Fonts Of Knowledge: London Churches With Scientific Connections

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 46 months ago
Fonts Of Knowledge: London Churches With Scientific Connections

Guidebooks have traditionally been aimed at the church spotter wanting to tick off a transept or ogle an ogive. If you are not a church geek, but just a geek, at which churches might you pause? Here are 11 where you can happily mix science and religion.

Photo courtesy of The Royal Institution

Westminster Abbey

The Abbey has been rather hijacked by royalty, not to mention poets. But it was one of Charles Darwin’s remarkable achievements to be buried here in 1882 when, as far as people have been able to tell, he was an agnostic. It was the only civil honour accorded to him. There is no Physicists' Corner but Darwin finds himself in the company of Newton, Rutherford, Kelvin and JJ Thomson.

Fossils were one of the things that Darwin and ancient religion initially found hard to explain and one Dean of Westminster, Darwin’s contemporary, William Buckland, was notable for his study of them, with a particular interest in fossil turds (Darwin described him as vulgar). Then again, Buckland was also one of the first formally to describe a dinosaur from its fossils, Megalosaurus bucklandii.

St George’s Hanover Square

Often now the scene of society weddings, radio pioneer Guiglielmo Marconi was married here in 1905. But here also is the altar where a more modest inventor tied the knot, and anyone who owns a plastic colander should come to pay their respects. The firm of Addis was founded by one William Addis in 1780. No, he didn't also invent the injection-moulded washing up bowl, but he did create the toothbrush in modern form — with bristles at right angles to the handle. Otherwise, we might still be chewing on a twig.

St George the Martyr, Bloomsbury

Isaac Newton’s story of watching an apple fall reached us via the pen of Royal Society colleague William Stukeley, rector here from 1747 until 1765, though the building has been somewhat Victorianised. Stukeley was an early archaeologist who made the first attempt to date Stonehenge, and he once dissected an elephant (in Chelsea) with physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane. After London’s two earthquakes, exactly a month apart in 1750, Stukeley was one of those whose preaching fuelled panic about a possible third, and had people sleeping outdoors.

St Martin’s in the Fields

There is a small problem with seeking graves in London churchyards. Vast numbers of bodies have been dug up and relocated, usually with little record kept. Notably, the body of chemist Robert Boyle was lost during rebuilding work at St Martin’s in 1721. William Buckland’s naturalist son Frank spent a couple of weeks in the crypt here in 1859 rummaging for his hero, the celebrated Georgian anatomist and surgeon John Hunter, and acquiring any interesting bone fragments for his collection at the same time. Hunter was found and reinterred at Westminster Abbey.

St Mary, Colechurch

There is nothing left of St Mary’s but a plaque, and nothing to tell you that here was married Thomas Muffet in 1580, whose daughter Patience is supposed to have been Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet. He pursued medicine at Cambridge and his study of silkworms (on which subject he wrote in verse) seems to have sparked an interest in creepy crawlies in general. Never mind that spiders are not insects — his great work The Theatre of Insects was published after his death.

St Pancras New Church

St Pancras New Church

Sir Richard Owen, pop-eyed anatomist who coined the term ‘dinosaur’ and whose advice shaped the monsters in Crystal Palace Park was married at the unusual caryatid-bearing church on Euston Road. His spouse was the daughter of a former pupil of John Hunter and the keeper of his collection of anatomical trophies. Marriage involved the usual tolerance of her partner’s interests and, as his animal specimens were frequently smelly, she actively encouraged him to puff cigars around their house.

Sandemanian Church, Faraday Close, Holloway

Cinemas have been converted into temples, but experimental philosopher Michael Faraday’s Sandemanian Church was resurrected as a telephone exchange. Though only accessible to engineers, the position of his pew is marked with a brass plate. Faraday’s lack of formal education and his non-conformist beliefs were behind his urge to reveal the natural laws through experiment. He gave us the electric motor and transformer, and his work on electromagnetic fields was an inspiration to James Clerk Maxwell and Einstein.

St Pancras Old Church

Long term London resident, Neopolitan Tiberius Cavallo tried in 1782 to contain the ‘new’ ultra light gas, hydrogen, in something that would float in air, but only succeeded with the rather impractical soap bubble. He wrote this up for the Royal Society — words which eventually wafted across the channel and prompted the Montgolfier brothers to make the first balloon flight soon after. Cavallo was buried at St Pancras Old Church in 1809.

St Andrew’s Holborn

St Andrew’s Holborn saw the marriage on Christmas Day 1780 of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a member of the Birmingham Lunar Society, a dining club for the enlightened brains of the midlands. Edgeworth was here furtively marrying his dead wife’s sister. Apart from inventing the caterpillar track, and a semaphore telegraph, it seems that perhaps roads are only called ‘macadamised’ by misattribution: we should say ‘edgeworthised’. Well, perhaps not.

The Robert Hooke biodiversity bell outside St Paul's.

St Paul’s Cathedral

If you are looking for scientific memorials in St Paul’s then look about you because you will not find them in the floor. The curve of the inner dome exemplifies a catenary curve in which all the forces are compressive (happily, as stone does not stretch). It curves upwards in the same form as the downward dangle of a washing line. The principle was possibly established for Sir Christopher Wren by the remarkable know-all Robert Hooke, although in his lifetime the awkward cove only wrote it as an anagram. Hooke himself was originally buried in St Helen's Bishopsgate, as attested by a City of London plaque.

In 1878 Lord Rayleigh explained the acoustics in the Whispering Gallery whereby speech close to the wall can be heard diametrically opposite. Instead of radiating in three dimensions, the sound spreads along the wall like ripples on the surface of a pond, dissipating more slowly.

St James’s Piccadilly

Instrument maker Jesse Ramsden was buried here in 1800. Ramsden married the daughter of lens maker John Dolland (of the late lamented optical chain). The machinery he devised enabled angles on his sextants and theodolites to be marked with particular speed and accuracy with benefits to navigation, astronomy, and map making.  Ramsden, who lived next door to the church, also took in James Watt’s London mail.

By Laurence Scales. Follow him on Twitter @LWalksLondon

Last Updated 05 September 2014