a sleek, anonymous, affair with lifts in the towers, identical to the one we saw at St Austell. Along the route we have witnessed tangible neglect and inappropriate interventions, but now the few of us left in the carriage marvel at St Michael’s Mount honing into view, a glorious scene, undoubtedly one of the best in England. With a quickening pulse the train reaches the western terminus, Brunel’s sheds at Penzance, 305 miles from Paddington, London.

 

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No.3 Dear Bloody England. ‘Carry on Poundbury’.


There are 28,000 architects on the Royal Institute of British Architects database – 8,000 more than in 1960 when John Betjeman wrote ‘Contemporary without Conscience’ in the Daily Telegraph.  His article discussed the state of the architectural profession as it was then, he concluded with the statement ‘…it’s about time people thought of building as architecture and not simply as style’. However, such a notion was far from new. Mutterings along the same lines had been heard a century earlier when the ongoing fragmentation of the arts was the backdrop that prompted E.W. Godwin, and later Richard Norman Shaw and T.G. Jackson, to defend architecture as a professed art. Betjeman merely re-energised the same discussion for a whole new generation and today the topic warrants further prodding, particularly in light of the demand for new homes and supporting infrastructures.

P1080841Poundbury, a New Urbanist extension on the edge of Dorchester, is a good barometer to gauge this thorny relationship between architecture and style. It is a lexicon of random architectural flavours that holistically form an eclectic museum of chocolate box Hardyesque, red brick and limestone Romanesque, Dorset Dutch, Pimlico pub, mercantile 2nd French Empire, Gin Lane Georgian and east coast Richardson American Gothic. Sadly early-English Gothic, middle pointed and perpendicular are not represented however historical continuity has not been overlooked, as faux blind windows have been installed to suggest the development was once a victim of David Cameron’s harsh window tax. With such a disorderly confection of historic building types Poundbury resembles a film set worthy of the Prisoner however unlike Portmeirion no entry fee is demanded. Some might argue that this is a missed opportunity.

P1080839But it’s not fooling anyone. This is car crash architecture. A compendium of methodological fancy, an Alice-in-Hardy Country theme park where 1,000 years of architectural terms have been put into a black velvet bag, mixed furiously and drawn at random – ‘No.65 Flemish roof, No.43 late Georgian P1080836glazing bars, No.6 off the shelf Ionic columns, No.12 Colonial balcony’ – and then feverishly built. The consequence slaps the face with the wet haddock of poor architecture pastiche.  Symptoms follow; first overwhelming dizziness leading to confusion; then acute happiness followed by devastating sadness and finally a sense of fearfulness and disappointment, all within sight of the A35 Dorchester by-pass.

But stop. Wait. Surely this is better than the impersonal pattern-book developments that we see endless examples of up- and down-the-country? Yes, those mass produced developments that draw on half-baked local architectural influences such as half-timbering, slate-hangings and fibreglass chimneys with bolt on pots. Poundbury is, up to a point, better than this. It is three-dimensional at least. The vistas can, at times, pull you in. Momentarily, at least, pedestrians can imagine being in leafy Georgian London, or in New England, Amsterdam, Bruges.  Yet, this is short lived as the attractive vistas are soon compromised by mews of local authority wheelie bins, untreated plastic drainpipes, shocking -pink front doors, cheap brass hardware and economy balconies that you wouldn’t allow your aged grandmother to set foot upon for fear of collapse.

P1080848Poundbury therefore bears some similarities to Poundland. Both have vast variety, are piled high but lack quality, they have humour and just a hint of appeal – yet, you leave with nothing other than being slightly embarrassed and a touch disturbed. But that’s New Urbanism for you – surprising but inconsistent.

But is this architecture art?  And does the artist here create style? No, because it is all so misplaced.  Betjeman wrote ‘Great architecture is timeless’. Poundbury is still being built but it is already dated, tired, dazed and confused. It does not sit together as a whole. Pastiche and mimicry is one thing, but Poundbury simply has no style, its’s rude and tasteless, an architectural double entendre, it’s ‘Carry on Architecture’.

