The next two entries in Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts countdown…
Our new special Wednesday series will launch next week!
The next two entries in Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts countdown…
Our new special Wednesday series will launch next week!
This year marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, so it’s timely to have a look at the life of this famous Londoner.
Shelley was born on 30th August, 1797, in Somers Town, London, to feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher, novelist and journalist William Godwin. Her mother died soon after her birth, leaving her upbringing to Godwin (and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont who apparently didn’t get on with Mary).
While she received little formal education, she was tutored in a range of subjects – everything from literature to art, French and Latin – by her father and visiting tutors. Godwin described her as having a great desire for knowledge.
She first met her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while still a teenager. Shelley, who was estranged from his wife, had struck up a friendship with her father and was subsequently a regular visitor to their house.
Mary and Percy began secretly meeting each other at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard and then on 28th June, 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont with them but leaving Shelley’s pregnant wife behind.
They went on to Paris and then, through war-ravaged France, to Switzerland. At Lucerne, however, a lack of money forced them to turn back and they returned to London where Mary’s father refused to have anything to do with her.
Now pregnant, Mary and Shelley moved into lodgings with Claire in Somers Town and later in Nelson Square where they were known for entertaining his friends. Shelley’s wife, meanwhile, gave birth to his son – something that must have been hard for Mary – and it is believed that he was also a lover of Mary’s step-sister Claire.
Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on 22nd February, 1815, but she died just 12 days later. That same year, the death of Shelley’s grandfather brought himself considerable wealth and with their financial situation now relieved, in August, 1815, they moved to Bishopgate, in Windsor Great Park. In January, 1816, Mary gave birth to her second child, a son, William.
In May, 1816, the couple travelled with their son William and Mary’s step-sister Claire to Geneva in Switzerland where they hoped to improve Percy’s health. It was during the time they spent there that a ghost-writing contest in June, 1818, led her to write what would be the basis of the novel Frankenstein – credited with introducing genre of science fiction into English literature.
Returning to England, the Shelley’s took up residence in Bath (Clairmont was pregnant by Lord Byron and they wanted to keep this from the Godwins). Harriet Shelley, Percy’s estranged wife, drowned herself in the Thames on 9th November and it was following that, that on 30th December, Mary and Percy married at St Mildred’s Church in London with Mary’s father and step-mother as witnesses.
In March, 1817, the Shelley’s took up residence in Marlow where Mary gave birth to second daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, on 2nd September. Then in March, 1818, the family – along with Claire Clairmont and her daughter – travelled to Italy where it was hoped the warmer climate would help Shelley, who had been diagnosed with pulmonary disease.
There they lived at various addresses and were in Venice when Clara died of dysentery on 24th September, 1818. They traveled to Rome in April the following year and there, on 7th June, William died of malaria, leaving the couple devastated.
Their fourth child and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born in Florence on 12th November. Their Italian sojourn continued for the next couple of years until, on 8th July, 1822, Percy Shelley and his friend Edward Williams were drowned in a squall in the Gulf of Spezia.
Determined to show she could write and look after her son, Mary Shelley returned to England in mid-1823 and lived in The Strand with her father and stepmother until in the summer of 1824 she moved to Kentish Town. Her novel, The Last Man, was published in 1826 followed by The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) as well as working on numerous other writing projects.
Shelley never remarried although she was linked to various men romantically including American actor John Howard Payne whose offer of marriage she rejected.
After her son Percy left university in 1841, he came to live with her and between 1840 and 1842 Shelley travelled to various locations in Europe with her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father, died in 1844 with the result that Shelley and her son were now financially independent.
Percy married Jane Gibson St John in 1848 and Mary lived her son and daughter-in-law, splitting their times between the ancestral Shelley home – Field Place in Sussex – and Chester Square in London as well as accompanying them on their travels overseas.
Shelley suffered considerable illness in the last years of her life – including debilitating headaches and bouts of paralysis in her body – before on 1st February, 1851, she died at the age of 53 from a suspected brain tumour at the Chester Square property.
