London Research Trip

July 2007

At the end of the 2006-2007 academic year, I successfully completed the Prospectus Defense for my dissertation. This is an examination that history Ph.D students need to finish before they can officially begin working on their dissertation research. I was studying British imperial history, and my dissertation was an investigation into popular perceptions of the British Empire in the last two decades of the eighteenth century (1780-1800), focused on the historical memory of the Indian prince Tipu Sultan. With my Prospectus Defense in the rear view mirror, I was able to apply for funding to start doing my dissertation research in earnest. The first such grant that I was able to secure was enough to let me do a testing of the waters, a short trip to London to get a sense for what primary source records existed related to my dissertation research. As a result, I spent three weeks in London during the month of July 2007 scouting out the records that I would need to use for my research. I stayed in a hostel to save money and spent my days investigating materials in the British Library, the modern home to the accumulated records of the British East India Company. On the weekends and in the evenings, I was free to travel about the city and explore some of the sights and sounds. This was my third trip to London after previous shorter visits in 2003 and 2005, and I tried to visit some places that I hadn't previously seen. This is a somewhat randomly organized collection of the pictures that I took during those three weeks.

These images are likely familiar to anyone reading this travel blog. This is the Palace of Westminster, home to the British Parliament and the host of the clock tower Big Ben. I was taking this picture from Parliament Square Garden, a small green space across the road from the parliament building. This is the political heart of the United Kingdom, and there's been a palace of some kind on this spot since the 11th century. Westminster was originally the king's residence before more recent palaces took its place; this has also been the location where the British Parliament has met since the 13th century. The current building dates from the middle of the 19th century, built in Gothic Revival architectural style to look like a medieval cathedral. I've used pictures of Westminster on several occasions while teaching as a way to demonstrate different architectural styles; the contrast between this place (Gothic) and the American government buildings in Washington DC (Neoclassical) are immediately obvious.

This was a quiet day outside Wesminster Palace. I've seen anti-war protesters gathered on the green space on several different occasions, but on this day there was nothing more than a scattering of tourists about. I've never had a chance to tour the inside of Westminster as yet, and it's very high on my to-do list for a future trip to London.

Standing right next to the palace of Westminster is the great Gothic church known as Westminster Abbey. Formally known as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, this is one of the oldest churches anywhere in Britain and the location where British monarchs are formally crowned. The original core of the current church supposedly dates from 960 AD, with the bulk of the structure built in the 13th and 14th centuries. To get an idea of how old this is, Westminster Abbey was originally consecrated by Edward the Confessor shortly before his death in 1066 set off the succession crisis that triggered the Norman invasion. That's a very long time ago. Dozens of former monarchs and their immediate families are buried in the abbey, along with scores of famous British men and women that rose to prominence throughout the centuries. Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are both interred here, along with Elizabeth I and her rival Mary Queen of Scots. Henry V of Shakespearean fame is buried here as well, along with Prime Ministers both successful (William Pitt) and unsuccessful (Neville Chamberlain). Poet's Corner contains the graves of everyone from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens. Long story short: anyone who has an interest in British history absolutely needs to come visit Westminster Abbey.

I had been unable to visit Westminster Abbey on my two previous trips to London. More precisely, I had visited the church both times, only to find that the inside was closed to the public. I made certain that I would finally be able to spend some time in the abbey on this trip, and fortunately the third time was indeed the charm. Visitors were asked not to take any photographs of the interior, and as a result I only have these exterior shots of the building to post here. I recommend visiting both Westminster Palace and Abbey in the highest terms, not that anyone touring London is likely to miss them.

Another place worth visiting in London is the Victoria and Albert Museum, popularly known as the V&A. The Victoria and Albert Museum can be found a little bit to the west of Westminster, located in the Kensington district of London. This museum was founded by Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert in 1852, and houses a vast collection of artifacts from around the world. There's a particular focus on sculpture here, with collections that the British brought back with them from their global colonies at the height of the imperial period. There's also a large hall dedicated to architectural designs of different types, with some truly massive objects on display. I snapped a picture of some of them above, including a pair of gigantic columns that had to be close to 50 feet tall. The V&A also has particularly good collections of Islamic and East Asian artifacts, which were, uh, borrowed from British colonial possesions in the 19th century. That might not have been the most ethical thing to do, but it led to some fantastic museum displays.

