About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

16 April 2013


Although I have now been travelling on London buses for more than fifty years, I still find that the upper deck of a London bus is one of the most entertaining and diverting places to be. Coming home on the bus this evening, the Strand was disrupted outside King's College by preparations for Lady Thatcher's funeral tomorrow. Seeing the notices for her funeral, I felt one phase of my life coming full circle. I was job hunting during the Winter of Discontent in 1979 and was appointed at the British Library just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, so the first period of my professional life coincided with her government. I remember an old-style civil servant at the British Library assuring me and others that governments come and go - some would privatise cleaning services, other would bring services back in-house, at the end of the day it wouldn't make much difference. I instinctively felt that such cosy bureaucratic complacency was misplaced, and I was right - Thatcher was very different to everything we had known before.

At that time, I was completing my doctoral thesis on the history of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, as I was at that time, and the early days of Thatcher government provided an instructive and appropriate backdrop. On 11 April 1381, I gave my first public talk on the revolt of 1981 at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I afterwards used my memories of the day to introduce an article on the 1381 revolt:

Returning to London by train, I was astonished to see, as we passed through Brixton, cars and shops in flames and mobs running through the streets. It seemed as if the ghosts of 1381 had come back to take their revenge on modern society. But it was not; it was a riot provoked by heavy-handed police behaviour following a stabbing outside a mini-cab office the previous night. This was the prelude to a summer of riots which affected inner city areas of London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere, eventually leading to disturbances even in peaceful country towns like Cirencester and Knaresborough. These riots marked the nadir of the early days of the Thatcher government. 

Shortly afterwards, I saw a group of rioters throw a burning car into the air at Clapham Junction station, close to where I then lived. These events were instructive for a historian of rebellion: the way in which rumours of disturbances circulated beforehand, for example,  illustrated the power of rumour in such events. I also discovered how it was possible to be in a house close to very violent events and be completely unaware of what was going on. Later, the parallels with 1381 became even stronger when Thatcher's reintroduced a poll tax. The resulting riots were again instructive for a historian of 1381. In Hackney, for example, rioters were very selective in their attacks, destroying shops owned by international conglomerates or singling out unpopular local figures - strong parallels to what happened in 1381. A puzzle in 1381 is how manorial courts sat during the revolt while officials were being attacked and manorial records were being burnt. Yet in 1990 while Trafalgar Square saw the riots which eventually precipitated Thatcher's departure from office,  I sat contentedly in a pub half a mile away, with no knowledge of any disturbances.

Two memories of Margaret Thatcher on the eve of her funeral. I was on the top of a 170 bus, going through Parliament Square, on my way to research the 1381 revolt at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. A small car (was it a British Leyland car?) cut up the bus, causing it to swerve. Sitting at the front of the bus, I realised it was driven by Margaret Thatcher, then a new Leader of the Opposition. The coiffure and dress suit made the driver instantly recognisable. Her indomitable driving, heading for the gates of the Palace of Westminster without much regard for anything else on the road, seemed to summarise her character perfectly.

In 1991, I attended the opening of an exhibition of English Silver Treasures feom the Kremlin at Sotheby's in London. It was one of the earliest displays of art treasures from Russia following the events of 1989, and the Chairman of Sotheby's at that time was Lord Gowrie, a former minister in Thatcher's cabinet. Rumours began to circulate in the reception that she herself would attend. And indeed after a while, she appeared, to the ecstatic delight of the Russian representatives at the reception. Gowrie showed her round. What was truly astonishing was the way that she looked like a parody of herself: layered in thick make-up, she looked and moved like a Thatcher doll - the exaggerated movements in slow motion were particularly striking.

These are just two images that run through my mind on the eve of Lady Thatcher's funeral. I lived of course at that time in Battersea, and frequently walked past the tiny Thatcher home in Flood Street. I remember my surprise when, after she was elected Leader of the Opposition, a policeman stoof outside the house. I suddenly also remember working on my thesis when I heard a huge explosion the other side of the river - the siege of the Iranian Embassy had been raised. But what have these trivial memories to do with the main theme of this blog, the digital and the changes our new digital world are bringing?  Thatcher, although she was a scientist and despite the fact that her government saw the PC beginning to be introduced into offices, is somehow not in my mind associated with technology - the supremely technological British government of the twentieth century will always to me (rightly or wrongly) be Harold Wilson's 1964-70 government.

The digital transformation here is not Thatcher herself, but the fact that I am inclined to write down and share these memories. I'm not a natural diary writer (too much self-discipline required) and I woild never have bothered to use pen and ink on these memories. But somehow its more tempting and convenient to capture thse thoughts and memories on a London bus in blog form.  I'm sure there are others who have done the same, in different ways and in different forms, following the death of Margaret Thatcher. If we can somehow locate and analyse all these various recollections of Margaret Thatcher, we will be able to create a very different picture of the impact and characteristics of her premiership than would be possible for (say) Gladstone or Disraeli, where we are restricted to what as written, drawn and printed. 

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook enable us to share shards of memory and recollection which are otherwise too easily lost to the historical record.



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14 April 2013

Freemasons Down the Bailey

I have watched and admired with fascination and admiration the growth and development of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey over the past ten years into one of the most important online historical resources. The Old Bailey Proceedings are a constant source of inspiration as to how scholarly historical resources should be developed and taken forward.  Bloggers are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Old Bailey Proceedings by blogging their take on the Bailey, so as part of the celebrations, here are two articles which I published a couple of years ago in the masonic periodical, The Square, on references to Freemasonry in the Old Bailey Proceedings.


