19th October 1682. Thomas Browne and the New Learning.

Sir Thomas Browne who died Today in 1682 is credited with being the first to use the word electricity.(1)

The 17th century physician and polymath much influenced by Baconian enquiry was one of the early champions of rational thinking, challenging established thought, investigating the natural world and famous for writing on his religious faith, all expressed in a prose laced with classical, Biblical and contemporary learning and allusions.

Browne  born in London settled in 1637 in Norwich then the 2nd largest city where much influenced by his European medical education felt able to challenge the traditional teaching of Hippocrates and Galen.

He was to say of Harvey’s discovery of  the Circulation of the Blood, that it was a discovery which he  ‘preferred to that of Columbus’.

However Browne in his 1643 Religio Medici (Religion of a Physician), regarded as an early psychological, autobiographical text, expressed the view how the scientific mind of a physician  could also accept the mysteries of Christianity; a not unusual view at the time.

The publication was attacked by Alexander Ross in Medicus Medicatabus, (The Doctor Doctored), and in common with other Protestant literature went on the banned Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Browne’s leading work on popular science was his 1646 Pseudoxia Epidemica, roughly translated as ‘vulgar errors’, an enquiry into the very many tenets or commonly held views, about the natural world, history and and religion as portrayed in current encyclopediae and classical textbooks read by the literate wealthy.

His thesis was that authoritative writings should use reason and experiment, firstly by the Deductive Process whereby already known rules and laws of how the world works, could be applied logically in other applications.

Secondly that the new Baconian thinking on Inductive logic could be utilized where we have some information about a subject and by using that data come up with new ideas and facts about the world.

Henry Alfred Pegram’s statue of Browne, in Norwich. He is holding a skull reflecting his work on mortality, The Urn.

The great lexicographer Dr Johnson in defence of Browne’s use of uncommon words and expressions in his writings said: ‘He shared his love of the Latinate’, and that he had, ‘uncommon sentiments not to express in many words an idea which could be supplied by any other language word or term’. (2)

Browne though a devotee of the New Learning was, as many natural philosophers of his time, still in thrall to ancient esoteric beliefs, still believing in witchcraft and necromancy, still unable to throw off the comfort blanket of revealed religion.

(1) Derived from its first known use in 1646 from Gilbert’s 1600 New Latin word electricus meaning ‘like amber’.

(2) Browne is number 69 of top cited words in the OED, many being scientific and medical: electricity, prostate, polarity, computer, cryptography, analogue, antediluvian, anomalous etc.


telegraph.co.uk.culture/9.5.2015.Noel Malcolm.

guardian.com/science. Vanessa Heggie article.

Hugh Aldersley-Williams critical view on Browne.




18th October 1737. Built to Survive.

Under the stone Reader survey/ Dead Sir John Vanbrugh’s house of clay/ Lie heavy on him earth! For he/ Laid many loads on thee. Epitaph to Vanbrugh  the architect of Blenheim Palace.(1)

Blenheim Palace built for Duke of Marlborough.

One of the most biting and wittiest of epitaphs from scholar priest Rev. Abel Evans who died Today in 1737  at Cheam Rectory. (2)

Vanbrugh was of Dutch extraction having spent five years in gaol in France for spying, when after release he turned to play-writing, producing two popular comedies, but turning his attention to architecture at 35.

It was in 1701 he began work on one of the greatest houses ever built in England, Castle Howard, Yorkshire, whose owner the 3rd  Earl of Carlisle found ‘something of merit in his sketches’.

Castle Howard.

Significantly Vanbrugh did have the backing of the famous architect Sir Nicholas Hawkesmore so after Carlisle sacked his architect William Talman, Vanbrugh was appointed. It also helped that he and Carlisle were members of the Kit Cat Club a Whiggish Club set up to ensure a Hanoverian succession.

It was when he landed the commission for one of the greatest houses ever built, Blenheim Palace, that resulted in Evans’ biting comment.(3)

Architecture wasn’t controlled by a professional body until the 19thc, so before it was undertaken by gifted people in other spheres such as Christopher Wren an astronomer, Vanbrugh a soldier and playwright, Robert Hooks a scientist and William Kent, a painter.

