David Hartley – Arsonist by Appointment? 1732 – 1813

Detailed description of obelisk erected in memory of David Hartley on Putney Heath in 1777; family origins of Hartley; education and early career including securing patent for protecting buildings from fire by use of iron plates.

by Archie Galloway

The first time I heard of David Hartley was when I got a call in the summer of 1996. I live in Putney, and in the middle of Putney Heath. The open spaces around us are managed and maintained by the Conservators of Wimbledon and Putney Commons, which include Putney Heath, and it was their Vice Chairman on the telephone. He asked me if I was a member of the City of London Corporation. Being on my guard, assuming he might be after some financial support, I admitted that I was. He then said that the Conservators had just refurbished the obelisk erected in memory of David Hartley on Putney Heath and they were looking for additional funds to meet the costs. I said I would investigate, and I started by going to look at the obelisk, something I had first seen soon after moving here in 1978. It is about 25 feet tall and five and a half feet square at the base, built of stone up to four marked plinths and thereafter in brick. This is in stark contrast to the quotation given by George Dance (of Porch fame) of “Portland stone upon a brick foundation” given to City Lands on 9 May 1777. Dance was due to be paid £100 on satisfactory completion of his “pillar” on the condition that it was not “inferior to the said design”. No evidence of him being paid can be found! It was listed Grade II on 14 July 1955.

My inspection showed that it had been revitalised and all four plaques were clearly legible and read as follows: –

North face inscribed: by the Commons of Great Britain in PARLIAMENT ASSEMBLED Lunae 16 Die Maii 1774 Resolved NEMINE CONTRADICENTE That a sum not exceeding Two Thousand five hundred Pounds [that’s £345,000 in today’s money!] to be granted to His MAJESTY to be paid To DAVID HARTLEY ESQr Towards enabling him to defray the charge of Experiments in order to ascertain the practicability and utility of his INVENTION for securing buildings from Fire and that the same be paid without Fee or Reward Confirmed by ACT of Parliament ANNO 14 GEORGE 3 REGIS.


West face inscribed: HALLIFAX MAYOR A COMMON COUNCIL holden in the chamber of the GUILD HALL of the CITY of LONDON on the 22nd of November 1776 RESOLVED that JOHN SAWBRIDGE ESQr. the late LORD MAYOR of this CITY having laid a Foundation Stone for erecting an obelisk on Putney Common to commemorate the invention of FIRE PLATES for securing buildings from FIRE by DAVID HARTLEY ESQ The committee of the City Lands be empowered to erect and compleat the same.

East face inscribed: by VIRTUE of a ORDER of the Right Hon the LORD MAYOR ALDERMEN and COMMONS of the CITY of LONDON in Common Council Assembled Dated the 22nd November 1776 DAVID HARTLEY Esq. was admitted into the FREEDOM of the said CITY in the COMPANY of GOLDSMITHS in the time of the Rt.Honble Sr. THOMAS HALLIFAX. KNT. LORD MAYOR and BENJAMIN HOPKINS ESQ CHAMBERLAIN in CONSIDERATION of the ADVANTAGE likely to accrue to the PUBLIC by his INVENTION of FIRE PLATES for securing buildings from FIRE and for his respectful attention to the CITY in his repeated EXPERIMENTS performed before many of the members of the COURT. The RECORD of which experiments and also of his admission into the FREEDOM of the said CITY of LONDON is entered in the BOOK signed with the letter R&c IN WITNESS whereof the SEAL of the office of CHAMBERLAIN thereunto affixed DATED in the GUILD HALL of the same CITY the 26th day of March in the 17th Year of the Reign of OUR sovereign LORD GEORGE the THIRD &c. And in the Year of our LORD MDCCLXXVII (L.S.)

The next day I bumped into Richard Scriven, Chairman of the Finance Committee, at Guildhall and said I was going to ask him for some cash to help repair an old monument that had been built by the City a long time ago. He said not to bother, as the Corporation were not giving out any help for good causes at the time! Whilst this shocked me, I wondered how I was going to reply to my Conservator friend! Happily, the Clerk and Ranger of the Commons (now called the Chief Executive) came to my rescue. He wrote to me enquiring if I had been contacted as he was keen to know whether the Corporation had been approached. In telling me this, he enclosed a note of the total bill he had received from their contractors of £1,655.81, together with offers of cash from Wandsworth Council and English Heritage totalling £1,533. He was therefore looking for £122.81 in order to settle his bill! I rang Richard Scriven who said he could afford to make an exception and confirmed it in a letter to me, saying he had instructed the Grants’ Sub Committee Clerk to put it on the agenda for their next meeting on the 11 November. £123 was sent on 6 December and was well received. The Grants Sub of Finance needed confirmation of my story and I am pleased to report that their enquiry to London Metropolitan Archives was handled by our esteemed clerk, Elizabeth Scudder. She produced evidence of all stages involving the Corporation at the time, and I am extremely grateful for her help in preparing this paper.

