The Great Institutions

The Great Institutions

The Royal Academy of Arts

George III, described as an "enthusiastic if undiscriminating collector and patron of the arts", provided invaluable patronage for the three learned societies.

In the earlier part of the 18th century various societies for the arts had been formed, but it was not until 1768 that the painter Joshua Reynolds and the architect William Chambers, with the help of others and the backing of the King, formed the Royal Academy of Arts.

At its first meeting Reynolds was elected President and Chambers the Treasurer.

In 1771, through his friendship with the King, Chambers obtained permission for the fledgling Academy to use seven of the large state apartments in the old Somerset House.

After the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768, Reynolds and his contemporaries founded the Royal Academy Schools to provide suitable teaching. One of the Academy's most famous students was J M W Turner who was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and a Royal Academician at the age of 27 in 1802. By 1803 he was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy Schools.

When old Somerset House was relinquished by the Crown, the King reserved to himself the right to appropriate sufficient space in the new building for the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries. Thus, they were the first occupants of Chambers' new Somerset House when they moved into the western side of the Strand Block shortly after it was completed in 1779.

The Great Exhibition Room

The most important part of the building for the Royal Academy was its Exhibition Room. Situated at the top of the steep, winding staircase, it was roughly 53 x 43 feet and 32 feet high including the lantern, and was described by Joseph Baretti as, "undoubtedly at that date the finest gallery for displaying pictures so far built." It was here that George III was given a preview of the first Royal Academy Exhibition held at his command in 1780.

It wasn't just the building that drew praise... Dr Johnson, writing in his diary described the first pre-exhibition banquet: "The Exhibition! how will you do either to see or not to see? The Exhibition is eminently splendid. There is contour and keeping and grace and expression, and all the varieties of artificial excellence.

The apartments were truly very noble. The pictures for the sake of the skylight are at the top of the house: there we dined and I sat over against the Archbishop of York."

Year by year, the exhibits increased. There were 547 in 1781, 1,037 in 1801, and 1,165 in 1821, so that the pictures had to be hung almost from floor to ceiling and with the frames touching one another.

From 1832 onwards there was talk of the Royal Academy moving to more spacious rooms in what is now the National Gallery, which was being built at the north end of Trafalgar Square. Accordingly, the last exhibition at Somerset House was held in 1836.

When the Academy moved, the most valuable decorations were taken down and reused in their new quarters. Later they were moved to Burlington House, the Royal Academy's present home, where the ceiling paintings by Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffmann can now be seen in the entrance hall.

The Academy's old rooms at Somerset House were occupied by the Department of Practical Art, or Government School of Design.

Death of Sir Joshua Reynolds

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died in 1792, the King gave the necessary permission for his body to lie in state in the Antique studio at the Royal Academy during the night of March 2nd. He was buried the next day at St. Paul's Cathedral.

The Royal Society

The Royal Society is the oldest scientific society in Britain. Each newly elected member took a vow of allegiance and promised, "...each for himself, that he will endeavour to promote the good of the Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge, and to pursue the ends for which the same is founded." In 1760 the Society petitioned George III to "take this society into your Royal Patronage and Protection."

When, in 1776, the members of the Royal Society learnt that accommodation would be provided for them in Somerset House, they sent a deputation to inspect the proposed apartments.

They were unhappy to discover that they were to share the building to the east of the Strand entrance with the Society of Antiquaries, and complained to Chambers that the accommodation would be inadequate; that the library would be too small and that there would be no room for the Society's museum.

Although Chambers was sympathetic, there was little he could do other than to suggest that the introduction of a mezzanine floor might provide the extra space needed. The Society gave way and building progressed so rapidly that it was able to move into its new quarters in time to hold its Anniversary Meeting on November 30th 1780.

However, in spite of Chambers' reassurances, there was not enough space for the Society's museum, which had to be housed elsewhere.