She had asked to be buried with her mother and father, but Percy and Jane instead buried her at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth closer to their home. In order to fulfill her wishes, they had the bodies of her parents exhumed from St Pancras graveyard and reburied with her.
Despite gaining respect as a writer in her own lifetime, Shelley’s reputation in the literary arts was overshadowed by that of Percy’s after her death. But in more recent decades her overall writing career has come to be more closely examined and applauded.
If you missed it, for more on Mary Shelley’s links with London, see our special series 10 sites from Mary Shelley’s London.
We’ve come to the end of our series on significant London sites related to Mary Shelley – in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein – so it’s time for a quick recap before launching our next Wednesday series…
And so we come to the final in our series looking at London sites which tell part of the story of Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein, the book which this year marks its 200th anniversary. Of course, one of the most influential figures in her life was her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, so to finish the series, we’re taking a quick look at three sites memorialising him in London…
1. Poland Street, Soho. Shelley lived at number 15 after he was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for publishing a pamphlet on atheism. He wasn’t here long – in August he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, then just 16, to Scotland. The building, which stands on the corner with Noel Street, features an English Heritage Blue Plaque and there’s a massive mural on its side, Ode to the West Wind, which takes its name from a poem he wrote in 1819. It was painted by Louise Vines in 1989. PICTURE: Google Maps.
2. Broadwick Street, Soho. The impressive Spirit of Soho mural on the corner with Carnaby Street was created in 1991 and restored in 2006. It features the images of numerous famous figures from the district’s history. As well as the likes of Casanova and Marx, Shelley also features – located a couple of people to the right of Casanova (here seen in red) at the base of the mural’s central panel. PICTURE: Dun.can (image cropped; licensed under CC BY 2.0)
3. Westminster Abbey. There’s no memorial to Mary Shelley in Westminster Abbey but in Poet’s Corner – located in the South Transept – you will find a small memorial to her husband. The joint memorial (which also commemorates John Keats) was designed by sculptor Frank Dobson and unveiled in 1954 by then Poet Laureate John Masefield. It simply features two plaques – one bearing the name Shelley and the other Keats with their birth and death years – linked by a “swag of flowers” attached to a lyre at the top of each plaque.
And that brings and end to our series on Mary Shelley’s London (although, of course there are still more sites associated with Shelley to explore!) . We’ll recap the series next week before launching our next Wednesday special series…
One of the more curious items related to Mary Shelley in London is a lock of her hair which is in the collection of the British Library.
The lock of hair is contained in the decorative lining of a book of letters and other material along with a lock of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair which once belonged to Claire Clairmont, Shelley’s step-sister.
Percy’s hair was originally enclosed within a wrapper upon which Clairmont had written “The Poet Shelley’s Hair” – it is presumed to have been cut off following his death by drowning in 1822.
The rear lining of the same book contains material said to be from the ashes of Percy collected by Edward Trelawny from the beach near Viareggio where Percy was cremated.
Other Mary Shelley-related items in the British Library include a letter written by Percy to Mary (then Godwin) on 16th December, 1816, following the death of his first wife, Harriet, and a frontispeace from an 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
For more on Mary Shelley and the British Library, see www.bl.uk/people/mary-shelley.
PICTURE: Public domain (via British Library).
One of the still standing properties most associated with Mary Shelley in London (hence the English Heritage Blue Plaque), Shelley lived in this home at 24 Chester Square, on the square’s north-west side, from 1846 until her death in 1851.
Mary moved here for the last few years of her life after her son Percy (a child she had with now deceased husband Percy Bysshe Shelley) had come into a substantial inheritance following the death of his grandfather in 1844.
During this period, she spent her time between this house which had been relatively recently built by Thomas Cubitt, and the Shelley’s ancestral home at Field Place, Sussex, where her son Percy Florence and his wife Jane lived.
Shelley was 53 when she died here on 1st February, 1851, of a suspected brain tumour. She had apparently asked to be buried with her parents in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church but instead was buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth close to her son’s new home in Boscombe. Her son had her parents exhumed and buried with her there.
