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History of Swedenborg Gardens

Today it is just another East End street, and passers-by doubtless sometimes wonder at the roots of its curious foreign name. But Swedenborg Gardens marks the home of one of the most extraordinary men of the 18th century – a brilliant scientist whose visions were to change the way many saw God and religion. It was here he lived in the heart of the East End’s Swedish community, and here he had his conversations with his maker.

Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm on 29 January 1688. The son of a clergyman, he grew up in a home filled with intellectual, philosophical, political and moral debate. He was certainly an intense child, writing later: “From my fourth to my tenth year, I was constantly engaged in thought upon God, salvation, and the spiritual sufferings of men, and several times I revealed that at which my father and mother wondered … from my sixth to my twelfth year my delight was to discourse with clergymen concerning Faith.”

Leaving Uppsala University at 22, he decided to travel Europe and immersed himself in an astonishing variety of disciplines. To the specialists of today, his work in physics, astronomy, metallurgy, mineralogy, geology, chemistry, watchmaking, bookbinding and lens grinding is staggering. And the tireless Swedenborg was a creator too. He designed a submarine, an aeroplane, a steam engine, an air gun and a slow combustion stove.

Most of his designs were never built, but undaunted he wrote numerous books, as well as taking a seat in the Swedish equivalent of our House of Lords. He also took up a post as the King of Sweden’s Assessor of Mines.

From the 1720s, Swedenborg was dividing his time between Sweden and London. The English capital attracted him, because its free press allowed him to publish his often controversial works without hindrance or censorship. Arriving in Wapping, Swedenborg first made his home in Wellclose Square, near the Highway.

Wellclose and Prince’s Squares were lined with grand townhouses, built by the wealthy Swedish merchants who had settled in the area. These timber traders had their wharves at Wapping, and soon the local Swedish community grew, with shopkeepers, craftsmen and itinerant sailors. In 1728, the community raised money for their own place of worship – and London’s first Swedish church was built in Prince’s Square.

Swedenborg became a regular worshipper at the new church. He was still commuting between his native and adopted countries – returning to the Swedish parliament to deliver a paper on the future of the national currency, coming back to London to publish his groundbreaking works on the brain and cerebral cortex – but soon his life was to take an extraordinary turn.

In 1744 Swedenborg began to have vivid, disturbing and exhilarating dreams and visions. He told no-one, merely logging his experiences in his diaries. But trying to make sense of it all, he began a meticulous study of the Bible. Then, in April 1745, came the experience that changed his life forever. God appeared to him, telling him that he would reveal truths to humanity through Swedenborg.

For the next 25 years, Swedenborg became ever more prolific, publishing 18 theological works at his own expense. Resigning his job as Mines Assessor, he wrote ceaselessly, expounding on the hidden, inner meanings to the stories of the Bible; the fundamental nature of God, Humanity and Creation; the truth about the afterlife; the key to personal spiritual growth and the secrets to a happy marriage, to name but a few.

Swedenborg kept as low a profile as such a productive writer was able. He published his work anonymously in London (his followers in Sweden began to be persecuted by the authorities), and he made no attempts to set up a church to disseminate his ideas.

But the secret escaped one night back in Gothenburg. Dining with friends, he suddenly became pale. Asked what was wrong, he said he had just ‘heard’ that a fire had broken out near his home in Stockholm, 300 miles away. A little later he became relieved, explaining that the fire had been put out safely. Days later, a messenger arrived from Stockholm, with exactly the same story. His vision became the talk of the town, and people realised that Swedenborg was the author of the extraordinary tracts that had been appearing.

On 29 March 1772, Swedenborg died at his Wapping home, and was buried in the little Swedish church in Prince’s Square. Not much remains to be seen now. The Swedish community has long since dispersed, and the visionary’s remains were removed to Uppsala Cathedral in 1908. The church closed in 1910 and, despite a fierce campaign, it was demolished in 1921.

In 1938, Prince’s Square was renamed Swedenborg Square. But though the fine old houses of Swedenborg and Wellclose Squares escaped the Blitz, they couldn’t dodge the planners. In the 1960s both were demolished as slums by the GLC.

2 comments on “History of Swedenborg Gardens

  1. Bob Rust says:

    Doing some research I find that in 1951 BRS is using number 7 Swedenborg Square as an “open yard for parking vehicles”.

  2. More interesting than the life of Swedenborg, is what he actually wrote down throughout the course of 25 years of having visions. I took all of his writings, digitized them, and took every paragraph number and hyperlinked them. All the works are collected together under the title, “The Divine Revelation of the New Jerusalem.” I was tired about the lack of knowledge concerning Swedenborg, and tired of hauling all his books around while travelling! Just search for “The Divine Revelation of the New Jerusalem” on Amazon or Barnes & Noble nook books, you will also see individual works published separately in the same series. They have also been recently released on the Kobo e-reader as well.

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