Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911)


Sir Francis Galton was a powerhouse of science, producing over 340 books and papers on a variety of subjects including hereditary genetics, inheritance of intelligence, and anthropological studies into characteristics of the human subject. He conducted one of the first mass data collections on the ‘subject’ through the use of surveys and data analysis, attempting to chart hereditary behavioural patterns.

Galton’s grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, and his half cousin was Charles Darwin. The Galton’s were a distinguished family of Quakers who were mostly bankers and gun-makers. Galton however, who was something of a child prodigy, was instantly drawn to the study of science, the body and mathematics. He studies both medicine and mathematics before his father died in 1844. This left Galton financially independent, and he was able to explore several avenues of scientific exploration. He also travelled extensively, from Eastern Europe, Eygpt, the Sudan and down the Jordan. He began to publish books about his adventures, some of which proved very popular, and one (‘The Art of Travel’) is still in print today. 

In 1853 Galton met and married Louisa Jane Butler (1822-1897) but the couple did not have any children. 


For me the most fascinating aspect of Galton’s varied professional life was his studies into human variation and his theory of Eugenics; which is now viewed as rather absurd but proved very popular at the time. Galton was inspired by Darwin’s 1859 publication ‘The Origin of the Species’ which hinted on this subject when discussing the breeding of domestic animals. Galton’s fascination with the idea of the survival of the fittest inspired him to undertake large scale data analysis. He surveyed thousands of people, producing theories from the data he meticulously collated.

Most of these subjects came from the lower classes, who had had little or no contact with the state before. They had very little visibility beyond records of their birth and death, with very little statistical evidence to plot any trends in the life, health or reproduction of these lower classes. Therefore there was a certain amount of anxiety from the middle classes about their apparent lawlessness, poverty and ill-health.

Visualisation of the subject in this way was facilitated by the vast expansion in state controlled hospitals, schools and prisons. Although set up with the intention of providing for the public’s needs, these state apparatus recorded each patient, student or convict as they entered the institutions, therefore increasing the visibility of the subject. They recorded ages, heights, addresses, and any previous convictions. This information was then used freely, and without the subject’s prior knowledge, to make hypothesis about any hereditary characteristics that they might be passed on to any current or future offspring. 


Galton himself coined the term ‘Eugenics’ in 1883 in his book ‘Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Developments’. The term refers to the the belief that the genetic population of the world can be consciously improved. Those considered ‘positive’ citizens, hard-working with no genetic or hereditary health problems, would be encouraged to reproduce. Those considered ‘negative’ citizens, the homeless or unemployed, those with a mental or physical disability, would be actively or forcefully encouraged not to reproduce. Galton gave examples of this group of people, ‘the lunatic, idiot and pauper asylums, the prisoners, the patients in hospitals…the crippled, the congenitally blind.’ Galton encouraged these lower echelons of society, the ‘residuum’ not to reproduce.  This was described as ‘Negative Eugenics’. These people would be encouraged to live apart from the ‘normal’ sections of society. They would be encouraged or forced into sterilisation. As the popularity of the Eugenics movement grew, this did begin to happen, but it was never a universal policy in Britain. Eugenics proved to be rather popular with the middle classes, who were anxious about the apparent barbarism of the lower classes. By claiming that these sorts of people were lost causes, they could feel better about their complete lack of sympathy or practical aid to help them out of their position. 



Galton used photography to try and categorise was he called the ‘Criminal Type’. By collecting a vast number of photographs and creating a composite by merging the images together, he thought he had caught an image of what a criminal type looked like. The plan was to use this to stop future crimes. Of course such a scientific proposal would now be thought of as laughable. Indeed Eugenics received continual criticism despite its popularity amongst the middle classes. Its lack of scientific proof and the fact that it was a clear attack people’s human rights meant that it was considered by many to be a dangerous movement. Its policies mirror those of the Nazi party in their treatment of ‘undesirables’ during the Second World War. Indeed after the war, the popularity of the Eugenics movement would never recover.



In 1909 Galton was knighted, and he continued to work on his theories until his death two years later. University College London holds most of Galton’s papers and his composite photographs. Having recently been open again to academics, it provides a wealth of research opportunities into Galton’s life and theories. 



