The History of Wandsworth Common


Season's Greetings, Everyone!

7 December 2021.

I'm rather behind with posting this month's chronicles, mainly because I wanted to write about some pretty incredible stories that kept calling for more (and more) research and wouldn't let me rest until I'd done it. But I have to stop now. Things are still quite unfinished in places so I'll keep tweaking texts and images for a few days. (Hence if you are returning to this page, it's worth refreshing your browser.)

Philip Boys


Paul Martin, "The Surrey Tavern (in Trinity Rd), Wandsworth Common, Ground covered with snow — 1896"

Paul Martin's studio was nearby, at 16 Bellevue Road. On the reverse of this photo he's written, "The negative of this was taken by moonlight (40 minutes expose). Keep rather bright and strong. [signed] P. Martin". The image I've posted here is probably too dark. But still pretty nice, eh?

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The Times — 3 December 1873

The Ashantee War and the Patriotic Fund

This letter to The Times reminds us of the function of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylums on Wandsworth Common not just to take in orphans of the Crimean War of the mid-1850s (now too old to need schooling, of course) but also children of fathers dying in current wars, of which there were many.

Clearly, it was taken for granted that enormous numbers of men would die, since the letter refers to the possibility of even greater need than existing funds can cope with:

Should the number of orphans be so great that a larger sum would be required for their relief than can be appropriated from this fund for that purpose, the Committee feel that an appeal to the public would not, in such a case, be made in vain."

This refers to the public appeals for funds that had been made during the Crimean War — appeals so successful that there was sufficient to fund two huge asylums on the Common (the girls' asylum opened in 1859 and the boys' asylum in 1872), and other great works of memorialisation.

The Patriotic Asylums on Wandsworth Common and current wars.

[The Times — 3 December 1873.]

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The Anglo-Ashanti Wars were a series of five 19th-century conflicts, 1823—1900, in the interior of the Gold Coast, including today's Ghana. This letter refers to the Third Ashanti war.

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Here's a list of named wars in the British Empire and elsewhere in the 30 years after the Crimean War (1853—1856). (These are in addition to more routine military interventions.) It would be good to know in which of these wars girls at the RVPA had lost their fathers.

 — National War in Nicaragua (central America, 1856—1857)

 — Second Opium War (China, 1856—1860)

 — Anglo-Persian War (Iran, 1856—1857)

 — India Mutiny / Great Rebellion (south Asia, 1857—1858)

 — First Taranki War/ Second Maori War (New Zealand, 1860—1861)

 — Bombardment of Kagoshima (Japan, 1863)

 — Second Ashanti War (west Africa, 1863—1864)

 — Invasion of Wakato / Third Maori War (New Zealand, 1863—1866)

 — Bhutan War (eastern Himalayas, 1864—1865)

 — British Expedition to Abyssinia (east Africa, 1867—1868)

 — Klang War / Selangor Civil War (southeast Asia, 1867—1874)

 — Titokowaru's War (1868—1869), Te Kooti's War (1868—1872) / part of the New Zealand Wars

 — Red River Rebellion (Canada, 1869—1869)

 — Third Ashanti War (west Africa, 1873—1874)

 — The 9th Xhosa War (southern Africa, 1877—1879)

 — Second Anglo-Afghan War (Afghanistan, 1878—1880)

 — Anglo-Zulu War (southern Africa, 1879)

 — Urabi Revolt (1879—1882)

 — First Boer War (southern Africa, 1880—1881)

[Wikipedia: List of wars involving the United Kingdom.]

London Evening Standard — Wednesday 4 December 1861

Unpardonable liberty: Daniel O'Connor, a carpenter, charged with being drunk and wantonly ringing a bell at the house of Peter Le Neve Foster. Esq., Wandsworth Common, in the middle of the night.

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Daniel O'Connor, a carpenter, was placed in the dock before Mr. Ingham charged with being drunk and wantonly ringing a bell at the house of Peter Le Neve Foster. Esq., Wandsworth.

Police-constable Goodbury, 189, V division, said that about two o'clock that morning he was on duty at Wandsworth-common, when be saw the prisoner and another man. The prisoner asked him the way to Tooting. and he directed him.

