Skip to main content Accessibility help

Historical geographies of provincial science: themes in the setting and reception of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Britain and Ireland, 1831–c.1939



The British Association for the Advancement of Science sought to promote the understanding of science in various ways, principally by having annual meetings in different towns and cities throughout Britain and Ireland (and, from 1884, in Canada, South Africa and Australia). This paper considers how far the location of its meetings in different urban settings influenced the nature and reception of the association's activities in promoting science, from its foundation in 1831 to the later 1930s. Several themes concerning the production and reception of science – promoting, practising, writing and receiving – are examined in different urban contexts. We consider the ways in which towns were promoted as venues for and centres of science. We consider the role of local field sites, leading local practitioners and provincial institutions for science in attracting the association to different urban locations. The paper pays attention to excursions and to the evolution and content of the BAAS meeting handbook as a ‘geographical’ guide to the significance of the regional setting and to appropriate scientific venues. The paper considers the reception of BAAS meetings and explores how far the association's intentions for the promotion of science varied by location and by section within the BAAS. In examining these themes – the geographical setting of the association's meetings, the reception of association science in local civic and intellectual context and the importance of place to an understanding of what the BAAS did and how it was received – the paper extends existing knowledge of the association and contributes to recent work within the history of science which has emphasized the ‘local’ nature of science's making and reception and the mobility of scientific knowledge.



Hide All

1 MS. Dep. BAAS 5 (Miscellaneous papers, 1831–69), f. 1. In what follows, all citations from the BAAS papers held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (the principal BAAS archive) are given in this form.

2 J. Morrell and A. Thackray, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Oxford, 1981, 98.

3 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2), 104, 126–7.

4 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2), 161.

5 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2), 164–222; P. Lowe, ‘The British Association and the provincial public’, in The Parliament of Science: The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831–1981 (ed. R. MacLeod and P. Collins), Northwood, 1981, 118–44.

6 On the BAAS overseas see M. Worboys, ‘The British Association and empire: science and social imperialism’, in The Parliament of Science: The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831–1981 (ed. R. MacLeod and P. Collins), Northwood, 1981, 170–87; S. Dubow, ‘A commonwealth of science: the British Association in South Africa, 1905 and 1929’, in Science and Society in Southern Africa (ed. S. Dubow), Manchester, 2000, 66–99. It is our intention that the overseas meetings of the BAAS will be the subject of separate detailed attention.

7 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2); Lowe, op. cit. (5); R. MacLeod and P. Collins (eds.), The Parliament of Science: The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831–1981, Northwood, 1981; Orange, A. D., ‘The British Association for the Advancement of Science: the provincial background’, Science Studies (1971), 1, 315–29; Edmonds, J. M. and Beardmore, R. A., ‘John Phillips and the early meetings of the British Association’, Advancement of Science (1955), 12, 97104.

8 R. MacLeod, ‘Retrospect: The British Association and its historians’, in MacLeod and Collins, op. cit. (7), 1–2.

9 On the conjunction of social, intellectual and epistemic space see Brewer, D., ‘Lights in space’, Eighteenth-Century Studies (2004), 37, 171–86.

10 MS. Dep. BAAS 5 (Miscellaneous papers, 1831–69), f. 18.

11 A comment in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph for 21 August 1879, for example, is echoed in much other evidence: ‘The Geographical section is always a popular one because little or no antecedent scientific knowledge is necessary to enable the listeners to comprehend all the points in the memoirs read’. MS. Dep. BAAS 415. For a fuller discussion of the place of geography and the role of Section E in the BAAS see Withers, C. W. J., Finnegan, D. A. and Higgitt, R., ‘Geography's other histories? Geography and science in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–c.1933’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (2006), 31, 433–51.

12 In a wide-ranging literature, and for reviews of it, we think for example of Naylor, S., ‘Introduction: historical geographies of science’, BJHS (2005), 38, 112, which introduces a theme issue on this topic; D. Livingstone, Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago, 2003; C. W. J. Withers, Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520, Cambridge, 2001, 1–28; A. Simoẽs, A. Carneiro and M. P. Diogo (eds), Travels of Learning: A Geography of Science in Europe, Dordrecht, 2003; C. Smith and J. Agar (eds), Making Space for Science: Territorial Themes in the Shaping of Knowledge, Basingstoke and New York, 1998; J. Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, Cambridge, 1998; Ophir, A. and Shapin, S., ‘The place of knowledge: a methodological survey’, Science in Context (1991), 4, 321; Shapin, S., ‘Placing the view from nowhere: historical and sociological problems in the location of science’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1998), 23, 512; Secord, J., ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004), 95, 654–72.