Categories: 20th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

You said it Oscar…


Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Jack Sheppard- celebrity escape artist (1702-1724)



Jack Sheppard, after a portrait (lost) by Sir James Thornhill

Jack Sheppard was renowned in 18th Century London for escaping the justice system not once or twice, but four times! He was born to a poor London family but showed great promise as a carpenter. However, the lure of London’s nightlife led him astray and he fell into some salubrious company. Falling in love with a prostitute called Elizabeth Lyon, he began to steal in order to supplement his income as a carpenter and to accommodate his new habits. He left his apprenticeship with only a little under two years left until its completion, and turned to a life of full time crime. In 1723 alone, he was arrested and managed to escape prison four times before being incarcerated for the fifth and final time. His very public defiance of the 18th Century justice system made him an overnight celebrity and wildly popular with the poorer classes. He became their mascot against the power and authority of the state.

Soon the miraculous nature of his escapes were made plain by many illustrations and pamphlets, poems and published stories. Jack Sheppard became a household name.


Sheppard helping his lover Elizabeth Lyon to escape

Sheppard’s first escape involved him breaking through the timber roof in his cell and after fashioning himself a rope out of his bedding, lowering himself to the ground. Still manacled, he joined the crowd under the window, and shouting that he could see the shadow of the escaping convict on the roof, he made his escape. Once he was re-arrested after being caught pickpocketing, he was visited in prison by his lover Elizabeth Lyon, who was recognised and subsequently also arrested and placed in a cell with Sheppard. They both escaped their manacles and lowered themselves to the ground. They then both had to scale a 22 foot wall in order to escape the compound. For his third imprisonment Sheppard was incarcerated in Newgate Prison. On the very date that his execution was to be fixed, Sheppard managed to remove an iron bar in a small window in his cell where you could talk to visitors. Being of a slight build, Sheppard was able to squeeze through and he escaped in women’s clothing which had been bought to him by Elizabeth.


Sheppard squeezing through the bars of his cell, right under the noses of his gaolers

But no escape was as sensational as Sheppard’s fourth and last adventure. After unlocking his chains he clambered up the chimney with his leg irons still in place. He then managed to break through no less than six barred doors until his reached the prison chapel. Once he got onto the roof he realised he would need something to help he gain access to the adjoining building, and so he went all the way back again (still in his leg irons), fetched his blanket, and then made the return journey! Once he had escaped he managed to convince somebody to remove the leg irons. Sheppard celebrated by stealing all the necessary accoutrements of a society dandy and cavorting around London with his two mistresses getting blind drunk. It’s a surprise he escaped the law for a further two weeks really.


His fourth and most sensational escape

His gaolers took Sheppard’s final incarceration very seriously. He was held in the most secure central section of Newgate Prison where he was constantly under observation as well as being weighed down with 300 pounds of iron weights. High society visitors were charged a shilling to come and see the infamous escape artist for themselves. On the 16th November 1724 he was taken to Tyburn to be hanged. Although he was given the opportunity to inform on his accomplices for a lesser sentence, that was not Sheppard’s style. About 200,000 people thronged the streets in celebration of Sheppard’s career in escapology (about a third of the city’s population at the time). Sheppard was hanged, and for once his slight frame did him no favours, as he was slowly strangled to death. His friends had hoped to take the body and see if it could be revived, but the crowds stormed in after the body was cut down, and by the time they had cleared it had been badly mauled.


The hanging of Jack Sheppard

At his execution an autobiographical ‘Narrative’ was sold, possibly ghost-written by Daniel Defoe; with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Straight away Sheppard entered the public imagination in a series of plays, one of the most popular being the 1728 play ‘The Beggars Opera’; on the stage for the next 100 years. Again in 1840 a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth was written entitled ‘Jack Sheppard’, which became so popular that any book with the same title was banned for the next forty years. Even to this day Jack Sheppard is still the most famous escapologist in our history, and quite deservedly earns his own entry on this blog. 


Categories: 18th Century, Heroes | Tags: | Leave a comment

A Friday amusement…

Image: Rembrandt Room- Twitter

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who was Kitty Jay?

By Joe Gardner

On a narrow crossroads in East Dartmoor lies a sombre, stark little tourist attraction known locally as ‘Jay’s Grave.’  It’s a sad but curious sight to behold; a tiny, unmarked piece of granite serving as the headstone atop a grassy, oblong mound.


