The men! See Indomitable Women for the women

THE CURIOUS LIFE OF ROBERT HOOKE  – The man who measured LondonLisa Jardine
Assistant to Christopher Wren, and much more besides…including being a maverick!

Robert Hooke was architect, engineer, surveyor and scientist – a multi-talented maverick.  He was first curator of experiments at the Royal Society and helped Christopher Wren build London after the Great Fire.  He discovered the mathematical formular for elasticity and conceived of gravity before his deadly rival Newton.

Guiding London these past few years Hooke has become a bit of a hero of mine, because until recently in the story of London he has been so overshadowed by Wren.  In many ways he is a more intriguing and flawed character than Wren, thus a character who makes for a fascinating biography.


THE LODGERCharles Nicholl
Shakespeare on Silver Street

In 1612 Shakespeare gave evidence at the Court of Requests at Westminster in a dispute over a dowry.  The only occasion his spoken words were ever recorded. Sometime around 1604 Shakespeare was a lodger of Christopher Mountjoy who made ‘tires’ (headpieces) in his house in Silver St in the City of London. Shakespeare witnessed the betrothal of Mountjoy’s daughter to his apprentice Stephen Bellot, at which a dowry was promised.  Using this event as a starting point Nicholl traces the lives of the Mountjoy family and paints a vivid portrait of life in a small corner of the City of London.  He also makes many links to the plays Shakespeare’s was writing at the time.

Don’t go looking for Silver Street!  The site is the London Wall underground car park, just by the Museum of London. It was swept away by a German air raid in 1940.  Instead read the book!


1599 –  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare James Shapiro

1599 was the year when the Globe Theatre was moved from Shoreditch to Bankside with Shakespeare as a shareholder. In the course of the year, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar, As You Like and Hamlet. Although little is known of Shakespeare’s life, this book by concentrating on a detailed account of Bankside, London and late Elizabethan England seems to fill many gaps.

I have done much reading on Shakespeare as background to my London walks.  I found this to be one of the most helpful books in conjuring up life in Elizabethan London.  Certainly a case of ‘less is more’.


THE RECKONING – The Murder of Christopher Marlowe Charles Nicholl

In 1593 the brilliant and controversial playwright Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a Deptford lodging-house – officially in a quarrel over the bill (then known as the recknynge’).  Whilst this is a biography of what is known of Marlowe’s short life, this account concentrates primarily on the world of Elizabethan crime and espionage.  But it also paints a vivid picture of the flowering of Elizabethan theatre.  Had Marlowe survived many academics believe he would have equalled or even outshone Shakespeare.

Given Marlowe’s tragically short life, this book reads more like a detective story than a biography.  I enjoyed it as books about Marlowe are thin on the ground.  If you have enjoyed David Mitchell’s wonderful comedy series ‘Upstart Crow’, then you will see how he got the idea of the flamboyant, roistering portrayal of Marlowe.


HIS INVENTION SO FERTILE – A life of Christopher WrenAdrian Tinniswood

Christopher Wren was Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, running the nation’s biggest architectural office, and most famous for his masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral. But he was far more than just an architect.  He was a founder of the Royal Society, he mapped the moon and the stars, investigated the problem of longitude and the rings of Saturn, and carried out groundbreaking experiments into the circulation of the blood.  It also shows us the man behind the legend. Wren was married and widowed twice. He fathered a mentally handicapped child, quarrelled with his colleagues and fell foul of his employers.  He died at the grand old age of 91.

I found this biography captivating as it was truly a story of the man, not just a conventional architectural history. Having read this book I understood so much better why Wren is still regarded as a super-hero!. He was also such a modest man.  Visit his tomb in the crypt of St. Pauls and you will see just how modest he was). Whilst I also recommend Lisa Jardine’s more ‘academic’ biography of Wren – On a Grander Scale I found this Adrian Tinniswood’s biography an easier read.