The Blue Plaque was installed on this property in 2003 and unveiled by her biographer Miranda Seymour.
Renowned sibling writers Charles and Mary Lamb lived in a property at 64 Duncan Terrace in Islington from 1823-27 and, their visitors there apparently included Mary Shelley.
Back in London, Shelley lived in various properties as far afield as Kentish Town – many of which are no longer extant. But one home she was known to have visited after her return (which is still standing) was that of the Lambs.
Charles, part of the literary circle which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, described the property – Colebrook Cottage – as a “white house with six good rooms”. Now Grade II-listed, it dates from the 18th century.
The New River once ran close by – so close, in fact, that one guest, believed to be the blind poet George Dyer, walked into the river after leaving the house and had to be rescued by Lamb. The river is now covered.
The property features an English Heritage Blue Plaque (although in this case, it’s actually brown), commemorating Lamb’s stay here.
It was in this church in St Giles High Street in the West End that another significant event took place for Mary Shelley – her son William and daughter Clara Everina were baptised here on 9th March, 1818, just a couple of months after Frankenstein was first anonymously published.
In fact, the Shelleys attended three baptisms at the church that day – along with William (nicknamed “Willmouse”) and Clara, those undergoing baptism also included Allegra (at first called Alba), the daughter of Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont and the poet Lord Byron.
In fact, part of the group’s reason for going to Europe, along with Percy’s debts, ill-health and fears over the custody of their children, was to take Allegra to her father, Lord Byron.
The officiating churchman was said to be one Charles McCarthy.
The current font, which dates from 1810, in the church is presumably that in which they were baptised. It was installed well after the now Grade I-listed Palladian church, which is sometimes known as the “Poet’s Church”, was consecrated in 1733 (it is the third said to have been built on the site since the start of the 12th century).
The publishers of the first edition of Frankenstein – a company known as Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones – were based in Finsbury Square in Islington within a building known as The Temple of the Muses.
Designed as a ‘temple to reading’ (it is attributed by some to George Dance the Younger), the rather grand building in the south-east corner of the square was built by the aforementioned James Lackington in 1791 to sell books (his stocks grew to include tens of thousands of items), some of which the company would publish themselves.
The massive building was crowned a central dome topped with a flagpole (from which a flag fluttered when Lackington was in residence) under which was a circular counter around which it was apparently said a coach and horses could be driven see image).
The original Lackington had long since retired from the business when Mary Shelley came along. His relative George Lackingham then ran the business with many partners – Richard Hughes, Joseph Harding, William Mavor and a Jones. Known consequently as Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones, the company had apparently previously had a couple of different names including Lackington, Allen & Co.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first offered as a three volume book – without Shelley’s name attached – to the public on New Year’s Day, 1818 (slightly behind schedule due to printing delays). Thanks to the initial print run being late and an advertising mix-up, it was subsequently republished on 11th March the same year (this is now considered by many the original publication date).
The Temple, meanwhile, survived until 1841 when it burned down. The business, now known as Harding and Lepard, then moved to Pall Mall East.
PICTURE: Interior view of the Temple of the Muses (engraving/etching by William Wallis, probably in Jones’ University edition of British Classic Authors, 1828/Via Wikipedia)
Following their sojourn at Lake Geneva where, in September, 1816, Mary Shelley (then Godwin) first started writing Frankenstein, Shelley and her lover – the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – returned to England and then to London where on 30th December, 1816, they were married at St Mildred’s Church, Bread Street.
The marriage followed the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, who was found drowned in the Serpentine in Hyde Park on 10th December that year. Harriet’s family had apparently resisted the poet taking custody of the couple’s two children and it has been reported that Percy was advised by lawyers that marrying Mary, pregnant to him again at this stage, would improve his chances of his winning custody of them.
Mary’s father William Godwin and step-mother Mary Jane Claremont Godwin attended the wedding and the rift which had divided the family due to the couple’s earlier elopement was apparently at least partly mended as a result. Others in attendance were the publisher and poet Leigh Hunt.