For several decades, virtually nothing was known about the person interred beneath, although it had long been the custom to bury victims of suicide at a crossroads rather than in traditional cemeteries.  This was upheld for two reasons; foremost, the sin of self-murder forbade the guilty departed to be interred in churchyards.  Secondly, and somewhat more superstitiously, it was hoped that burying suicides at a crossroads would confuse their spirits, preventing them from returning to terrorise the living.

While her life was largely unremarkable, it is in death that Kitty Jay has found a degree of fame, or notoriety.

The story of Kitty Jay has undergone several changes since its casual entry into Devonshire folklore in the early Nineteenth Century, but the bare bones have remained largely the same. Supposedly, an orphaned baby girl was given shelter in the poor house situated close by in Newton Abbot.  As was the norm at the time, the baby -bereft of a known Christian name- was referred to by a single letter, J being the letter that the poor house had reached in its records.  It is also supposed that the baby was given the first name Mary, as ‘Jay’ alone had been a colloquial synonym for a prostitute.  How she eventually received the name Kitty is not known, although it is understood to have been when she eventually left the Newton Abbot poor house.

Upon reaching her teens, Kitty Jay remained at the poor house for a brief period wherein she helped look after the younger children and work on the grounds.  However, she was eventually sent away to work on Canna farm in Manaton, Dartmoor, where life in the late Eighteenth Century would have been grim and relentless.  While working on the farm, Kitty Jay started to receive attention from the farmer’s son and before long had fallen pregnant with his child.  Unfortunately, being of a lower class than the farming family and rather new to the place, her word was nothing against his and she was instantly accused of taking advantage of the young man (with her prostitute name helping to add to their convictions).  Predictably enough, Kitty Jay was thrown off the farm and branded a whore.

Such a reputation, erroneous as it may have been, would be impossible to shake off in a small community like Manaton and the likelihood of ever finding employment again would have been quickly disregarded by Kitty.  Her brief story ends in the most tragic of ways as she was finally found hanging by the neck in one of the barns at Canna farm.

'The Discovery of Kitty Jay' by Chris Rawlins Image:

‘The Discovery of Kitty Jay’ by Chris Rawlins Image:

Subsequently, Kitty was largely forgotten to history after her burial, until in 1851 a group of men digging up a lane near Manaton happened upon the grave.  Uncertain whether what they had found was indeed an interment, they dug further and found the bones of Kitty Jay.  The skeleton was then placed in a coffin under the instructions of James Bryant, the then owner of the land in which they were found, and reinterred into the grave.

The gravesite has since found further fame with the help of several early Twentieth Century authors; principally Dartmoor’s Beatrice Chase, who wrote of stumbling upon it in her 1914 novel The Heart of the Moor.  Later, the grave served as inspiration for John Galsworthy’s short story The Apple Tree.  The story has even cropped up in songs by Wishbone Ash and Seth Lakeman, among others.

However, the most alluring and ethereal aspect of the Kitty Jay gravesite is the intriguing fact that fresh flowers are placed upon the grave every morning, by an anonymous visitor.  Superstition surmises that they may be placed there by Dartmoor pixies, or the guilty spirit of the farmer’s son, atoning for his cruelty from the afterlife.  Nightly passers-by have reported sightings of a hooded figure crouched beside the grave.  It should be said that, having become a well-known Dartmoor landmark, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the flowers (and occasional other trinkets such as coins and cuddly toys) are the doings of the myriad tourists that visit the area year in, year out.  Either way, it is quite humbling that someone of such low status and consequence in life, who departed in so tragic a fashion and was thus denied a proper burial, has since become the focus of such devotion centuries beyond her death.

Categories: 18th Century | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Calling contributers!

Thanks to all for your support of BiographyUK so far. If you are a budding writer, amateur historian or a biography nerd, then get writing!

Those who fit the criteria might be your favourite Queen, author, scientist or military hero. They may have won the Noble Peace Prize, written an opera, or been arrested for corruption in the prime of their political career. Who knows!

Whoever you choose to write on, lets make it UK based and around 600 words. Watch this space for some interesting biographies I have lined up!

Categories: Misc. | Leave a comment

Lady Georgiana Lennox, later 23rd Baroness de Ros of Helmsley (1785-1891)


Image: NPG Collection: NPG Archive

Lady Georgiana Lennox was born on the 30th September 1795 at Molecombe, the Dower House on the Goodwood Estate. She was the third daughter of the 4th Duke of Richmond and the former Lady Charlotte Gordon. She was one of fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters.  In 1806 Georgy’s father succeeded to the titles and estates of Goodwood, Lennox and Aubigny.

