History

The unintended consequences of Isaac Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters

How the Wikipedia article on an obscure architectural style came to be

A few weeks ago Alison took both a day off work and a train to the Borders to visit the newest member of her family. While I doubt the wee man, barely a month old, showed much gratitude, the parents did: it was worth a large number of brownie points.

Alison was due back into Glasgow Central not long after I finished work so I thought I’d bag some brownie points of my own and meet her at the station. I was far too early though, so I nipped into a newsagent’s and grabbed a copy of BBC History Magazine to while away the time.

In the issue was a fascinating article on Isaac Newton. Apparently Newton, not only one of the most influential men ever to have lived, not only author of one of the most important books ever written, not only the discoverer of differential calculus and inventor of the reflecting telescope, also found time to work as Master of the Royal Mint, reform the English currency, prosecute counterfeiters, and move the pound sterling to the gold standard.

The author of the article, Thomas Levenson, just happened to have a book out, Newton and the Counterfeiter, which also happened to be Radio 4’s book of the week not long afterwards. (Levenson did quite well out of the BBC it seems, although the book has gained rave reviews elsewhere.) I was interested enough to listen and it was thoroughly enjoyable. To sum up: Newton pursued Chaloner, a master counterfeiter, for years and eventually threw him in Newgate Prison and had him hanged for treason.

Newgate prison

Newgate Prison didn’t sound like a particularly nice place, but it did sound very interesting, so this morning I read more about it on Wikipedia. Chaloner would have found himself in the medieval prison just within London’s city walls, run by gaolers for their own extensive profit. Extensive in that the gaolers would charge for entrance to the prison, food, and even to take off irons. It was common for the prisoners to have typhoid and conditions were so bad the prison inspired much social reform in the nineteenth century.

While reading the article something caught my eye. The second prison, constructed between 1768 and 1775, was built in the architecture terrible style. What, I wondered was architecture terrible? Those two words were conspicuously not linked to an article on the subject, but surely Wikipedia had an article on something that sounds as fabulous as architecture terrible?

No, it didn’t. Those two words only appeared in that one article on Newgate Prison. So what was architecture terrible, something so obscure Wikipedia didn’t know about it?

West View of Newgate, by George Shehperd

Newgate Prison, built in the architecture terrible style. From a nineteenth-century print, A view of Newgate, by George Shepherd.

Another paragraph.

A search on Google brought up only one useful result: Google Books had found it on page 91 of European Architecture, 1750–1890 as published in 2000 by Oxford University Press. Architecture terrible, it said, was a form of architecture advocated by French architect Jacques-François Blondel in the late-eighteenth century for the exterior design of prisons. The aim was to make a building so terrifying that it would stop people from committing crime. It sounded to me like a rather negative predecessor to the City Beautiful movement, but it also sounded like something Wikipedia should have an article on, so I endeavoured to create it.

Just one problem: page 91 of European Architecture, 1750–1890 contained a quote, that architecture terrible would achieve a ‘repulsive style’ of heaviness that would ‘declare to the spectators outside the confused lives of those detained inside, along with the force required for those in charge to hold them confined’.

Although this quote was referenced, the reference itself wasn’t included in the preview of the book found on Google Books. I wanted to use that quote in the Wikipedia article, but if I couldn’t reference it I know I’d end up with the dreaded ‘citation needed’. What to do?

Cite those sources

By now I was in too deep. I hadn’t come this far only to walk away. There was, obviously, only one thing for it: reserve the book in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, walk down and pick it up, then find out where the quote came from.

This I did. So eagerly in fact, I forgot to eat any breakfast or lunch, which didn’t stand me in good stead for what was to come. To the Mitchell I went, only to find the book wasn’t on the shelf, nor hidden in any recesses known only to the librarians — three departments and four members of staff made sure of that.

No article on Wikipedia, only one decent reference on the internet, and a book mysteriously missing. What had I stumbled upon? A government conspiracy to cover up an eighteenth-century architect’s misguided attempts at social moralism through architecture?

Wait, a librarian said. There’s a copy of the book at the Gallery of Modern Art, just off George Square. We can reserve it for you.

By this time I felt as if I was only moments ahead of government agents. I must have that book. I ran from the room, my heavy coat billowing behind me as books fell to the floor around me, my shout punctuating the monastic silence: ‘Reserve that book!’

There’s some artistic licence in that last sentence, as I’m sure you’re aware, but I did catch the train from Charing Cross to Queen Street — a two minute journey — in case those government agents were real. I found the book at the gallery, intact, smuggled it out, and made my way home.

So who was the quote from? None other than Jacques-François Blondel himself, from volume I of his treatise Cours d’architecture ou traité de la décoration, distribution et constructions des bâtiments contenant les leçons données en 1750, et les années suivantes. At last, I could sit down and write that missing article for Wikipedia. So I did. All 189 words of it.

The moral of the story

So what’s the moral of the story? All I would say is, next time you decide to meet your girlfriend off a train, just think about where it might lead you. In fact, Isaac Newton should have thought of the unintended consequences of pursuing counterfeiters 300 years ago. Nothing is as simple as it seems, nothing is but the work of a moment.

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  1. I love things like this: how you get from one idea to the next; but in this case how you went from one good deed to writing a page on Wikipedia. And well written as usual … you git :P

    John Sutherland
    6 September 2009

  2. Great detective work and an enjoyable blog post out of it too. Fascinating stuff.

    Jonathan Hollin
    10 September 2009

  3. Alison ‘flothered’ me last night. Great stuff. I needn’t have listened to Book of the Week, but did; which made yet another connection, for me, and your post yet more enjoyable. Does James John know he’s arrived in cyber space?

    John
    12 September 2009

  4. Fantastic article, Matt and very interesting. Hopefully it will encourage others to not only collect their girlfriends from the station, but to write articles for Wikipedia on obscure and interesting topics. Double win.

    John Gallagher
    13 September 2009