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Knowledge Is Power

There was, in the city, another way of opening the gate of heaven. The pursuit of knowledge has always been one of the city’s defining characteristics, even though it may take unfamiliar forms. In the reign of Edward III a man was taken “practising with a dead man’s head, and brought to the bar at the King’s Bench, where, after abjuration of his art, his trinkets were taken from him, carried to Tothill, and burned before his face.” During the reign of Richard I one Raulf Wigtoft, chaplain to the archbishop of York, “had provided a girdle and ring, cunningly intoxicated, wherewith he meant to have destroyed Simon [the dean of York] and others, but his messenger was intercepted, and his girdle and ring burned at this place before the people.” “This place” was again Tothill which is supposed to have been the site of druid worship; the tools of conjurors and alchemists were no doubt traditionally destroyed here because it was considered an area of more powerful magic.

But in London it is impossible to distinguish magic from other versions of intellectual and mechanical aptitude. Dr. Dee, the great Elizabeth magus of Mortlake, for example, was an engineer and a geographer as well as an alchemist. In 1312, Raymond Lully, attracted by its scientific reputation, came to London, where he practised alchemy both in Westminster Abbey and the Tower. The magician Cornelius Agrippa arrived in the city at the end of the fifteenth century, in order to associate with the great divines and philosophers of the period; he struck up a particular friendship with John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s and founder of St. Paul’s school, who had become interested in magic during his Italian travels. An alchemist named Hugh Draper was imprisoned within the Salt Tower of the Tower of London for sorcery and magic; he inscribed upon his cell wall a great horoscope, which he dated on 30 May 1561, and then added that he had “MADE THIS SPHEER” with his own hands.

By chance, or coincidence, many astrologers came to inhabit Lambeth. The name itself, however, may have drawn them. Beth-el was in Hebrew the name for a sacred place, here fortuitously connected with the Lamb of God. At Tradescant’s house in south Lambeth dwelled Elias Ashmole, who convinced John Aubrey of the powers of astrology. The interment of Simon Forman, the great Elizabethan magus, is entered within the Lambeth parish registers. Lully stated that Forman wrote in a book, found among his possessions, “this I made the devil write with his own hand in Lambeth Fields, 1569, in June or July, as I now remember.” Captain Bubb, who was a contemporary of Forman, dwelled in Lambeth Marsh where he “resolved horary questions astrologically,” a pursuit which led him eventually to the pillory. At the north-east corner of Calcott Alley, in Lambeth, lived Francis Moore, an astrologer and physician, who has now entered the realm of the immortals as the author of the almanac which bears his name. In Lambeth there were many rare devices. In the collection of Tradescant, later to become a museum in the area, were gathered salamanders and “Easter egges of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem,” dragons two inches long and two feathers from a phoenix, a piece of stone from the tomb of John the Baptist and “Blood that rained in the Isle of Wight, attested by Sir Jo. Oglander,” a white blackbird and “halfe a hasle-nut with seventy pieces of household stuffe in it.” Those were once the sights of Lambeth.

The close associations between alchemy and the beginnings of science were also present in the very heart of London. When Newton came up to the city in order to purchase the material for his researches, he took the coach to the Swan Tavern in Grays Inn Lane before walking or riding to Little Britain. Here, through a bookseller called William Cooper, he bought such texts of alchemical knowledge as Zetner’s Theatrum Chemicum, and Ripley Reviv’d by the London alchemist George Starkey. In the process, Newton became acquainted with a secret group of London magicians and astrologers. Many of the original founders of the Royal Society, which in later days was explicitly associated with “modern” scientific research and knowledge, were in fact part of the “Invisible College” of adepts who practised alchemy as well as mechanical philosophy. They were part of that tradition adumbrated by John Dee which saw no necessary disparity between the various forms of occult and experimental understanding. Samuel Hartlib was the prime mover among a group of London experimenters who wished to marry rationality and system with alchemy in order to create a practical magic; among his friends and supporters were Robert Boyle, Kenelm Digby and Isaac Newton himself. They corresponded by means of codenames, and used pseudonyms in the publication of their work; that of Newton was “Jeova Sanctus Unus.”