The financial strain on the Richmond family resulting from their ever growing number and the spendthrift habits of the Duchess meant that the Duke was forced to close up Goodwood, and keep the family in Europe where living costs were cheaper. In 1807 The Duke of Richmond was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and reluctantly he left England for Phoenix Park in Dublin. His posting was a success, and the family remained in Ireland until 1813.

His Chief Secretary during this period was Colonel Sir Arthur Wellesley K.B., who had just returned from a successful military campaign in Southern India. It was here that Georgy first met Arthur. They rode out together daily, accompanied by some of Georgy’s many sisters. They called him the ‘great Sir Arthur’. The Richmond’s house in Phoenix Park was the centre of many evening events which Sir Arthur attended, socialising closely with the Duchess and her daughters.

In 1815 the family relocated again as Richmond was placed in command of the reserve forces in Brussels preceding the Battle of Waterloo. The entire family, including the three eldest brothers, all followed their father to Brussels. They moved into a large house on the Rue de la Blanchisserie, on the site of a 17th Century laundry. Wellington nicknamed it ‘The Wash House’. During the day Georgy would attend Reviews, as well as ride out with her sisters to visit other families who had settled in Brussels. There was a plethora of concerts, picnics, dinners, assemblies, and dances which filled the Richmonds’ diary. Balls were held two or three times a week. As Lady Caroline Capel wrote ‘Balls go on here as though we had had none for a year.’ The Duchess of Richmond was often out and more often than not took her eldest daughters with her. Wellington left for a time to attend the Congress of Vienna, having taken the place of Lord Castlereagh. Everyone was anxious for the great commander to return, as rumours grew about Napoleon’s plans to escape from the Isle of Elba.

The epic conclusion to the battle against Napoleon’s forces was drawing near. Daily rumours of an imminent French invasion were flying from letter to letter and house to house, with no one knowing which report to believe. Wellington returned from Vienna and set about making ready the troops. Lord March, Richmond’s eldest son, was A.D.C. to the Prince of Orange, and the two younger brothers George and William were also to be involved in the fighting in a similar capacity.

The Duchess intended to give a ball, to which Wellington agreed whole-heartedly. The now famous event took place in a large room previously used to build coaches in by the previous owner of the house. Its usual function was as a playroom in which Georgy and her siblings spent hour playing games of battledore and shuttlecock when the weather kept them indoors.

It was to this ball that Wellington arrived late and announced to Georgy that the French had crossed the border into Brussels, and that war which Napoleon was imminent. Many of the men attending there, the majority of which were officers, left immediately to join their regiments. Others stayed, danced and drank, attempting to enjoy what could be their last night as free men. As Georgy later recalled

‘When the Duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, to the ball I was dancing, but I went to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.” This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume’

Wellington remained calm and collected. At dinner he sat with Georgy and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, seemingly unperturbed by the reports being bought to him. Requesting a map from Richmond, he retired into the library with his other Generals. Pointing with his finger on the map, he said that the small village of Waterloo would be the spot where the battle could be fought, and with luck, won. He knew the ground well, having covered the area during reconnaissance trips the previous year. Wellington remained at the ball until around 2.30am. Georgy went with her brother George to his house in the grounds to pack his belongings and bid her farewells. She, her sisters and her mother parted with painful goodbyes, not knowing if they would ever see their beloved brothers or father again. It was the same for many women in Brussels that night.

Some of the battle could be heard from the houses in which wives, mothers and sisters waited, but information was limited and often inaccurate. Over the next three days Georgy waited anxiously for news of their fate. Yet as a young woman from a sheltered background, it must also have been thrilling to be present at such an important and historic moment.

Writing to her aunt Lady Bathurst Georgy exclaims ‘We had a great ball last night, and fancy the horror of hearing this news in the middle of it, and seeing all one’s friends fly to the right and to the left’. Despite putting a brave face on her fear, Georgy knew she was lucky.  Most of her family, friends and admirers had survived the onslaught. Her brothers and father had seen a good deal of action. Acting as A.D.C’s to the Prince of Orange and then Wellington himself, the latter was able to keep the Richmonds’ out of trouble.

