The Faraday Legacy in Southwark: Celebrating his 230th Birthday

By Jessie Goodison Burgess, Heritage Officer

When you come home after work or school, what do you do?  Turn on the lights, put the kettle on, start making dinner…? Maybe you play some music, or, if you really want to relax, turn on a dehumidifier. All these processes require the flick of a switch or press of a button to turn on electricity. It is these everyday, routine actions that remind us of the continual significance of Michael Faraday, who’s discoveries on electromagnetic induction enabled the development of electricity and its wide spread use across the world. Today we celebrate his 230th birthday, marking the date 22 September, 1791 when he was born.

Michael Faraday, Southwark-born scientist, b.1791 – d. 1867

In the 1830s, Faraday was building on the research of the scientific community into electricity. He discovered that a magnetic field could produce an electric current, paving the way for generators to produce electricity and transforming how electricity could be applied to technology. Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction has reverberated through the years to the point that, now, his principles are continuously put to use, from using our phones to driving a car.

Faraday is considered a giant of the scientific community due to this discovery and his contributions to the understanding of electromagnetism and electrolysis: no one can doubt the relevance of his legacy in our everyday lives.

But nowhere is his legacy felt more on a physical scale than in the borough of Southwark. Take a walk around the borough, and you will find his name in several places. He was born in Newington Butts (around Elephant and Castle, now part of modern Southwark) but his family moved to north London soon after and so, there is not much said about his time in Southwark.  Despite this, Faraday may be the most prominent of Southwark’s former residents: From his ambiguous blue plaque on Larcom Street (which gives no hint as to why it is located there), to Michael Faraday Primary School, Faraday Gardens and even an entire Electoral Ward named Faraday, Southwark remembers the scientist.

Faraday’s plaque on Larcom Road, as voted for by the people of Southwark

His legacy is loudest and shiniest in the middle of Elephant Square thanks to the Michael Faraday Memorial. This is not a public toilet, an ill-timed realisation that many (myself included) have come to, but is, more appropriately, an electricity substation for the Northern and Bakerloo tube lines that go to Elephant and Castle. The modernist architect Rodney Gordon designed a stainless steal box structure emulating the endless possibilities of science hailed in by Faraday and his contemporaries, and in 1961 it was constructed in proximity to Faraday’s birthplace. There is not a lot of visible interpretation that explains the Faraday connection and many pass the monolith everyday without acknowledging the reason behind its existence. Despite this, the memorial is still considered an iconic part of Elephant and Castle. In the 2012, Southwark Council implemented a new disco-themed lighting scheme that reflected pinks and purples off its stainless steel sides, following a nation-wide competition to improve public space. This Blue Peter competition was won by a local schoolgirl who wanted to see the memorial lit up in colour.

Michael Faraday Memorial forms the heart of Elephant Square

This year, another dedication has been made to Faraday further down Walworth Road where the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library has recently opened – here you can experience one of Faraday’s electromagnetic experiments.

Walk through the doors of the library, go up the stairs, and you will discover at the very back a room you probably weren’t expecting. The walls are lined with copper, and it is dimly lit with two low hanging lights, creating the atmosphere of a secretive World War 2 bunker. This is a real Faraday Cage, invented by Faraday in 1836 to block electromagnetic fields. The effect of this is used in microwaves and to protect planes from lightening. In the library, it stops you from accessing the internet while in the meeting room. Visitors to the library will be able to book the room (Covid allowing) and immerse themselves in an authentic experience free from the distraction of phones and the Internet. This experience is supported by a display of objects from the Cuming Collection that were owned by Faraday: his watch, a family bible with notes marking births and deaths, and a disk dynamo (which was shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition) as well as a bust of his likeness – all creating a personal insight into the man behind the science. These are set next to another display of early 19th century scientific instruments, illustrating the transformative scientific world that Faraday and his contemporaries both were shaped by and contributed to.

The Faraday Room with displays on Michael Faraday and Science and Technology

Readers can use the Faraday Room to get their scientific fix and be inspired by the wonders of physics and electricity. The placement of this room in a library, surrounded by books, has more meaningful depth than meets the eye. Faraday did not have a formal education, but left school early to work in bookbinding. While surrounded by books, he discovered his passion and drive for science and looked to improve his knowledge through reading and attending lectures. We are left with another of Faraday’s legacies: the legacy of the joy of learning, discovery and experimentation, which was key to Faraday’s success and enduring memory; and can now be discovered in the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library.

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