Another Duchy of Cornwall production albeit on a much smaller scale is currently being built on the east side of Truro in Cornwall, its centrepiece is a new Waitrose store (no surprise there) disguised as a Georgian mansion with the Classical orders and wooshy doors. Perhaps a Batty Langley inspired unit will house the recycling skips? Or a Soanian pavilion the trolleys. The trouble is that if this was the case it would not come as a surprise.

Today the RIBA campaigns to #Build a Better Britain. The new question is whether new developments like Poundbury or Truro East are building a better Britain or are they just creating a stage set that mimics the past? Here architects are building a Utopian world where sentimentalism is king. For many, me included, such a lost world should not be resurrected. Image Charlton Heston galloping across Chesil Beach in the last scene of Planet to the Apes. He arrives at a desolate and derelict Poundbury. How on earth will he know what country he is in? Or what age it’s from? This is the problem with Sentimentalism. It is neither architecture nor style; it is not the product of our age.

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No.2 Dear Bloody England. ‘Bridges’


© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Betjeman was indifferent towards bridges. Whether cast iron or post-war concrete, or from the first Elizabethan age or the second, he was always happy to proffer an astute observation or informed opinion. One such remark opened his 1960 Daily Telegraph article ‘Bridges Elegant or Ugly’ when he wrote ‘It is difficult to make a bridge look ugly, though this rare feat has been achieved in the viaducts over the M1’.

Although principals of bridge construction have changed little over the past millennium, since the Industrial Revolution the aesthetics of connecting railways and roads across rivers and valleys has progressed enormously. Nowhere is the relationship between design and function more profound than in the bridge and nowhere is this better explored than in Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a sibling rivalry’ (Yale, 2007).

Public bridge building flourished in the 18th century, examples such as Westminster Bridge (Charles Lebelye, 1739) and Pulteney Bridge in Bath (Robert Adam, 1769) connected people with commerce and village with town. But Betjeman took a greater interest in private bridges, manmade structures that complimented nature and landscape, he wrote ‘What is more natural than that an English nobleman should want a round-arched bridge…over the river or lake in his park’. For grace and poise there is no better example of how architecture and civil engineering hit head-on than the nobleman’s Palladian bridge, for many the high water mark of English bridge building. Perhaps the finest is Blenheim’s ornamental parkland bridge (Vanburgh and Hawksmoor, 1708), an early-Enlightenment wonder that encased a dining room and water engines making its purpose far more functional than just a crossing point. And then there are examples at Wilton (Roger Morris, 1736) near Salisbury, Prior Park (built by Richard Jones, 1755) in Bath and at Hagley (Thomas Pitt, c.1764) near Birmingham.

With the exception of the original Westminster Bridge these structures can still be seen in their natural habitats. Hagley however has undergone a transformation. Lost, most likely in the 19th century, beneath a century or more of undergrowth − found by Joe Hawkins, Head of Landscape at Hagley Park, who subsequently excavated it, researched it and painstakingly rebuilt the lost timber pavilion on top of its original stone base. It is a remarkable example of what can be achieved when the enthusiasm of an individual is harnessed and supported by the owner.

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hagley is not an isolated example of admirable conservation and restoration. The National Lottery has supported recent work at Llangollen, a chain bridge (1929) than spans the river Dee, and thanks to the local authority and grant funders Victoria Bridge (James Dredge, 1836) in Bath has now been removed from English Heritage’s risk register. Betjeman, a man who loved the work of John Rennie, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir James Fowler, would have applauded such restorations and no doubt would have been a great champion of the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards which are handed out annually by the Institute of Civil Engineers.

Six years after writing his Telegraph article the Severn Bridge (Freeman Fox and Partners, 1966) was opened. First proposed in 1824 by Thomas Telford (who had just built the Menai Bridge linking Wales with Anglesey) the M48 road bridge was effectively 142 years late, but was befitting a nation that had just won the football World Cup. Betjeman’s appears to have remained silent on its sleek aesthetic and technical excellence, perhaps in submission to, or recognition of, human advancement or, more likely, because the railway held more fascination that the road, the steam locomotive boiler more than the internal combustion engibridgene