The March of Science

One of the first discoveries announced to the Society in its new quarters was that of a new planet, first observed by William Herschel in 1781. He wished to call the new planet Georgium Sidus in honour of the King, but other astronomers disagreed and today we know the planet as Uranus.

Fellows of the Royal Society were keen to prevent war and politics interfering with the advancement of scientific discovery.

During the war with the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin, a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1756, arranged that American warships should not interfere with Captain Cook on his last voyage. And during the Napoleonic Wars of 1796-1815, the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, used his influence both in England and France to ensure that explorers of the two nations were not obstructed by the conflicting armed forces, and that French scientists should continue to be elected Fellows of the Society.

When Sir Humphry Davy became president in 1820, the Society became oriented more towards pure scientific enquiry, to which ends, George IV founded two Gold Medals. Worth 50 guineas each, they were to be awarded annually "in such manner as shall, by the excitement of competition among men of science, seem best calculated to promote the objects for which the Royal Society was instituted."

After the Royal Academy left Somerset House in 1837, the Royal Society remained there until 1857 when it joined the Academy at Burlington House.

The Society of Antiquaries

The oldest society of its kind in the world, theSociety of Antiquaries was conceived in 1707 in a tavern in the Strand by Humfrey Wanley, then Secretary to the Royal Society under Newton's presidency, and, after a ten year gestation, was brought into the world in another tavern, The Mitre, in Fleet Street.

The Society received its Charter of Incorporation from George II in 1751, nearly 90 years after the Royal Society with whom the Antiquaries always had a slightly ambivalent relationship, since at first there was a good deal of overlap in their membership and aims.

When, in 1776, the Antiquaries heard about the proposed new building at Somerset House, they decided to apply to George III, their Patron, for rooms there. After some intense lobbying by the President, the Reverend Dr Milles, the Society's request for accommodation was favourably considered, and the King was, "most graciously pleased to order that the Society be accommodated with apartments in the new buildings at Somerset House."

The resident Secretary of the Society was accommodated in the attic with three rooms "with deal dadoes, and Sienna marble and Sicilian jasper chimney-pieces". He also had three rooms in the garret, in one of which his housemaid slept. The basement was hotly contested between the Royal Society and the Antiquaries, who were eventually allowed a kitchen, cellar, two vaults, and a privy.

However, the lobby, originally intended for the footman in waiting, had to accommodate the Antiquaries' porter as the Royal Society had taken possession of the Porter's Lodge! In the 1850s there was a proposal to move the Royal Society and the Antiquaries from Somerset House but, when the Royal Society moved out in 1857, the Antiquaries decided to remain, taking the opportunity to secure sole use of the disputed rooms, until they joined the other two learned societies at Burlington House in 1874.

The Navy Board

From 1546 to 1832 the civil administration of the Navy was in the hands of the Navy Board, which controlled naval expenditure and was responsible for the material condition of the fleet and the health and subsistence of seamen. At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Navy Board was reconstituted to include the four principal officers of the Navy and three commissioners, under the direction of the Lord High Admiral.

When the Admiralty moved into new premises in Whitehall in 1725, it was decided that the Navy Board, over whom the Admiralty had responsibility, should move to a site much closer; from Seething Lane behind the Tower of London to new offices at Somerset House. Chambers proposed to house the Navy Board on the west side of the south wing of the new building, in the part facing the river, with the Seamen's Waiting Hall in the centre of the building providing an imposing entrance. The related Sick and Hurt, Navy Pay, and Victualling Offices were to occupy the range of buildings on the west side of the courtyard. By 1789 the move was completed and, for nearly a century, more than a third of Somerset House was home to the various branches of the Navy Board.

By the end of the 18th century it was clear that the reorganisation of the Navy had paid off. Dockyards and fleet were in first-class condition, and in 1798, five years after France had declared war on Britain, Earl Saint Vincent was able to comment in the House of Lords: "I do not say, my Lords, that the French cannot come I only say they cannot come by sea." With the triumph of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Britain had disposed of the fleets of France, Spain, Holland, and Denmark and the British fleet blockaded the whole coast of Europe.

