Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain – Conway Hall

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Yesterday I attended a talk organised by the Conway Hall Ethical Society and the London Fortean Society, held at Conway Hall. The talk, entitled Science in Wonderland – The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain, was delivered by Melanie Keene, a historian of science for children.

Keene spoke about how and why fairy tales were seen as appropriate mediums to instruct children in science. Fairy stories were very popular in Victorian Britain, and science was also growing in popularity. In 1859 The Fairy Tales of Science was released, a compilation of non-fiction lectures. We were shown some impressive pictures, including witches flying through the skies on telescopes and an evocative image of “monster soup”, a display of life as seen through a microscope. One unusual love story saw a microscopist falling in love with a creature living in his petri dish, who sadly subsequently died. Fairies were drawn as chemical elements, holding hands to combine into molecules, while L. Frank Baum’s The Master Key was subtitled An Electrical Fairy Tale. Finally, referencing the title of the lecture, an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was displayed, showing Alice’s encounters with creatures beneath the microscope, even more unusual than the ones she encounters in the Lewis Carroll original.

The Terror of London: Spring-heeled Jack and the Victorian Metropolitan Press – Conway Hall

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The other night I attended a talk organised by the Conway Hall Ethical Society and the London Fortean Society, on the theme of Spring-heeled Jack, the legendary Victorian figure made famous by late nineteenth century penny dreadfuls. The event was held at Conway Hall, a building near Holborn which hosts many talks, events and courses.

I know of Spring-heeled Jack, a mysterious figure of urban folklore, mainly through his incarnations in Victorian fiction and later, including Philip Pullman’s novel. This talk, delivered by Dr Karl Bell, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth, focused on his origins at the beginning of the Victorian era.

The legend of Jack supposedly grew out of the reported sightings of “local” ghosts throughout London, including the “Hammersmith ghost” that terrorised Londoners in the south west at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the autumn of 1837 a sighting of a white bull was reported in Barnes, swiftly followed by a bear in East Sheen. In the next few weeks the creature appeared to transform, being seen as a man and a devil, heading out as far as Hampton Court and attacking a carpenter in Isleworth, who reported that the creature wore polished steel armour. The creature continued to traverse west London, causing some individuals to comment that he appeared to be making use of the Great Western Railway: he was sighted in Uxbridge, Ealing and Acton before eventually surfacing in Lewisham and Blackheath. A mention in the London Metropolitan News in early 1838, and a letter to The Times, brought the affair to the attention of the general public.

When the Mayor requested descriptions of the mysterious figure so that attempts could be made to catch him, he was inundated with widely conflicting accounts. The thing was a devil, a person, a ghost; he was covered with a white sheet or metal armour; he breathed fire, which was sometimes blue. An odd creature, whose raison d’être was apparently to frighten, rather than harm, people: he would terrify them out of their wits then casually wander away. At this stage there was no mention of the springs attached to his shoes that would help him leap ten feet into the air and vanish along the housetops. It was rare to find a first-hand account; most stories came from someone who’d heard that their second cousin’s neighbour’s daughter (or some such connection) had encountered Spring-heeled Jack.

Dr Karl suggests that there were three reasons in particular that helped this character to become so well-known. Firstly, his appearance and character evolved, becoming distinctive and memorable, and it helped that satirist magazines printed vivid images. Secondly, his name, “Spring-heeled Jack”, was particularly memorable, even though he didn’t receive a name until he had been around for about four months.

Finally, the combination of oral gossip and press interest overlapped and fuelled growing interest, ensuring that Spring-heeled Jack entered the public consciousness. It wasn’t until the 1860s that he received his “terror of London” epithet, but it seemed particularly apt for a creature that had been terrorising the city for, by then, over twenty years.

Late Turner: Painting Set Free – Tate Britain

I was supposed to be meeting a friend on Sunday, but she couldn’t make it, so I decided to go to a couple of exhibitions instead. The first was Late Turner: Painting Set Free at Tate Britain.

The exhibition covers J.M.W. Turner’s work between 1835 and his death in 1851. I adore Turner and thoroughly enjoyed looking at his later works, which give the lie to the concept that old age automatically has to mean settling down into a reactionary retirement. Turner continued to experiment and push the boundaries well into his last years, despite derision and misunderstanding from his contemporaries.

