Burlington House

My new acquaintance…

RSC Library
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about my visits to Burlington House and said that I’d met an interesting new acquaintance. Her name is Andrea and she has recently been appointed to the newly-created position at the Royal Society of Chemistry of Diversity Manager. (Her work will be vital in not only attracting minorities of all kinds to the study of chemistry, but also in helping to develop their careers later on.) Prior to that, she was a forensic scientist for thirteen years, until the government closed down its forensic science unit.
My ears pricked up when I heard this. I was also fascinated to learn that Andrea was brought up in a village close to mine. More than once I’ve made DI Tim Yates say that he doesn’t believe in coincidences, but truth is obviously stranger than fiction, as this is the second big coincidence that’s happened to me in less than a week (the first was meeting Carol Shennan, with whom I was at school in Spalding decades ago, in Bookmark).
Andrea has kindly agreed to be interviewed for the blog in a few weeks’ time. She’s also sent me an article that she wrote about being a forensic scientist for Chemistry, the RSC’s magazine. I won’t spoil my future post after I’ve interviewed her by quoting too much from it now, but here is a taster:
I became a forensic scientist long before shows like CSI and its spin-offs resulted in the general public having a distorted view of how forensic science is used by police forces to investigate crime. Forget Armani suits; most of the time we were dealing with skanky knickers, jumpers crawling with bugs, and clothes so sodden with blood that they had gone mouldy in the packaging.
A DNA profile in minutes – no chance! Our quickest test took around 12 hours and there were times that we had to wait well over a week. CSI also doesn’t show the endless samples of ‘touch DNA’ that fail to give a DNA profile at all, or ones that give a profile so complex it is uninterpretable. Nor do they feature the heart-wrenching cases that demonstrate the depravity that exists in our society: cases involving babies, the elderly or vulnerable; people who are murdered simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Riveting, isn’t it? I look forward very much to talking to Andrea again soon.

I happen upon a murder… in a very grand place…

Burlington House courtyard

Burlington House courtyard

Over the past week I’ve spent three days (day job) at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s HQ, Burlington House, in Piccadilly. The building is also the home of the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, the Linnean Society, the Geological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. It is an amazing place: turning your back on the dust and roaring traffic of Piccadilly, you enter an archway and are immediately transported into an enchanted world that carries with it all the grace and serenity of the finest seventeenth-century architecture – a mini-Versailles in the heart of London.

Intrigued by its splendour, when I was there yesterday I asked if there were any record of its history. I was given several pamphlets and leaflets and discovered on the first page of one of them, The Story of Burlington House, by Dennis Arnold, that in earlier days it was the scene of what was almost certainly a domestic murder.

The original Burlington House was built by Sir John Denham, a wealthy lawyer and poet (he was also Surveyor General to the Crown) for his new bride, Margaret Brooke. She was eighteen and he was fifty (and apparently limped). Margaret very quickly became the mistress of James, Duke of York, who had attended their wedding (and was later to become King James II). Their affair was common knowledge, as certain salacious entries in Pepys’ diaries make clear.

Margaret was found dead at Burlington House, evidently from some kind of overdose. Everyone assumed that Sir John was responsible for her death, though he wasn’t brought to trial. Despite her infidelity, public feeling ran high and Sir John’s life was threatened by the mob if he tried to leave the building. He managed to achieve the complete about-turn of the populace’s emotion by providing Margaret with a magnificent funeral, with ‘four times as much burnt wine as had been drunk at any funeral in England.’

Sir John did not stay long at the house after his wife’s death, however. Perhaps he could not bear this constant reminder of the collapse of the domestic idyll that he had planned; perhaps he was haunted by guilt every time he saw the place where she died. In 1668, Burlington House was bought by the first Earl and Countess of Burlington, who gave it its name.

I’ve never considered writing historical fiction, even if it’s about crime, but this story has captured my imagination. Perhaps I’m destined to write about Lady Denham, who I’m sure would have had a great deal to say in her own defence – married as she was to a (probably nasty) old man and (probably) unable to refuse the overtures of a future king.

I’ll write some more about Burlington House in a future post. I’ve not yet even started to describe its wonderful literary legacy, or the fascinating new acquaintance whom I met there yesterday.

Burlington House c. 1700

Burlington House c. 1700

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