GOD’S ARCHITECT  – Pugin and the Building of Romantic BritainRosemary Hill

Best known for his collaboration with Charles Barry in the building of the Palace of Westminster, Pugin’s life was about as colourful, intricate and manic as his design for the interior of the House of Lords.  During his short life – he died aged 40 – Pugin was shipwrecked, bankrupted, widowed twice, fathered 8 children and changed the face of Briatin with his visionary Neo-Gothic architecture, designing churches, cathedrals, houses and furnishings.

I first came across this book when I was leading tours of the Houses of Parliament, and grew to love Pugin’s work, especially flamboyant in the House of Lords.  As a result I wanted to know more about the man and his life.  Luckily I discovered this biography, which is enthralling, sad and at times highly amusing.



I can do no better than to quote the Guardian’s review of Claire Tomalin’s award-winning biography of Pepys.  ‘Sex, drink, plague, fire, music, marital conflict, the fall of  kings, corruption  and courage in public life, wars, navies, public executions, incarceration in the Tower: Samuel Peyps’s life is full of irresistible material and Claire Tomalin seizes it with both hands. Fast, vivid and immensely accessible.’

If I could only take one biography onto my desert island it would be this one.  Of course we know Pepys through his invaluable diary, but he only wrote this for 9 years.  This book is thoroughly researched yet is immensely readable.  For me as a guide it has given me so much context for walks in the City, and I base my Fire and Plague walk on this book.  I felt I had met Pepys in person once I had read this book.


CHAUCER – (first of the brief lives series) – Peter Ackroyd

Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, lived a surprisingly eventful life. He served with the Duke of Clarence and with Edward III, and in 1359 was taken prisoner in France and ransomed. Through his wife, Philippa, he gained the patronage of John of Gaunt, which helped him get a career at Court. His posts included Controller of Wool Customs at the Port of London, Knight of the Shire for Kent, and King’s Forester. He went on numerous adventurous diplomatic missions to France and Italy. Yet he was also indicted for rape, sued for debt, and captured in battle.  During his varied life he had the opportunity to observe many people from all classes and walks of life…good material for his Canterbury Tales.

This short biography of only 163 pages I found just right in giving me an insight into Chaucer’s life, without become overwhelmed by detail.  And of course if you have read any of  Peter Ackroyd’s  books you will know his style, which both informs and entertains! The other  ‘brief lives’ he has covered in this series include Isaac Newton, Turner, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.



To quote Jan Morris’s review of this book in the New York Times ‘“Victoria & Abdul” is about an aging British queen, her eccentric obsession with an engaging Muslim servant from India and the half-farcical opposition of the British establishment to their relationship’. The generally snobbish and often racist British establishment of the day came to detest the munshi with an almost comical fervour, and, led by Victoria’s son and heir, Bertie, did everything in their power to banish Abdul and after Victoria’s death to erase any memory of him.  Sharabani Basu was given unprecedented access to the royal archives in Windsor, and through contacts in Karachi was handed a scrapbook and journal kept by Abdul during his 10 years in London.

Don’t judge the book by the film, which although colourful and entertaining, in my view didn’t do the book justice at all.  It is a fascinating account of the rather lonely last 10 years of Victoria’s reign and her fascination with India and all things Indian.  Visit Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and you will see the wonderful Durbah room Abdul helped design and some wonderful portraits of Indians, rich and poor that Victoria commissioned.


The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – the lost hero of science

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) the Prussian polymath, author and explorer is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. He transformed our understanding of physical geography and meteorology, and spent his life trying to bind together the workings of the Earth and ultimately the cosmos. He travelled across Russia, through the jungles of South America and to the Himalayas.  He even predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and inspired many scientists and explorers including Charles Darwin.

This is one of the best biography/cum travel books I have ever read, and I was amazed we know so little about him in this country.  He was a remarkable and intrepid man, and I loved the tales of his travels and his dogged determination to get those in positions of influence to listen to him.

Back to Discover At Home