After Waterloo

After the battle the family went to live in Paris, where Georgy and her family continued to socialise with Wellington at numerous grand galas, balls and operas. After Georgy recovered from a serious illness, the family returned first to Brussels, and then to England. During these years many letters passed between Georgy and Wellington, often passing on local gossip about love sick officers in Wellington’s staff.

In 1818 Richmond was made Governor General of British North America, and travelled with his two eldest daughters to Canada. Georgy stayed behind and went to live with her beloved Aunt, Lady Georgiana Bathurst. Tragedy struck the family the following year when Richmond was bitten by a pet fox which he caught fighting his spaniel, Blücher. Richmond contracted rabies, and after several days of writhing in agony, died. The whole family, who had adored their brave and kind-natured father, were devastated. The title was succeeded by Georgy’s beloved brother George, who became the 5th Duke.

In 1824, at the age of twenty-nine, Georgy married William Lennox Lascelles Fitzgerald de Ros, who would later succeed his brother to become the 23rd Baron de Ros of Helmsley. But why did Georgy wait so long to marry? She was certainly not without suitors. Perhaps she was still holding a flame for Wellington, who she adored for his brilliance, his celebrity, and his attention to her over all her other sisters.

William de Ros was a military man, a diligent officer and a fine husband. After Georgy’s marriage the de Ros’ continued to socialise with the Wellesley’s, attending dinners and opera’s together, and visiting Wellington at his country estate of Stratfield Saye. Together William and Georgy had three children: Dudley, later 24th Baron de Ros (1827-1907), Frances Charlotte, (c.1840-1851) who died tragically young at the age of twenty-one, devastating both her parents; and Blanche Arthur Georgina (1832-1910). Wellington was named Blanche’s godfather, and they developed a touching friendship as Blanche grew up.

Georgy's son Dudley after he had inherited the title from his father. 'Spy' drawing from Vanity Fair

Georgy’s son Dudley after he had inherited the title from his father. ‘Spy’ drawing from Vanity Fair

The year after the premature death of Frances de Ros, Wellington himself died. Although ill and infirm, his passing caused a great shock to Georgy, herself now fifty-five years old. She wrote in her diary

‘From childhood I loved and venerated him and invariably received the most unremitting kindness from him and so many years of unclouded friendship cannot be given with without much suffering’.

Commiserations poured in from friends and relations. Georgy had known the Duke for forty-six years. William was charged with organising and executing the funeral with military precision. This he did with his usual flair and attention to detail.

After William’s died in 1874, Georgy left the family seat in Strangford, Ireland and lived permanently in London. Cherished as one of the last surviving personal friends of the Great Duke, every Waterloo Day she enjoyed receiving scores of guests, flowers and telegrams rejoicing in the victory. In her 93rd year she produced, at the behest of many friends, two articles in Murray Magazine entitled ‘My Recollections of the 1st Duke of Wellington’, which continues to be one of the most important first hand recollections of the Duke. Georgy’s description of the ball-room in Brussels and of Wellington’s actions in the days during and after the battle has become a vital source to historians.

Georgy continued to receive friends and relatives, as well as producing brilliant illuminations and keepsakes, until her health and sight began to fail her. Georgy died on 15th December 1891 in London and is buried in the family vault at the Old Court Chapel, in Strangford. Two years later her daughter Blanche published ‘A Sketch of the Life of Georgiana, Lady de Ros, With Some Reminiscences of Her Family’, which is the only source where a small portion of the de Ros family archive has been made public.

Categories: 19th Century, Amazing Women in History, British Political Figures, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

John Snow- Physician (1813-1858)



By Joe Gardener

There’s an old water pump on Broadwick Street in London’s West-End that you’d probably quite rightly walk by without a second thought if you didn’t know of its significance.  After all, there are rusty old relics like that all over London, aren’t there?

In actuality, the pump is one of the most significant mementos of modern medicine, and it isn’t actually as old as it looks either, it’s a replica.

In the Summer of 1854 cholera was rife in London, killing over five hundred residents of the Central region within two weeks and continuing to spread.  Prominent physicians of the day immediately linked the disease to the ‘Miasma Theory’ that noxious gases in the air were the cause of the disease (Miasma being the Greek word for pollution).


