Over time great cities remain largely the same and are always changing. Streetscapes are continually remodelled. In architecture everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. Every new generation is eager to tinker with the aesthetics of urban space and to create its own city. At times, however, major change is forced upon an urban community by unforeseen circumstances. Many cities have suffered calamities such as fires, earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, riots, revolutions, explosions, industrial accidents, suicide bombers – not to mention fashionable architects. Disasters fall into the two categories of man-made and natural calamities. Natural disasters, like the Lisbon earthquake, are ‘acts of God’. Man-made disasters happen as a result of negligence, error or hubris. Industrial society had to learn to cope with such catastrophes.
On 12 January 1807, late in the afternoon, Leiden was hit by a calamity which became known as the gunpowder disaster. Early that morning a mercantile vessel had moored at the Rapenburg, not far removed from the University, carrying several thousand pounds of gunpowder. When a spark reached it inadvertently hell broke loose. The whole neighbourhood was shattered, 218 buildings ruined, and 151 citizens – among them a number of academics, including Jean Luzac, Professor in Greek and History, and editor of the highly influential Gazette de Leyde – had lost their lives. The scene of the disaster and was painted by Carel Lodewijk Hansen. This is a strange picture. A group of sightseers are gathered on the bridge to view the destruction. Further along, people are busy clearing the wreckage. Looking at this image is like reading a disaster novel, a genre that would become popular later in the century.
Apocalyptic fiction is concerned with the end of civilization due to a man-made catastrophe. The genre gained in popularity after World War II when the possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the public consciousness, but apocalyptic novels have existed at least since the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Mary Shelley published The Last Man (1826). In 1885, Richard Jefferies published his novel After London. The story tells of an unspecified catastrophe that has depopulated England. The countryside reverts to nature, and the few survivors are forced back into a primitive way of life. London is turned into a poisonous swampland. The cataclysm genre was continued by H.G. Wells and would, in the twentieth century, be adopted by the film industry. In art, apocalypse is a city named London, but Hansen had set a precedent with his view of devastated Leiden.
Man-made or natural disasters have scarred the face of numerous places, be it the Great Fire of London, the Great Lisbon Earthquake, or the Great Florence Flooding. Some streets have disappeared from the map altogether. Paternoster Row is one of those. An early claim to fame for the Row was Dolly’s Chop-house. It had Dolly the cook for its sign which was probably painted by Thomas Gainsborough who was a regular customer there. The original house was built on a site once owned by Elizabethan comic actor and innkeeper Richard Tarleton.
Although details about his early life are scarce, it is certain that he arrived in London as a provincial immigrant. Dressed as a rustic clown in a russet suit and buttoned cap, he stamped his enduring image on the city. The role enabled him to speak for many uprooted countrymen who had to come to terms with the urban environment in which they found themselves. Landlords of public houses cashed in on his popularity by using his portrait as a sign. The main feature of Dolly’s establishment which succeeded Tarleton’s tavern was the excellence of its beef-steaks. These were enjoyed in combination with gill ale (flavoured with ground ivy which has a balsamic smell and bitter taste) and were served fresh from the grill, a fact which is accentuated by the allusion which Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett makes in one of Jery Melford’s letters to Sir Watkin Phillips in Humphry Clinker (1771).
The Chop House had a literary clientèle which included Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Pope, and Dryden. Händel’s enormous appetite was also catered for at Dolly’s. From 1784 to 1789 Thomas Jefferson, author of the ‘Declaration of Independence’, who would later be elected the third President of the United States, had been posted in France. During a visit to London he spent Saturday night 25 March 1786 in the company of two American friends at this steak house. In the early hours of Sunday morning, in high spirits no doubt, they produced a fragment of doggerel (fourteen lines) that begins as follows: ‘One among our many follies / Was calling in for steaks at Dolly’s’.
A regular client at Dolly’s was Aberdeen-born physician George Fordyce, a noted epicurean of the eighteenth century. He dined daily there at four o’clock in the afternoon. For starters, he consumed a dish of chicken or fish. This was followed by a solid prime steak accompanied by strong ale drunk from his personal silver tankard, a quarter pint of brandy and a bottle of port. Having enjoyed the meal, he slowly stumbled to his house in Essex Street where he received his pupils and gave a six o’clock lecture on chemistry. Fordyce has been described as a coarse man, a poor lecturer, a lousy doctor, and an alcoholic.
Cooking, religious practice and printing are traditionally interconnected, so it is hardly surprising that these particular activities dominated the street-scene of Paternoster Row. The clergy of the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral would walk here while chanting the Lord’s Prayer. The Row was ecclesiastical in character. Stationers and publishers sold religious books there, as well as alphabets, paternosters, aves, creeds, and graces. Paternoster Row, to the north of the cathedral, and Paternoster Square to the west, became the literary heart of London. Its history was bound up with that of the great publishing firms and the great literary enterprises of that period. Here was issued, among a host of other well-known ventures, the London Magazine, the Annual Register, and the Encyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers. Trübner & Co. was one of the publishing companies on Paternoster Row. Longmans had their immense offices there with its fourteen windows in front.
The first Longman, born in Bristol in 1699, was the son of a soap and sugar merchant. Apprenticed in London, he purchased in the early 1720s the business of William Taylor, the publisher of Robinson Crusoe, and his first venture was the philosophical works of Robert Boyle. Later on Bristol bookseller Owen Rees was taken on as a partner. Before the close of the eighteenth century the house of Longman & Rees had become one of the largest in the City, both as publishers and book-merchants. The ‘lake poets’ proved a valuable acquisition. Wordsworth came first to them, then Coleridge, and lastly Southey.