Assiduous listeners to Radio 4 may recently have heard a series introduced by the historian Amanda Vickery called Voices from the Old Bailey. The radio programme gave a lively picture of everyday life in the eighteenth century by using reports of criminal trials held at the Old Bailey, the criminal court covering London and Middlesex. Every conceivable type of crime passed through the doors of the Bailey. We meet brothel keepers and male prostitutes; we see highwaymen and pickpockets at work; starving men and women are hung for stealing a spoon or a handkerchief. 
The fascination of these stories of criminal life was recognised at the time, and reports of trials were popular reading from the beginning of the seventeenth century onwards. From 1678, a periodical was published entitled The Proceedings of the King's Commission of the Peace and Oyer and Terminer, and Gaol Delivery of Newgate, held for the City of London and the County of Middlesex, at Justice-Hall, in the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey Proceedings, as they are known for short, became very popular reading material among eighteenth-century Londoners. A French visitor to London declared that the trial reports 'are in the opinion of many people one of the most diverting things that a man can read in London'.
The reason why the Old Bailey Proceedings are such a compelling read is not only their presentation of the sheer variety and colour of eighteenth-century London life but also the fact that the reports are based on shorthand notes of the trials, so that victims, witnesses and defendants speak in the first person, and we can almost fancy that we are hearing their own voices. In 1735, for example, a gang led by the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin robbed a house in North London, and one of the victims described his ordeal as follows:
Between seven and eight at Night some body knocked; I unbolted the Door; the two Prisoners, Wheeler, and three more came in with Pistols in their Hands, and said, D - your Blood! How long have you lived here? We had two Candles in the Room, and I saw their Faces plainly. They put a Cloth over my Eyes, but in five or six Minutes they took it off, tyed my Hands before me, and carried me into the Room where the Boy was, and sat me down by the Fire. My Master was ty'd and hoodwink'd at the same time - They opened a Closet, took out a Bottle of Elder Wine and made us drink twice. They took out some Linnen and Plate. I was present when the Prisoners were taken, they had several Pistols, and made a great Resistance.
Despite the fact that they were so popular in the eighteenth century, the Old Bailey Proceedings lapsed into obscurity and became difficult to consult. In recent years, however, a joint project by the Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield has made the Old Bailey Proceedings freely available online. They can be consulted at www.oldbaileyonline.org The online resource is fully searchable and contains 197,745 trials, the largest body of texts ever published about the everyday life of the ordinary people of London.
Among the Old Bailey Proceedings are some fascinating references to Freemasonry which give us a vivid sense of the role of freemasonry in eighteenth-century London life. For example, in 1796 'Swearus Sandestrom' a Scandinavian visitor to London had his watch stolen. This is his description of the incident:
I am a foreigner, I have been in this country eleven months; yesterday, about three minutes before one o'clock, I was robbed at the gate of the coffee-house, where the Free Masons come out, before they go into Shoreditch church; I was walking along the foot-path, there were a great many people, as thick as they could be, the prisoner was there, and he snatched at my watch chain, and broke it off close to the ring of the watch; I was going into the coffee-house, I took him by the shoulder, and said, my man, you robbed me; he said, what have I robbed you of, and he let it drop out of his hand.
The trial took place on 22 June, suggesting that Sandestrom had been watching a procession by Freemasons at Shoreditch preceding a St John's Day church service. The masonic procession evidently attracted quite a crowd. The man seized by Sandestrom, William Goodwin, protested his innocence, and produced character witnesses saying that his business had recently closed but that he was otherwise honest. Nevertheless, Goodwin was sent for two years to the House of Correction and fined one shilling.
The Goose and Gridiron is famous as the place where Grand Lodge was established in 1717. The Old Bailey Proceedings contain a number of reports of theft at the Goose and Gridiron, reminding us what dangerous places eighteenth-century taverns could be. Worse than theft could occur; one particularly grizzly trial from 1766 describes the rape of a young servant girl aged under 10. One violation of the young girl took place in the room used by a masonic lodge at the Goose and Gridiron:
on the free masons day (there is a club of free masons at the house) she said her uncle sent her up, and the prisoner was cleaning the glasses; that he took her up and flung her on the bed, and did the same again
This masonic lodge at the Goose and Gridiron seems to have been an unhappy place. The following year, it was the scene of a theft. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is impossible to identify which lodge was meeting at the Goose and Gridiron at this time, and one wonders if it was some kind of unofficial masonic activity. The victim of the theft was James Walker, who was the keeper of both the Goose and Gridiron and the Rose and Crown. Walker's testimony does not make it clear whether the theft occurred in the Goose and Gridiron or the Rose and Crown, but the rape case confirms that Walker lived at the Goose and Gridiron and that a lodge was meeting there, so the crime probably took place there. Walker claimed that the perpetrator of the crime was one William Gilliard. Here is the Old Bailey Proceedings report of Walker's accusation:
I keep the Rose and Crown, and Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul's church-yard; I have known the prisoner from last Tuesday was a fortnight, and no longer; he had been at my house before, as I understood by some of my customers; he appeared decent and very genteel, and said he was private secretary to my Lord Shelburne; I had given him credit from time to time; the first time he came in a coach with a lodger of mine; yesterday fortnight he came, and called me up stairs, and said he would pay me my bill, and wanted me to propose him to be made a free mason, in the society at my house, which is held every first and third Thursday in the month; (he used to tell what passed in the house of Lords.) I went up stairs with him to the next room to the lodge-room, upon the same floor; he asked me to give him two half guineas for a guinea; (it is a general rule to deposit half a guinea when a mason is made) I pulled out my purse, there might be 30 or 40 guineas in it; I put it on the table; the master of the lodge immediately called; the prisoner had given me his guinea; I in a hurry took up part of my money, but I left some upon the table; I can safely say there were five guineas left; I went that moment into the mason's room, I had not time to take it all up; (I had put it down in order to look out two half guineas for his guinea) I was not absent I believe a minute, nor two I am sure; and when I came back, the prisoner and money was gone; I went down stairs immediately; he was got into the bar, in order to take his great coat, as I apprehend since; (he went then by the name of Thompson) I said, Mr. Thompson, did you take any money off the table; he said, yes, I did take five guineas; I said, what did you take it off the table for; he said, I took it only to secure it, as you was gone; the bell rang again, and I ran up stairs; I don't suppose I was absent three minutes, and when I came down again, he was gone with his great coat; that night I took some friends with me and pursued him; I understood he used the night houses about Covent-garden; I dare say I spent more than 10 l in looking for him; I had been there every night; I had mentioned him to a gentleman that knew him, and I found he was a person of very bad character; last Saturday night a person came and said, run out, Walker, he is just gone by; I ran out, and found him in an earthen-ware shop, cheapening some things; when he came out of the shop, I laid hold of him, and said, Mr. Thompson, I want to speak with you; said he, I am in a violent hurry now; I said, I must speak with you; I am in a violent hurry, said he again; I said, I take you up as a thief, you stole my money in my house; said he, what, for them few guineas; go with me into Queen-street, Cheapside, and I'll give you security for your money; I said, no, you shall never be discharged till you come to the Old-Bailey   
Cross-examined, Walker was asked whether the prisoner was the only person in the room when he went into the mason's room. Walker replied that 'There was nobody near him but the tyler, that was obliged to stand at the door'. John Gill, a lodger at the Goose and Gridiron, confirmed that Walker had claimed to be Lord Shelburne's secretary and said that he would speak to Lord Shelburne about getting a position for him. The prisoner then spoke in his own defence:
I went to Mr. Walker's house on Thursday the 5th istant; he took me up stairs; I told him there in the room, I had not money then to be made a mason, what I had was but 3 s. 6 d. The reply to me was, he would lend me any money that I wanted, and pulled out a sum of money from his pocket, and offered me five guineas into my hand; said he, I will make you a present of this money, if you will not mention the case that was when you lay with me at five o'clock in the morning; after this, I told him I would not accept of that sum of money upon any such terms, but if he would lend me the sum of five guineas, I would be much obliged to him, and pay him very honestly; upon this, he consented and lent it me; I took a guinea out of them, and desired two half guineas; he took it and gave me two half guineas, and then took one of the half guineas and went into the lodge-room to propose me as a mason; after he had been into the club-room, he came out to me, and told me he had proposed me; he went down stairs with me; there I staid some time in the bar, and then told him I could not stay any longer; I wished him a good night, and went away.   
Gilliard's suggestion that he had some kind of liaison with Walker was apparently a desperate attempt to save his skin. Enquiries revealed that Lord Shelburne knew nothing about him. William Pain, summoned as a character witness on behalf of Gilliard, declared that he was actually a pastry cook called Swain, whose character 'is a very bad one; it is that of a thief'. In fact, Swain al. Gilliard al. Thompson had already been sentenced to death for a robbery in Surrey five years previously, but had been pardoned by the influence of his friends. He was found guilty and sentenced to transportation to the American colonies.
In 1774, the Bow Street Runners, under the direction of Henry Fielding's brother, the blind magistrate Sir John Fielding, seized a group of men who were making counterfeit coins in the basement of a house in Old Fish Street. Among the gang was a man called Thomas Pickering, who claimed that he was the master of a masonic lodge and was at the time of his arrest on his way to visit Charles Bearblock, who was Grand Secretary of the Ancients Grand Lodge from 1779 to 1782.  Pickering claimed that he had simply stopped to see what the commotion was about and had been wrongly seized by the Bow Street Runners:
I had some business with Mr. Bearblock; he had been a Grand Master of the Free-masons; I was master of the Lodge this year; a man had applied to me to be made a free-mason; I was not so well acquainted with the solemnities as Mr. Bearblock, therefore I applied to see him; I saw a man come out of the area of this house; I saw Heley take him, upon that I got over the rails into the area to satisfy my curiosity; I was sent to the Compter; being taken, I could not go on to Mr. Bearblock's at all
It was an exaggeration to claim that Bearblock had been Grand Master, but he was Past Master of Lodge No. 4 under the Ancients. Despite Pickering's invocation of this masonic connection, he and all the other counterfeiters were found guilty. It may be that Bearblock, who was at that time apparently a wine importer, was indeed prone to keeping dubious company. He was mysteriously discharged after just three years as Grand Secretary of the Ancients. It would be intrguing to know whether the Charles Bearblock who was tried with others at the Old Bailey in 1798 for stealing a shipment of coffee from a ship moored on the Thames was the former Grand Secretary of the Ancients.
One of the most compelling aspects of The Old Bailey Proceedings is the way in which they reveal the lives of obscure and forgotten Londoners. Tracing the life of somebody like Bearblock through these sources is a fascinating exercise in reconstruction, and this is the inspiration for a new project by the team which created the online version of the Old Bailey Proceedings. London Lives will allow a number of other datasets containing information about ordinary Londoners to be investigated and cross-searched, so that biographies of many everyday people can be reconstructed. The first stages of the London Lives project are available at www.londonlives.org. Again, this project is already bringing to light fascinating information about eighteenth-century London Freemasonry. For example, it is already possible to search on this site working papers of Middlesex justices which include inquests. In 1763, a man called John Bunter was stabbed to death near Cannon Street. The immediate reason for the argument which led to Bunter's death was apparently his intention of becoming a Freemason.
By the late eighteenth century, public interest in crime reports was waning, and sales of the Old Bailey Proceedings declined. From 1787, the City of London had to subsidise the publication costs of the proceedings. The proceedings began to become less popular literature and more of a formal record. They continued to be pubished until the establishment of the Central Criminal Court in 1913. The Old Bailey Proceedings Online website has recently added these nineteenth-century records to its database. While these reports lack the immediacy of the eighteenth-century trials, nevertheless they are also packed with fascinating information for the historian of Freemasonry. I hope to discuss some of these nineteenth-century cases from the Old Bailey in the next issue of The Square


