“I mean to open up and lay down a new and certain pathway from the perceptions of the senses themselves to the mind.”
FRANCIS BACON 1561-1625
A large number of famous and celebrated residents have lived in St Margarets – writers, actors, musicians, comedians, politicians, journalists – the full gamut of talent. We’ve even had our fair share of crooks and gangsters. Charlie Richardson, the head of the notorious South London “Torture Gang” who died recently, was born just up the road in Twickenham. But the most celebrated resident of them all is probably the least well known.
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, was a polymath and a genius. If he were alive today he would be introducing TV documentaries on BBC2, lunching with Stephen Hawking, writing award winning plays, presenting “Thought for The Day” and probably marketing his own brand of barbecue sauce too. And after lunch…?
He was born on 22 January 1561 at York House near the Strand in London, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon and his second wife Anne. On 5 April 1573, at the age of twelve, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge and studied there under Dr John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury. His education was almost completely in Latin. During his time at Cambridge he met Queen Elizabeth who was so impressed by his prodigeous intelligence that she called him “The young Lord Keeper”, a reference to his father Nicholas Bacon who was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England – a very prominent and privileged state office. A portrait of Francis made when he was 18 carries the inscription, “If one could but paint his mind.”
By the time he was 18 in 1579 he had established himself as a lawyer at Grays Inn. In 1588 he became MP for Liverpool and in 1593 for Middlesex.
It is said that he had 3 goals in life – to uncover truth, to serve his country and his church. Throughout his political career Bacon was known as a liberal-minded reformer, against feudal privileges and religious persecution. In the name of peace and greater national security he actively promoted the union of England and Scotland as a United Kingdom and later argued for the integration of Ireland into the Union.
In 1592, because of “a pestilential distemper which broke out in London and dispersed the members of Gray’s Inn”, Bacon came with several of his friends to live in Twitnam Park, on the Middlesex bank of the Thames, close to where Twickenham Bridge now stands. Bacon was very fond of his new home. In October 1594 he wrote to his brother “One day draweth upon another, and I am well pleased in my being here, for methinks solitariness collecteth the mind as shutting the eyes doth the sight.” During his’ solitariness’ Bacon, a keen scientist, started work on a new scientific method, “Novum Organum” which proposed that to understand the world and the things in it one had to experiment, observe carefully and look outside the expected field of reference. In modern terms he was inviting scientific researchers to venture outside the box. Bacon conducted many experiments himself while living in Twitnam Park and later he had the idea of establishing a trust so that others could research and carry out experimental work in the same place.
“Let Twitnam Park… be purchased if possible, for a residence for such deserving persons to study in, since I experimentally found the situation of this place much convenient for the trial of my philosophical conclusions.”
In the 1940’s local historian G.E Bate wrote..“If (Bacon’s) idea had been carried out, we may today have had in our midst an ancient foundation, or college of higher education, instead of the numbers of villas which occupy the site.” Bate was a little premature. In 1946 the Maria Grey Teachers Training College did move into the area close by at Richmond Lock. The site later became the Twickenham campus for Brunel University. The campus was closed down in 2005 and replaced with Bate’s ‘number of villas.’
So prolific was his work and influence that it is impossible to include it all here. It is enough to say that he inspired modern legal practise and promoted scientific methods of research. Through his novel “New Atlantis” about a utopian land situated between Japan and Peru, it is said that he inspired other reforms such as greater rights for women, the abolition of slavery, elimination of debtors’ prisons, the separation of church and state and freedom of political expression. There are some who believe that he also found time to write the works of Shakespeare!
In 1861 one of Bacon’s biographers, William Hepworth Dixon suggested rather fancifully that every man who rides in a train, sends a telegram, follows a steam plough, sits in an easy chair, crosses the channel or the Atlantic, eats a good dinner, enjoys a beautiful garden, or undergoes a painless surgical operation, owes a debt to this fantastic, half forgotten man of St Margarets.
Bacon famously died in 9 April 1626 by contracting pneumonia while stuffing a chicken with snow to study the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.
“The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his Lodging … but went to the Earle of Arundel’s house at Highgate, where they put him into … a damp bed that had not been layn-in … which gave him such a cold that in 2 or 3 days as I remember Mr Hobbes told me, he died of Suffocation.”
JOHN AUBREY Diarist and Friend
— from Martyn Day
Credit: The portrait of 18 year old Francis Bacon is by Nicholas Hilliard (1579) The other portrait is by Frans Pourbus (1617). The portrait of Bacon holding a mask of Shakespeare is by Colin McMillan. The view from Twitnam Park is by Thomas Christopher Holland (1822)