They were celebrity architects and interior designers in an age when such gifted people were responsible for many of the public monuments and grand buildings still standing today, to be succeeded by a new breed of the likes of Robert Adam whose father was at least an architect.

(1) Vanbrugh was buries at St. Stephen’s, Walbrook.

(2) To which he had been presented by his old college, St.John’s Oxford.

(3) Blenheim was never lived in by the Duke, commemorated by a 134.ft. Doric column surmounted by a full-length statue to John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722) and sculpted by Robert Pit.



wikipedia.com./Pic of Blenheim.

britainexpress.com/Pic of Castle Howard.

17th October 1678. Catholic Scapegoats.

Today in 1678, Sir Edmundbury, ‘aka’ Edmund Berry Godfrey JP., a Protestant, was found supposedly murdered on Primrose Hill, London, a circumstance which was exploited by Titus Oates, as the work of the Catholics, which helped to foment the hysteria of the so called Popish Plot.

Sir Edmund burie (sic) Godfrey Murder made Visible: contemporary newspaper which vividly in pictorial form shows his murder by stabbing.

It was believed he was a victim of Jesuit ‘hit-men’, became a martyr overnight and  caused such an outrage that commemorative medals, daggers, sermons and pamphlets were issued in his memory.

Commemorative plaque to Edmund Godfrey and his brother in Westminster Abbey.

The death centred on the uninhibited court of Charles II and Restoration London and brought to a head a series of rumours regarding Catholic plots to kill the king and institute his brother James Duke of York in his place.

The Titus Oates’ rumour was that Jesuits were to assassinate the King whilst out in St. James’s Park. However he had been warned previously on 13th August by Christopher Kirkby who assisted the King with his scientific experiments.(1)

On 5th November 1678 the effigy of the Pope was burnt instead of Guy in a year which saw the hysteria of the ‘Popish Plot’ when Titus Oates perjured himself in fomenting rumour of a Catholic uprising. One family implicated in the Plot was Tichborne resulting in Sir Henry and two of his uncles being imprisoned until 1685.

After five Catholic Lords were released in 1685  the Catholics were driven from London as fear set in.

Many Catholics between 1678 and 1680 were executed including Lord Stafford son of the earl of Arundel who was tried and found guilty after perjury by an associate of Oates.

In December 1680 Stafford was beheaded on Tower Hill whilst Lord Aston of Tixall Hall, Staffs, was more fortunate and went on to hold the castle at Chester for James II in the 1688 Revolution.

However the damage had been done and the upshot was a 2nd Test Act and an Exclusion Bill which would have excluded James II from the throne, but Charles managed to dissolve Parliament before a vote could be taken..

Some have seen the Act of Settlement putting William on the throne as directed against those of a ‘Popish’ persuasion. Many would have remembered the hysteria of the Popish Plot of 1678, the Catholic affiliations shown by Charles II, whose heir had converted and whose wife was Catholic.

However whilst it was convenient to ascribe the death of Godfrey to Catholics, might his demise have been due to more prosaic reasons?

(1) On 28th September Godfrey made 43 allegations to the Privy Council against various Catholic Orders which gained little credence. The Jesuits were even blamed for the Great Fire in 1666.





16th October 1854. The Tragedy of a Genius.

One of the most famous of adherents of  Aestheticism was the writer, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde born Today in 1854.(1)

At Oxford, as a brilliant Classicist, Wilde in the mid 1870.s decorated his room with peacock feathers and oriental porcelain and it was there that he met Walter Pater (1839-94) one of the ideological fountain-heads of Aestheticism. (2)

The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street near the Royal Academy in 1877 was a show-piece for the movement with its marble, gilt and ‘greenery-yallery’ silk walls and pictures of Edward Burne-Jones, Whistler, Albert Moore and G.W. Watts. At the opening Wilde turned up in an outfit shaped like a cello.

