Henry the Eighth and Chelsea

CHEYNE WALK RUNS along the left bank of the River Thames from midway between the Battersea and Albert Bridges to 245 yards downstream of the Albert Bridge. Before 1866, Cheyne Walk ran along the shoreline, but after the construction of Chelsea Embankment it became separated from the waterfront. Today, while walking along this lane east from the Albert Bridge, we spotted the narrow Cheyne Mews. A sign at its entrance intrigued me. It reads:

“King Henry VIII’s manor house stood here until 1753 when it was demolished after the death of its last occupant, Sir Hans Sloane. Nos. 19 to 26 Cheyne Walk were built on its site in 1759-65. The old manor house garden still lies beyond the end wall of Cheyne Mews and contains some mulberry trees said to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I.”

The manor and village of Chelsea was already in existence in the Anglo-Saxon era (between the departure of the Romans and 1066), when a document records it as ‘Cealchylle’. The 11th century Domesday book names it ‘Cercehede’ and ‘Chelched’. The manor was owned by the Abbey at Westminster until the reign of King Henry VII, when it was in the hands of Sir Reginald Bray (c1440-1503), a highly influential figure during the king’s reign. Next, it changed hands a couple of times before being possessed by William, Lord Sandys (1470-1540), a diplomat, Lord Chamberlain, and a favourite of King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547). Sandys, who disapproved of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn (c 1501/07 – 1536), accompanied the unfortunate Anne to the Tower of London, where she was imprisoned.

In 1536, Sandys gave the manor to King Henry VIII. The much-married king gave it to his last spouse, Katherine Parr (1512-1548) as part of her dowry.  She lived in the manor house after the coronation of King Edward VI in January 1547 until she died. After her death, the manor was owned by the soldier and politician John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553). Then the manor passed through many owners until the physician and founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) bought it in 1712 from the Tory politician Lord William Cheyne (1657-1728).

There were two manor houses in Chelsea, an old one and a new one. The old one, which was given to the Lawrence family by Henry VIII was close to Chelsea Old Church that stands to the west of the Albert Bridge. The New Manor House stood on Cheyne Walk where we saw the sign. It stood near a coffee house that was flourishing when Sloane bought the manor, Don Saltero’s Coffee House, founded in 1695 by James Salter. Saltero’s was originally a barber’s shop until Sloane began donating unwanted specimens to his former servant and travelling companion, the owner of Saltero’s. Salter displayed these specimens (botanical, zoological, and other), collected on Sloane’s travels, in cabinets and gradually the barber shop was transformed into ‘Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Curiosity Museum’. This establishment attracted local men to become its customers, including Sir Isaac Newton.

Sloane’s purchase was a shrewd investment because at the time London was expanding westwards. His biographer James Delbourgo wrote:

“The manor cost the considerable sum of £17,800 and included a total of eleven houses and the Manor House itself … As a suburban equivalent of a country seat, the manor grounded Sloane’s gentlemanly identity. It also bought him about 90 acres of land … as a freeholder, and an unknown number of tenements, on which he began to collect his own rents.”

I have found an engraving of the appearance of the Chelsea manor house that stood on Cheyne Walk in a book published in the 1880s. The image resembles that included on a map of Chelsea surveyed in 1664 by James Hamilton and redrawn in 1717 (www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1880-1113-1221), but the exact location of the house is not marked on the map.

Apart from the commemorative sign at Cheyne Mews and the garden, to which we were unable to gain access, King Henry VIII’s manor house has completely disappeared. I wondered whether Chelsea’s Kings Road had any links to Henry VIII’s ownership of the manor, but it does not. It began as a private road used by King Charles II, who came to the throne long after Henry VIII, when travelling from London to Kew, and was only made a public thoroughfare in 1830. The site of the former manor house owned by Sloane is but a few minutes’ walk from the Chelsea Physic Garden, some of whose land was leased to the Society of Apothecaries for a small amount by Sloane when he acquired the manor.

Finding small things of great interest like the sign on Cheyne Mews is one of many things that increases my ever-growing fascination with London.

Plants, electricity, and Mill Hill

AN AGED BRICK WALL, clearly once the boundary of the grounds of a grand house, runs along part of The Ridgeway in London’s Mill Hill. It bears a plaque commemorating the fact that this was once the site of Ridgeway House, the home of Peter Collinson (1694-1768), author, naturalist, and botanist. This was not a name with which I was familiar, yet he played an important part in the scientific life of 18th century London and further afield.

Peter Collinson, born a Quaker, the son of the owner of a textile business, was unable to attend university in Britain because in his time members of that branch of Christianity were not admitted. He inherited his father’s business and taught himself to such an extent and to such a high level that in 1728 he became a member of the prestigious Royal Society (www.londongardenstrust.org/features/millhill.htm provides a good biography of Collinson). His greatest interest was plants and gardening, and he was responsible for importing many plants such as magnolias, kalmias, rhododendrons, azaleas and cedars of Lebanon, which were then relatively new to the UK, into the country. He imported these plants in great quantities so that these could be planted all over the country and thereby enriched and transformed the landscape. His legacy may be seen in many of the landscaped gardens of the country’s great houses.

When Collinson’s father-in-law died in 1748, he inherited Ridgeway House in Mill Hill, which was built in about 1525, and moved there from Peckham. Apparently:

“The house had no particular architectural merit; it was described as “double-fronted” with French windows” that open onto the garden.”

