TIME, SPACE AND THE CITY


The recent upheavals in the middle East set me thinking of the various curious ways that London has been influenced by the 'cult of Egyptology'.  For instance, along the embankment, if you look closely, you will see cast iron camels and sphinxes supporting the benches that line the river.  Such architectural influences abound.  Hawksmoor's churches are full of them - check out the strange pyramid on St George's Bloomsbury or the sombre elevation of his St Mary Woolnoth.  Both of these have the heavy psychedelic gravity of a pharoahs's tomb.  The Victorians were nuts about ancient Egypt and of course looted many of the treasures they found on their archaeological forays.  Cleopatra's needle on the embankment is probably the most prominent example and the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum are stuffed with such plunder.  

From Hawksmoor onward, various English visionaries were not only influenced by the architectural styles of ancient Egypt but also by its occult belief systems.  The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the flowering of that peculiar hybrid of science and magic which gave rise to many strange stories and characters.  I've written about one of them before - Austin Osman Spare (Phil Baker's excellent biography of the man has now been published by Strange Attractor press). And of course there were the more famous Aleister Crowley, Ouspensky, Blavatsky and the like.

An earlier Egyptologist was Joseph Bonomi - pictured above.  He traded as an archaeological artist but is thought to have been a tomb raider.  He is also generally considered to have been the designer of the Egyptian styled 'Courtoy' tomb in Brompton cemetery which was ostensibly intendd to be the final resting place of 'three spinsters'.  An interesting legend has grown up around this mausoleum because it is the only one in the cemetery for which there is no record of construction.  This, together with Bonomi's obsession with the afterlife (reflected in the heiroglyphs on the tomb), have been held by some to be evidence that it is not a tomb at all but a Time Machine and that the three spinsters, if they existed at all, were in fact his time travelling sponsors.

This is a lovely fantastical idea but unfortunately it is incorrect.

In fact the tomb is one of five 'teleportation' chambers designed by Joseph Bonomi and built by his occult partner the Clerkenwell inventor Samuel Alfred Warner.  Amongst several other inventions, Warner claimed to have developed a mysterious missile capable of destroying  ships from a distance.  The Royal Navy were convinced enough by his demonstrations to pay him to develop this new weaponry but proved unable to reproduce his results independently. This was because what Warner had allegedly discovered (with the help of ancient knowledge gained by Bonomi in Egypt) was an occult way of  'teleporting' a bomb a short distance - I suppose you could call it a 'psychic torpedo'.

The Navy withdrew funding.  Disappointed but undaunted, Warner and Bonomi found a new sponsor, Lord Kilmorey, who encouraged them to attempt to use the occult method of teleportation in a much grander but still hopefully commercial way.  They conceived of the idea of a transportation grid around London to reduce the time taken to travel the large distances of the vast, congested metropolis. To this end they built  seven Egyptian teleportation chambers in the most suitable places they could find - in each of the  seven new cemeteries that had been built in the capital from 1839.  The chamber that people mistake for a time machine in Brompton cemetery is just one of the seven and it is sadly rather dilapidated now (although it did give rise to the idea of the Tardis in the Doctor Who stories).  Whether any of them actually worked as intended is now of course a moot point.  If you like, you can go to see some of them (and try them out for yourself suppose).  The ones at Brompton, Highgate and Kensal Rise are pictured here.  

Some of the seven appear to have entirely vanished, as did Samuel Warner himself, although whether this was as a result of the normal processes of time or by becoming lost  whilst teleporting who can say? Bonomi took his secrets and his knowledge to his grave - a rather modest one  - in Brompton cemetery.

Ironically, of the several ways of now getting quickly around London, one of the ones that has become more popular is 'The Brompton' - a fold-up portable bicycle.