'A person who is tired of crime', declared Horace Rumpole, 'is tired of life'. Rumpole of course regarded his 'proper stamping ground' as the Old Bailey. Those of you who have seen the recent BBC drama series Garrow’s Law or heard the Radio 4 programmes Voices from the Bailey will know that Rumpole's axiom was just as true in the eighteenth century as today. The printed collections of Old Bailey Proceedings, which describe criminal trials held at the courts held at the Old Bailey in London, provide vivid depictions of many aspects of everyday life in eighteenth-century London. The Old Bailey Proceedings have been made available online by a joint project based at the Universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire, and you can search these trials for yourself at 

The eighteenth-century trials include a number of intriguing references to Freemasonry, such as a theft during a Masonic meeting at the Goose and Gridiron, which I described in an earlier issue of The Square. The Old Bailey Proceedings do not simply cover the eighteenth century, but continued until 1913. However, the nature of the reports of nineteenth-century trials in the proceedings is  slightly different to those I have already discussed. To understand the reasons for this, it is necessary to look briefly at the publication history of the proceedings.

The enormous public interest in the lives of ordinary criminals (perhaps enhanced by the explicit sexual testimony in some of the trials) meant that from the 1730s the printed proceedings were among the best-selling publications of the day.  By the 1770s, however, readership for the proceedings was declining, as newspapers began to carry more detailed reports of trials. Commercial publishers lost interest in the Old Bailey Proceedings and it was necessary for the City of London to provide a subsidy to ensure their continued publication.

The City started to view the printed proceedings increasingly as an official record and in 1778 demanded that they should provide a ‘true, fair and perfect narrative’ of all the trials. In response to this, the publishers of the proceedings reduced the amount of salacious content and reported individual trials in much greater detail. The Old Bailey Proceedings became in effect an official publication of the City of London, providing an accurate public record designed largely for use by lawyers. In 1834, the jurisdiction of the court was extended and it was renamed the Central Criminal Court. Despite occasional attempts by the City of London to save money by discontinuing the proceedings, they continued to be published until 1913 when the Criminal Justice Act introduced a statutory requirement for the taking of shorthand notes of trials, paid for by the Treasury. The Old Bailey Proceedings consequently became redundant, and their publication ceased in 1913.

The reports of nineteenth-century criminal trials at the Old Bailey have now been made available online by the Old Bailey Online project at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield. An immediate impression is that these nineteenth-century trials contain much more information about Freemasonry than the eighteenth-century trials. This may be explained in a number of ways. As already noted, the publishers of the eighteenth-century proceedings tended to concentrate on the more sensational cases and omitted many mundane crimes, which may have included some cases with a Masonic element. The nineteenth-century reports also provide a much more detailed record of the examination of prisoners and witnesses which mean that they contain more passing references to Freemasonry. Nevertheless, the impression which emerges from the Old Bailey proceedings is that Freemasonry was a much more prominent and significant part of London life during the reign of Queen Victoria than it had been in the eighteenth century. This is important, since research into the history of Freemasonry has tended to focus on the eighteenth century, and Freemasonry has been largely considered historically as an expression of the Enlightenment. Yet it was during the nineteenth century that Freemasonry finally became an integral part of British society.

