9. Coffee House Society 1730-1760

Slaughter’s Coffee House in London’s Saint Martin’s Lane was the haunt of a lot of excited young men. During the Enlightenment of eighteenth century England, these people were hoping for change to a better future: they admired the fortitude and courage of the shipwrecked hero in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, written when the British fleet explored and traded with the New World. It meant that the English were well adapted to confront the practical challenges that the industrial revolution offered.

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Many of these colourful entrepreneurs and scientists gathered in Slaughter’s to share the small improvements in life that were emerging at the time. There was more prosperity and good humour than ever before, helped by the unusual spices coming from tropical lands, and other commodities that gave a gradual improvement in living standards. In England, at least, there was no great catastrophe or talk of revolution and more people were part of the emerging middle class. They talked of the explorations overseas and of discoveries their friends had made and held high hopes for their future without the ties of rigid religious and rural controls. In the rapidly growing cities many popular establishments like these coffee houses were opening up for a new society.

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Slaughter’s flourished through the middle of the eighteenth century providing potatoes and neck of pork as well as coffee. There were artists trying to get into the Saint Martin’s Academy, writers and several of the budding new gentlemen scientists. Benjamin Franklin would sup with Priestley, Wedgwood (above) and Banks and across the road there was Chippendales furniture workshop.

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Franklin explains static electricity and became one who wrote America’s Declaration of Independence.

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Joseph Priestley experimented with electrical conductivity.

There were scores of coffee houses like this all over London, usually charging a penny for admission to their different pub- or club-like atmospheres. The Grecian was for philosophers and theoreticians, Lloyd’s Coffee House was frequented by ship owners, and Child’s hosted the clergy. At Slaughter’s they talked a lot about natural history and the new scientific discoveries, about how life is so varied and how it works. The patrons felt relaxed in the free speech away from the traditions of Oxford, Cambridge and the Church, and they were excited by the vast scope of these topics and the potential for their own lives. Some even dared to criticize the Church and declared themselves as non-believers. They also talked about the latest scientific discoveries such as that of a Swiss zoologist called Abraham Trembley who showed that Hydra regenerated when cut into two.


That was nothing unusual, for even the well-known Amoeba was shown never to die: they also just divide into two. Others talked of John Needham, a catholic priest, who had observed the hundreds of microflora in droplets of pond water, and went on to warn the coffee house clients that they also generate spontaneously in left-over soup.

One frequent patron at Slaughters’ was the Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) an enthusiast for practicing Baconian experiments in medicine, especially with victims of gunshot wounds.


There was also Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) who helped naturalists observe their smaller-scale features by making scientific instruments such as microscopes. Philip Miller (1691-1771) occasionally came over from Chelsea where he looked after the Physic Garden and had made it one of the best-known botanical centres in the world. The cramped five acre space beside the Thames was packed with plants from the Americas, South Africa, Australia and East Asia. These were the days before the great professional collectors and Miller patiently amassed his hundreds of imported specimens by correspondence and sea shipment. The landlord was the king’s doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, who had brought specimens back from his travels in the West Indies because he rightly thought that many were from unfamiliar groups.


In 1736 Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) had visited the garden at Chelsea (below, left) and was surprised at its lack of order, that it was much more chaotic than he would have wished. He urged Miller to use his new system of classifying plants and animals, newly written details of which he had just taken to a Dutch printer’s workshop. The Swedish naturalist had been asked to bring some order to another chaotic collection of plants, one owned by his friend at Uppsala, the Professor of Theology, Olof Celsius, uncle of the astronomer who devised the temperature scale. Celsius had a large collection of local plants which he asked his new friend to sort out and identify. He got more than he bargained for: when Linnaeus enthusiastically went off to collect more specimens, he returned with a newly worked-out system of classification for the whole flora. It was a brilliant advance on earlier systems, different because it relied entirely on the reproductive features of each species and which has formed the basis of flowering plant taxonomy ever since. Like most of the wise men who aired their feelings in London coffee houses, Linnaeus admitted to a belief in God but barely tolerated the church ceremonies.

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Instead, Linnaeus worshipped nature from the unique perspective of his botanic garden (above, right) and just as systematically organized his life to bring up students in this new world of order and understanding of nature. Throughout the 1770s he encouraged the students to travel outside Europe and bring back living specimens of plants for cultivation at home in Sweden. While the politicians argued about sending expeditions abroad, Linnaeus offered action: if Sweden couldn’t go to nature, then his plan was for nature to come to Sweden.

11. The Lunar Society 1760-1790

Making regular visits from the Midlands to London and Slaughter’s Coffee House society was the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795; and see Chapter 9 below). There he usually met up with his friends  Richard Edgeworth (1744-1817: below left), machine inventor and founder of the Royal Irish Academy, and

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Matthew Boulton (1728-1809: above, centre)), steam engine manufacturer and coin maker. These men came from the Black Country, the Staffordshire potteries, as did the big-hearted doctor and polymath Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802; above right). But Darwin hated London, and Slaughter’s in particular, so he avoided all parts of the city except The Royal Society.

This prominent group of entrepreneurs, Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men,  had new ideas about the meaning of life and they also started new industries in the English Midlands. They met more regularly in Birmingham, at every full moon, necessary to see their own separate ways home. Doing the rounds of his large medical practice acquainted Darwin with the landscape around Litchfield and Derby, allowing him to add to his rich knowledge of animals and plants. In the 1760s a canal company was making Harecastle Tunnel just north of Stoke on Trent to link Merseyside to Birmingham.th

Joseph Wedgwood regularly brought along fossils from the tunnel excavations to meetings of the Lunar Society, hoping that the doctor would be able to identify them: things like the tusks from ice-age mammoths and fern-like leaves from the underlying coal-measures. But these were difficult specimens for anyone to recognize, as they were undescribed and unknown from any living fauna and flora.

