In this episode of Travels Through Time the author and cultural historian Mike Jay takes us back to 1799 – a year of anxiety, action and excitement on the cusp of a new century.

The 1790s: A Revolutionary Age

Although the 1790s is often overlooked, it was an extraordinary, bewildering and formative decade in European history. The early years of the decade were filled with excitement and energy. People of all political stripes realised that the powerful forces that had been set loose by the French Revolution were set to transform the old societies they knew. By the year 1800 this transformation had indeed happened. But it was not as people had anticipated. Many dreams had “crashed and burned” along the way.

Mike Jay has written extensively on this period of history, examining the powerful confluence of science, politics and culture in a series of books. In this episode of our podcast he takes us back to 1799 to meet three “admirable and flawed” characters whose stories tell us much about the time. These are the political prisoner Colonel Edward Marcus Despard whose battle with the establishment is retold in the new series of Poldark; an inmate of the Royal Bethlam Hospital called James Tilly Matthews; and Humphry Davy, an inspired young experimenter, whose work on the medicinal properties of nitrous oxide – soon to earn its colloquial name “laughing gas” - would pass into legend.

Scene One: New Year’s Day, 1799, Colonel Despard imprisoned without trial in Coldbath Fields, London.

Scene Two: 24 June, 1799, Midsummer Day, James Tilly Matthews and John Haslam in the Royal Bethlem Hospital.

Scene Three: Boxing Day, 1799, Humphry Davy’s famous experiment on nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol.

Memento: One of Humphry Davy’s little green bags, used for inhaling gases, as manufactured by James Watt of The Lunar Society.

Presenter: Peter Moore

Guest: Mike Jay

Producer: Maria Nolan

Read a new piece about Edward and Catherine Despard

More from History Today

The Unhappy Mansion by Anna Jamieson on the Royal Bethlam Hospital

Humphry Davy and the Murder Lamp by Max Adams

Myth, Reality and William Pitt the Younger by R.E. Foster

Summer holidays ...

This is the last episode of the first season of Travels Through Time. Season Two starts on the first Tuesday in September. Thank you for listening!

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