Next to Longmans were the premises of Whittaker & Co., extending half way down Ave Maria Lane which, since 1670, is home to the famous livery hall of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. By the mid-nineteenth century London was the greatest market for books in the world. Some 15,000 persons were employed in the printing, binding and the sale of books. Paternoster Row boasted that an edition of a thousand copies in octavo required no more than ten or twelve hours for the binding. Unfortunately, and in spite of its pious past, the Row was devastated by aerial bombardment during the Blitz in the night raid of 29/30 December 1940. It was later characterized as the Second Great Fire of London. In a period of twelve hours, more than 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiary missiles were dropped.
The raid and the subsequent fire destroyed many famous Livery Halls and gutted part of the medieval Guildhall. The area destroyed was greater than that of the 1666 Fire of London. Over 1,500 fires were started. A famous photograph ‘St Paul’s Survives’, taken by Herbert Mason from the roof of the former Daily Mail building, shows the dome of the Cathedral rising above clouds of black smoke. The editor of the paper cropped the photo to remove the destroyed houses from the foreground. During the war, Frederick C.W. Cook held the official position of fireman-artist. The Imperial War Museum later purchased nine of his oil paintings for the nation, including an image of the devastation at ‘Paternoster Row’ (oil on canvas, 1944). With the destruction of the Row an estimated five million books were lost in the fire.
Paternoster Row was indirectly connected with another, less catastrophic loss of books. Early in 1780, Irish-born chemist and mineralogist Richard Kirwan became resident at no. 11 Newman Street, near Oxford Street. His home soon became a meeting place for scientists and prominent thinkers. From 1780, a philosophical society under his leadership started to meet regularly at the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row.
The Chapter Coffee House Society, officially nameless but called after is principal meeting place, met regularly for seven years. A set of rules of order established governance (chairman, secretary, dues, membership, and attendance), the appropriate topics of discussion (natural philosophy and technology), and the formal proceedings (for example, members were not required to stand up on the entry of a fellow member no matter his social position). Members chose topics of deliberation, papers were presented, and discussion followed. They brought to society meetings the fruits of correspondence and interactions with fellow philosophers and scientists, and they encouraged conversations about relevant news. Developments in the research of chemistry and pneumatics were regular subjects.
Kirwan was somewhat of an awkward character. In later life he developed a morbid fear of catching a cold. Sidney, Lady Morgan (née Owenson), author of the controversial book The Wild Irish Girl, described how, one fine spring evening, she was received by the scientist dressed in a cloak, shawl, and slouch hat. He was sitting on a sofa, shivering, and surrounded by a large screen, while a red hot fire blazed on the hearth. He died at his home on 1 June 1812. His library was bequeathed to the Royal Irish Academy – or at least what was left of his library. What had happened to a large number of volumes he once owned, reads like an Irish short story.
Beverly, in Essex County, Massachusetts, is a rival of Marblehead for the title of being the birthplace of the U.S. Navy. The place gained a reputation for the number of privateers it sent out to attack and capture enemy vessels during the last decades of the eighteenth century. A privateer is a person or vessel authorized by a government to attack foreign shipping during wartime. This authorization was made by a so-called ‘letter of marque’. For their lucrative efforts the crew was paid ‘prize money’. Cruising for prizes was considered a noble calling that combined patriotism and profit, in contrast to unlicensed piracy, which was universally reviled and severely punished. The advantage to the authorities was that they could mobilize armed ships and professional sailors without having to spend public money or commit naval officers. The goal of privateering was to capture ships rather than to destroy them.
American privateers are thought to have seized up to three hundred British ships during the war. And many of them sailed from Beverly. Arguably the most successful privateer vessel departing from there was the Pilgrim. In September 1778 Hugh Hill was commissioned Commander of the ship. Born at Carrickfergus in Ireland, he had emigrated to Massachusetts and settled in Marblehead. A huge man, wild, courageous, and not burdened by too many scruples, he was the stereotype privateer captain. He had a number of encounters with English vessels. On 24 March 1780 Hill was succeeded by Joseph Robinson, a resident of Salem. Under his command the Pilgrim was as effective a fighting ship as it had been under Hugh Hill. In October 1782 she was finally chased down by the English frigate Chatham and destroyed. The Pilgrim is remembered as the most profitable ship of all Revolutionary privateers, capturing a total of some fifty prizes.
One of those prizes was the English Duke of Gloucester. On 5 September 1781 the ship was captured in the Irish Channel by Robinson and his crew. Amongst its cargo they found Richard Kirwan’s personal collection of books. After his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society he had decided to re-locate indefinitely from his family estate Castle Cregg in County Galway to London. His library of 116 volumes was loaded aboard the Duke of Gloucester to make the journey through the Irish Channel from Galway to the English capital. Once captured, the books were transferred to the Pilgrim and subsequently sold at an auction in Salem on 12 April 1781. Reverend and academic Joseph Willard, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Beverly (and later President of Harvard University), learned of the Kirwan collection and organized the purchase of the lot. The Salem Philosophical Library was founded that same year. An earlier library, known as Salem’s Social Library had been founded in 1760. By 1810, the two bodies were merged to create the Salem Athenaeum. When the new institution was founded, the relatively small town counted more libraries than mighty Boston.
Salem represented the American Enlightenment and, at the same time, was haunted by its past. The history of the town had been stained by the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft that took place between June and September 1692. Nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft; dozens languished in jail for months without trials until the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts subsided. The memory of these dark events motivated members of the Athenaeum to strive for the spread of knowledge and understanding.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was one the most famous patrons of the institution. Today the Athenaeum’s core mission remains unchanged: to enrich the lives of the community by lending, preserving, and adding to its collection of books and documents. The survival of the Kirwan collection proves the argument that privateering was less harmful than other naval encounters. Privateers engaged in battle for prize and profit, for anything that could be sold or auctioned – the less destruction, the greater the prize. Even books were safe in their hands.