I had a particular interest in the V&A because it contains some of the artifacts related to the subject of my dissertation research, Tipu Sultan. The display case above held one of the fine outfits that Tipu supposedly wore as the ruler of Mysore, along with some of the weapons and armor captured when the British stormed his capital city of Seringapatam. More interesting still was the tiger that the British soliders captured; this is a mechanical pipe organ that originally could be wound up, which would cause the tiger to growl menacingly. The tiger was the personal symbol of Tipu, and the organ depicts this tiger tearing out the throat of a British solider in the distinctive red coast. Tipu was not subtle in his propaganda. I used the image of the tiger pipe organ as the cover illustration for my dissertation submission when I finished it several years later.

Since I had already seen many of the sights in downtown London on my previous trips, this research project had me spending my weekends on destinations slightly further out of the way. These first two pictures are from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, located slightly to the east of the central part of London. This is an astronomical observatory originally built by Christopher Wren in the eighteenth century, which has now been converted into a museum. At the time that I visited, there was an exhibit detailing the scientific push to create highly precise clocks so that longitude (the distance east or west of a point on the earth's surface) could be recorded accurately. Latitude, the distance north or south, is easy to determine and has been known since ancient times, but longitude couldn't be calculated accurately until the mid-1700s. The exhibit was very well done and I genuinely learned a lot about a subject I hadn't know much about previously.

The Greenwich Observatory is also the official home to the Prime Meridian, the invisible line from which all distances are calculated east and west in cartography. Unlike the Equator, which is a fixed location on the earth's surface, the Prime Meridian is a purely imaginary construct that could have been picked at any location. The British simply put it here because the Royal Society happened to be working out of Greenwich at the time. Nevertheless, the British were the dominant world power in the nineteenth century and they were able to make their decisions stick. (There was a competing French Prime Meridian that ran through Paris for a while before it was eventually dropped to avoid confusion.) These other pictures look down at the University of Greenwich, home to the Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum. They also had some fine exhibits about naval history, which I didn't photograph at the time for whatever reason. For those who may have already seen a bunch of the more famous sights in London, Greenwich makes for a great day trip out of the downtown.

The other famous church in London aside from Westminster Abbey is St. Paul's Cathedral, known for its great dome that rises up above the rest of the City. St. Paul's is a much more recent church, built during the 17th century in Baroque style and designed by the architect Christopher Wren, who I just mentioned also had a hand in the creation of Greenwich Observatory. The dome of St. Paul's is most famous for serving as a national icon during the German bombing of the Blitz during World War II, when the highest point of the dome could be seen standing tall above the fires and smoke that engulfed the rest of the city. I had visited St. Paul's on a previous trip to London, but I hadn't known at the time that it was possible to travel up to the top of the dome for magnificent views of the surrounding city. On this occasion, I returned to the church and made the ascent up to the level of the dome, then took these pictures of the city stretching out before me in all directions. It was a beautiful day and I could see downriver to London Bridge in one direction, then upriver to the London Eye and Westminster in the opposite direction. Down below was Paternoster Square next to the London Stock Exchange. This was a great way to get another view of London that I hadn't experienced previously.

This is where I spent most of my time on this trip, working in the archives at the British Library. This is the national library for the United Kingdom and one of the largest libraries in the world, the equivalent of the Library of Congress in the United States where I had also stopped on a number of occasions for my research. The British Library holds more than 170 million items in total, and there's a small museum in the entrance hall where some of the more famous items in the collection are on display. There's an original copy of the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, one of Captain Cooke's journals, and original printings of the works of Charles Dickens. It's a nice stop for an hour if you happen to be near King's Cross station; the British Library is right next door. I was here for research though, and I would spend all day during my three weeks in London inside the Asian and African Studies room looking through some of the East India Company manuscripts. On this trip, I was trying to get a sense for what materials were held at the British Library that would be useful for my dissertation. I knew that I would have to come back again later for a longer time spent exploring the archives.

