Thomas Jefferson's only visit to London, the largest city in the western world at the time, 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 Adams 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.
Podcast: Thomas Jefferson's Grand Day Out in London
Jefferson's impressions of London were not entirely favorable. Its architecture was "in the most wretched stile I ever saw," while "both town and country fell short of my expectations." On the other hand, he found that the mechanical arts in London were carried "to a wonderful perfection." Besides seeing the sights and mixing in Whig society, Jefferson was a mighty shopper, haunting the bookstores and optical shops in particular. He spent £12 on tools, £20 on saddlery, £56 on scientific instruments, and £60 on books.
The following descriptions may help evoke Jefferson's London, much of which has disappeared and about which he wrote almost nothing. Organized by neighborhood, the list follows Jefferson's trail from west to east and includes both surviving and vanished sights (the latter are in italics).
Ranelagh Gardens: The former gardens are now part of the grounds of Chelsea Royal Hospital. "Like the enchanted palace of a genie," wrote Tobias Smollett of these vanished pleasure grounds. The main feature was a Rotunda, where an orchestra played and people promenaded about or took refreshments. Jefferson attended on Easter Monday (April 17), the opening day of the season.
American Legation: Located on the northeast corner of Grosvenor Square at the junction of Duke and Brook Streets. This building was the first American legation in London, residence of the Adams family from 1785 to 1788. It was still standing in 1959.
Golden Square, No. 14: Site of lodgings Jefferson rented from a Mrs. Conners. He paid £11-18 for his stay. The structure has been completely rebuilt.
The Pantheon, Oxford Street: Now the site of a Marks & Spencer. The Pantheon was a sumptuously decorated hall for concerts, masquerades, and assemblies. Jefferson heard "some favorite glees" there on March 23.
Buckingham Palace: Known in 1786 as Buckingham House or the Queen's House (and enlarged and transformed early in the nineteenth century), this palace was the London residence of the royal family. Jefferson visited the house on April 18 and would have seen paintings by Van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, Guido Reni, and Andrea del Sarto, as well as Raphael's seven cartoons for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel (they are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). One room had models of the British ports.
St. James's Palace: 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 indicate 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.
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 site of the present Her Majesty's Theatre, 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.
British Museum: In 1786 the British Museum was open only on written application and then only to a few people 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.
Covent Garden Theater: On the site of the present Royal Opera House was the Covent Garden theater, where Jefferson saw, on April 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.
Sadler's Wells: The theater here in Jefferson's time was more of a music hall, with acrobats and tightrope dancers, music and dancing, and a pantomime — "The Restoration of Hymen" on April 21 when Jefferson attended. His entrance fee entitled him to a pint of wine or punch.
London Tavern: Jefferson dined here on March 27. The site is now occupied by the Royal Bank of Scotland, No. 3 Bishopsgate.
Dolly's Chop House: Famous for its beef steaks and ale, Dolly's Chop House was located in Paternoster Row (destroyed in World War II) near St. Paul's Cathedral. Jefferson dined at this tavern on March 21 with two American friends. Together they produced a fragment of doggerel that begins: "One among our many follies was calling in for steaks at Dolly's ...."
Tower of London: Jefferson visited the Tower on April 13. The menagerie that was one of its major attractions in this period provoked him to advise traveling Americans to view the courts of Europe as they would "the tower of London or Menagerie of Versailles with their Lions, tygers, hyaenas and other beasts of prey, standing in the same relation to their fellows."
Albion Mills: Jefferson's interest in inventions and steam power led him to view a manufactory of patent wheels, located on Blackfriars Bridge, and one of the mechanical wonders of the day at the bridge's south end, Matthew Boulton's new Albion Mills. Powered by a Boulton & Watt steam engine, the mills burned in 1791.
James Lackington's bookshop: Jefferson bought £10 worth of books at this Chiswell street shop.
Astley's Riding House: On Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth. Jefferson saw trick riding and fireworks here on April 18.
Attractions that Jefferson saw outside central London include the following:
Chiswick: Jefferson commented that the octagonal dome and obelisk have an "ill effect," and the garden shows "too much of art."
Greenwich Observatory and Naval Hospital
Hampton Court: Jefferson called it "old fashioned."
Kew Gardens: Jefferson noted only an Archimedes screw for raising water.
Syon Park: John Adams noted that he and Jefferson went through Hyde Park and Kensington on their way to Syon Park on April 20, and passed by Lord Holland's residence, "a Modern building in the gothic manner."
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