A rare chance to see Jeremy Bentham out of his box

180 years ago a man died. A very significant man in life, and who was to become a curious icon in death. This is Jeremy Bentham, and when he died, his body was dissected in public, then stuffed and put on display in a wooden box, with a glass panel. And all this was at his own request.

Earlier today his mortal remains were removed from the wooden sarcophagus he has sat in for the past 160 years for a bit of a clean.

Jeremy Bentham's box

For students at University College London, the stuffed remains of the  philosopher and jurist have become a bit of a school mascot, and his box is unlocked each morning so that people passing by can see him forever staring back at them.

Sitting in a wooden box though, for all those years means the old chap has got rather dusty, so it was time to take him out and give him a bit of of a dust-down. This also meant a rare chance to see his back as he was put in a side room for his clean.

OK, the back of a dead man isn’t that interesting, but let’s be honest, just how often do you get to see one?

Jeremy Bentham

He is rather painfully bolted to the chair he sits on, so to remove him, the students looking after the body popped him and chair onto a flat-trolley and wheeled them up to a room in the geology department for the dust-down.

Using a brush, dust was knocked off the clothes, and the dusty cloud sucked away with a vacuum cleaner nozzle.

He is quite a small figure, by modern standards, but would have been of average height compared to the populace when he was alive. The stuffing of the legs looks rather poor and insubstantial compared to the rest of the body, and the hands look quite flat and lifeless now.

Jeremy Bentham

He hasn’t been removed that often before – and when he took a trip to Germany for a loan a decade ago, they noticed that there was a bug infestation that needed treating. The intention now is to improve the seals on his wooden box so that he gets less dusty, and install environmental monitors so that they can work out how often he should be removed for cleaning and maintenance in the future.

He was popped back into his cleaned and polished box at 4pm. He probably wont leave for another couple of years at least.

Jeremy Bentham

Being watched by the bust of Sir Andrew Ramsay, 3rd Director General of the Geological Survey

The wooden doors that protect his box are unlocked each morning, and you can pay the old chap a visit 7:30am to 6pm Mon-Fri in UCL’s south cloisters. They are open the public.

The head is a waxwork – the original head is stored in a safe and is only exceptionally rarely taken out, for private academic inspection.

UCL’s Twitter account took more photos of him during the day.

Jeremy Bentham

Another curiosity though are the gold rings he gave away shortly before he died, each with a cameo of his head in profile, and a lock of hair in the back. Each ring was inscribed with the name of the recipient, except the one kept by UCL.

They actually own two of the 26 rings handed out as one was found for sale in an antique shop and donated to the university. They would love to know where the rest are, and put them on display together one day.

Do you know someone with one of the rings?

Jeremy Bentham Ring

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6 Comments

  1. Mark

    I sometimes walk by and say hello to Jeremy. It’s interesting to read the terms of his will which requests that his body is brought out to preside over the College feasts which he so enjoyed in life. Sometimes I take the opportunity to drink to his memory in the pub which bears his name.

  2. Cactus V

    Thomas Southwood Smith, sanitary reformer and Octavia Hill’s grandfather, was first responsible for Bentham’s auto icon. I believe it was in Southwood Smith’s study for a while when Octavia was living with her grandfather; Bentham was sat in his study.

  3. Janey

    Thanks for posting pictures, I completely forgot to go see him in my lunch break so it’s nice to see this article here. I would love to see his original head but I suppose that will never happen!

  4. John Locke

    DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO!!!

  5. Vivien

    Thanks for showing these pictures. I always walk past Jeremy when I’m in UCL. An interesting bequest.

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