At this stage, I must tell you something about David Hartley himself. He was born in 1732 the son of David Hartley, a physician, and, more importantly, philosopher, who was the author of “Observations on Man”, a seminal work on the subject at the time. Young David went to Sherborne School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied medicine, science and classics, being awarded a BA in 1750. He became a lifelong Fellow of Merton College Oxford in 1753 and went to Leiden for further study in medicine, returning to London after 2 years to join Lincoln’s Inn as a student. David had inherited his father’s eccentricities: he refused to powder his hair which one friend described as “a perfect phenomenon at the time.” He insisted on wearing stockings with the feet cut out, a practice he declared was “conducive to good health and favourable to pedestrian exercise.” Little appears to be known of his movements after this, but he started a number of scientific experiments and became a popular pamphleteer in support of the Colonists in America and of the abolition of the slave trade. This brought him to the attention of Benjamin Franklin, a regular visitor to London, which led to a lengthy exchange of correspondence between them and a lasting friendship.

By about 1770 he was developing his plans to protect buildings from fire by using iron plates to isolate parts of buildings. These were to be fixed by nails hammered into joists and floors and ceilings. By 1773 he had acquired a patent for his scheme and had tested it successfully in two houses he had built for the purpose in Bucklebury in Berkshire. In 1774 he was elected one of two MPs for the Kingston Division of Hull. He was able to broaden his publicity for his invention by publishing “an account of the method of securing buildings and ships against fire” in 1775, which I have read at the British Library. By now, he had acquired a building lease of a plot of land on Putney Heath from the freeholder, Earl Spencer, and was building the Fireproof House which was visited by many famous people during and following completion. King George III and Queen Caroline came with the Prince of Wales and took breakfast in an upper room as a fire was started below. They inspected the burnt room and the remains of its contents before leaving and were greatly impressed. I assume that it was at the laying of the Foundation Stone by Lord Mayor Sawbridge, on 110th anniversary of “that dreadful event”, that Hartley suggested that a single fire plate under a crevice in the floor or over a crack in the ceiling might have prevented the Fire of London. It is clearly written in the papers relating to Hartley that fire plates were to be installed in all new buildings in the City and, where possible, in existing buildings.

He is known to have been the first MP to table a motion for the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1776, but had a reputation for long winded and boring speeches in Parliament. There is a frequent reference to “his rising always operated as a dinner bell” as he drove so many members from the Chamber. He lost his seat in 1780 but regained it in 1782 when he was joined as a new Hull Kingston Member by William Wilberforce, a local man who we know successfully saw the slave trade abolished in 1807.

Also in 1782 Hartley was appointed a plenipotentiary by the King and the Government for the peace talks in Paris to end the American War of Independence. It was understood that his friendship with Franklin had much to do with his appointment, and the two of them drew up and signed the definitive Treaty of Peace between Great Britain and the United States in Paris on 3rd September 1783. He lost his seat in Parliament in 1784 and did not stand again. He was heard of in 1791 when he claimed that the total destruction by fire of Richmond House in Whitehall, the home of the Duke of Richmond, would have been prevented by the use of his fire plates. This was at the same time as his influence was supposedly recognised by theatre managers in London when the fire safety curtain was introduced. His last activities seemed to major on revising and editing many of his father’s papers. These included a new edition of “The Origins on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations” (to give it its full title) and published them with copious notes from 1791 to 1801.

There is no record of what happened to Hartley’s leasehold interest in the Firehouse. There is an assumption that no-one lived there for a long time as it was not recorded in any rating records. Its last known function before being enlarged in the early part of the next century was for the inoculation of troops training on the Commons in 1794. It was demolished to make way for Wildcroft in 1877 with an enlarged boundary but excluding the obelisk which is now on common land. This property was greatly enlarged for Sir George Newnes – the Victorian publisher – whose titles ranged from “Country Life” to “Titbits”. It was finally demolished in 1934 and replaced by Wildcroft Manor, a discreet development of 56 flats, which is there to this day.

In 1864 Earl Spencer planned to enclose his Common Lands following the example of a number of similar estates around London and turn his 1,100 acres into agricultural use and residential development. Whilst a number of neighbours supported him the mood in the Country was that enough such land had been lost and he was not able to get the necessary parliamentary approval. Instead the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 handed control and ownership to 8 Conservators who have a duty to keep the Commons open, unenclosed, unbuilt on and their natural aspect preserved. Three Conservators are appointed by the Government and five by election by local residents. The next election will be February 2018. The electorate in 2015 was c68,000. The original local rate levy is now an addition to electors’ Council tax bills. The Spencer family were compensated with a perpetual annuity of £1,200 which was redeemed in 1968.

Hartley died a bachelor in Bristol in 1813. I would like to finish by reading an anonymous epitaph in a Bristol paper which I found in the British Library, summing up his achievements. “A Parliamentarian, whose conspicuous figure and urgent voice were more familiar to his contemporaries than his name to historians, an Inventor who was commemorated by one of the monuments which London has since forgotten, the Correspondent and Friend whose name and little more is known to every reader of Franklin’s letters, and to many students of Jefferson, Jay and John Adams, the Minister who signed the first Treaty of Peace between England and America, and finally the Philanthropist who was for long reported to have introduced the first Parliamentary motion for the abolition of the slave trade. Hartley was, if not one of those who made history, at least was in singularly close touch with the stirring events of a most eventful period.”

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