He went away, and about three o'clock he heard a bell ringing at the house of Mr. Foster. The persons in the house were disturbed, and had their heads out of window. They wished him to look after the man who had disturbed them. The prisoner was the only man there, and witness asked him why he had rung the bell, and he said he wished to be directed to Tooting. He was drunk.

The Prisoner, in defence, said he missed his way, not being accustomed to the road, and he pulled the bell to inquire the direction to Tooting.

Mr. Ingham — Why, what time was it?

The Constable — Quarter-past three o'clock this morning.

Prisoner — Not meeting with a constable, I thought I would go to a respectable house, and inquire the way.

Mr. Ingham — It was a very odd time to ring a bell to inquire the way.

The Constable — I directed him the way about an hour before.

Mr. Ingham — It was a most unpardonable thing to take the liberty of ringing a gentleman's bell at three o'clock in the morning. You are fined 10s. or seven days' imprisonment.

The prisoner was looked up in default.

[BNA: Link]

There's a lot to say about Peter Le Neve, a longtime resident of Wandsworth Common who was the Secretary to the important Society of Arts (now called the Royal Society of Arts or RSA). But for the moment here is one of a series of photographs he took of the erection of Cleopatra's Needle on the Embankment (near his office on John Adams Street) in 1878.

Peter Le Neve Foster's photograph of the erection of Cleopatra's Needle on the Thames Embankment, August 1878.

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Engraving of the erection of Cleopatra's Needle on the Thames Embankment, August 1878.

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And here's a portrait, from 1853, only a few years before he was so rudely awakened by an itinerant workman wanting to know the way to Tooting:

Peter Le Neve Foster, c.1853.

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London Daily News — Saturday 9 December 1876

Opposition grows to the repurposing of the St James's Industrial School (on today's St James's Drive) as a smallpox hospital.

The weekend of 12/13 December 1914

Wandsworth Common and the making of J.R.R. Tolkien.

A 22-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien and his three closest school-friends from Birmingham attend the "Council of London" at Christopher Wiseman's home at 33 Routh Road, on the corner of Wandsworth Common.

In his letters, Tolkien writes that the Council of London at Wandsworth led to his "finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me". This culminated of course in epic tales such as The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (from 1954).

The first single-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings (1968) — perfect timing for the new dope-addled hippy generation.

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Not-very-typical hippies in front of the Tolkien-inspired "Gandalf's Garden" shop, at World's End, at the unfashionable end of Chelsea and just over the river from Wandsworth and Battersea [unknown date].

"The shop promoted a peaceful "vibe" and large cushions were provided on the floor for customers to "hang out" and drink honey-flavoured exotic teas . . .  It was the first popular centre to invite teachers, gurus, monks, researchers, etc., from every spiritual tradition and practice and gained worldwide recognition" (Wikipedia, "Gandalf's Garden"). I'm pretty sure Tolkien would have hated it.

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Tolkien and pals at school in Birmingham.

Things were rather different fifty or so years earlier.

King Edward's School, Birmingham — prefects and headmaster Robert Cary Gilson, 1910 or 1911.

Tolkien is in the back row, second from left. Christopher Wiseman sits to the right of the headmaster. Tolkien and Wiseman survived the First World War, but Robert Gilson, back row first from left, and Geoffrey Bache Smith, did not. Gilson died during the Somme offensive on 1 July 1916, and Smith not far away at Warlincourt on 3 December 1916. These are the four who met at the Council of London.

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Why Wandsworth?

Christopher Wiseman's father, the Methodist Minister and hymn writer Revd Frederick Luke Wiseman, moved to London from Birmingham to become, first, secretary of the Wesleyan Methodist Home Mission, then minister at Westminster Central Hall, and later at Wesley's Chapel, London. Frederick Wiseman continued to live in Routh Road until his death in 1944.

Revd Frederick Luke Wiseman, Wesleyan Methodist minister.

Here is the house where the young men as it appears today:

33 Routh Road in 2021. This was Christopher Wiseman's home from 1913, at which Tolkien and friends met at the start of the first world war.