The church in which they were married once stood on the east side of the south end of Bread Street in the City of London (and is not to be confused with the Church of St Mildred, Poultry, which once stood near Mansion House).
Originally dating at least as far back as the early 13th century, it had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren in the years following.
In good condition and retaining many of Wren’s original fittings into the 20th century, the building was sadly destroyed by bombing in 1941 (and the parish subsequently united with that of St Mary le Bow). The site is now covered by the Grade II-listed Seventies office building, 30 Cannon Street.
A memorial to Admiral Arthur Philip, which now stands just off New Change, was once located in this church.
PICTURE: Interior of St Mildred, Bread Street from The Churches of London by George Godwin (1839). (Via Wikipedia)
Following their return to England in September 1814 after their European elopement (they were forced to return due to a lack of funds), Mary Shelley and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley lived in a couple of London properties including one on this site at 87 Marchmont Street in Somers Town.
The couple lived in the Marchmont Street premises, not far from where Shelley had grown up, from 1815-16 with Mary’s step-sister (and possibly by this time Percy’s lover) Claire Clairmont. The landlady’s name was apparently a Mrs Harbottle.
In January of the second year they were in the lodgings, their son William “Willmouse” was born.
The group left the property in May, 1816, to join with Lord Byron in Lake Geneva. It was on this trip that Shelley started writing her famous book Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
The house in which the Shelley’s had lived – then number 26 – was demolished in 1904.
A blue plaque was placed upon the property 2009 by a residents and business group known as the Marchmont Association.
Correction: This article originally said Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein on the trip to Lake Geneva. She actually started writing it as a short story there but it was completed over a longer period which extended into 1817 (with publication initially in 1818).
Having died in 1797 at the age of just 38, Mary Shelley’s mother and noted feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.
“Her remains were deposited, on the fifteenth of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, in the church-yard of the parish church of St Pancras, Middlesex,” wrote Godwin afterwards. “A few of the persons she most esteemed, attended the ceremony; and a plain monument is now erecting on the spot, by some of her friends…”
Apart from the fact it is where her mother was buried, the grave played an important role in Shelley’s story. Not only is it said that her father, William Godwin, taught her to read her name by tracing the letters on the gravestone, it later became a place of key importance for Shelley in her developing relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In fact, it was at this gravestone that Mary and the poet would meet in secret prior to their elopement to Europe (some even speculate it was here that they first consummated their love). Secrecy was a necessity – Percy Shelley was already married and Mary’s father disapproved of their relationship.
Interestingly, Wollstonecraft is no longer buried here (although the gravestone still stands there). In 1851, as per the wishes of Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s remains – and those of her husband which were buried there after his death – were removed by her grandson, Percy Florence Shelley and reinterred in the Shelley family tomb in St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth.
The tomb is Grade II-listed. The lettering was restored in 1992 to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s thought-provoking novel, Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, so we thought that before the year is out (the novel was actually published in January, 1818), we’d take a look 10 London locations integral to her story.
First up, it’s to Somers Town, which lies just to the north of Euston Road, where Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) was born on 30th August, 1797, the second child of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and journalist, philosopher and novelist William Godwin.
Wollstonecraft sadly died 12 days after the birth due to complications. Mary was left in the care of her father and half-sister Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s first child whose father was an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay) and, after her father remarried in 1901, a step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont (with whom Mary would have an acrimonious relationship).
While Mary was provided with little formal education during her childhood, her father saw that she received a broad education in a range of subjects, generally described as unusually advanced for the time.
The family’s home was located at number 29 in the Polygon Building on the north side of Clarendon Square – it was demolished in 1904 and the site is now occupied by a block of council flats called Oakshott Court. There’s a commemorative plaque to Wollstonecraft on the side of the complex in Werrington Street – it was erected by the Camden London Borough Council (pictured).
Mary Shelley, meanwhile, is also commemorated in a mural in Polygon Road which depicts many of the famous figures associated with the area (her parents and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley are also depicted in it). The mural, the work of Karen Gregory, was commissioned by the Greater London Council in the 1980s.