London 1600-1800 workshop: Day 2

Following on from Noah’s account of the first, the second day of the London 1600-1800 Workshop included panels on metropolitan medicine, city companies, workshops and laboratories, and offices of state. The 17th-and 18th-century practitioners under discussion ranged from apothecaries to excise officers, from instrument makers to tooth-drawers. Our speakers also engaged with very varied sites of urban knowledge production, including dissection rooms, dockyards, coffee shops, and artisanal workshops.

Baynard Castle and Faringdon Wards, from W. Maitland’s History of London (London, 1775).

Despite the variety of practitioners and spaces packed into our panel papers and discussions, a number of common themes began to emerge. First, the ambiguous meaning of ‘communities’ of natural knowledge and artificial practice. Second, the significance of institutional spaces in generating collective cultures of knowledge production. Third, the great range of mediums through which ‘scientific’ ideas were communicated to fellow urban inhabitants, and much broader European and global audiences.

So first the slippery meaning of ‘community’ in relation to urban knowledge cultures. In their analyses of a very wide variety of ‘medical’ practitioners operating both within and outside of incorporated companies, Simon Chaplin and Anna Maerker, separately questioned whether a critical mass of numbers was needed to constitute a ‘community’ of natural knowledge and artificial practice. In his paper on ‘Chemical London in the eighteenth century’, John Christie raised the thorny issue of how we might trace or map groups which did not have a single, clear representative institution, society, or archive. There was for example no ‘chemical society’ in 17th or 18th-century London. On a related note, Gloria Clifton outlined the considerable methodological challenges of studying London’s instrument makers. This was indeed a heterogeneous group of artisans; a cluster of highly skilled makers who did not have their own incorporated company, and by the late 18th century were members of fifty different city guilds. Clifton showed how accounts of guild searches can give us rare glimpses into the world of workshop practices, including the role of women as lens grinders.

Moving to sites of knowledge production, our second shared theme, and a number of Workshop papers also illuminated the significance of institutional spaces in the construction of collective, skilled identities. I demonstrated how city guilds such as the Armourers’, Carpenters’, and Goldsmiths’ Companies, developed institutional buildings and material collections that exhibited shared knowledge cultures and craft practices. Anna Simmons and Simon Chaplin separately showed how the Apothecaries’ and Barber-Surgeons’ Halls contained sites of medical experimentation and learning, such as a laboratory and a dissection room, respectively. But by comparison, how do we explore the institutional identity of a guild such as the Clockmakers’ Company (David Rooney), which did not establish its own livery hall, and whose archive and plate were stored in a moveable chest which resided in the guild master’s home?

William Cheselden in the anatomy theatre of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, c.1730s, attributed to Charles Phillips.

Finally, nearly all Workshop papers hinted at the vast array of oral, written, and material mediums through which ‘scientific’ knowledge was communicated and disseminated. We heard about the heated coffee house discussions of the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Mat Paskins); the active print culture and legacy of the Board of Longitude (Sophie Waring); the precision mapping and drawing of products by excise officers (William Ashworth); the lectures and dissections conducted by surgeons, and the tests and trials of new materials for boats at Deptford shipyard (Roger Knight).

The Workshop closed with a lively general discussion. All session participants were invited to offer reflections on the thematic breadth, conceptualisation, and methodologies of the ‘London: Science City’ gallery (Science Museum), and ‘Metropolitan Science’ research project (University of Kent). Rebekah Higgitt and Alison Boyle then gave us their responses.

A number of significant themes emerged from this discussion. First, the sheer variety of institutions involved in knowledge production in seventeenth and eighteenth century London. Despite the broad and inclusive ambitions of the Workshop, we might also have considered the role of libraries, schools, hospitals, theatres, and the Inns of Court, in scientific instruction, experimentation, and knowledge dissemination. Second, a number of participants raised the issue of how we might conceptualise London itself. Contemporaries frequently observed that the city was herself an agent, variously configured as either conducive or detrimental to knowledge production and education. We might also attend more closely to the natural features of the urban environment. How, for example, does the Thames, or calamitous natural events such as the Great Fire, feature in (or frame?) our examinations of metropolitan science?

Overall it was generally agreed that the Workshop had been a highly successful and stimulating start to the Metropolitan Science project. Throughout the presentations we were frequently reminded both of the sheer density of human activity within the city and its environs, and of the multiple dynamic connections – social, commercial, and intellectual – between London’s urban institutions.

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