13 For examples, and in the order in which they are here given, see E. C. Spary, Utopia's Gardens: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution, Chicago, 2000; R. E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab–Field Border in Biology, Chicago, 2002; Naylor, S., ‘The field, the museum and the lecture hall: the spaces of natural history in Victorian Cornwall’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (2002), 27, 494513; Kraft, A. and Alberti, S. J. M. M., ‘“Equal though different”: laboratories, museums and the institutional development of biology in late-Victorian Northern England’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2003), 34, 203–36; Secord, A., ‘Scientists in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire’, History of Science (1994), 32, 269315; Forgan, S. and Gooday, G., ‘Constructing South Kensington: the buildings and politics of T. H. Huxley's working environments’, BJHS (1996), 29, 435–68; Opitz, D., ‘“Behind folding shutters in Whittinghame House”: Alice Blanche Balfour (1864–1936) and amateur natural history’, Archives of Natural History (2004), 31, 330–48; S. Schaffer, ‘Physics laboratories and the Victorian country house’, in Smith and Agar, op. cit. (12), 149–80; Sorrenson, R., ‘The ship as a scientific instrument in the eighteenth century’, Science in the Field, Osiris (1996), 11, 221–36.

14 See the essays in M.-N. Bourguet, C. Licoppe and H. Sibum (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, London, 2003; and K. Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, Basingstoke, 2006.

15 Ophir and Shapin, op. cit. (12); Shapin, op. cit. (12); Harris, S., ‘Long-distance corporations, big sciences, and the geography of knowledge’, Configurations (1998), 6, 269304.

16 For example, B. Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Milton Keynes, 1987; K. Knorr-Cetina and M. Mulkay (eds.), Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, Beverley Hills and London, 1983; A. Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago, 1992.

17 Secord, op. cit. (12). Secord has done much to establish the importance of different geographies of interpretation and reception of science in his Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago and London, 2000.

18 S. Dierig, J. Lachmund and A. J. Mendelsohn, ‘Introduction: toward an urban history of science’, in Science and the City (ed. S. Dierig, J. Lachmund and J. A. Mendelsohn), Osiris (2002), 18, 1–19.

19 Finnegan, D. A., ‘Natural history societies in late Victorian Scotland and the pursuit of local civic science’, BJHS (2005), 38, 5372.

20 For example, the papers in L. K. Nyhart and T. H. Broman (eds.), Science and Civil Society, Osiris (2002), 17. On contributions to local civic science in urban context, see also Finnegan, op. cit. (19); Withers, C. W. J. and Finnegan, D. A., ‘Natural history societies, fieldwork and local knowledge in nineteenth-century Scotland: towards a historical geography of civic science’, Cultural Geographies (2003), 10, 334–53.

21 Naylor, op. cit. (13), 12.

22 The BAAS archives in the Bodleian Library (and elsewhere) are uneven in their content and in the survival of different types of material. What follows, with detailed references given as relevant in individual notes, is based on Minutes of the General Committee, 1832–62, 1869–1905, 1905–22, 1922–62; Correspondence concerning invitations to hold Annual Meetings, 1929–52; Correspondence relating to Annual Meetings 1926–66; BAAS Press Cuttings files for individual towns; assorted BAAS Printed Materials; BAAS Meetings Handbooks; Minute Books for Section E (Geography). There is no consistent surviving record of the work of the General Committee, nor of all correspondence relating to annual meetings. BAAS archival material is here supplemented by BAAS-related manuscript material and other evidence from the towns in question.

23 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2), 129.

24 MS. Dep. BAAS 142 (Correspondence relating to Annual General Meetings), f. 96, Birmingham, 29 August 1839.

25 MS. Dep. BAAS 18 (Printed minutes of the Council Meetings, 1841–57), f. 49, London, 14 April 1847.

26 MS. Dep. BAAS 142 (Correspondence relating to Annual General Meetings), ff. 249–52, Oxford, 26 June 1847.

27 Miskell, L., ‘The making of a new “Welsh Metropolis”: science, leisure and industry in early nineteenth-century Swansea’, History (2003), 88, 3252, especially 40–8.

28 MS. Dep. BAAS 142 (Correspondence relating to Annual General Meetings), f. 1, Ipswich, 2 August 1848.

29 MS. Dep. BAAS 18 (Printed minutes of the Council meetings), f. 49, London, 14 January 1848.

30 MS. Dep. BAAS 18, op. cit. (22), f. 54, Swansea, 9 August 1848.

31 MS. Dep. BAAS 18, op. cit. (22), f. 119, Dublin, 31 August 1857.

32 Lowe, op. cit. (5), 123–6. Lowe is correct to note that this was published once the 1853 Hull meeting had been confirmed – ‘some months before it was due’: Lowe, op. cit. (5), 124 – but neglects to point out that Frost initially delivered his views as a spoken paper in advance of the meeting.

