London

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Tower of London
Tower of London

Thomas Jefferson's only visit to London, the largest city in the western world, lasted from March 12 to April 26, 1786. He stayed in lodgings in Golden Square but must have spent a great deal of time at the residence of John and Abigail Adams in Grosvenor Square. During his five weeks in London, Jefferson explored bookshops in Piccadilly, viewed the Magna Carta at the British Museum, dined on beefsteak and ale at Dolly's Chop House, saw tumblers and tightrope dancers at Sadler's Wells, and paid to watch two performers of almost equal renown - Mrs. Siddons in the role of Lady Macbeth at Drury Lane, and the Learned Pig, a popular attraction in Charing Cross.

Jefferson's impressions of London were not entirely favorable. Its architecture "is in the most wretched stile I ever saw," while "both town and country fell short of my expectations." Besides seeing the sights and mixing in Whig society, Jefferson was a mighty shopper, haunting the bookstores and optical shops in particular (he thought the mechanical arts in London were carried "to a wonderful perfection"). He spent £12 on tools, £20 on saddlery, £56 on scientific instruments, and £60 on books.

The following list may help evoke Jefferson's London, much of which has disappeared and about which he wrote almost nothing.

Contents

Chelsea

Ranelagh Gardens: The main feature was a Rotunda, where an orchestra played and people promenaded about or took refresments. Jefferson attended on Easter Monday (April 17), the opening day of the season.

Mayfair and Soho

Grosvenor Square: The first American legation in London, residence of the Adams family from 1785 to 1788, was at the northeast corner.

Golden Square, No. 14: Site of lodgings Jefferson rented from a Mrs. Conners. He paid £11-18 for his stay.

Marks and Spencer, Oxford Street: Site of the Pantheon, a sumptuously decorated hall for concerts, masquerades, and assemblies. Jefferson heard "some favorite glees" there on March 23.

Saint-James's

Buckingham House/Queen's House (Buckingham Palace): Jefferson visited on April 18.

St. James' Place: Used by George III for ceremonial purposes only, this palace was the site of Jefferson's "ungracious reception" by the king. According to his Memorandum Book, he was presented on March 17; newspaper reports indicated he had also attended the King's Levee and Queen's drawing Room on the two previous days.

Royal Academy: Jefferson would have seen Burlington House (built 1713) without its Victorian improvements. Across the street was his favorite bookseller, John Stockdale, whose shop he must have visited often, as he spent over £40 there.

Picadilly Circus/Leicester Square

Leicester House: This building once stood at the northeast corner of Leicester Square. On April 18 Jefferson saw one of the world's most famous natural history collections here. Sir Ashton Lever's Museum, dispersed by auction in 1806, contained objects from Captain Cook's expeditions, Oliver Cromwell's coat of mail, a stuffed elephant, and a multitude of birds - American species included.

Haymarket: On the sight of the present Her Majesty's Theatre, Thomas Jefferson saw a Salieri opera on March 18. Also in the Haymarket were the shop where Jefferson bought his saddlery and the shop of the Dollond family, makers of fine optical instruments. Jefferson bought an achromatic telescope, solar microscope, and hydrometer, among other articles.

Charing Cross: Jefferson did some shopping in this area and it was in Charing Cross that he saw the Learned Pig who, by fetching typographical cards in response to the audience, gave the impression that he could solve arithmetical problems and read and write in several languages. This pig is immortalized in prints by Rowlandson and the words of Samuel Johnson. Jefferson himself left no comment.

Bloomsbury

British Museum: In 1786 the British Museum was open only on written application and then only to a few at a time. Jefferson attended on April 24 with the Adamses, guided by Edward Whitaker Gray, keeper of the collections of natural history and antiquities. The most famous objects to be seen at this time included the Magna Carta, Queen Elizabeth's prayer book, the 4th-century Codex Alexandrinus, material from the Cook expeditions, Sir William Hamilton's Roman and Etrurian antiquities, and Hans Sloane's collections. Jefferson left no comment on his visit, while John Adams noted that Gray spoke "slightly" of the Comte de Buffon.[1]

Covent Garden and Strand: On the site of the present Royal Opera House was the Covent Garden theater, where Jefferson saw, on March 19, William Congreve's tragedy The Mourning Bride.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane: Jefferson attended the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane at least three times (the present theater was built in 1812). He saw (but did not comment on) the most famous actress of her day, Sarah Siddons, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Macbeth and John Delap's The Captives.

Tower of London: Jefferson visited the Tower on April 13. One of its major attractions was a menagerie.

Footnotes

  1. Butterfield, L.H., ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1961), 3:191.

Further Sources