Until a few years ago, it was almost half the size. The whole right-hand-side has been added in perfect style, to make a large single-fronted house into a very much larger double-fronted one:

Spot the difference. Thanks to Google's long memory we can see 33 Routh Road as it was in 2008 — it probably looked much the same in 1914 when Tolkien stayed here.

Tolkien's biographer John Garth writes (Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, 2004, pp.58-9):

For Tolkien, the weekend [in Wandsworth] was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was . . .  the moment when he first became conscious of the hope and ambitions that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life".

Thursday 13 December 1923

Sudden death of Canon Theodore Wood, vicar of St. Mary Magdalene, Wandsworth Common.

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He and his father (the Rev. J.G. Wood) were among the most influential pupularisers of natural history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which is why the science journal Nature published an obituary:


THE sudden death on December 13, at the age of sixty-one, of Canon Theodore Wood, vicar of St. Mary Magdalene, Wandsworth Common, has taken from us one who, both by his writings and by his lectures, did much to popularise natural history, and to awaken in the public mind a sympathetic interest in the birds, insects, and other common animals that come under the notice of dwellers in country places.

Brought up under the influence of his father, the Rev. J. G. Wood, who was known even better to a former generation than the son is to the present as the author of excellent books on natural history, he early acquired the seeing eye of the expert naturalist, and a close, personal acquaintance with the ways and habits of many forms of animal life.

In manhood Canon Wood handed on to others the torch that he had thus received. His frequent articles in "Our Country Page" of the Saturday issues of the Morning Post, though adapted to the general rather than to the scientific reader, were accurate, showed a considerable knowledge of current scientific literature and were always worth reading.

The titles of his books, "Our Insect Allies," "Our Insect Enemies " "Our Bird Allies," "The Farmer's Friends and Foes" to name but a few of them, indicate his desire to instruct the public on the economic importance of many of the lower animals, and to prevent the ignorant slaughter of useful and beautiful creatures by fruit-growers, farmers and gardeners; while many a boy has thank him for "Butterflies and Moths," a useful introduction for the young collector.

As a lecturer he was eminently successful, holding his audiences by his simple, clear language and enthusiasm for his subject and not less by the skilful and rapidly executed board drawings with which he would illustrate his discourse.

Nature, volume 113, page 21 (5 January 1924).

I know from a brief mention in the St Mary Magdalene websie that in 1924, the year after Canon Theodore Wood's death, marble and mosaics were installed in the chancel in his memory. It would be good to know more about the Revd Wood's more than 20 years as a local vicar (he became vicar at SMM in 1902). Did he for example take children out on nature rambles on the Common? Can anyone help?

Hansard — Friday 19 December 1975

Ernest Perry, MP for Battersea South (1964-79), recalls Wandsworth Common in the years on either side of WWII — including vandalism to trees and house-proud squatters in Nissen huts:

I remember the days when I was chairman of a local government committee before the war, when, as soon as we planted some young saplings to make a street look more beautiful, children would come along and take a delight in bending the trees right to the ground so that they snapped, with the result that all the effort and money spent by the council "went for a Burton". That sort of thing happened then, and it is still happening.

On Wandsworth Common, where a very nice avenue of new trees was planted, 50 per cent. of them are now desecrated, mostly, I suppose, by adolescents and youths, or even by girls, who at night make a sort of foraging expedition to destroy the work done and paid for by ratepayers and taxpayers . . . 

After the Second World War, in 1946, 1947 and 1948, there was an enormous number of empty Nissen huts, formerly used by the Army and RAF, on commons and open spaces in London, such as Clapham Common and Wandsworth Common, where I come from. They were in a dilapidated condition, but because of the extreme housing shortage squatters moved into them and turned them into first-class homes. The squatters, who were perhaps just out of the Forces — married men with children — made the huts homes to be proud of, homes that were a credit to them."

[Hansard: Link]

The context of his speech is an attack on squatters in the 1970s, who he represents as quite the opposite of the post-war ex-military ones:

In less than a month of the squatters' moving in the place is far worse than a slum. They destroy the fittings and take out water heaters, electric fittings and anything else that can be moved and sold. In some cases they can connect up with electricity and gas and obtain free supplies. People who go to work and pay their taxes and rates see others moving in who render no service to the community and who destroy the pleasant nature of that community."