Not only did he move his family from Peckham but also all the plants he had been growing there. At Mill Hill he created a wonderful garden, about which he wrote:

“Very few gardens if any excel mine at Mill Hill for the rare exotics which are my delight.”

(Both quotes from www.mhps.org.uk/collinson/botanical-contribution.asp#millhill).

Collinson became a good friend to a frequent visitor to England, the American Benjamin Franklin (1705/6-1790), who became a vegetarian in his teens, but is better-known for other achievements. Many of these were in the field of scientific research. The two men corresponded regularly (https://founders.archives.gov/search/Correspondent%3A%22Collinson%2C%20Peter%22%20Correspondent%3A%22Franklin%2C%20Benjamin%22). Much of the contents of their letters that sailed across the Atlantic concerned the exciting discoveries that Franklin was making in fields such as electricity. In the letter dated 28th of March 1747, Franklin thanked Collinson for his:

“… kind present of an electric tube, with directions for using it, has put several of us on making electrical experiments, in which we have observed some particular phaenomena that we look upon to be new. I shall, therefore communicate them to you in my next, though possibly they may not be new to you, as among the numbers daily employed in those experiments on your side the water, ’tis probable some one or other has hit on the same observations.”

Other matters were also discussed. For example, in a letter dated 9th of May 1753, Franklin wrote to Collinson:

“I have often observed with wonder, that Temper of the poor English Manufacturers and day Labourers which you mention,  and acknowledge it to be pretty general. When any of them happen to come here, where Labour is much better paid than in England, their Industry seems to diminish in equal proportion. But it is not so with the German Labourers; They retain the habitual Industry and Frugality they bring with them, and now receiving higher Wages an accumulation arises that makes them all rich.”

Much of Collinson’s correspondence with Franklin was to keep the latter up to date with scientific developments in Europe, especially those relating to new German experimentation with electricity. And much of Franklin’s correspondence with Collinson reported the results of his experiments with electricity in America, which Collinson conveyed to The Royal Society. It was these letters that were the basis of a book published by the Royal society in 1751, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity”, which is one of the most important scientific publications to emerge from 18th century America.

I cannot discover for sure whether Franklin ever visited Collinson in Mill Hill. However, Collinson did host the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander (1733-1782), assistant to the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), at Ridgeway House. Linnaeus had earlier visited Collinson in Peckham. The Victorian guidebook writer James Thorne suggests that Linnaeus himself  also visited Collinson at Ridgeway House.

Solander travelled to England in 1760 to promote the system of classification of biological organisms devised by Linnaeus. In 1753, Linnaeus named a genus of flowering plants, ‘Collinsonia’, to honour Collinson. It was Collinson, who got Solander the job of classifying the natural history specimens in Sir Hans Sloane’s collection, which formed the basis of the recently established (1753) British Museum, which opened to the public in 1759. It was the combined efforts of Collinson and Solander that persuaded the British to accept the Linnean system of classification. In 1768, Solander was one of the participants on Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and thus became the first Swede to circumnavigate the Earth.

Collinson died in 1768. From 1801, his property at mill Hill was owned by the botanist Richard Anthony Salisbury (1761-1829), a founder member and the founder Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1807, he sold it to the group who founded the Protestant Dissenters Grammar School. the forerunner of Mill Hill School. Apart from six trees in the school’s grounds, much of Collinson’s collection of plants has disappeared. Ridgeway House, which housed the school at first, was demolished in 1826 when the present grand school buildings were constructed. Collinson would have been pleased to know that Mill Hill School was:

“… first educational establishment to provide a first class education for the sons of dissenters, those whose religious or philosophical outlook did not conform to that of the state and who, like Collinson, a Quaker, were barred from the attending the established seats of learning.” (www.mhps.org.uk/collinson/botanical-contribution.asp#millhill).

When I saw the old wall running beside the Ridgeway in Mill Hill and what was written on the plaque affixed to it, little did I realise that such an important man in the scientific community of the 18th century had lived on the other side of it.

A myth

 

Recently, I renewed my Reader’s Card at the British Library, currently housed in superb premises on Euston Road, next door to the Victorian Gothic St Pancras railway station. This building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in about 1998. Prior to this, the library’s Reading Room was a huge circular structure in the heart of the British Museum.

When our daughter was at primary school, she was taught about the Ancient Egyptians  including a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut. One Saturday, I took our daughter to the British Museum in the hope of finding an image of the pharaoh in the Egyptian Galleries. After a desultory search, we gave up and walked acoss the the lovely covered Great Court, created relatively recently. The central circular structure within it contains the unused but well-preserved round Reading Room, which was designed by Sidney Smirke and opened in 1857, the year of the First Indian War of Independence. 

We entered the old Reading Room and I asked the attendant sitting there:

“Where exactly did Karl Marx used to sit when he used the library?”

“It’s a myth, sir,” replied the attendant, “He did not have a particular place because it has always been the library’s policy that places can not be reserved from day to day.”

I was a bit disappointed with his reply, but had to accept it.

When we got home, my wife asked our child how we had got on. She replied:

“You know Mummy. Daddy asked about his friend at the big old library?”

My wife asked which friend. Our daughter replied:

“I don’t know, but the man said he was a myth really.”

 

 

Picture shows foyer of current British Library in Euston Road