499 - Clapham Common, Ground Zero of the Saints

Long gone are the days when Clapham was a small, rustic village well beyond the gates of medieval London. Also gone, but less long, is the era of Clapham as a fancy suburb fashionable with the upper classes, whose rows of mansions skirted the windy expanse of Clapham Common. We’re talking late 18th, early 19th century here. The area has since gone down in the world. A lot of those mansions are gone, and Clapham these days is a mere district of London, albeit still a not too unpleasant one, thanks in part to the enduring green oasis that is Clapham Common.

This map, dated 1800, depicts the common at what may have been its high society high-water mark. These were the days of the Clapham Saints, a loose association (1) of agenda-setting Anglicans. They were wealthy businessmen promoting abolitionism, prison and debt reform, and other emancipatory causes. Centred on William Wilberforce (1759-1833), whose Bromfield House is the only residence mentioned by name (and circled red) on this map, the Saints were instrumental in pushing through Parliament the Slave Trade Act (1807) and the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), respectively banning the trade in slaves, and slavery itself throughout the British Empire.

These people were, in a sense, the original liberal do-gooders. And their triumph was not just legal, but also moral: nobody in their right mind could envisage a return to the world before they changed it. They were also overtly pious, and ostentatious morality became another feature they impressed upon the Victorian Age.

This Perambulation of Clapham Common was part of cartographer C. Smith’s ‘Actual Survey of the Road from London to Brighthelmston’ (2). It shows the residences of the notable Londoners adjoining Clapham Common, then Ground Zero for the Clapham Saints, although not all of the notables shown living there were associated with it. 

Take for instance Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), shown occupying a house at the upper left hand side of this map. An aristocrat by birth and incredibly shy by nature, Cavendish also was a versatile scientist, discovering hydrogen (which he called ‘inflammable air’), and measuring the density of the Earth. Reclusive to the extreme, Cavendish reputedly built a staircase at the back of his house to  avoid his housekeeper. No wonder he lived in the most widely-spaced row of villas adjoining the Common.

Because of his noble descent (3), Cavendish is referred to as Rt. Hon. (Right Honourable) on the map. Most of his neighbours – indeed, almost all of those who are not mentioned as a Miss or Mrs – are endowed with the honorific suffix Esq. (Esquire), a way of distinguishing upper from lower gentry (who had to content themselves with being labeled Gen. [for Gentleman], which was still better than Mr [for Mister]). We could therefore conclude that the haute bourgeoisie surrounding Clapham Common owed their positions of privilege more to the new money they made than to the old titles they inherited (3). Those old titles probably sought refuge in their country estates from the vulgarity of these upstarts.

Henry Cavendish’s neighbours towards the top of the map (in the direction of Tooting) were Grant Allen Es(q)., Cotton Esq., and Mrs Samler. After the crossing with the road to Streatham, we find: W(illia)m. Es(?) Esq., Mrs Snell, Ant(hon)y. Brough Esq., Bond Esq., Grey Esq., Mrs (?), Wiltshire Esq., Mrs Davis, Lady Tibbs, Mrs Chevers, Miss Horseman, Mrs S. Smith (these last two opposite the Windmill Inn), Metcalf Esq., Foster Reynolds Esq., R. Thornton Esq., Meller Esq., Kenyon Esq., J. Yerbury Esq., J. Castle Esq., and S. Thornton Esq. And finally, after the crossing with the road to Stockwell, right across from the Plough Inn: J. March Esq. A single residence is located on the common itself, just above the Windmill Inn: the house of Winstanley Esq.

Between Tooting and Wandsworth Ways, at the top of this map, are, left to right: Bradney Esq., Ripley Esq., J. Shrimpton Esq., Mrs Harrison, Mrs Bellamy, R. Dent Esq., A. Horne Esq., Goutier Esq., Fletcher Esq., C. Godwin Esq., and C. Baldwin Esq. Set back from the other houses then is Bromfield House, the aforementioned residence of William Wilberforce.

Further along, we find:Wedderburne Esq., Pinder Esq., C. Graham Esq., Brittan (Britton?) Esq., G.H. Wollaston, Whitaker Esq., Miss Vassalls, and H. Thornton Esq.

Circled blue, this is the residence of Henry Thornton (1760-1815), possibly related to the other two Thorntons mentioned above. Henry was a banker, MP and ‘co-founder’ of the Clapham Sect. He played a pivotal role in the Sierra Leone Company, which established a colony for freed slaves in Africa, and furthered Christian missionary work in Africa and the East. He also was the great-grandfather of the writer E.M. Forster (1879-1970).

His neighbour, mentioned as C. Grant Esq., may be Charles Grant (1746-1823), chairman of the British East India Company, also an MP and member of the Sect. He led  an unsuccessful campaigner for Britain to allow missionaries throughout India and thus uphold its ‘duty’ to convert India to Christianity.

The last two houses in this row are those of  T. Astle Esq., Alderman Esq.

Along the right hand road, top to bottom are found the residences of: Goldsmith (?) Esq., (?) Esq., Chevers Esq., Francis Esq., Davenport Esq., Poinder Esq., Harford Esq., Brant Esq., Mrs Mathews, Latham Esq., Casslin Esq., Mrs Waldoe, Warner Esq., Myers Esq., Mrs Maitland, J. Farrer Esq., Rothwell Esq., Birkhurst Esq., Waters Esq., and Scholey Esq.  

After the turn-off  to Battersea Rise: Miss Horne’s, J. Brogden Esq., G. Hibbert Esq., Mrs Barclay, R. Barclay Esq., and finally, isolated in the bend of the road, the house of Dr Gardner.

As they all belonged to the same social circles, most of the people mentioned on the map would have known the names of all the other people who lived around Clapham Common. The place looks like a small-town idyll, right under the smoke of London. Or it might have been a gilded cage, stifled by groupthink yet unaware of its own proto-Victorian intolerance. Maybe both.

Clapham Common today is a triangular park of 220 acres (890,000 m2, or 89 hectares) straddling the London boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth, containing historical Eagle, Long and Mount Ponds - none of which are apparent on this map - and the more recent Cock Pond. Its shape has remained largely the same, but you’ll have to twist this map around to compare: C. Smith’s depiction of the common is oriented towards the southwest (possibly because that would be the lay of the land while travelling from London to Brighton). 

So the houses on Henry Cavendish’s side of the Common are actually on the south side, Wilberforce e.a. are on the west side. The road pointing towards Battersea Rise (between Scholey Esq. and Mrs Horne’s) leads almost due north.

Most of the other luminaries living just off Clapham Common anno 1800 have slipped into obscurity. Biographical information on any of them is welcome (as will be a map of this Perambulation that is a bit more hi-res than this one, taken here from The Partleton Tree, a genealogical website for the family of that name). 


(1) Nevertheless sometimes also referred to as the 'Clapham Sect'.

(2) Brighthelmston (occasionally: Brighthelmstone) is the ancient name of the seaside resort of Brighton. I am unaware of when the name was officially changed. More recently than I thought, apparently.

(3) Quite literally: his grandfather was the 2nd Duke of Devonshire, his father was a mere Lord. I’m unsure what that makes Henry himself, titularily. 

(4) The fact that some Esquires are mentioned with their initials, while others are referred to by their last name only may indicate a further, subtle class distinction.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.