[Hansard: Vandalism, 19 December 1975. For background to Ernest Perry (1908-1998) as a Battersea MP, see e.g. Wikipedia: Ernest Perry (politician), and Guardian Ernest Perry obituary.]

19 December 1940 — the death of James William Lovegrove, Master Tailor, Allotment activist, Sufi mystic.

The first obituary of J.W.Lovegrove was published in Tailor & Cutter and Women's Wear, January 3rd 1941, so I'll probably describe his life in more detail in January's Chronicles.

While you're waiting, here are a couple of photographs:

James William Lovegrove (1867—1940)

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The nine children of James and Elizabeth Lovegrove, probably photographed in their garden on Bolingbroke Grove.

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The Lovegroves lived for many years at 76 Bolingbroke Grove (corner of Kelmscott Road), facing Wandsworth Common.

In 1901 the family were living at 19 Belleville Road. All the children were born in "New Wandsworth". In 1911 they were at Bolingbroke Grove — view their house as it is today

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Lovegrove family, 1911 Census

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When he converted to Islam, James William Lovegrove adopted the name Habeeb-Ullah. He went on to write the classic guide What is Islam? (1934), which starts "These pages are a humble attempt on my part to meet enquiries from various quarters as the the reasons for my embracing Islam."

The Times — Friday 21 December 1827

Yesterday a very numerous meeting of the most affluent and respectable resident gentry of the neighbourhoods of Battersea, Wandsworth, and Clapham Commons, assembled at the Swan Tavern, at Stockwell . . .  "

Their firm intention was to "oppose a Bill about to be brought into Parliament by Lord Spencer — a bill calculated to do very extensive mischief". This was Spencer's "Contemplated Measure For Enclosing Battersea, Wandsworth, And Clapham Commons And Other Open Lands  . . .  for dividing, allotting, and enclosing the commons, open and common fields, meadows, pastures, and commonable lands and waste grounds, within the manor and parishes aforesaid."

Clerkenwell News — Friday 27 December 1867

"Wandsworth-common is a receptacle for every species of filth, which is brought from the most distant parts and there deposited . . .  ."

The newly-formed "Wandsworth-Common Preservation Society", meeting at the Freemasons Hotel, New Wandsworth Station, issues a call-to-arms:


The following circular has been issued: "The attention of the inhabitants of the districts surrounding Wandsworth-common is urgently requested to its condition, more especially on the fallowing points:

At present Wandsworth-common is a receptacle for every species of filth, which is brought from the most distant parts and there deposited. It has been made a depot for dust, ashes, and excrement of the district, and has been excavated to such an extent that parts are covered with water during winter, and are consequently very injurious to the public health both of the immediate and adjoining districts . . .  "

28 December 1869

Horse lost

FIVE POUNDS REWARD — LOST, on the night of 28th December, 1869, from a field opposite the Surrey Tavern, Wandsworth-common, a BAY HORSE, nearly 16 hands high, the near hind hock enlarged. Whoever will give information to G. Smith, at 21 Warwick-street, Pimlico, that will lead to the recovery of the horse, shall receive the above reward.

South London Press — Saturday 28 December 1867

Christmas Dinner to Poor Children at New Wandsworth.

"At 1 o'clock on Christmas Day 70 poor children, picked up from the highways and byeways of Wandsworth and Battersea, sat down to a hunger-dispelling dinner at the Freemasons' Hotel, New Wandsworth . . . 

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At 1 o'clock on Christmas Day 70 poor children, picked up from the highways and byeways of Wandsworth and Battersea, sat down to a hunger-dispelling dinner at the Freemasons' Hotel, New Wandsworth.

Mr. G. Bickerdike was the prime mover in this charitable effort, the room at the hotel being freely lent for the occasion by the landlord, Mr. Hare.