One of my favourite paintings is Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1844), which is just incredible, with the train rushing towards you, the sense of movement clear within the picture. I loved seeing it here. I also loved the Roman and classical-inspired pictures with their beautiful landscapes, as well as the watercolours of the burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. Another favourite was Peace: Burial at Sea (1842) – I thought the light on the water was beautiful.

This exhibition is brilliant, and strongly recommended – but it can get crowded, so I would suggest trying to go at a quiet time if possible.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy – National Portrait Gallery

I went to see Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy at the National Portrait Gallery last Friday after work. This exhibition aims to explore the life and ideas of Morris, who was an artist, writer, socialist and visionary thinker.

The exhibition was interesting, but I thought it focused too little on Morris himself and too much on his contemporaries and those whom he inspired. Books, ceramics and artworks by people such as Eric Gill, Terence Conran and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were interesting in their own right but moved the focus away from Morris. I did like how the exhibition highlighted Morris’ concept of “art for the people” and his Socialist sympathies.

Overall, a good exhibition to visit if you want an overview of William Morris’s life, contemporaries and followers, but not if you are particularly interested in Morris himself.

William Morris Gallery

William Morris Gallery

Located in a Georgian house in Walthamstow, which was home to Morris and his family between 1848 and 1856, is the recently redeveloped William Morris Gallery. I paid a visit as part of my tube exploration plan.

I find Morris a fascinating character – a talented poet and artist who believed that everyone should have beauty in their lives, he became a socialist later in his life and could often be found handing out pamphlets or taking part in demonstrations. He disliked the growing machine-made culture of the Victorian age, and championed small-scale production and handcrafted goods.

The museum tells us about Morris’ life, from his childhood through to old age. It also simultaneously tells the story of the house itself. Displayed in the rooms of the house are several artefacts and examples of his art, and that of his contemporaries. I particularly liked the reconstruction of the Morris and Co. store, which showed how customers could combine the different elements of the design to create a truly Arts and Crafts home. The museum is free to enter, too, which is a bonus!


Address: Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP


Opening Hours: Wed-Sun (& Bank Holidays) 10am-5pm

Prices: Free

Byron and politics: ‘born for opposition’ – King’s College London

Manuscript of Byron’s ‘Detached Thoughts’, number 84, NLS Ms.43352

I managed to catch the King’s College exhibition about Byron just in time – it closes on Wednesday. The exhibition is displayed in the beautiful Weston Room, part of the Maughan Library, and was curated by the Foyle Special Collections Library of King’s College London and the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland, for the 39th International Byron Conference in July (there’s an International Byron Conference! How awesome!).

I wanted to see the exhibition for two main reasons. One: it is full of manuscripts and rare books, which are always interesting. Two: it’s Byron! I have a bit of an obsession with the man, so there was no way I was going to miss this.

‘Byron and politics’ takes a slightly different look at the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet’s life, focusing on his political life and bringing together manuscripts, letters, printed editions and several of Byron’s personal possessions. The exhibition explores the contradictions in the poet’s thought and life: he hated the ruling Tory party but also disliked their opponents the Whigs; he was an aristocrat with a seat in the House of Lords, yet he spoke up for the poor and needy, notably in his Parliamentary speech in which he championed the cause of the Nottinghamshire Luddites; he was in love with the idea of democracy yet refused to admit the poor he knew to be capable of taking part in it. Byron greatly admired Napoleon and was overwhelmingly disappointed when he chose exile over  a ‘noble death’. He himself met his end in Missolonghi, Greece, fighting for the cause of Greek independence.

For someone whose reputation is of a wild, wicked, immoral and frivolous poet, Byron’s deep engagement with the political issues of the day are something of a revelation. This aspect of his life shows, perhaps, a deeper side to his character and a more serious one. He also seems to have had a strong sympathetic understanding of the less fortunate, though ultimately he refused to side with any one party or way of thinking, preferring to form his own views. I took a copy of the exhibition guide, so that I can revisit this aspect of Byron’s life in the future.