One whose work had influenced the Lunar Men was the Paris salonist and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) who had written several years before and was only just becoming known in 1770s England. In 1749 Diderot published a novel called A Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See about a blind scientist and an Anglican parson, in which the scientist saw nothing but swirling particles in an empty void. Only those animals survived whose “mechanism was not defective and who were able to support themselves” while the others perished. “Look at me” cried the scientist, “I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ, while the other has not?” He concluded to the parson: “My good friend, confess your ignorance.” This was natural selection in all but name and as a consequence Diderot was imprisoned in Vincennes for writing such an atheist tract.

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In the 1770s Diderot continued to tease the authorities and published The System of Nature which brought together the same arguments which he had discussed many times with his own group of friends, a supposedly atheistic group that met regularly in Rue Royale (above): “Nature … has always been self-existant; it is in her bosom that everything is operated; she is an immense laboratory.” Nevertheless Diderot told a friend: “I believe in God but I live very well with the atheists.” The friend replied: “we are forced to believe that there is in the universe, a substance of different nature, an active being to which movement must be attributed as to the First Cause, a Motor.”  Once again, argument involving ignorance and fear led to violence.

Another strong influence to the Lunar men was Linnaeus, whose work had inspired Erasmus Darwin to think about evolution, or what they then called “transmutation”. Many of their contemporaries sought an explanation of how one species changed into another very similar one, an adaptation to a slightly different kind of life. Erasmus Darwin started to write essays about their ideas, and added a lot of his own, but they were not to be published until 1794. He had not been idle, however, as nine years earlier he published his own classification of 1,444 plants in the 950 page System of Vegetables. In this he acknowledged the help of Joseph Banks and Dr Johnson, but the name of one botanist he knew was conspicuous by its absence: William Withering. They had had a big row.


Withering’s membership of the Lunar Society had always been controversial for he was not one for a good night out with the boys, and that was in part what those evenings were about. Instead Withering was stubborn, jealous and always over-serious. His credentials for joining the group were perfect, as he had compiled the best flora of British plants, nicely named Botanical Arrangements. He had also advised Joseph Banks at the new Kew Botanical Gardens as well as Buffon at the Paris Jardin de Plants. It wasn’t his botany that Darwin disliked, it was his sanctimonious prudery, not to be expected of one eighteenth century doctor by another. For the author’s fear of guiding his readers’ minds into bad territory, the flora had “entirely omitted Linnaeus’ sexual distinctions” and had toned down some of the words the author found offensive. So, for example, instead of “stamen” Withering had used “chive” and instead of “pistil” there was “pointal”.

Erasmus Darwin’s first biographer was his much more down-to-earth neighbour Anna Seward (1742-1809)


who had a mysterious love-hate relationship with her subject. Excitedly she told of when he was in his thirties and went with friends for a picnic by the river Trent they reached “a high state of vinous exhilaration”. Without warning, Erasmus jumped into the river and swam across to Nottinghamshire where a crowd had gathered to encourage him on this dangerous stunt. They were thanked with a flamboyant speech about hot topics of the day, the power of the industrial revolution and keeping in good health. Equally vividly she discussed his stammer and his warts and more tactfully, his women. Polly was his first wife and their son Robert became Charles Darwin’s father. th-8

After Polly’s death Erasmus eventually married Elizabeth. Their son Francis Galton was to become an important scientist in this saga.

Even in his thirties Erasmus Darwin’s fame as a thinker had spread into mainland Europe and in 1766 a philosopher from Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) visited him in Derbyshire where they went to Dovedale with David Hume. Rousseau’s novel Emile, about a woman for whom kindness was an extension of self-love, had just been published. The men enjoyed the walk, talking together about whether the conflicts in science and religion might provide a refuge from their narcissism. Tellingly, Rousseau admitted being unsure how to survive in societies where ambitions were corrupted. His novel embedded a message to listen to the metaphors of nature and not just to the directness of reason, a lesson the three men must have enacted as they walked through Dovedale.

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It was a difficult argument for Erasmus to adjudicate, and it must have been hard for him to stop the other two fighting. There was a common and popular argument, then and now, that science was too abstract, removed from feeling, experience and consciousness, difficult for many to connect to directly and even remotely. This made science divisive because so many wanted to understand it, but in vain. It was of the head and not of the heart, and heart was a more central factor in life for many people.

This problem did not exist for most of the early scientists because religion still knit the strands of science together, and most of the Lunar Men followed that path. One such was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), a Presbyterian minister who spent time teaching the chemistry he loved: “I bless God that I was born a dissenter, not manacled by the chains of so debasing a system as that of the Church of England, and that I was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge”. He was as passionate about God as these established men he was escaping but his religion was based on a similar acceptance of science   hat had inspired Newton. Their faith was strengthened by the realization that it was driven by the forces which were being revealed by science.

Another well-known member of the Lunar Society was the artist Joseph Wright whose famous group paintings of science and industry in action used a theatrical style of focusing light to the main action on the stage.

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He also joined in this fashion of overseas exploration and in 1774 went to his beloved Naples through Paris. His French friends were anticipating a new political order, excited to challenge the rigid central control and to begin living for a new world of art and science. Later, just as Wright arrived in Naples, the volcano erupted, as though to show that Europe was moving out of its quiet decades for a new series of catastrophes in the years ahead.