Several influential families of the neighbourhood were present, and gave at once a charm and a heartiness to the occasion by their genial and untiring exertions in waiting on the little ones, and cheering them on in their enjoyment of the good things placed before them; and after the little folks had partaken freely of the good Christmas fare provided for them, they were gladdened by receiving from Mr. Buckmaster a gift of 2d. each to keep in their pockets for Boxing Day.

[BNA: Link]

Two pennies, 1867

"The little children . . .  were gladdened by receiving from Mr Buckmaster a gift of 2d each to keep in their pockets for Boxing Day."

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On Christmas Day the following year, the same pair — John Buckmaster and George Bickerdike — provided dinner for 200 children at the Reformatory )at the edge of the Common/on Spanish Close). Buckmaster gave a speech in which he said:

 . . .  there was always to [his] mind something painfully suggestive at meetings of this kind, to feel that they were living in a Christian country with incalculable resources and wealth, and that probably more than 1,500 children were to be found in the parish, on the nativity of Him who had left them an example of charity and good-will, without a dinner on Christmas-day."

[The whole of the 1868 speech, with further info., can be read at Chronicles: January 2024. For a fire at the Reformatory in 1870, see Chronicles: April 2023.]

Birmingham Journal — Saturday 29 December 1849

W. Wilson of Wandsworth Common registers a design for his new beetle trap.

The Wilsons, who owned Price's Candle Works, were prolific inventors of devices and chemical treatments for use in gardens. They lived in "Black Sea House" on North Side.

The Wilsons' house and gardens, between North Side and the railway line, in the 1860s, shown on a Stanford's map of [date? [Pink tinted area added by PB]

The family had enlarged and improved the "Black Sea" by planting the banks and small islands, and spent considerable time and money attempting in vain to clear the lake of invasive Canadian Pond Weed. They built a boat house on the northern edge and regularly rowed.

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30 December 1865

"A BUSTARD was shot on Wednesday on Wandsworth Common by two lads, who were out shooting small birds."

[Meyer — Great Bustard]

Henry Leonard Meyer (1797—1865), who is buried in Battersea Rise Cemetery, is one of the greatest bird illustrators of the nineteenth century.

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As I remarked last month, it is most unlikely that the bird the boys shot was a Great Bustard — it is generally agreed that the species became extinct in Britain in 1832. But if not, what was it that was sufficiently unusual to interest a newspaper and a readership in the other end of the country?

Nature — Thursday 31 December 1896

Alfredo Antunes Kanthack, the brilliant young Brazilian scientist who counted bacteria on Wandsworth Common

"[I]n the open country air there are, other things being equal, considerably less micro-organisms than in the dusty streets of London. Thus there is an extraordinary difference between the air in Oxford Street and on Wandsworth Common . . .  A plate exposed in Oxford Street would be covered with colonies, while a plate exposed on Wandsworth Common would show only a few."

Alfredo Antunes Kanthack lecturing, c.1898.

Date and place unknown [to be followed up at the Wellcome Collection. These images here and here.]

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Dr. A. A. Kanthack, Lecturer on Pathology, St. Bartholomew's Hospital, writes:

THE surface of the earth is inhabited by bacteria: wherever there is dead organic matter, wherever there are human or animal excreta, wherever decomposition is going on, in stagnating or in flowing water, within our houses and without, bacteria collect. They are so widely distributed that practically everywhere we are surrounded by these minute vegetable cells. From the bacteriological standpoint we live amongst de-composing matter . . . 

Dust is laden with bacteria, and since a great part of dust is derived from decomposing matter, it follows that, although we do not realise it, we are living in an atmosphere of decomposition.

The air which we breathe, therefore, contains bacteria. These vary in amount with certain conditions. If the air is calm their number diminishes, but if there is wind or draught, they may be present in enormous numbers. Again, in the open country air there are, other things being equal, considerably less micro-organisms than in the dusty streets of London.

Thus there is an extraordinary difference between the air in Oxford Street and on Wandsworth Common.

The air may be roughly tested by coating sterile plates of glass with gelatine, and exposing them for a given time in the locality which we wish to examine. The bacteria will fall on the surface of the gelatine, and on incubation at a suitable temperature they will develop into visible colonies which can be readily counted . . . 