The Old Bailey Proceedings illustrate how we need to pay more attention to nineteenth-century Freemasonry if we are to understand the importance of Freemasonry in culture and society. The way in which Freemasonry was all pervasive in nineteenth-century London can be seen from a number of theft cases in which Masonic objects were stolen. For example, Henry Sales was indicted in 1840 for shoplifting from a pawnshop. The most valuable of the objects stolen by him were three Masonic ornaments worth altogether about a guinea. One imagines a run-down pawnshop in which many of the most prominent and most noticeable objects on display were Masonic. In a case from 1835, Elizabeth Baker, who with her husband Avery kept the Crown and Horseshoe public house in Holborn, was going to bed and found her bedroom door open. She could see that her chest of drawers had been opened and that her clothes were scattered all over the room. She ran down the stairs and cleverly locked a door so that the thief could not escape if he was still upstairs. When the thief came downstairs he tried the door and finding it locked, leapt over some banisters. Elizabeth shouted ‘Stop Thief!’ and tried to grab the miscreant, but he got away from her clutches.

In the scuffle, the thief lost his hat, and when it was picked up it was found that it contained Avery Baker’s Masonic apron which was valued at fifteen shillings (about £70 in modern values). Among other goods which the thief had tried to take were some shirts, a gown, a shawl and some handkerchiefs, but the Masonic apron was far and away the most valuable item. In the tap room of the Crown and Horseshoe, where Avery was pouring gin-and-water and customers were drinking, they heard Elizabeth’s cry of alarm, and saw the thief trying to escape. One of the Bakers’ servants, Abigail Barry, seized the thief, and with the assistance of one of the customers restrained him while the watchman was summoned. The prisoner was a man called Henry Edmonds. On closer examination of the hat, it was found that as well as the Masonic apron it contained some skeleton keys. Edmonds, who had been seen drinking in the bar before the attempted theft, claimed that the hat was not his, and that he had been innocently drinking with his brother-in-law. He had simply gone upstairs to find the landlord to get another drink. Despite receiving a good character, Edmonds’s claim was not believed, and he was sentenced to death.

The opulence of Victorian and Edwardian Freemasonry is vividly expressed in the case of Albert Rothery. In January 1907, Samuel Gurney Massey was tried at the Old Bailey for fraud in managing the affairs of the ‘Economic Bank’, which had gone bankrupt. Albert Rothery, an accountant who had acted for the liquidators of the bank, was among the witnesses who appeared against Massey. However, nine months later, Rothery himself was to be tried at the Old Bailey for a crude fraud on suppliers of Masonic regalia and jewels. He had obtained Masonic and other jewellery worth hundreds of pounds on credit from various suppliers which he had then pawned, notwithstanding the fact that he was an undischarged bankrupt. It is worth tabulating Rothery’s depredations since they give a good picture of the healthy state of the Masonic regalia business in Edwardian London and the value of the jewels commonly sported by the Freemasons of that time:

From Sir John Bennett Limited, one ring, worth £119;
From Thomas Hutchinson, seven Masonic jewels, worth £37 1s
From Sidney Alexander Weeden, two Masonic jewels, worth £12 1s 6d
From William Henry Toye, two rings and five Masonic jewels, worth £26 1s
From Frank Reginald Kenning, three Masonic jewels, worth £16 5s
From James Masters, one ring, worth £85
From William Stiffen, five Masonic jewels, worth £25 10s

Thus, Rothery had managed to acquire rings and Masonic jewels worth a grand total of £320 17s 6d – more than £25,000 by modern values. Rothery had spun a complex web in perpetrating his fraud, with some twenty pawnbrokers involved.

The name of one of Rothery’s victims, William Toye (1844-1910), who developed the specialist braid and ribbon manufacturing business established by his father into one of the largest manufacturers of Masonic and friendly society regalia, is still well known among British Freemasons. It was not the first time that Toye had suffered a deception in a case which ended up in the Bailey. In 1896, the Investor newspaper carried a prospectus for the firm of T. E. Brinsmead and Sons, piano manufacturers in Kentish Town. Among the subscribers to the Investor was Toye, who described himself as a Masonic jeweller living in the Clerkenwell Road. John Brinsmead was one of the best piano makers of the period; but the Thomas Brinsmead who had set up T. E. Brinsmead and Sons was simply trying to cash in on the Brinsmead name, and had no experience in the manufacture of pianos. Toye was among those duped, and purchased ten pounds worth of shares in T. E. Brinsmead and Sons. Shortly afterwards, he realised his mistake and he wrote asking for his money back, stating that ‘Your prospectus certainly was very misleading in my opinion, as  it did not distinctly state that the firm of T. E. Brinsmead and Sons had or had not any connection with John Brinsmead and Sons, but it read as though they had’. Toye never received his money back, and the firm of T. E. Brinsmead went bankrupt. For their deception, Thomas Brinsmead and his associates were sentenced, thanks to the testimony of Toye and others, to sentences ranging from three months hard labour to five years penal servitude.

Freemasonry was associated in Victorian London with the well-off and respectable. There was money in it, so not surprisingly it frequently figured in cases involving forgery, deception and extortion. James Edgell was a solicitor living in a comfortable house in Teddington who served as a magistrate in Middlesex and was Clerk to the Kingston Guardians. On 29 December 1867, he was attending one of his committees when he received a letter signed T. J. Adams which ‘stated that the writer was aware of certain indecent practices which Edgell had been carrying on, that he could produce 4 witnesses, but had no desire to cause a pubic scandal, or make a pretence of blackmailing, and if £10 in unregistered notes was sent him, the prosecutor would never hear more of the matter’. Edgell sent ten pounds by post and told his wife what had happened. Inevitably, he received another demand for money a few days later. Edgell refused to send any more money, and he received a further letter insisting that the money should be paid and adding that if Edgell sent the money, the blackmailer ‘would keep his secret as a brother Mason’. Eventually, Edgell contacted the police, and an interview was arranged to trap the blackmailer, resulting in the arrest of Oliver Fletcher. Shortly afterwards an accomplice named John Cox was also arrested. Fletcher alleged that the blackmailer was really his half-brother, named Reuben Brooks. He claimed that Brooks owed him four pounds and had said to him ‘I know a Mason, and if you will go and collect some money from him you can deduct that £4, and give me the rest’. Brooks had told him that ‘it was a Masonic affair’. Cross-examined, Fletcher insisted on this justification that ‘it was a Masonic matter’ as a justification for his behaviour. Eventually, after lengthy cross-examination, Fletcher changed his plea to guilty, and received seven years penal servitude.

