In week five of our folk tales from the five London Boroughs, Ruairidh Anderson tells the story of Emanuel Swedenborg, the East End’s Swedish mystic.
“In 1744, Swedenborg started having strange dreams. As a single young man with a head full of pistons and lever arms he could be forgiven for having the occasional colourful dream, but these were less of the Carry On variety and more of the Apocalyptic. Swedenborg was visiting heaven and hell in his sleep.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale, ‘Mr Swedenborg’.
With a name like Emanuel Swedenborg you are going to have a tough time at school. Perhaps it was whilst cowering in the toilets with nothing to comfort him but a warm verruca sock that the great Swedish thinker first started formulating the ideas that would set him apart from his peers.
Although he lived in Wellclose Square in Tower Hamlets, Swedenborg was born in Sweden where he attended university studying mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy mineralogy and that often overlooked skill, book binding.
He went on to design steam engines, aeroplanes, air guns and all in the early 1700s. He also developed a theory that atoms could be broken down into smaller particles – a theory that was eventually proven 200 years later. This guy was way ahead of everyone including Benjamin Franklin.
In 1744 Swedenborg started having strange dreams. Now I know you’re thinking, a young guy with a head full of pistons and lever arms could be forgiven for having colourful dreams. But his were less of the ‘Carry On’ variety and more of the apocalyptic.
Swedenborg was visiting heaven and hell in his dreams. And he claimed, having physical interaction with God. He stopped all academic interests and threw himself solely into a work named ‘Heavenly Mysteries’ a book he believed, he had been divinely given. I suppose a bit like the Da Vinci Code but vaguely interesting and written for adults.
In 1759 whilst he was having dinner with friends in London at around 6 o’clock in the evening, he claimed that there was a fire burning in Stockholm and he was worried. It was closing in on a property that he owned there. Hours later he seemed more relaxed and when pressed said ‘it’s fine it’s now passed’. Days later word came from overseas – events were exactly as he described.
Whilst visiting the Queen of Sweden, Emmanuel Swedenborg said he had a message for her from her dead brother. The Queen was amazed when it was a message that only she and her dead sibling could have known.
On 29 March 1772 Emanuel Swedenborg died on exactly the day he had predicted and his body was buried at the Swedish Church in Princes Square, Tower Hamlets.
The area now is called Swedenborg Gardens. But in 1908 his body was exhumed to be taken back to Sweden and revealed something at the great man himself had not seen coming. His head had been removed by a Swedish sailor years earlier and in some bizarre mix up the wrong head got returned to the owner and the right head ended up in an antique house eventually to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 1978 collecting £2000. Now that’s an expensive doorstop.