A plate exposed in Oxford Street would be covered with colonies, while a plate exposed on Wandsworth Common would show only a few . . . 

The bacterial flora of air varies considerably. The lady shopping in Oxford Street will inhale more bacteria than the boy who runs about on Wandsworth Common . . .  "

But why Wandsworth Common?

Perhaps no explanation is needed. Close as it is to built-up London, it was famously much airier and higher here, and demonstrably much healthier. This had been stressed e.g. in novels and adverts for houses for more than a century. It had probably encouraged many people to move here.

Or was there a more personal reason?

I don't know what connection the brilliant young Brazilian microbiologist and pathologist Alfredo Antunes Kanthack had with Wandsworth — did he ever live here? Among his many activities and achievements, he was surgeon-lieutenant in the Third Volunteer Regiment. Was he ever on military exercises or parade on the Common, as regiments sometimes did?

Perhaps it was because of his passion for rugby-football, an enthusiasm he had acquired when he was studying in Liverpool?

This seems more likely to me. Some obituaries say he was mad about the sport. And of course in the 1880s and 1890s, Wandsworth Common was an important match venue for London medical schools such as Barts Hospital. It was near central London, there were a number of pitches, and a railway station lay conveniently nearby. And changing facilities in local pubs, such as the Hope and the Surrey Tavern (aka Surrey Hotel — now Brinkley's at the corner of Bellevue and Trinity Road), where you could socialise afterwards.

I have yet to find his name in a team that played on the Common (though I'm sure I will), but here is his name in a Barts' match, next to another that was due to be played on the Common. This strongly suggests he played here at other times.

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Both of these above explanations look good to me. But here's another connection. Is it possible he was introduced to the Common by George Buckmaster, with whom he worked closely in the Leprosy Commission of 1890? George, the son of the leading Wandsworth Common campaigner John Buckmaster, had of course grown up near the Common, on St John's Hill.

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The British Medical Journal understands that the Commission to proceed to India and the East to investigate the distribution, etiology, and pathology of leprosy for the Leprosy Committee will probably consist of the following three gentlemen: Mr. Beavan Rake, M.D.Lond., Medical Superintendent of the Leper Asylum, Trinidad, nominated by the Royal College of Physicians of London; Mr. Alfredo Kanthack. F.H.C.S., nominated by the Royal College of Surgeons England; and Mr. George Buckmaster, M.D.Oxon, Lecturer in Physiology at St. George's Hospital, nominated by the Leprosy Committee."

[BNA: North Devon Gazette — Tuesday 21 October 1890]

The plan was to stay in India for a year, then write "a full and detailed report" within six months.

Map by Alfredo Kanthack showing the increase and decrease of Leprosy in India since 1881.

[Wellcome L0039112 (there are high resolution images on the Wellcome Colection site)]

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Alfredo Kanthack died of cancer in 1898 at the dreadfully young age of 35, just two years after delivering his "Bacteria" lecture. His achievements in many fields were already so great that Cambridge University's Pathology Library is named after him, as is Liverpool University's Bacteriological Lab and The Kanthack Memorial Library in the Pathological Institute of St Bartholomew's Hospital. The Kanthack medal is still awarded at Liverpool for results in experimental pathology and microbiology.

The Kanthack medal is awarded at Liverpool University for results in experimental pathology and microbiology.

The medal was designed in art-nouveau style by James Herbert McNair and Charles Allen.

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Alfredo Antunes Kanthack (unknown date).

[Wellcome Collection: Wellcome Library no. 14388i.]

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Morning Post — Saturday 31 December 1831

Duel on Wandsworth Common


A Meeting took place yesterday on Wandsworth Common, between Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Robert Gill, Lieutenant of the King's Yeoman Guard, and D. Finlaison, Esq. in consequence of a very serious dispute which occurred between those gentlemen at one of the clubs. The parties were accompanied on the ground by Sir J. Wedderburn. Bart. and Lieutenant Walsh, Royal Artillery; and after receiving Mr. Finlaison's fire without effect, Sir Robert Gill fired in the air, when an explanation took place satisfactory to the seconds, and the parties, after becoming reconciled, left the field."

[BNA: Link.]

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