Judging by his comments on the ugliness of the M1 bridges it is fair to say that modern bridges may well have incurred his wrath. But what, we wonder, would he have made of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Thames? This was a testament of true partnerships where the architects Norman Foster and Partners worked alongside the engineers Ove Arup and Partners and the sculptor Anthony Caro. However, this was no ordinary pedestrian bridge; this was a bridge that wobbled. In fact it wobbled so much that accusing fingers pointed each and every way after the bridge was first opened and subsequently closed for remedial works. Betjeman would have seen the funny side of this and perhaps would have put pen to paper reminding us of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s sentiment that there must be ‘No shuddering’ in bridge construction. However, beyond the humour he would have seen it as many do today, a masterpiece of minimalist design where all elements flow seamlessly into the next.

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‘Dear Bloody England’: Betjeman’s Britain Revisited.


bet

What irked John Betjeman more than anything was a lack of respect for the mundane. Roads are a good example. In his ‘Men and Buildings’ feature that ran in the Telegraph between 1958 and 1964 he discussed topics as diverse as signage and quality of lighting to planners and their ineptitude in allowing new roadside buildings to be constructed that lacked sensitivity to their surroundings.

Signs and lighting perhaps, will always be a contentious issue. Indeed today there are so many signs that a scholarly journal on the subject is wanting. Meanwhile roadside lights are either being turned off to save energy or upgraded with hyper-efficient LED bulbs – both options seem to create annoyance amongst local residents. Another provocative topic is the ever increasing amount of infrastructure that supports the road network.  Fixed amongst rotting road-kill and widowed hub-caps are bollards, barriers, speed cameras, electronic signs, weather stations and a whole catalogue of painted markings. Where dominant power lines and telegraph poles used to incur the purists wrath, now its wind turbines, some still seeking retrospective planning permission, many towering over listed heritage assets, most spoiling England’s natural beauty.

To be fair all these intrusions require elements of skill in their design but few of us really connect with the fact during our daily commutes. Buildings however are different, they are more tangible objects that we can learn to love or hate −some have understandably become statutory listed assets.

esso

The parasol canopies of Esso filling station (right) on the A6 at Birstall, Leicestershire, for example, by Eliot Noyes who worked alongside Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer no less, remains an inspirational futuristic piece of 1960s industrial design. Preston Bus Station, built in 1969 by Building Design Partnership to rival the glamour of less affordable air travel, has recently been listed thanks to a gargantuan effort from campaigners. Its listed status transforms our acceptance of this Brutalist structure from a useless concrete folly worthy of demolition to an aesthetic masterpiece whose vertical rows of sculptural fins rebound the light the like flames around a heat exchanger. Perhaps the most unthinkable listing is the former Forton Service Station on the M6 near Lancaster, built in 1964 by T.P Bennett and Son, with a novelty hexagonal tower that once housed a restaurant.

TricornYet, the survival of concrete buildings is a game of two halves. Gone are the striking, multi-levelled, angular Brutalist car park and shopping centre combo’s the Tricorn Centre (1966-2004) in Portsmouth and the Trinity Square (1967-2010), so-called Get Carter car park (below), in Gateshead.  The architect of both buildings, Owen Luder, once said that such structures gave ‘you a feeling from your balls to your throat’. That they do. At their best they are inspiring and engaging, shocking and threatening. At their worse they are a muggers and vandals delight, with copious hiding places emanating from the cold, dark, twisting, spittle and gum soiled unforgiving corridors.

get carter

There is no doubt that these iconic buildings were evocative of an age. They were the fruits of short, authoritative, black and white men in highly-coloured bow-ties; a Betjemanic class of gentleman architect and ruthless planner, lyrical advocates of backfilling dear old England with tons of concrete. Ironically their enduring legacy was to separate man from machine, thereby creating a safe-haven from traffic, a freedom to roam unfettered by congestion and pollution. Soon the car was banished from post-war reconstructed city centres like Southampton and Plymouth. At last the towns and cities were being liberated from traffic, drifting slowly towards a new era of pedal and pedestrian power.

Fortunately our national heritage list has not overlooked the mundane. The Abbey Road zebra crossing, a shrine for ‘mop tops’ of all shapes and sizes, is now listed, as are many post-boxes and classic K2 telephone boxes, a reminder, for our children at least, of low-tech, hard-wired, technology. What, I wonder, would the ashen faced, space suited, Ziggy Stardust think today if he ever found his way back into a K2 box? Rather than a vandalised analogue telephone covered in vomit he might have a use for a defibrillator or community library.