Another case of extortion directed against a Freemason occurred in 1847. Henry Robert Lewis lived in Upper Montague Street and among his servants were William Litchfield and his wife. Litchfield’s wife died and William Litchfield afterwards left Lewis’s service. Lewis had promised at the time Litchfield’s wife was dying that he would help look after their son, and Lewis gave Litchfield various sums of money after he had left his service to help him in caring for the child. He also gave Litchfield a large sum of money to help him establish a business. Notwithstanding Lewis’s apparent generosity to his former employee, Litchfield seems to have felt that he still deserved more money. On 22 July 1847, Litchfield wrote to Lewis as follows:

Sir, if you do not act as a gentleman towards me in this affair of yours, and come to terms with your solicitor, by leaving with him certain monies to supply my wants in the future while you are out of town, I swear by heaven and hell that the whole of your damnable affair and beastly conduct shall be held up before the eyes of the Masonic order, and the clubs that you are a member of, whose secretaries I will write unto.

Lewis’s reaction to this threatening letter was to arrange for Litchfield to be indicted and arrested. Litchfield was sentenced to be transported for life.

Of the various cases of fraud and deception at the Old Bailey during the nineteenth century with a Masonic connection, the most interesting to the historian of Freemasonry is the prosecution in January 1870 of John Rust for embezzlement in January 1870, because it sheds a remarkable light on the chaotic and financially unstable world of Masonic publication at that time. Rust was employed in the office of William Smith, a civil engineer, in Salisbury Street in London. Among many other activities at this office was the production of two periodicals, namely the Artizan and the Freemasons’ Magazine. The Artizan was one of the main periodicals concerned with civil engineering and had been established in 1844. Smith apparently took over its publication in 1868, at the same time that he also became the publisher of the Freemasons’ Magazine, which had been begun in 1848 by Henry Warren. The production of these two periodicals was just one of the many concerns of Smith’s office which apparently consisted of a room in a building occupied by a number of other nebulous and dubious companies. In cross-examination at the Old Bailey, Smith admitted that a great many companies such as ‘The Public Works and Credit Company of Italy’, of which he was engineer, and the ‘Agricultural and General Machinery Company Limited’ had their nameplates on his office doors.

John Rust had been employed in Smith’s office for about four years and was described by Smith as the publishing clerk of the Artizan and the Freemasons’ Magazine. As far as Smith was concerned, Rust was a junior employee whose duty was ‘to receive money when tendered at the office, receive all letters and hand them over to me and, if I was absent, to my wife'. In August 1869, however, Smith was arrested for debt and imprisoned for three weeks. Smith had been first bankrupted in 1850, which he swore was not his fault, but in connection with partnership proceedings. At the time of Rust’s trial, he was a bankrupt to the tune of some £10,000. While Smith was in the debtor’s prison, Rust received a cheque for £6 15s for an advertisement in the Artizan. After Smith was released from prison, he discharged Rust, presumably because he could no longer afford the wages. When Smith afterwards wrote to the firm which had placed the advertisement requesting payment for the advertisement, the firm replied saying that a cheque had already been sent which had been cashed. Smith found the cheque had been endorsed by Rust. The ledgers of Smith’s companies seem to have been rather hit and miss – in 1850, he had boasted that he had run a firm without any books at all – but he claimed that Rust had deliberately failed to enter the cheque in the ledgers. Rust was arrested at his house in Euston. Rust admitted that he had endorsed the cheque, but insisted that he had used the money for the business.

Smith fared badly under cross-examination. He was asked if he had ever got a lad of fifteen to sign fictitious bills of exchange which were used to raise money; at first, he denied doing so, but when confronted with the boy in question, said that the boy wasn't fifteen, but actually sixteen or seventeen. Smith attempted to bluster, but it was clear that he had engaged in dubious transactions using office juniors as front men. Rust had signed an affidavit for the bankruptcy court concerning Smith’s sharp practice in the publication of the ‘National Masonic Calendar, Pocket Book, and Diary for 1870’, advertised to be edited and published by Smith. Smith claimed that subscriptions to the Masonic calendar would be paid by the advertising agent, but the advertisement stated that post office orders and cheques should be payable to Henry Herbert Montague, which it transpired were the Christian names of Smith’s nine-year-old son.

Rust claimed that he had used the money from the advertisement to pay wages. Smith insisted that Rust had no authority to pay wages unless money was handed to him for that purpose – according to Smith, the only payments Rust was authorised to make were for petty cash and stamps for the postage of newspapers. Smith admitted however that Rust was described in the Freemasons’ Magazine as its publisher to whom Post Office orders should be sent. There was an entry in the books which apparently referred to the disputed cheque, but Smith denied they could be the same. Asked directly whether he had ever been charged with fraud, Smith replied ‘Never, nor against my character. I have always stood very high in the estimation of my friends – I have been utterly ruined by the failure of joint stock companies to pay my fair and reasonable charges’. Nevertheless, the cross-examination made it clear that Smith had a long past of colourful financial dealings.

William Rogers was summoned as a witness for the defence. He described himself as a gentleman who had been for sometime employed as Smith’s amanuensis ‘when he was out of the way’. He produced various cheques relating to his employment which showed the chaotic organisation of the office’s finances and illustrated the way in which the staff had had to use their own money to help keep the office running. Rust frequently opened letters in the office, and signed Post Office orders on Smith’s behalf, although it was not clear whether he also regularly endorsed cheques. Rogers declared that Rust always paid for the postage of the periodicals:

The Artizan journal comes out on the 27th or 28th of the month; it is supposed to be published on the 1st. The Freemasons’ Magazine is issued every Friday. There would be a large number that day to go to all parts of England, and some would go abroad; they were sent out before the beginning of the month, and sometimes not then, in consequence of an absence of money. Rust always paid my salary for the last twelve or eighteen months. He was the publisher of the periodicals, he managed them. He was a person of authority in the office. I considered myself under him. There was no concealment about the cheque.

Asked whether it was ‘a common thing, or was it a very rare thing indeed, that the office should be hard up for money, and the clerks obliged to supply it’, Rogers replied that he had ‘heard the prisoner say so many times and that he did not even know how he was to get the stamps to post the magazines’. It seemed clear that Rust had endorsed the cheque, but it also seemed that he had been routinely allowed to do this by Smith and that such expedients were the only way in which the office could keep running. The jury found Rust guilty, but made the pointed rider that it strongly recommended the judge to show mercy ‘under the very peculiar circumstances of Mr Smith’s office’. Smith’s operation was clearly a very extraordinary one.

Among the claims made by Smith against Rust was that he had been pasing information (presumably about subscribers) to a rival masonic publication. This is presumably a reference to The Freemason which was launched in 1869 by the supplier of Masonic jewels and regalia, George Kenning. Kenning ran the new periodical in a much more business-like fashion and not surprisingly The Freemasons' Magazine soon ceased trading. Rather than relying on an inexperienced young man like John Rust, Kenning used as managers for The Freemason men like Arthur Melbourne, who had had previous experience in running newspapers. But even Kenning could sometimes be caught unawares.

