Burlington House London, 4th home to Royal Society
Burlington House was the Royal Society’s fourth home and was used from 1857 to 1967. This was an intriguing organisation whose members and fellows are and always were, distinguished in their particular fields. Built in the 1660s by Sir John Denham, a wealthy architect and lawyer, and owned by several generations of the Boyle family, beginning with Richard Boyle, first Earl of Burlington and elder brother of Robert Boyle FRS. The first Earl’s great-grandson, also named Richard (and elected FRS in 1722), was responsible for the grand redesign of the house in 1716-18.
- Mid 19th Century there was saw an increase in the Royal Society’s scientific advisory role and this, together with overcrowding in the Library, prompted a request to the Government for more room in Somerset House or elsewhere.
- Land near to the Kensington site of the 1851 Great Exhibition was rejected as being “exceedingly inconvenient and unsuitable”, however, and the Society pressed for a single central location alongside the other leading scientific societies: the Linnean, the Geological, the Royal Astronomical and the Chemical.
- This wish was granted when the Royal Society was offered Burlington House in Piccadilly in 1856, and the Society moved in (with the Linneans and the Chemists) in 1857.
When the Royal Academy of Arts took over this building in 1867, the Royal, Linnean and Chemical Societies were promised accommodation in new wings to be built to the east and west of the courtyard. In 1873, after a rather fraught period of sharing, the new buildings were finished, and the Royal Society moved in to the East Wing, where it was to remain until 1967.
During the Society’s occupancy of the East Wing of Burlington House, the number of office staff grew from two to nearly 80, and the Library expanded until its books could be found in practically every room of the building. Overcrowding thus precipitated yet another change of address, the Society’s most recent move to its current home in Carlton House Terrace. Several of the other learned societies have remained within the Burlington House courtyard – a visitor today will see the entrances to the Linnean Society and the Geological Society on either side of the archway overlooking Piccadilly, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries on the left of the courtyard (West Wing) and the Royal Society of Chemistry to the right, in the East Wing vacated by the Royal Society in 1967.