Sick and Hurt Office

Run by a permanent staff of commissioners, secretary, clerks, officers, medical assistants, and agents, a report of 1793 stated, "The business of this office is to provide hospitals, sick quarters, medical assistance, medicines and necessaries for sick and wounded seamen belonging to your Majesty's service..."

Life below decks for ordinary seamen was horrific, the dirt and squalor of men "pressed" into the Navy accounted for a high proportion of deaths on board from diseases such as typhus. Reforms introduced by the Sick and Hurt Office improved matters by bringing naval medical service into line with that of the army and with the inspection and certification of medical equipment and supplies.


Midshipmen ranked at the bottom of the naval officer hierarchy and hundreds of them went annually to Somerset House to try to pass for the rank of lieutenant before a Board of Navy Commissioners. The examination questions were frequently of a basic nature.

The intending lieutenant also had to produce his birth certificate to show he was over 21. The Hall Porter at Somerset House was willing to make an instant certificate in the corridor outside the interview room, at a price of five shillings per certificate, which the Commissioners usually accepted "with no more than the observation that, considering the document must be at least 21 years old, the ink was taking rather a long time to dry."

Midshipman Horatio Nelson, aged 12, passed through London on the way to his first ship at Chatham in 1770. Some years later, as a young officer, he lived at 3 Salisbury Street, south of the Strand, to be near both the Admiralty and the Navy Board at Somerset House.

Victualling Office

The Navy Board was responsible for the standing contracts for the supply of goods and services. A public report of 1793 states that "The established articles of victualling used in the navy, are biscuit, beer, beef, pork, pease, oatmeal, butter, cheese, and vinegar; and the stores are, casks, hoops, and bags: these are generally provided by contracting with such persons as offer the lowest terms..."

Some contracts were highly lucrative to the contractors, who, in certain cases, generously shared their profits with the Commissioners at the Victualling Office. In other cases the unfortunate suppliers were themselves imprisoned for debt because the Navy Board failed to pay them on time. Despite a complex system of checks, fraudulent dealings were not unknown. Records show scheming suppliers punished by fines, imprisonment and, on occasion, by being condemned to stand in the pillory outside Somerset House for one hour each day.

In 1832, as part of a policy of retrenchment and rationalisation after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Navy and Victualling Boards were both abolished. Their functions were transferred to five principal officers of the Navy and their activities placed under the supervision of the Admiralty Board.

General Register Office

Since the time of Henry VIII, records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept almost entirely - if they were kept at all - in parish or church registers. That these were not particularly reliable can be gauged from an entry in the Register at old Somerset House Chapel for 1746 which reads: "Vacancy for a marriage solemnized by Dr Chapman, Archdeacon of Sudbury, who neither left the Licence or the name of the couple."

In 1836 the General Register Office was created to set up a comprehensive system for the registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths and appoint the first Registrar General based at Somerset House. It was not until 1970, after slightly less than a century and a half at Somerset House, that the General Register Office moved out.

Principal Probate Registry

All wills, either originals or copies, had to be registered at the Principal Probate Registry, founded in 1857 and relocated to Somerset House in 1874. The wills of many famous historical figures were among them.

Shakespeare's will made various provisions including the following: "In the name of God Amen I William Shackespeare of Stratford upon Avon gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture". Jane Austen's will is there and Napoleon's will was kept there until it was returned to France.

A First World War soldier wrote his will on the back of a photograph of a young woman inscribed "Ever yours Muriel". It was a very simple document: "I leave all to her".

The Inland Revenue

Stamp duty on documents, including newspapers, was only one of many revenue-raising methods administered by the Stamp Office, one of the government departments which moved to the new Somerset House in 1789.

In 1834 the Stamp Office united with the Affairs of Taxes and in 1849 Stamps and Taxes joined the Excise to form a new Board of Inland Revenue.

The Board of Inland Revenue occupied the east and west wings of Somerset House until 2011.

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September 2016
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