In 1896, Edward Morgan was tried at the Old Bailey for fraud in promoting shares in a company called  the 'United Founders' Association'. Morgan was an undischarged bankrupt, and simply used the money he received via the United Founders' Association' to try and clear some of his debts. The 'United Founders Association' ran newspaper advertisements to attract investors. One such advert read 'Idle Money.—The United Founders'Association invite the attention of investors to unique and safe system of investment, yielding from 10 to 25 percent. No gambling. Absolute security'.

Among the publications which ran advertisements for the 'United Founders' Association' was The Freemason. The item in The Freemason stated that the Association had a capital of £20,000 and was paying very satisfactory dividends.  To make matters worse, there was no indication that this was an advertisement – it looked like an editorial recommendation by The Freemason. Kenning was summoned as a witness to the Old Bailey to explain matters. Kenning declared that the article 'was not written by me or by any member of my staff—I am told it is an advertisement'. Under cross-examination, he repeated that 'I had nothing to do with the puffing advertisement being put in this way and I do not know how it was done'. He blamed his manager, who had supplied two hundred free copies of the issue of The Freemason containing the advertisement to the 'United Founders' Association'. Apparently the advertisement had been secured for The Freemason by a man named Evans who had received ten shillings commission. Kenning felt the responsibility was entirely his manager's: 'my manager was paying 10s. commission to insert a puffing paper what was not marked "Advertisement"—that was very improper'.

Kenning's manager, Arthur Melbourne, was then summoned. He explained that Evans was used to secure advertisements for The Freemason, and had received ten shillings commission for arranging this advertisement. Morgan had separately ordered two hndred extra copies of the issue containing the advertisement. Since The Freemason sold for sixpence a copy, Morgan had been invoiced for £2 10s; this bill had not been paid. Melbourne was then cross-questioned as to why the fact that this was an advertisement was not indicated. He replied as follows:

We did not put "Advt." at the end, because it was stipulated that it should not be put—I agreed to that—this was an exceptional one—nobody criticises the advertisements—our usual charge is five shillings per inch for advertisements pure and simple—there is not a charge for advertisements like this; it depends upon the number of copies—I saw what the copy would make, and suggested the price—I saw it before it was set up in type—the copy was written by Evans, the gentleman who brought orders, and to whom I gave the commission—he has not brought advertisements frequently before—we did not put it in leaded type—this is the first we have put in without "Advt."—I was assured that it was a bone fide business, and I put it in, believing it was all right—the final proof is revised by the editor, but there was not time—I took something out—I am not sub-editor, I am manager—it was not an honest thing to put it in.

The publication of newspapers such as The Freemason was one of the best illustrations of the way in which Freemasonry had become part of the fabric of life in Victorian London. This integration of Freemasonry into everyday life was most visibly expressed in the appearance of masonic halls alongside the non-conformists chapels, temperance halls and other meeting places that appeared as the suburbs of the Victorian city inexorably swallowed up the surrounding countryside. One of the most singular of the cases relating to Freemasonry reported in the Old Bailey Proceedings concerned the use of one of these new masonic halls. The masonic hall at Mount Pleasant in Plumstead was opened in 1888. A number of the lodges which met there had connections with the nearby Woolwich Arsenal, and the Royal Arsenal football team had its annual dinner there in 1891 when it was still an amateur club. In 1911, Sydney Burnett, an employee at the Arsenal, began to hold weekly whist drives at the Freemasons' Hall. Most of those who attended were Arsenal men and their wives.  The drives proved very popular; on one occasion, there were 144 players at 36 tables.

The question of whether whist played in public places for prizes contravened the gaming laws was a vexed one. A recent court decision had determined that 'progressive whist', where pairs were split up when they won a game, was not primarily a game of skill and therefore contravened the law. Burnett was warned by the local police that he drive at the Freemasons' Hall were illegal. He protested that the drives did not involve progressive whist. He offered to allow the police to witness the play. Two policemen visited two of the whist drives. They observed that the events were very respectably conducted: 'No alcohol was sold. The prizes were useful ones'. They confirmed that the drives were partner drives, and admitted that in partner drives the element of chance was less than that of skill. Nevertheless, Burnett was arrested, charged with 'unlawfully using the Freemasons' Hall, Mount Pleasant, Plumstead, for the purpose of unlawful gaming' and duly appeared in the Old Bailey.

The sense of outrage is still audible in Burnett's testimony as recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings:

SYDNEY BURNETT (prisoner, on oath). I am employed in the Woolwich Arsenal. I have played whist some 20 years. It is absolutely a game of skill. I used to organise whist drives on behalf of an association. They presented me with a gold watch in recognition of my services. In October, 1911, I commenced whist drives at Freemason's Hall. Ninety per cent. of the players are Arsenal men and their wives. Most of them are expert players. The drives originally were ordinary progressive. Since the case of Morris v. Godfrey I introduced partner drives. I consider them legal. I consider it a game where skill predominates over chance. It increases the skill of the game not to have the trump card shown. In addition to the ordinary prizes there is an aggregate prize. Those that do not win a prize hand in their cards at the end of the evening and they choose their partners for a whole month. At the end of the month the scores are totalled up and the lady and gentleman with the highest score take prizes. The games are conducted in silence and proper time is given for playing each hand. The games are over at 11 o'clock at the latest. The profit for the 14 months of the whist drives and refreshment bar was £58.

Some of those who attended appeared to attest to Burnett's good character. James Underwood was an examiner of forgings in the Royal Arsenal, had known Burnett since he was a child and considered him of unimpeachable character. Underwood himself had played whist for twenty three years, and was firmly of the opinion that it is a game of skill. Florence Morgan was married to a worker at the Arsenal. She had played whist for about ten years and had regularly attended Burnett's whist drives. She added: 'The players are what I should call the upper set of the artisan class. They are mostly very good players. I consider whist a game of skill. I have run aggregate prizes two months running'. Edith Pyne added simply, 'I know the people who go to these whist drives. I think they tend to improve the social life'.

Burnett was found not guilty, and the whist drives continued at the Freemasons' Hall in Plumstead. Rumpole was right: all human life truly appeared at the Old Bailey, and the different ways in which Freemasonry became bound up with London life in reigns of Queen Victoria and Edward VII are colourfully illustrated for us in the Old Bailey Proceedings. Explore them online for yourself.

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8 April 2013

Thinking about Fluorescent Bunnies

In a previous blog post anticipating the exciting symposium Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine and Digital Humanities, I looked backward to the discovery of DNA and suggested that Maurice Wilkins’s description of the nature of collaborative work held lessons for the digital humanities. But the aim of the symposium at Maryland is to look forward to new collaborations and to explore the potential that new types of data and analysis of data holds for humanities scholars. I have already suggested that a function of the digital humanities should be to form a bridgehead for collaboration between humanities scholars and scientists – in much the way that conservation science in libraries and archives has been one of the chief means by which humanities scholars become acquainted with scientific tools of relevance to their research. But in forging such connections, what kind of links between bioinformatics and digital humanities should we be looking for?

