All human life is here…

A tale of naval derring-do is just one event in this year’s Being Human festival. Merlin John is our guide to what’s on offer

Thursday, 4th November 2021 — By Merlin John

Turner’s 1822 painting of the Battle of Trafalgar image- national maritime museum

Turner’s 1822 painting of the Battle of Trafalgar. Image: National Maritime Museum

EVER heard about George King, the Camden “foundling” abandoned at the tender age of five months who went on to become a sailor and fought at the Battle of Trafalgar?

It’s an astonishing story about “child number 18,053” left at Bloomsbury’s Foundling Hospital (more hostel than hospital) in 1787 and it’s being brought to life through the “Once Upon a Lifetime” writing workshop that’s part of the Being Human 2021 festival, an annual celebration of university humanities research organised by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.

George King was taught to read and write – unusual for working-class kids – and he was apprenticed to a confectioner before upping anchor and running away – only to be press-ganged into the navy in 1804. His journeys read like storybook adventures, including bloody battles, taking him across the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, Brazil and Argentina to the USA where he left the navy after 24 years.

He met enslaved people in South Carolina and even worked as a teacher in Charleston.

But when he eventually returned home he hit hard times before good fortune saw him admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich as a pensioner where he hand-wrote his autobiography (the focus of this workshop) and died on July 31, 1857

His unflinching and amusing memoir includes his account of the Battle of Trafalgar where he fought aboard HMS Polyphemus, which took 200 French prisoners and towed HMS Victory bearing Nelson’s body back to Gibraltar.

George was no shrinking violet and he describes a full life – a two-week drinking session in Covent Garden was one highlight for a sailor who liked his grog.

Part of the university’s public engagement work, “Once in a Lifetime” takes place on November 13 at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square. It’s just one of many free events across London and the UK.

Visitors will hear about George’s amazing life and struggles from Professor Helen Berry, curator of the museum’s exhibition “Fighting Talk: One boy’s journey from abandonment to Trafalgar.” And they can respond and create their own stories of renewal and resilience (the theme of Being Human) with a steer from Belinda Zhawi, writer, sound artist and educator.

George King may have let his hair down in Covent Garden but Soho is probably even more popular among today’s Londoners.

Viewed as a haven for the arts, fine dining and its buzzing pubs and clubs – and even as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah for a straight-laced few – it has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can discover just how, and the way it is coping, with “Soho after Covid”, a one-hour guided walk organised by the University of Westminster, revealing secret spaces, histories and projects.

It’s a celebratory tour of London arts venues past, present and future. As well as learning about Soho’s artistic history, participants will discover lesser-known venues and their pandemic struggles.

It’s all interwoven with performed extracts of newly commissioned poetry inspired by interviews conducted with arts professionals during lockdown, and produced as a collaboration with poetry collective, Live Canon.

On the afternoon of November 18, the University of Westminster will also host an online talk with its creators. This Being Human event is part of the National Lottery-funded Soho Poly Project, a campaign dedicated to the history and future of the Soho Poly, one of London’s most important post-war alternative theatres.

While George King and a walk through Soho will float boats for most of us, many will want to develop their own stories.

That is the purpose of A Museum for Me/Un Museo para Mí at the British Library in Euston Road on November 13.

Organised by the University of Liverpool, it’s a day of bilingual (also in Spanish) family-based workshops for all ages.

Colourful craft kits and videos will invite visitors to reflect on their lives today, their memories of yesterday – who and what have been lost and gained – and their dreams for tomorrow.

They will create and take home, unique memory objects – mini-museum, puppet theatre, timeline and more – and, most important, they get to tell their own stories.

George King: Once Upon A Lifetime. November 13. The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ. 10am-1pm. Free, booking required via
Full exhibition, Fighting Talk: One Boy’s Journey from Abandonment to Trafalgar, also at the The Foundling Museum
Soho After Covid. November 16, 17, 18. The Soho Poly, Meeting point: University of Westminster reception, 4-12 Little Titchfield Street, W1W 7BY, 1-2pm. Free, booking required, via
A Museum for Me / Un Museo para Mí. November 13. Knowledge Centre, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB, 10.30am-3pm. Free, booking required via

A selection of Being Human events

November 11
• The Big Book Review: Perspectives from Prison. How do prisons make use of libraries? An insight into the world of reading in prisons. Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, WC1E 7HU, 6.30-8pm. Free, booking required via

• Radical Rest: Art as Self Reflection. Workshop by Birkbeck focusing on looking at surroundings from a different perspective. Poetry exercises and art activities. The Create Place, 29 Old Ford Road, E2 9PL. 2-4pm. Free, booking required via

November 13
• Ruin, Repair and Renewal in Architecture (in person event). The Courtauld’s Conway Storytellers explore the ways that places undergo change. Insight into an ambitious project to digitise 1.5 million photographs. Discussion/ talk at The Courtauld Conway Library, Somerset House, North East Wing, WC2R 0RN, 11am-12.30pm. Free, book via
NB: Ruin, Repair and Renewal in Architecture is repeated as an online event via Zoom on November 17, 5-6.30pm. Free, booking required via

November 17
• The Food and Idea Exchange. An evening marketplace extravaganza where the Museum of London’s Ellipse Hall will be transformed into a marketplace for the exchange of ideas on the universal top of food. London Ellipse Hall, Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN, 6.30-9pm. Free, booking required,

November 18
• The Future of Storytelling. Panel discussion on the future of reading, storytelling and the idea of the “text” in a world where visual media is increasingly dominant. Springer Nature – Stables Building, 2 Trematon Walk, King’s Cross, N1 9RZ, 6.30-8.30pm. Free, booking required via

• The Being Human Festival runs from November 11-20. See full details of all events and how to book at (use site filter for London events).

Related Articles