Local physician John Snow, who was already one of the pioneering doctors in the field of anaesthesia, was sceptical towards the Miasma Theory.  However, with no immediate evidence to the contrary (Louis Pasteur’s ‘Germ Theory’ of disease having yet to be developed), Snow would have had to undertake a little local detective work of his own in order to deduce the real cause of the outbreak.  He did just that.  Through conversations with Soho residents, Snow successfully traced the cholera outbreak to an old water pump on Broadwick Street (then known as Broad Street).

While his closer studies of the water from the pump failed to conclude it as the source of cholera, his work nonetheless convinced locals who subsequently removed the pump’s handle.  A dot map that Snow drew up helped his cause; the map displayed all of the cholera cases in the area as clusters of dots atop the location in which they occurred, with the heaviest clusters centreed around the pump. 



Ultimately, it has never been completely concluded that pump was the direct cause of the outbreak because although cases rapidly declined after its removal, many residents had already begun to leave the area through fear of cholera.  However, it is to this day widely assumed that John Snow’s water pump was indeed the cause.  Later research found that the pump was placed in close proximity to an old, dilapidated cesspit which had begun to leak faecal bacteria due to neglect.   Furthermore, the nappies of a baby who had contracted cholera from another source had also been disposed there.

Like all thwarted criminals, the pump was ultimately removed.  Snow went on to refer to the Soho cholera outbreak as “the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom.”

The pump which currently stands on Broadwick Street is a replica of John Snow’s pump, complete with a plaque commemorating the physician’s hand in ending the outbreak.  Thankfully, it doesn’t function.



The nearby Samuel Smith’s public house was eventually renamed The John Snow in his honour and local legend even tells of a resident ghost; that of a sickly looking man with red eyes and a sallow face who sits in the darkest corner of the pub.  A former victim of the outbreak or simply a regular who’s had a bit too much?

 John Snow was born in York in 1815 to William and Frances Snow and from the age of 14 studied in Newcastle, where he first encountered cholera through a severe and fatal outbreak in the nearby town of Sunderland.  In 1837 he moved to London where he lived on Frith Street, a short walk from the cholera water pump.  He lived as a teetotal and vegetarian for much of his life and never married.  John Snow died in 1858 from a stroke at the age of 45.

Every year, the John Snow Society remove and replace a water pump handle to symbolise the continuing struggles faced in the study of public health.

Categories: 19th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

By Joe Gardner

Being a Londoner, I have walked passed a fair few blue plaques in my time.  Dickens delivered his articles to this address.  John Keats practiced medicine here.  Peter Cook used the toilet of this restaurant on route to a gig.  But my runaway favourite adorns the wall of a beautiful little townhouse – now an Italian bistro – on the corner of Poland Street in Soho.

Image: plaques of London

Image: plaques of London

You have to be careful with blue plaques; often the historical celebrity you’re reading about ‘Lived in a house on this site’, so the place they resided is as dead as they are (I’d walked past what I long assumed to be Mozart’s house many a time before this damning realisation), or they ‘Stayed here’ or ‘Visited here’ etc.  That’s why I love the little house on Poland Street so much:  ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley; 1792-1822; Poet; Lived Here.’  It is his home, as it was (Italian restaurant aside).  He slept under that roof, he gazed from those windows.  Whenever I pass it on my idle wanderings I can picture the young Romantic Poet seated by his window, fretting over a draft or nipping out the front door in pursuit of a much needed beverage.  That’s what history does to people; it comes alive as it makes itself known.

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London

I’m fascinated by Shelley.On top of his staunch vegetarianism, his ahead-of-the-times socialist philosophies and the fact that he wrote Ozymandias; the greatest short poem ever penned, Shelley was a remarkably interesting being in his own right.  Much like his aforementioned contemporary Keats, much of Shelley’s poetry had roots in a more scientific background.  Obsessed with all things science thanks in large part to his astrology and magnetism lessons at school, as a boy he’d conduct myriad experiments that would often end in explosions.  If that’s not incredible enough, as he grew older he developed an interest in what he referred to as the ‘Occult Sciences’; he began experimenting with gunpowder and electricity, often even using his own body as a conductor of electrical current.  Contemporaries noted that his dwellings were frequently cluttered with science and astronomy apparatus.  It is understood that Shelley was even concerned with theories of life on other planets and, perhaps most interestingly, galvanism and bodily reanimation.  I find it incredible that someone as synonymous with dusty old poetry was so eccentric and pioneering in a completely different field of study, as a hobby.