At one level, there are clear cross-overs of knowledge domain. A great deal of epidemiology depends on the use of historical sources, and historians can contribute completely new perspectives to the study of plagues and epidemics because of their understanding of these sources. I think inevitably of the work of my good friend Samuel K. Cohn at the University of Glasgow in his books The Black Death Transformed (2002) and Cultures of Plague (2009) which have challenged conventional wisdom about the nature of the plague in medieval and early modern Europe. Among the sources used by Cohn are health statistics from Italian cities, and in approaches to historical data of this kind there is the potential for a great deal of synergy between bioinformatics and a number of humanities disciplines. New forms of visualization and analysis offer wonderful tools for many different types of study, but also pose potential hazards, since there is a risk that, once historical evidence and texts are rendered into machine-readable form, we forget their context and become uncritical in our use of data.

Data offers rich new potential, but one of the surprising things we have found in our early development of the theme of ‘Digital Transformations', one of the strategic themes identified by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in Britain, is that there are other shared horizons and transformations which go beyond data. The importance of making is becoming daily more evident and imposing. It is clear that the technologies of 3D printing are likely to present another major wave of digital transformation. Amazon has secured a dominant commercial position by transforming the logistics of ordering; with 3D printing, the logistics of manufacture and delivery will be changed in an even more profound fashion, which will make Amazon seem as quaint as Victorian mail order catalogues. The potential of 3D printing is already beginning to transform the medical world. Hospitals in the UK are saving thousands of pounds by printing replacement hips and other bones. The possibility of 3D printing replacement organs such as ears or even internal organs using synthetic cells and bio-inks has already been successfully demonstrated, and will presumably shortly become routine.

In developing the ‘Digital Transformations’ theme, it is becoming increasingly clear that those engaged with the digital arts, because they are exploring new forms of making and experimenting with rapid systems development, will be key people in coming to terms with these new developments. I think for example of the work of Professor Ian Gwilt at Sheffield Hallam University on 3D printing representations of data visualisations, which give us new ways of engaging with data as a tactile object. I have also found very exciting the work of Dr Rob Toulson at Anglia Ruskin University on new approaches to audio engineering. For many years, there has been an aspiration to achieve a great synergy between the work of practicing artists and humanities scholars, and my sense is that finally there is the potential for a very rich and fruitful collaboration. Those working with the digital arts will, in my view, provide a means by which humanities scholars can help assimilate and deploy the new approaches which the maker revolution will produce.

In thinking about biomedicine, art probably seems a long way away. Yet medical research can become cultural heritage and art. When I was at the British Library, a model of Alexander Fleming’s penicillin culture and the careful drawing made by him formed one the most distinctive and attractive objects in the display of modern historical papers. Fleming himself was aware of the potential of biomedicine to create art. He was an amateur painter, but also used microbes themselves to create art. A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine describes how ‘Fleming painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria. He produced these paintings by growing microbes with different natural pigments in the places where he wanted different colors. He would fill a petri dish with agar, a gelatin-like substance, and then use a wire lab tool called a loop to inoculate sections of the plate with different species’. The resulting artworks are little more than curiosities, but Fleming anticipated the development of bioart, which has developed recently into a distinctive field of artistic practice.

One of the most exciting experiences of my first few months as an AHRC fellow was, through the good offices of Bronac Ferran, to meet the distinguished artist Eduardo Kac. Eduardo has been very active in developing and discussing ideas of bioart. Among Eduardo’s most celebrated artworks is GFP Bunny which involved ‘the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein’. Eduardo describes this a transgenic art, and describes transgenic art as follows: ‘a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created’. Eduardo has also produced a fascinating edited volume on bioart, details of which are available here.

Among the artworks which form part of GFP Bunny are a series of artworks called Lagoglyph which reference the rabbit in a series of different media, such as a Google Earth image of a painting of a rabbit head. Last year, Eduardo exhibited a Lagoglyph Sound System which used conductive ink in order to enable the viewer to elicit sounds by touching parts of the painting. Conductive inks (the products used by Eduardo were produced by Bare Conductive Inks) seem to me to illustrate perfectly the transformative potential of making. Once ink can conduct electricity, the analogue becomes digital: manuscripts can become circuit boards and paintings computers. This shifts many of the relations around which the idea of digital humanities has been constructed. Electrically conductive inks of this type are made from enzymes or even whole living organisms, as is described in this patent, so these new materials are themselves a result of biomedicine.

Data has much to unite biomedicine but maybe and digital humanities, but maybe making, bioinks and bioart will prove to be another important shared horizon.

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5 April 2013

Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine and the Digital Humanities


I’m very much looking forward to the symposium being organized at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities next week, Shared Horizons:Data, Biomedicine and the Digital Humanities.  The involvement of such important sponsors as the NEH, the US Department of Health and Research Councils UK make this a particularly exciting and enticing event. Ever since I participated in a pioneering symposium on Reconnecting the Science and Humanities through Digital Libraries organized by my friend Kevin Kiernan at the University of Kentucky in 1995, it has been clear to me that one major role of the digital humanities is to be at the forefront of building links between the arts, humanities and sciences so as to create new methods and insights across a range of disciplines. The digital humanities is potentially a bridgehead between the sciences and the arts and humanities, and Shared Horizons is one of the most exciting and ambitious attempts yet to realize this vision. 

I’m attending the event on behalf of Research Councils UK, but in preparing myself for the symposium, my thoughts inevitably ran towards the history of my own Institution, King’s College London. King’s College includes the celebrated medical schools at Guy’s Hospital (where Keats studied medicine), at St Thomas’s Hospital (founded in 1173 in honour of the recently martyred Becket) and King’s College Hospital itself (where Lister introduced antiseptic surgery), as well as the world famous Institute of Psychiatry. There could hardly be a better place in the world to think about links between the humanities and biological sciences than King’s College London.

If you walk past the Strand campus of King’s College, you will see among the pictures of famous people associated with the College, pictures of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, who were both involved in the pioneering studies of DNA at King’s College from 1945 to 1960. A lot of the preliminary work which led to the building of the first model of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick took place at King’s, which was recognized by the fact that the Nobel Prize awarded in 1962 for the analysis of the structure of DNA was given to the troika of Watson, Crick and Wilkins. Yet of course the role of King’s College London in the discovery of DNA has been overshadowed by controversy, particularly over suggestions that the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery has not been sufficiently acknowledged and that Maurice Wilkins gave Crick and Watson access to her research without her permission.