Each day I would wake up in the early morning, eat breakfast, and then walk from my hostel over to the British Library. I was staying in a quiet area known as Leinster Square near the Bayswater underground station, and it was a good haul over to the British Library, about 3 miles / 5 kilometers all told. Each way, since I would do the return trip in the evening after finishing for the day. I could have taken the tube if I wanted to and saved a good bit of time, I just didn't have any real desire to do so. It was pleasant to get some exercise in the morning and evening each day, especially since I was spending all day sitting at a desk not moving. There was one day where it was raining and I did take the Underground to avoid getting soaked. Otherwise though, I took advantage of the summer weather and walked from place to place. I can still remember each component of that walk to the British Library: the streets of the Bayswater neighborhood, the long walk along the busy A501 road, passing by Paddington Station and Regent's Park, then eventually reaching St. Pancras. This will always be a fond memory for me.

One afternoon, an alarm went off at the British Library and the whole building was evacuated. I never found out what the reason was behind the evacuation, whether it was a bomb threat or a fire or something else. I took these pictures of everyone leaving the British Library, mostly researchers who were irritated that a day's worth of work was going to waste. Fortunately it was already afternoon and the day was almost over. Everything was open as usual the next day, whatever the issue was having been solved.

I also spent two days visiting a different research destination, the National Archives in Kew Gardens. This is located a good distance away from the downtown portion of London in one of the western suburbs, far outside of walking distance of the major sights. Kew is mostly known for its botanical gardens, but this building that was constructed only in 2003 holds the official records of the British government. I didn't need to spend much time here because the East India Company - which was not part of the British government - has all of its archived materials stored in the British Library. I went to the National Archives to view the official correspondences of Lord Cornwallis, one of the Governor Generals of India during the period I was studying. (Yes, THAT Lord Cornwallis, the same individual who surrendered at Yorktown to the American army.) Two days of working through these hand-written manuscripts was enough to convince me that I didn't want to spend any further time with them. These documents were only tangentially important to my research, and I decided that I could better spend my time in the British Library as opposed to deciphering this writing. Even though these documents here had elegant penmanship, I preferred using records that had been typed or scanned into a computer wherever possible.

By a coincidence, I also happened to be in London at the same time that the final Harry Potter book was released to the public. It was July 21, 2007 and Deathly Hallows was going on sale for the first time. Naturally I looked to see what kind of release party events were taking place, and the biggest gathering was scheduled for a Waterstone's book store in Piccadilly. This was a midnight gathering, fortunately on a Saturday night, and I decided to take another long walk to see what was happening at the event. On the way over, I took one of my favorite atmospheric photos, an Impressionist-type pictures with hazy lights in the foreground and a church in the background silhouetted against the nightime sky. I'm always impressed that a picture like that came out so well with a cheap digital camera.

At the bookstore, there was a huge crowd that ran into the hundreds of people. Many of them were in costume, with lots of witch's hats and wizard's robes adorning the revelers. Two people had dressed up as the giant spiders from the Forbidden Forest, and they were attracting the most attention from the gathered crowd. Those costumes were a little too good; they were downright creepy. I stayed out of the long line to purchase a copy of Deathly Hallows, being only a mild fan of the Harry Potter series instead of a rabid one. I had a friend back home who had asked me to purchase a British copy of each book in the series to get the non-Americanized version of the story, so I came back the next day and picked up all seven books, skipping the giant lines from the night before. It was a lot of fun to say that I had been there in London for the release of the last book, and to see how excited the hardcore fans were on that night.

Finally, this was the place where I stayed for three weeks, living in this shared room in a hostel with random strangers. It wasn't fancy but it was cheap, and I had to make every dollar (pound?) stretch while traveling for my student research. The second picture was the view out the tiny window looking at some of the other buildings in Leinster Square. While this was fine for a short three week trip, I wanted to make sure that when I came back again for my more extended research, I would have a better place to stay. I didn't need much, just a bed to sleep and a working Internet connection. I remember spending some evenings here playing Master of Orion on my laptop, a game old enough that it would run on the cheap model that I had. I also stayed up very late to still make my weekly Diablo II group session, which started at 1:00 AM here instead of the much friendlier 8:00 PM time in the Eastern time zone. Ah, the things that you can do at age 25 when living by yourself.

Those were the highlights of my time in London on this research trip. I did have a chance to take one trip outside of the city: a weekend getaway to southern Ireland, in the region surrounding the city of Cork. That's a separate story detailed on another page, but feel free to click here for the details. Thanks again for reading.