You’d be forgiven for being put in mind of a different literary man nonetheless associated with the name Shelley, as it is increasingly believed that Mary Shelley’s sci-fi anti-hero Victor Frankenstein was at least partially inspired by her husband’s obsession with electro-magnetics (the philosopher Erasmus Darwin serves as the main inspiration for the character).  It is well known that the premise of Frankenstein was born out of both a nightmare of Mary’s and a friendly ghost story contest proposed by Lord Byron, which in turn ultimately became the classic horror novel.  But the immortal image of the twisted young obsessive, darting about his rooms at Ingolstadt wielding scientific equipment and provoking electrical sparks around him was doubtlessly one that wife Mary was well familiar with.  In short, the most infamous monster story from Western fiction is quite possibly the end result of a wife cheekily turning her frustration at her husband’s manic geekery into something more productive. 

It is also worth noting that the sub-heading of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, which of course ties in strongly with Percy Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound; the titular ancient Greek titan was punished by Zeus for giving humanity the secret of fire and such themes clearly translate from Shelley’s poetic retelling to his wife’s famous novel; the mortal man wielding divine power undeservedly.  Thus I’d like to believe that Percy Bysshe Shelley had more of a hand in the inception of Frankenstein than is commonly surmised.

The reason for my fondness for Shelley is simple; as well as my admiration for his then radical values, being myself someone who continually divides his time between writing literature and geeking up on science and science fiction, I have a century-spanning affiliation with the man.  So whenever I pass that little house with the blue plaque I always give a polite nod and a smile back through time to my favourite literary neighbour.


Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Angela Burdett-Coutts by Julius Jacobs
Today we see female philanthropists on a daily basis in our news and in the pages of our glossy magazines. Think, for example, of Ophrah Winfrey, who has given tens of millions to charities over the years. When one acquires great wealth, it seems the natural step to start dealing it out to those less fortunate. Look back to the age of Victorian charity-giving, and we see a very different kind of philanthropist emerge from the urban sprawl of post industrial England . The emphasis was on moralising the subject, the aim being to help them onto the respectable path of productivity and hard work. Alcoholism, prostitution and vagrancy were seen as the moral ills of society. Women often took it upon themselves to help the ‘lower orders’. None did more, in her own way, than Angela Burdett-Coutts. This is her story.

Born Angela Georgina Burdett in 1814, Angela was the daughter of the Radical and popular politician Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the famous banker Thomas Coutts. In 1837 she inherited the vast Coutts fortune on the death of Harriot Mellon, who had married Thomas Coutts in old age. Harriot came from a working background, but enjoyed a position of huge wealth and influence after her husband died, and bagged herself a Duchy to boot when she marryied the Duke of Argyll. She hand-picked Angela to become her sole successor. Angela was a quiet, prim and upright girl, well-educated and level headed. She did not succumb to the frivolities of her class like many of her peers. She became one of the wealthiest women in England, a position that bought her great power, but also a profound sense of duty to those around her who were less fortunate. It was reported that Angela inherited around £1, 800, 000 when Harriot died, making her the richest heiress in the country. Angela<

When Angela came of age, she did not follow the ‘normal’ route for women of her class by marrying and having children. Her vast wealth brought with it suitors, and many asked for her hand. To each she politely refused. Feeling that they were only interested in her for her money, and knowing that under English law the power over wealth was controlled by husbands, Angela retreated into a single, quiet life of philanthropy and friendship. True, she held many lavish parties at her inherited house of Holly Lodge in Highgate, but the majority of her time was spent in companion with people who were both serious and sensible. Holly Lodge
Image: Holly Lodge, in Highgate.

Her philanthropic works are legendary. It is impossible to name them all here. Her first works perhaps are most famous as they so closely involved the help and friendship of Charles Dickens. Together they set up and ran the revolutionary Urania Cottage, which took women off the streets and re-trained them away from a life of prostitution and petty crime. Angela also supported and funded immigration to countries like Australia and Canada. Like many Victorian women of her time, Angela’s charity works often centred on moralising and reforming the lower classes. Although in hindsight this is seen as controlling these charity works were, in Angela’s case, not done out of a preconceived idea of superiority, but a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than herself. She had seen with painful clarity the sufferings of those living in the East End of London, the squalor, the crime and the hardship. She sought to alleviate some of this suffering, and poured money into re-housing, sanitation, schools and training centres, and green open spaces where children could play. She gave generously, but always oversaw the work her money achieved, and so aimed to diminish any mismanagement.