A Private Viewing at the Royal Academy 1881 by William Powell Frith shows Wilde in the centre of admirers, as darling of the artistic set. Then disaster struck as he had become attracted to the seedy demi-monde of immorality, in particular his association with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), son of the the Marquess of Queensbury.(3)

Calling card of Queensbury.

The Marquess planned to disrupt Wilde’s play, the ‘Importance of being Ernest’, by throwing a bouquet of rotten vegetables on the opening night at St James’ Theatre on 14th February 1895, but continued to harass Oscar Wilde who launched a private prosecution for criminal libel. (4)

In March Wilde brought an action for Criminal Libel against Queensbury (Sholto-Douglas) who had publicly accused the writer of ‘posing [as a ] somdomite’ (sic) when he presented his calling card at his club. The libel charge reflected that homosexuality was then a criminal charge.

The trial opened on 3rd April 1895 but Wilde dropped his prosecution. However under the Libel Act 1843 Wilde was legally liable for costs resulting in his bankruptcy. Also damaging evidence had come out against Wilde.

So on leaving court he was arrested at the Cadogen Hotel, London, under Section 11 Criminal Law Amendment Act for gross indecency. (5)

The prosecution opened 26th April 1895 with Wilde pleading not guilty, but the jury were unable to reach a verdict; it was decided to continue with a new trial resulting in 25th May 1895 with a sentence of two years hard labour, which included sessions on the tread-mill at various gaols, lastly Reading. (6)

Imprisonment ruined Wilde’s health and he died aged 46 poverty-stricken in France.

Wilde’s wife Constance lived up to her name ‘Nomen est omen’ as the long suffering wife who remained loyal to Oscar even after being convicted of ‘committing acts of gross indecency’.This was recognised when actress Ellen Terry wrote to her as ‘Dearest Constancy’.

(1) Full name Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde.

(2) Pater’s  ‘Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry’, Wilde said had a strange influence over his life.

(3) Queensbury was founder of boxing rules.

(4) However Wilde’s trials and notoriety meant that the play ended 1886.

(5) The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogen Hotel was made into a poem by John Betjeman.

(6) He wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol.


Franny Moyle. Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (Murray).Fiona MacCarthy. Guardian. Sat 26.3.2011.

The last pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.


15th October 1764. Decline and Fall.

‘As I sat musing among the ruins,’ Edward Gibbon wrote, ‘while the bare-foot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city started to my mind’.

It was on this day in 1764 that a young Englishman making the fashionable ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe visited the ruins of the Capitol in Rome, and had the idea which led to a monumental work of several volumes since familiar to every student of history.

Temple of Jupiter, Rome.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers sixteen centuries of Italian History taking Gibbon ten years to research and fifteen to write whilst being occupied as a Member of Parliament.

His ironic treatment of Christianity caused some controversy at the time in a work which  showed that even the greatest empires become corrupt and fall, at a time when Britain’s Empire was just beginning.

Gibbon started his work with Hadrian (the wall-builder), the time of the apogee of the empire under whose reign Gibbon said in his monumental, rolling prose: ‘The empire flourished in peace and prosperity… he encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views and the minute details of civil policy’, adding that ‘Hadrian’s passions were curiosity and vanity’.

Temples, Capitoline Hill, ancient Rome.

When he penned the final full stop, ‘a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion’, Gibbon reflected in conclusion, writing as he had on, ‘the greatest perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind’.

We are thus by following in the footsteps of Gibbon meeting historical characters such as Alaric leading the Goths through the pillaged streets of Rome; Justinian gazing for the first time on the dome of the Christian Hagia Sophia, later to become a mosque; Mohammed bringing the new message of Islam to the warriors of Arabia; Charlemagne being crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800.

However modern thinking is against the notion of a decline and fall but posits a Roman world as stable, sophisticated bound together by patronage, commerce and taxation, its citizens living in thriving cities or country estates and indeed the so called barbarians, vandals and Goths often adopted Roman models, whether of religion, coinage or language.

In reality a story of evolution and after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus the last emperor in 476 in the eastern Mediterranean, Roman rule continued for centuries in the eastern Roman Empire known as Byzantium, for which Gibbon had little time.


