Martin Folkes (1690-1754), affable, privately wealthy, well-connected, and intellectual, was the eldest son of an eminent Gray’s Inn bencher, a former Solicitor General and later Attorney General.
Folkes was educated privately by James Cappel, a Huguenot tutor, before matriculating at Clare College, Cambridge. His father’s death when Folkes was fifteen brought an inheritance estimated by William Stukeley to be around £3,000, the equivalent of several million today. It permitted Folkes the luxury of leisured study and, in October 1714, marriage to Lucretia Bradshawe, an actress. Their marriage was described glowingly: ‘such has been her Behaviour to him… there is not a more happy Couple.’
Folkes’s intellectual abilities supported his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 1714: ‘the progress he made… after he left the University, in all parts of Learning, particularly Mathematical & Philosophical, distinguished him’. His sociability added to the mix and he was elected to the Society’s Council in 1716 and 1718-26. In January 1723 Folkes was elected one of two Vice Presidents under Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he developed a close bond and for whom he deputised at Council meetings.
Although James Jurin, a fellow FRS, believed that Newton had ‘singled Folkes out to fill the chair’, Folkes lost the battle to succeed as President in 1727 and Hans Sloane, his co-Vice President and former Secretary, was elected. The contest led to a rift between Folkes and Sloane. It was however temporary and the two were later reconciled. Folkes was reappointed to the Council in 1729 and 1730, and in 1732 became a Vice President once more. He succeeded Sloane as President in 1741.
The convivial atmosphere of the Royal Society and of other professional and scholarly bodies, including the Society of Antiquaries to which Folkes was elected in 1720 and served as President from 1750-54, provided a milieu for the intellectual and amiable Folkes to encourage his colleagues to join him in Freemasonry. Several became members of his lodges at the Bedford Head in Covent Garden and the Maid’s Head in Norwich, near Folkes’s Norfolk estate.
When the Duke of Richmond became Grand Master in June 1724, he appointed Folkes, a very close friend, as his Deputy. Folkes succeeded Desaguliers in the post and continued the latter’s work. Just over a year later, Folkes was nominated to serve on the de facto management committee of Grand Lodge, the Grand Charity Committee, on which Desaguliers also served.
Folkes’s travels and antiquarian studies took him away from London to the provinces and continental Europe and his attendance at Grand Lodge in the 1730s was sparse. In the 1740s he was present on 22 April 1740 at the installation of the Earl of Kintore as Grand Master; on 19 March 1741 at the installation of the Earl of Morton; and on 23 March 1741 when Lord Ward was named the next Grand Master. On the last occasion Folkes was described in the Minutes as ‘PRS’, President of the Royal Society, a position to which he had been elected unanimously that year. He was elected to the Académie Française the following year.
The Duke of Richmond described Folkes as ‘a gentleman of very good family, and one of the leading Savants of this kingdom’, and that Folkes was ‘one of the most learned and at the same time most agreeable men in Europe’ and ‘one of the most intimate and dearest friends I have in the world… He is a member of our Royal Society and… an intimate acquaintance of the great Sir Isaac Newton, for whose memory, as every man of learning must, he has the utmost veneration’.
Folkes was integral to freemasonry’s development in the 1720s and supportive of Desaguliers, Payne, and the inner core within Grand Lodge that steered the organisation on an Enlightenment course. His relationship with Desaguliers dated back to 1714 when both were elected to the Royal Society. Folkes promoted the Craft actively, proposing at least eleven freemasons as Fellows. It is also significant that ten Fellows were members of Folkes’s lodge at the Bedford Head, a quarter of the membership. Among them was John Arbuthnot, the physician, mathematician and author, whose own social circle extended from Alexander Pope to Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield.
The Bedford Head Lodge mixed Fellows of the Royal Society with other establishment figures, including Charles Cornwallis, 5th Baron Cornwallis, later the 1st Earl; Sir Thomas Jones, a banker and magistrate; Sir Charles Cox, MP for Southwark, a successful brewer and property investor; and Huguenot financiers and merchants. The Bedford Head was among the best-known Covent Garden taverns with a reputation as a ‘luxurious refractory’ celebrated for its food and gaming. In his 1733 imitation of Horace’s second satire, Alexander Pope’s Oldfield, a glutton who exhausted a fortune of £1,500 a year in the ‘simple luxury of good eating’, declared ‘let me extol a Cat, on oysters fed, I’ll have a party at the Bedford-head’. And in a later poem Pope enquired ‘when sharp with hunger, scorn you to be fed, except on pea-chicks at the Bedford-head?’ Horace Walpole also mentions the tavern, telling a tale of eight gentlemen who having enjoyed an evening in Covent Garden ‘retired to a great supper prepared for them at the Bedford Head’.
Such a reputation would have commended the tavern to Folkes. His familiarity with convivial dining was renowned and captured effectively in Hogarth’s 1741 portrait. Nonetheless, complementing its reputation for hedonism, the Bedford Head had also become a popular location for lectures by leading scientists, including Desaguliers.