Angela was heavily involved in the establishment and development of both the National Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Without her continued financial support neither of these two now nationally important charities would have survived.

Angela was also a generous benefactor of the Church of England, being herself very religious. She funded several expeditions into Africa with the aim to spread the message of missionaries. Mostly these were failures, Africa being large non-Christian at this time. She founded many bishoprics is Australia and Canada, and was seen as a national hero there due to the thousands who benefited from her funds which allowed them to emigrate. She also set up her own church, St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the West-end, which still stands today.

Angela and Mrs. Brown

In her personal life, Angela was devoted to her former governess and companion Mrs. Brown. She also developed a deep love and affection for the Duke of Wellington, to whom she proposed when she was 33 and he was 78. The proposal may seem shocking to us, but Angela had always had friends of all ages. She had grown up with Harriot happily married to her grandfather, who was double her age. Angela and the Duke were undoubtedly in love with each other and forever in each other’s company. Angela even had her own apartment at Stratfield Saye which had an enjoining staircase to the Duke’s quarters on the ground floor. But the Duke felt he could not accept her proposal, and wrote her a charming letter in which he said:


‘I have passed every Moment of the Evening and Night since I quitted you in reflecting upon our conversation of yesterday, Every Word of which I have considered repeatedly. My first Duty towards you is that of Friend, Guardian, Protector! You are Young, my Dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of enjoyment and Happiness in Life. I entreat you again in this way, not to throw yourself away upon a Man old enough to be your Grandfather, who, however strong, Hearty and Healthy at present, must and will certainly in time feel the consequences and Infirmities of Age.’

His refusal did not break their relationship, in fact it bought them closer together. They remained constantly in touch until the death of the Duke in 1852. In 1878 tragedy struck again when Mrs. Brown passed away. Anyone who knew Angela knew that this would be a devastating blow, as she and Mrs. Brown had been inseparable for years. Angela wrote to a friend of the loss of ‘my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for fifty-two years!’

Greatly shocked and isolated by the death of Mrs. Brown, three years later she shocked the nation in turn by announcing her marriage to the American Ashmead Bartlett. She was 67 and he was only 29. Bartlett had been acting as one of Angela’s secretaries for many years and she had known him since he was a boy. By marrying a foreigner, Angela was forced to forfeit her claim to the Coutts fortune, although she remained handsomely provided for for the rest of her life. Even so, she was forced to stop many of the large annual donations which saw her projects flourish. The social housing schemes and church funds were the first to be halted, causing distress to both sides. But Angela could do not without the companionship of Bartlett, especially as so many of her close companions and family members had now died. Bartlett became and MP for Westminster in 1821, just as Angela had wanted. She herself never involved herself in politics, and was not allowed to involve herself in the business of the bank. Her talents laying in social work and social reform. She was also a skilled writer, which she worked hard at all her life. She published works on social reform and charity work on several occasions; often to great acclaim.


Angela lived the rest of her long life in quiet companionship with Bartlett, traveling extensively. She spent much of the year either in Brighton or Corsica, but always loved to get back to London. She developed an extensive art collection, including Old Masters and contemporary pieces. When photography developed she kept extensive albums with images of herself and her numerous note-worthy friends, including Henry Irving, Princess Mary of Cambridge Duchess of Teck, Mr. Darbishire (the architect of her Columbia Square), and Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak. Angela died of acute bronchitis on 20th December 1906. She lived a long and full life which was not without its personal tragedies and losses. As she married so late, she did not have any children, and so her title died along with her. Edward VII described her as ‘after my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom’.

Categories: 19th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at


Uncleansed, unfiltered neural-scrapings from an author's brain

Mind Body Bowl

yoga, food, wellbeing



London Historians' Blog

Random musings about London's history

Adventures In Historyland

Adventures In The Land of History

James Mulraine

Early Modern British Art

G. E. Gallas

Writer and Illustrator

Diary of a Young Art Critic

A refreshing view of UK art exhibitions...



Broken Mirrors

Version 0.1 - Notes, Thoughts, and Ideas

The Art Studio by Mark Moore

Where Imagination Becomes Realality


Beauty | Life | Style | Inspiration | by Lily Earle

The Neighborhood

The Story within the Story