Tag Archives: Green Plaques

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.

IgnatiusSancho

You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!

[Nicky]

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Computer Pioneers: The Westminster Connection

Spurred on by spotting Charles Babbage’s (1791–1871) Green Plaque on a building at 1a Dorset Street, Marylebone, I began to investigate the life of this computing pioneer, who began working on the idea of inventing automatic calculating machines at this address from the 1830s. This work followed his invention of a ‘difference engine’, a fixed-function calculator which used existing mathematical formulae to calculate an answer.

Charles Babbage & his calculating engines, by Doron Swade In contrast, the analytical engine was designed to calculate virtually any mathematical function using programmable numerical data, in any sequence, to find the answer. It would have been programmed by using punched cards, a technique used by loom operators at that time to control the patterns of the woven thread.

Punched holes on cards remained as the means for programming computers in many of the IBM and other early 20th century computers. In fact, immediately before the rise of the personal computer, I remember using hole punched cards denoting chosen subject terms as a means of searching for article references.

Babbage’s use of punched cards is important as it would enabled the operator to repeat the same sequence of operations and also choose alternative actions depending on the value of a result. A landmark in Babbage’s continuous development of his design came with a significant change of the machine’s internal organisation. He separated the stored numbers (data) from the section which processed it, thus laying the foundation for modern computers’ storing data together with a processor to manipulate this data.

Unfortunately Babbage never persuaded the British government or private investors to finance the construction of his machines. Luckily his notes and plans together with his correspondence with Westminster’s next computer pioneer have meant that physical reconstructions are possible. You can see examples of reconstructions at London’s Science Museum.

A female genius : how Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, started the computer age, by James EssingerBabbage’s great supporter and an important contributor to his work was Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852), the daughter of Lord Byron. Her residence, 12 St James’s Square SW1, displays an English Heritage Blue Plaque celebrating this contribution to computing history.

Lovelace is credited with understanding Babbage’s machine perhaps even better than he did himself, and with devising the first complex computer programme. In a letter to Babbage dated 10 July 1843, she suggests

“I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first”.

She is posthumously celebrated for this achievement with a modern programming language named after her: Ada. Without the contribution of both parties the design of the analytical machine would not evolved as one of the first programmable computers. In this partnership Babbage was the engineer and Lovelace the programmer and visionary who saw its potential.

The final pioneer, Alan Turing had a much more tenuous link with the borough, being born in Westminster at Warrington Lodge, 2 Warrington Avenue, Maida Vale before being ‘shipped out’ aged one to the to the care of relations when his parents left for several years in India. However fleeting this connection he is also recognised with an English Heritage Blue Plaque on this house.

Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, by Dermot TuringPosthumously famous for his WW2 code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, about which we have written before, Alan Turing is also widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computing with his design of the Turing machine in the 1930s and his postwar research.

Alan Turing’s work and life is also the subject of the recent feature film ‘The Imitation Game‘.

With pleasing symmetry there is a link between Turing and Lovelace. In the 1930s, whilst working on artificial intelligence and computing, Alan Turing rediscovered her notes on programming and this had a significant influence on his research.

Further biographical details for all three pioneers can also be found using the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in to all of these subscription sites for free with your library membership card). It’s worth looking to the newspaper archives for further insight too – I found several further references to Charles Babbage in The Times Digital Archive as the newspaper published several of his letters relating to various scientific topics. He also wrote to the Illustrated London News describing, with illustrations, a devise which is similar to an early example of a periscope. This was designed for artillery troops to safely line up guns from beneath a parapet. (ILN Saturday, August 18, 1855; pg. 210; Issue 757).

More information about these pioneers and the wider history of computing can be obtained from two further 24/7 reference resources. Credo Reference and Oxford Digital Reference Shelf are both searchable resources which use a number of dictionaries, textbooks and encyclopedias as source material. Just type in the relevant search term, eg: Ada Lovelace, to display a number of links to original text relating to this search.

A brief history of computing by Gerard O'ReganReturning to print, on the shelves of Marylebone Information Service is an useful guide to computing history: A Brief History of Computing by Gerard O’Regan.
The book begins with early civilizations such as the Babylonians and Egyptians, who developed mathematics, geometry and astronomy using methods such as a counting board (an early form of abacus) and algebra to make theoretical calculations, and leads right through to modern computer programming and the internet revolution.

And the computer revolution goes on. Will the next pioneer come from one of our Code Clubs for kids? There are currently regular clubs meeting at Charing CrossChurch Street, Maida Vale and St John’s Wood libraries, but more are planned – ask in your library for details.

[Francis]

A new Blue Plaque in Marylebone

Blue plaque for Sir Fabien Ware, Wyndham Place W1In the last week of September Marylebone gained another blue plaque with the unveiling in Wyndham Place W1 of a plaque to Sir Fabian Ware, the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

Using the English Heritage Blue Plaques search, I was astonished to discover that there are 282 plaques within a mile radius of Marylebone Library. This area also incorporates the eastern part of Fitzrovia and also Bloomsbury over the border in Camden. However a sizable proportion of this total falls within Westminster’s borders.

In total the City of Westminster contains 303 plaques, almost a third of London’s total of 887. Added to this Westminster total there are another 62 local Westminster Green Plaques on buildings. The majority of these celebrate former residents. The remainder were erected to record standing significant buildings such as the Savoy Theatre or to record the site of a former building such as the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place.

The English Heritage website is solely a location finder for plaques rather than a biographical tool. Clicking on an entry will display details of the plaque’s location and text together with details of the material used in the plaque’s construction. For further biographical details of an individual, consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) and also the Library catalogue for autobiographies and biographies of individuals.

(Non)plaque to William Hogarth in ReadingMany other towns have set up their own commemorative plaque scheme, but not all plaques are official. For several years in Reading’s Zinzan Street this unofficial example brought a smile to the face of many a passer by…

[Francis]