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‘The weakest Woman sometimes may, the wisest man deceive’: Mary Toft and the pleasures of humiliation


Paper given at Georgian Pleasures Conference, 12-13 September 2013

Bath Spa University, Centre for History & Culture Lecture Series

Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Queen’s Square, Bath.Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath

Situated in Portugal Row, just to the south of Lincolns Inns Fields, once stood the Dukes Playhouse, later renamed the Theatre Royal, whose infamous neighbour John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, raised the bar for outrageous excesses soon after the restoration of the monarchy. It was from here on 9 December 1726 that the impresario Christopher Rich staged (and perhaps wrote and performed in) a sketch pantomime entitled The Surrey Wonder: an anatomical farce.

Lord Rochester would have delighted at such a performance ─ with all its rakish and libertine connotations, its bawdy wit, brutal malice, unwavering scepticism and frank sexuality The Surrey Wonder was, if nothing else, sensationalist. The pantomime recalled events of the ongoing affair of Mary Toft of Godalming who between October and December 1726 managed to cram live rabbits and bits of butchered dead rabbits into her vagina and forced them back out again at will. Her claim captured the attention of a raft of conversant, impulsive and misinformed individuals, all of whom travelled from far-and-wide to see her perform. The affair also gripped the imagination of a more pedestrian public whose insatiable appetite for lurid detail was catered for by the eager-to-please media journalists.

Yet, this case fiercely divided public and scholarly opinion because it pitted progressive notions of scientific logic against more established beliefs in religion, secular magic and superstition. This division was reported in Mists Weekly on the 19 November 1726, which read

‘People after all differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking up on  them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society. Others are angry of the account and say that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it as an imperfection  in human nature’.

Its fair to say that such confused rationality perpetuated from the top down ─the poet Alexander Pope wrote to John Caryll, 2nd Baron of Durford, saying ‘I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford … All London is upon this occasion … divided into factions about it’ while in a similar vein Lord Onslow of Clandon Park in Surrey expressed to the eminent scientist and collector Dr Hans Sloane, ‘[This affair has] almost alarmed England, and in a manner persuaded several people of sound judgment that it was true’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the pantomime never caught-on. Only two reviews have survived. The first, from Brice’s Weekly Journal simply reported on the comedy affected by newly delivered rabbits running wildly around the stage which, they wrote, raised ‘such a laughter as perhaps has not been heard upon any other Occasion’. The second, Mists Weekly, highlighted the more serious issue of reputational damage inflicted on those associated with the affair, who, after exposure of the fraud, it was reported, were ‘flinging their bitter pills at one another to convince the world that none of them understand anything of the matter’.

Before I look closer at the humiliation inflicted on the key witnesses to the rabbit births we need to understand the course of their individual actions.

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The London Letters of Samuel Molyneux (media)


Lecture given at the Society of Antiquaries of London

May 2014

Samuel Molyneux was born in Chester on 18 July 1689. He was the third and only surviving child of William Molyneux (1656-98) ─ the Dublin born astronomer, natural philosopher, constitutional writer and Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1683 William Molyneux, along with Sir William Petty, founded the ‘Dublin Philosophical Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, Mathematics and Mechanics’ − a society that flourished for a short while but floundered during the so called Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Molyneux family sought exile in England only returning to Dublin after the restoration of the protestant ascendancy.

Both of Samuel’s parents died prematurely –his mother in 1691 when he was only two and his father seven years later. From 1698 his greatest inspiration was his uncle (and now guardian) Thomas Molyneux (1661-1733) who, like his brother William, had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, travelled abroad and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Thomas went onto pursue a successful career as a physician, being elected a Fellow of the Irish College of Physicians, of which he was elected President in 1713, and later served as Regius Professor of Physic in 1717. Thomas provided his nephew with a first-class education at Trinity College where he was tutored by, amongst others, George Berkeley who dedicated his 1707 book Miscellanea Mathematica to his aspiring pupil.

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