Port and prejudice, history, and spies

Gibbon painted by Joshua Reynolds

This day in London history: on 16 January 1794, the historian Edward Gibbon died at the age of 56 in London. Gibbon’s education was sketchy: he was a sickly child; his mother died when he was seven, his father neglected him and he was largely cared for by a fond aunt who instilled in him a love of reading – what Gibbon called “the pleasure and glory of my life”.

Gibbon’s father arranged for him to attend Oxford as a ‘gentleman commoner’, but the experience was an unpleasant one and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in his memoirs “Gibbon drew a damning picture of Oxford, as a university sunk in port and prejudice, and almost completely indifferent to its educational mission”.

Nevertheless, Gibbon went on to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six- volume work that became a model for later historians because of its relative objectivity and extensive use of primary sources. Gibbon lived for 10 years at 7 Bentinck Street in Marylebone and there is a blue plaque there commemorating the fact; it was during this period that he began the massive project of the Decline and Fall. [Photo: Peter Clarke]

Edward Gibbon plaque
Photo: Peter Clarke

Bentinck Street was named for William Bentinck, second Duke of Portland. The duke’s grandfather, Hans Willem Bentinck, was the Dutch envoy famous for arranging the marriage of Prince William of Orange and Princess Mary, the future joint monarchs of England.

Other famous residents of the street include Sir James Mackenzie, a doctor who carried out a great deal of research into diseases of the heart and, ironically, died of angina pectoris. Charles Dickens had a 21st birthday party here and, most infamously, the street was also the home of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, members of the Cambridge Spies, who shared a flat here during World War II. There were lavish parties in the flat, which was described by one visitor as having “the air of a rather high-class disorderly house”.

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