A natural first starting point for me in preparing for the Shared Horizons event was to read Maurice Wilkins’s autobiography, The Third Man of the Double Helix (Oxford, 2003) – a title which Wilkins firmly insisted in his preface had been imposed on him by his publisher. Wilkins’s autobiography is less well known than Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA, Double Helix, but it is also a compelling read. Watson described Wilkins as a tragic figure, because he had worked on DNA for so long but failed to realize the secret of its structure, and this sense of a man who was utterly committed to science but was also in many ways deeply unhappy and frustrated, longing for a family life but unable for many years to form relaxed and friendly relationships with women, is what makes the Third Man of the Double Helix such a remarkable book. Wilkins was involved in many of the greatest scientific events of the twentieth century – the development of radar, the building of the atom bomb, DNA – but this was undercut by immense loneliness, so bad that Wilkins more than once contemplated suicide. He seemed only to find contentment in his personal life in 1958 when he married Patricia Chidgey. Wilkins is very frank about his difficulties with women and, while Watson felt that Rosalind Franklin made difficulties for Wilkins, Franklin herself must have found the desperately frustrated Wilkins an almost impossible colleague.

Wilkins’s autobiography should be one of the first books read by anyone who wants to work in the digital humanities, because it is one of the most thoughtful and honest discussions of the possibilities and problems of interdisciplinarity. During the London Blitz, a German bomber aiming for Waterloo Bridge missed, and dropped a number of bombs on the quadrangle between King’s College London and Somerset House. After the war, it was realized that the bomb craters offered an opportunity for expansion in a college always short of space, and it was decided to build new scientific laboratories in the space that had been created by the bombs. King’s College London has recruited John Randall from St Andrew’s University as Professor of Physics, who brought Wilkins with him. Randall had begun as a scientist working for GEC, and had shown true entrepreneurial vision in securing equipment and expertise to build on the work undertaken during the war to improve radar.  Randall recognized the potential for the synergies between the separate scientific disciplines of physics and biology. He realized that the availability of strong Departments of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine made King’s College London an ideal place to start a new interdisciplinary programme of biophysics research. Randall secured the funding and support to build in the old bomb craters a new set of laboratories specifically designed to foster a new interdisciplinary study of biophysics. For digital humanists, the way in which the discovery of DNA had its roots in the creation of this avowedly interdisciplinary institute should be an inspiration, and I think it appropriate that the first Department of Digital Humanities in the world should be created in the college which had the vision to allow the creation of the Randall Institute.

Yet Wilkins illustrates many of the tensions and difficulties of boldly creating such new types of research. The College bureaucrats found such innovation unsettling and threatening; according to Wilkins, ‘College bureaucrats were disturbed by Randall’s long-distance telephone bills, and stuffy academics were offended by his unusual plan to mix physics and biology (traditionally very separate) and by what they saw as his pushy style’ (p. 98). Randall showed a genius for obtaining grant money, and his institute developed very rapidly. Yet this created further tensions. While Randall himself allowed researchers a free hand in developing their investigations, he became frustrated at the way in which he became seen as someone whose main function was to pull in grants and build infrastructure. He wanted to be engaged in front-line science, but his researchers became resentful if he tried to get involved. The involvement of different disciplines created tensions, as is apparent in the way in which Rosalind Franklin was recruited partly because of her expertise in x-ray diffraction which would support the work that Wilkins had been doing, but Franklin (apparently having been given an assurance by Randall that she would be working independently) was unwilling simply to support Wilkins’s work. While Wilkins makes it clear that the discovery of the structure of DNA could only have been achieved by the interdisciplinary approach pioneered at King’s, he also provides a vivid series of cautionary tales about the problems and tensions of collaboration, which all digital humanities scholars would be well advised to contemplate at length.

Wilkins perfectly embodies many of the tensions and dilemmas of team working. He emphasizes strongly how in his view the day of the lone scientist making world-shattering discoveries and deductions (like James Clarke Maxwell, another great figure in the history of King’s) were gone. Wilkins’s narrative sows how Crick and Watson did not simply ‘discover’ DNA; their work was one piece in a jigsaw of research by many scientists stretching back many years. In Wilkins’s view, the days when a scientist could aspire to conquer single-handed a great scientific problem, like a mountaineer conquering Everest, were past. But, nevertheless, it is evident from every page of Wilkins’s autobiography that he was oppressed by a sense that, if things had only worked out differently, he could easily have discovered the double helix structure himself. For this, Wilkins blames flaws in the interdisciplinary structure of Randall’s lab at King’s. Colleagues didn’t share information enough, and kept developments to themselves (an ironic criticism, since Wilkins himself seems to have been painfully shy and found talking to colleagues like Franklin difficult). Wilkins contrasts this with Watson and Crick who, he said, were utterly open with each other, fearless in their mutual self-criticism, even to the point of risking their friendship. In many ways, Wilkins’s book is a plea for the open sharing of data in research. It could, of course, be claimed that such pleading for openness was the result of a guilty conscience in showing Crick and Watson the famous image of DNA made by Rosalind Franklin without her knowledge. Nevertheless, Wilkins’s plea for openness seems particularly pertinent as we prepare to consider possible links between the digital humanities and bioinformatics in the Shared Horizons event at MITH, so I can’t resist wrapping up this meditation on the role of interdisciplinarity, collaboration and openness in the discovery of the structure of DNA by quoting the final paragraph of Maurice Wilkins’s book:

‘Open minds are crucial in the future. The concept of openness connects with breadth of mind (like Priestley, of oxygen fame, who in his Chapel read from all the Holy Books). When I use the word ‘open’ I must emphasise that I do not mean open in the static sense, as when one waits passively to receive messages from the outside. To establish dialogue there must be interaction going in and out. It is a creative process, and one needs to be actively exploring one’s own mind, and the mind of the other participant. Energy, creativity, intuition and careful thought may all be needed. The same attention may be required to the concept of open dialogue itself: looking to the future, we need much further enquiry into the idea of open dialogue. The process may be tedious, exhausting and exasperating, and demand much imagination (and good luck!), but without such processes there may be no future for humanity. Perhaps with open dialogue, we may hope for a more creative and joyful community’. (pp. 265-6)

I can’t think of a better epigram for our Shared Horizons symposium.

I couldn't resist adding some more forward-looking reflections to this post. 'Thinking About Fluorescent Bunnies' can be read here.  

Postscript, 18 April 2013

The Department of Digital Humanities is currently based in a dingy outpost of King's at 26-29 Drury Lane (opposite the theatre showing Warhorse). By a strange coincidence, it was in these offices at Drury Lane that Maurice Wilkins spent the end of his career at King's. Following his Nobel Prize in 1962, the biophysics work had begun to outgrow the subterranean Wheatstone Laboratory, and a lease was taken on a old seed warehouse in Drury Lane. In 1964, the beautifully appointed new home of the Biophysics Unit at 26-29 Drury Lane was opened by the Queen Mother (picture below). The unit was later renamed the Randall Institute in honour of its founder. Wilkins's autobiography includes some evocative photographs of social events at Drury Lane in the 1960s. It is a strange coincidence that a Digital Humanities Department, where issues of interdisciplinarity are a central concern, should be currently housed in a building specifically converted for a pioneering unit of interdisciplinary science. It is a connection we should be proud of. Much more about King's and DNA, including further information about Drury Lane, can be found in this excellent online exhibiton by the King's Archive Service: DNA the King's Story.




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