Intellectual History Walking Tour of London
View NCH Walking Tour on Google map.
New College of the Humanities has the good fortune to be located at the centre of a truly historic area of London, which means that when I teach my module on Modern Political Ideas, we can visit locations frequented by some of the thinkers that we study and, in a few cases, even encounter these thinkers face to face.
In order to explore these possibilities, inhabiting the world of the figures that we study, I designed a walking tour of the area around NCH, which I’ve detailed below. Give it a try, and get in touch with any questions or further ideas!
Tavistock Square – Gandhi in London
We start in Tavistock Square, a short walk from Bedford Square, where NCH is located. Here we find a statue of Mohandas Gandhi, installed in 1968. Gandhi first arrived in London from India in 1888, in order to pursue his law degree. Although there is some controversy over this, it is probable that he completed at least a large part of his degree at University College London, right next to Tavistock Square. Upon first arriving in London, Gandhi attempted to adopt English customs, including taking dance lessons, working on his English accent and wearing English dress. Staying true to a vow he made to his mother before leaving India, Gandhi stayed away from meat and alcohol while in London, which meant that for the first couple of months he barely subsisted on the questionable vegetarian fare given to him by his landlady before he discovered one of London’s few vegetarian restaurants and joined the Vegetarian Society. He was called to the bar in 1891, and returned to India, where he found it difficult to make a living as a lawyer, being considered to be too timid in the courts. He returned to London in 1931 as a representative of the Indian National Congress. Upon his death in 1948, all Indian-owned shops in London were temporarily closed and Indians from all over the UK gathered at India House in London to mourn.
St Pancras Old Church and Polygon Road – Mary Wollstonecraft
From Tavistock Square we take a walk along Euston Road, past the (new) British Library (we’ll visit the ‘old’ British Library later!) and up to one of London’s oldest churches, St Pancras Old Church, where we find the memorial of Mary Wollstonecraft.
In 1797, Wollstonecraft married her husband, also a philosopher, William Godwin at St Pancras Old Church, and they took up residence (adjoining houses, so they could each have their space!) across the street in Polygon Road. They had met years before at a dinner party with Thomas Paine. Godwin had initially disliked the way in which Wollstonecraft pressed Paine on his ideas, but upon her return from France in the late 1790s, they courted and fell in love. They married in March 1797, and on the 30 August of the same year, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter, also named Mary. Unfortunately, she became ill shortly thereafter, and died of septicaemia on 10 September 1797.
She was buried at St Pancras Old Church, but in 1851 her remains had to be moved to Bournmouth when the railway was brought in. Legend has it that the vicar in Bournmouth initially refused to have her buried there, because of her controversial views (or perhaps her no-less controversial life) and her remains sat outside the church for a full day before he was finally convinced.
You can still find a plaque to Wollstonecraft on Warrington St, near where she took up residence in 1797. Her daughter, Mary, grew up there as well, and ‘courted’ her eventual husband in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.
So… do you know who this young couple was? I’ll give you a clue. It may have been amongst the graves of St Pancras that young Mary began to think about the possibilities of giving the dead new life…
Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon
Cutting across Euston Road once again, we enter the campus of University College London, finding ourselves in the South Cloisters. Here we can find one of the oddest encounters with the past we’ll have on this trip. This is the ‘auto-icon’ of Jeremy Bentham, prepared according to the will he wrote just before his death in 1832. It contains his preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes.
There is a myth that this will also stipulated that he be ‘present’ at all meetings of the College Council, and even be said to have a vote, but this is (claimed to be!) untrue.
His head was also meant to be included, preserved like the rest of his body, but unfortunately something went wrong with the preservation process, and so a wax head was used instead. For many years the rather grotesque head was placed at the feet of the auto-icon, but this proved to be too much temptation for students, especially from UCL’s rival, King’s College London, who stole it for ransom in the 1970s, and are rumoured to have also played football with it. It has safely been stored away.
Before heading off to the next location, it might be worth popping into the nearby Jeremy Bentham pub for a quick refreshing pint before heading on…
Senate House and George Orwell
We head through Bloomsbury to find ourselves at one of the most imposing buildings in the area – Senate House. This building was completed in 1937, and quickly thereafter became the headquarters of the Ministry of Information (or ‘Miniform’) during WWII. It was ‘Miniform’ which gave us the over-memed ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, as well as other wartime slogans.
This was the ministry that employed George Orwell (or rather, Eric Arthur Blair) and although he probably never worked at Senate House, his wife almost certainly did. It is perhaps no surprise then, that both the ministry, and the building which held it, inspired Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ or ‘Minitru’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, where Winston Smith works to perpetuate the truth of the Party for Big Brother.
British Museum – British Library
Until 1997, the British Library was housed at the British Museum, and it was here that Karl Marx, living in Camden at the time, worked away on his Das Kapital, and until very recently one could visit his desk there, but in 2000 the room was restored and now houses exhibitions of various kinds.
Gandhi, Orwell and many other thinkers also worked within the Reading Room at the British Library.
Store Street and Percy Street
We’ll take two smaller streets towards Soho, passing as we do a previous home of Wollstonecraft on Store Street, where she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and 18 Percy Street, which served as the inspiration for Winston and Julia’s hideaway in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was the home of Sonia Brownell, who became Orwell’s second wife shortly before his death. Nearby Elysee restaurant was one of Orwell’s favourites, and there are a number of pubs and restaurants in the area which claim to have been frequented by the writer in this period.
Dean Street (Quo Vadis) – Marx’s early residence
Marx and his family lived in Dean St between 1851 and 1856, a period of great poverty for the family. They lived with some Italian teachers and a cook, and three of his five children died while they were living there.
Gerrard Street – Smith and ‘The Club’
As we head through China Town, we pass a building which once housed the Turk’s Head pub, where the Scottish economist Adam Smith, known for his Wealth of Nations, used to visit with members of ‘The Club’, an exclusive group of thinkers, which included Edmund Burke.
Brewer Street – David Hume
Brewer Street was once the home of another Scottish thinker, and mentor of Adam Smith, David Hume. He lived in a boarding house on this street during one of the periods he spent in London.
This particular visit was to be a tumultuous one. In 1766, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau fled to London, fearing for his life and livelihood after the publication of his controversial works, The Social Contract and Émile. Rousseau
had run out of friends on the continent, and an appeal was made to Hume to help him find a place in London intellectual society. Hume agreed, and took on the role of touring the very famous Rousseau around London.
After finding a place in the countryside, Rousseau visited Hume at his home in Soho in March 1766. They would never speak face to face again. For after this point, the often-paranoid Rousseau became convinced that Hume was plotting against him with the philosophers of France. What followed was a very public, much published, feud between the two philosophers. Rousseau returned to France the next year, hiding under a false name.
Windmill Street and the Communist League
Our tour ends, conveniently, at a bar in Windmill Street. Above what is now a Be At One is a room which housed the second congress of the Communist League in 1847. It was at this meeting that Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a manifesto of the growing communist movement, in an attempt to overcome the divides that had grown amongst communists throughout Europe. Engels had already produced two drafts of such a document, which is why he and Marx were asked to write the final version. This would be the Communist Manifesto, which appeared a year later in 1848, and has been hailed as one of the most important and influential texts of the modern era.
And with that, I say enjoy a well-deserved drink.