Yet there emerged out of this a society which was, in the words of Macaulay, “destined to be a chief agent in a long series of glorious and salutary reforms.” The Royal Society held its first meetings in Gresham House in Bishopsgate before removing to Crane Court off Fleet Street and beside Fetter Lane; on the nights upon which the members met, a lamp was hung out over the entrance to the court from Fleet Street. The pragmatism and energy of their consultations are evident in some of their earliest labours—“to promote inoculation … electrical experiments on fourteen miles of wire near Shooters Hill … ventilation apropos of gaol feaver … discussion on Cavendish’s improved thermometers.” Not all the experimenters were of London, and not all of them lived in London, but the city became the chief centre of that empirical philosophy and practical experiment which developed out of alchemical research. The pragmatic spirit of London science must be emphasised in all these varied and various areas; it is the spirit that has pervaded its learning ever since.

There were experiments in agriculture and in horticulture; medicine “became an experimental and progressive science,” and the example of the pestilence of 1665 led the members of the society to examine “the defective architecture, draining and ventilation of the capital.” Sir William Petty created the science of political arithmetic, so that we might plausibly suggest London as the nurse of statistical enquiry. It was another form of understanding, and controlling, the population. Yet in a city of commerce the introduction of statistics also had a financial advantage; the Board of Customs in 1696 represented to the Treasury “the need they felt to collect certain basic material if they were able ‘to make a balance of the trade between this Kingdom and any part of the world.’” Newton himself spent many of his latter years as Warden of the Mint, in which capacity he refined and ordered the currency of the kingdom. He brought to the manufacture of coin all the precision and thoroughness of his experimental work, thus creating the scientific economy which exists still. In turn he became the prosecutor of anyone who defied his inexorable laws, despatching to the gallows all who clipped the coins or counterfeited the currency. Science, in London, truly was power.

In the fields of induction and mathematical demonstration, both relying upon a close observation of particulars, the London genius was most successful. John Wallis “placed the whole system of statics on a new foundation,” again according to Macaulay, while Edmond Halley investigated the principles of magnetism and the flow of the sea. So from Crane Court in the city issued lines of thought which connected the earth to the sea and the sky. It may seem fanciful to suggest that any one city can affect the cast of thought, or the science, of its inhabitants but Voltaire himself announced that “A Frenchman arriving in London finds things very different, in natural science as in everything else … In Paris they see the universe as composed of vortices of subtle matter, in London they see nothing of the kind … For a Cartesian light exists in the air, for a Newtonian it comes from the sun in six and a half minutes. Your chemist performs all its operations with acids, alkalis and subtle matters.” Once more the theoretical spirit of Parisian enquiry is implicitly opposed to the practical bent of London science. “Where finds philosophy her eagle eye?” Cowper wrote, and then answered his own question:

In London: where her implements exact,

With which she calculates, computes, and scans,

All distance, motion, magnitude, and now

Measures an atom and now girds a world.

It is sometimes suggested that, by the end of the eighteenth century, the climate and pace of industrial development had shifted away from London to the manufacturing towns of the north. But this is to misunderstand, and certainly to underestimate, the force of practical intelligence within the capital. One of the founders of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, was the direct inspiration behind advances in the technology of time, while Henry Maudslay’s exceedingly accurate machine tools were produced in Lambeth. In 1730 John Harrison came to London in order to develop his marine chronometer which for the first time fixed degrees of longitude. That spirit was maintained by the mechanical engineers of the nineteenth century who in the workshops of Lambeth produced the steam-hammer and the automatic spinning mule. Lambeth was, then, still a centre of transformation.

Yet in London the pursuit of knowledge was not confined to the search for technical proficiency. From his lodgings in Great Marlborough Street, after his famous voyage, Charles Darwin wrote that “It is a sorrowful but I fear too certain truth that no place is at all equal, for aiding one in Natural History pursuits, to this dirty smokey town.” After travelling around the world Darwin considered London to be the most appropriate place for his research, as if the whole of evolutionary nature could be viewed and studied there. He wrote this in 1837 and his insight was confirmed, forty-seven years later, when the prime meridian of zero degrees longitude was established upon a brass rail in Greenwich.