The period covered by Gibbon, as the medieval writer Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum, recorded, Britain saw five invasions, from the Romans, Picts, Saxons, Danes and Normans which he said resulted from five punishments or plagues inflicted by God on the faithless.

This history of which 25 MS are extant was first printed by Sir Henry Savile in his 1596 Historical Miscellany: Rerum Anglicarum Scriptores Post Bedam Praecipui.

Ref: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ref: Article C. Warren Hollister.

Ref: crystallinks/Pics.


14th October 1940. Disaster on Balham High Road.

On this night in 1940 a bomb dropped on Balham High Street SW 17 created a crater so deep it buried and flooded the underground station killing many who were using it as an air-raid shelter.

People moving by as the bus is lifted.

To add to the carnage, in the blackout, a No 88 bus Registration ST 5056 fell into the hole, leaving only visible, incongruously, the advert on the rear ‘Have you Macleaned your Teeth Today’? and on the side, ‘Bonds for Victory’.

Unusual to modern eyes is the absence of hoards of ‘first responders’ and the extensive cordons now thrown around incidents, in fact being regarded as another inconvenience of the blitz. One or two are gazing-on, and  there is a car parked up the road, but most are just going about their business.

Balham Tube, cross passage.

The scene was a mass of devastation with tram lines with the road surface still adhering, lying on top of a mountain of debris. It did damage nearby buildings, but those on the other side of the road were largely unscathed.

Elephant and Castle Tube Station, six stops away.

Balham High Road c 1965.





It is uncanny to see above the spot where most people are oblivious of the disaster on that fateful night in 1940.


Until 2010 there was a plaque in the underground station saying 68 were killed, (mainly in the underground), but as this was unconfirmed a new plaque omits to number the casualties.

What is utterly bizarre in hindsight in these types of disasters is the juxtaposition of ordinariness with unreality as buses are expected to sail majestically down the street, not end in a crater in the street; it goes against ones logic of things: order becoming chaos.

Remarkably the station was back in operation by the following January.


BBC. WW2 ‘People’s War’: Elizabeth Lister.



francisfrith.com/Pic of 1965.


13th October 2016. Picric Acid: A Two-Edged Sword.

The organic compound Picric Acid ( Greek ‘pikros’ meaning ‘bitter’) is one of the most acidic of Phenols. Picric is carbozotic consisting of carbon and azote, the old name for nitrogen, so called because it does not support life.(1)

It is highly nitrated [with nitrogen] so highly explosive and used traditionally in medicine, antiseptics, burn treatment and dyes and the first nitrated organic compound considered suitable for withstanding shock of artillery firing.

Thus one of the most deadly explosives came from Picric Acid resulting from experiments by Peter Woulfe in 1779; ironic in its use as an antiseptic for burns.

Nitroglycerine and Nitrocellulose (gun cotton) were available earlier but being shock-sensitive causing detonation in the artillery barrel.(2)

Picric Acid was unusually in the news in 2016 when BBC Bristol reported Today that Clifton College was evacuated due to discovery of the acid, in its dangerous dried state, in its chemical store, resulting in a controlled explosion by the Army Logistic Corps. The following May the Corps, again in Bristol, were called out, this time to a private house to render safe a similar vessel of the acid.

Picric Acid in the 19thc was also found to dye silk a bright greenish/yellow by treating  a mixture of aqueous solution of Indigo with Spirit of Nitre (Nitric Acid). However it was found not to be ‘light-fast’, but could however be considered the first synthetic dye, thus a typical example of chemistry having negative and positive effects.

Picric Acid wetted with not less than 10% by mass producing yellow moist crystals.


(1a) Phenols are a type of alcohol.

(1b) Picric Acid (C6 H3 N3) O7.  (2-4-6 Trinitrophenol). Boiling Point c300°c.

(1c) Picrate is the highly explosive salt of Picric Acid (trinitrophenol).

(2) Nitrocellulose is a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose through exposure to nitric acid. It is used as a propellant or low order explosive (guncotton).