In true London tradition, science also was turned into theatre, with lectures and demonstrations all over the capital. The early nineteenth century in particular witnessed a great public demand for scientific knowledge; the London Institution of Moorfields, the Surrey Institution of Blackfriars Bridge, the Russell Institution in Bloomsbury and the City Philosophical Society in Dorset Street were only some of the many clubs and societies devoted to disseminating the new understanding. There were societies all over the city, founded in the 1820s and 1830s, among them Geological, Astronomical, Zoological, Medico-Botanical, Statistical, Meteorological and British Medical. In the capital there were also many inventors and theorists who were able to meet and to work together. The contributors to “Scientific London” in London World City remark that “London was a crucial instrument for forging new specialist disciplines.” It was as if new commodities were being produced and traded in this intensely heated atmosphere. Bessemer developed his steel-making process in St. Pancras, while Hiram Maxim invented the machine-gun in his Clerkenwell workshop.

The pragmatism and practicality of London science were then disseminated into its teaching. In 1826 the first university college in London was established in Bloomsbury with specifically utilitarian aims; its purpose was not to educate scholars and divines, on the model of Oxford and Cambridge, but to train engineers and doctors. It was a true London institution, its founders comprising radicals, Dissenters, Jews and utilitarians. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that it should be infused with a radical egalitarian spirit which began with the inclusion of non-Anglican students. It became a university in 1836, opening its gates to women twelve years later and from the 1850s creating evening classes for working Londoners.

The university also began to teach science as a separate discipline, and created the first Faculty of Science in 1858; there was also established a school of medicine which reached into practical areas as diverse as mathematics and comparative anatomy. It was a progressive, enquiring energy which animated all of these concerns. It has been termed the energy of empire since the vast power and resourcefulness of nineteenth-century London, at the centre of the imperial world, had somehow managed to infiltrate all aspects of its life. In the early nineteenth century statisticians, mathematicians and engineers, again according to London World City, “saw the city as a potentially universal centre of calculation whence trade and machinery would link world-wide networks of British power.” Charles Babbage, together with colleagues such as Herschel, established the Astronomical Society in 1820 during a meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Great Queen Street. In his workshop Babbage created the “Difference Engine” which is the harbinger of the modern computer, and so it may be suggested that information technology itself was created in London. In the process of invention he had employed precision engineers and of course skilled workmen, so that once again the capital became the home of major technical innovation and technological progress.

London has often been apostrophised as the city of gold. It is a home of golden dragons and golden cocks, while the golden cross and golden ball on the dome of St. Paul’s have become a symbol of London’s energy. On a summer morning, when the shimmering brightness envelops the city in a haze, and all is quiet, then it might be transformed: “’Tis El Dorado—El Dorado plain, The Golden City!” It is all before you, its vistas unexplored, and becomes in the words of Wordsworth,

The great city, an emporium then Of golden expectations.

The golden city has been built out of the will and desire of a human community, and that is why in the verse of W.E. Henley it burns so brightly and why

Trafalgar Square

(The fountains’ volleying golden glaze)

Shines like an angel-market.

And as the sun descends in The Secret Agent “the very pavement under Mr. Verloc’s feet had an old-gold tinge in that diffused light … Mr. Verloc was going westward through a town without shadows in an atmosphere of powdered gold.” This is a gleam of brightness in an otherwise dark novel, and the effect is that of the alchemist creating gold out of base materials. Alchemy and science provide the seeds of light and knowledge in a dark city so that, as it seemed to Don Juan looking at London from the heights of Highgate:

each wreath of smoke

Appear’d to him but as the magic vapour

Of some alchymic furnace.

Dryden, too, had the same vision:

Methinks, already, from this chymic flame

I see a City of more precious mould …

Now deified, she from her fires does rise.

It is the magical energy of London, visible in every one of its giant transformations, like that after the Great Fire when empirical knowledge and practical genius helped to rebuild the city. This magical energy survives still.

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