33 C. Frost, On the Prospective Advantages of a Visit to the Town of Hull by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Hull, 1853, 26.

34 Frost, op. cit. (33), 32.

35 Committee Minutes of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, 18 September 1862 (no pagination).

36 Correspondence Books of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, 28 August 1862 (no pagination); underlining in original.

37 MS. Dep. BAAS 151 (Printed material) (no pagination).

38 MS. Dep. BAAS 409 (Press cuttings, 1868–9) (no pagination).

39 MS. Dep. BAAS 408 (Press cuttings, Dundee) (no pagination).

40 MS. Dep. BAAS 12 (Minutes of General Committee, 1869–1905), f. 61, Glasgow, 11 September 1876.

41 MS. Dep. BAAS 12, op. cit. (22), f. 84, Dublin, 19 August 1878.

42 Mitchell Library, MS M.P.31 D-TC, 14.1.31 (Glasgow Corporation Minutes Relating to the Visit of the BAAS, 1901), f. 518, 1 October 1896.

43 Cambridge University Archives, MS.CUR 111.2*, Letter 16 (from A. R. Forsyth, 9 November 1901) and Letter 23 (from C. Heycock, 10 November 1901).

44 Lowe, op. cit. (5), 135.

45 On cities' role in civic self-promotion see G. Kearns and C. Philo (eds.), Selling Places: The City as Cultural Capital, Past and Present, Oxford, 1993; A. Picon, ‘Nineteenth-century urban cartography and the scientific ideal: the case of Paris’, in Science and the City (ed. S. Dierig, J. Lachmund and J. A. Mendelsohn), Osiris (2002), 18, 135–49.

46 Morrell and Thackray, op. cit. (2), 96–164.

47 Bristol Record Office, MS 32079 (39) (Minute Book of the Local Council for the Reception of the British Association, 1 October 1835–20 September 1836), 26, 16 May 1836.

48 MS. Dep. BAAS 425, Press cuttings, Liverpool meeting 1925, Daily Chronicle, 10 September 1923.

49 This point is clear in the many works that discuss the nature of science and society in this period: see, for example, S. F. Cannon, Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period, Cambridge, MA, 1978; L. Goldman, Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association, 1857–1886, Cambridge, 2002; B. Lightman (ed.), Victorian Science in Context, Chicago, 1997; R. MacLeod, Public Science and Public Policy in Victorian England, Aldershot, 1996; F. M. Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life, Cambridge, 1993.

50 On this point see the chapters in M. Daunton (ed.), The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, Oxford, 2005.

51 Alberti, S. J. M. M., ‘Placing nature: natural history collections and their owners in nineteenth-century provincial England’, BJHS (2002), 35, 291311.

52 Birmingham University Special Collections, MS. Ref: 4/i/3 (Exhibition Sub-Committee Minutes), 40, 11 August 1886.

53 Birmingham University Special Collections, op. cit. (52).

54 Bristol Observer, 27 August 1898.

55 Leeds University Library, Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, MS 28 A, 16–17.

56 Leeds University Library, Leeds Geological Association Minutes, Dep/052, Box 5, Minutes Book, Report of Council for the Session 1890–91. The ‘Boulder department’ refers to the fact that the BAAS encouraged local work on the identity and distribution of erratic rocks and boulders.

57 MS. Dep. BAAS 174, Newcastle Annual Meeting, 20. The Geography Section there further noted that ‘occasion may be taken to show what work has been done to open up markets for our goods’. The Hull quote is from the Yorkshire Post, 18 August 1923. On Liverpool see MS. Dep. BAAS 425, 54 and Nature, 1 September 1923.

58 John M. Mackenzie, ‘The provincial geographical societies in Britain, 1884–1914’, in Geography and Imperialism, 1820–1940 (ed. M. Bell, R. Butlin and M. Heffernan), Manchester, 1995, 93–124.

59 MS. Dep. BAAS 30, Papers of the Committee of the Council on the Re-organisation of Sections, 1909–11, f. 61.

60 Mitchell Library, MS M.P.31 D-TC, 4.1.31, op. cit. (42), f. 510.

61 MS. Dep. BAAS 147, Printed material, Manchester 1861.

62 National Library of Ireland, MS 4792, Wicklow papers, Journal of Caroline Howard (no pagination), 28 August 1857.

63 MS. Dep. BAAS 414, Press cuttings for Dublin, 1878, and Irish Daily News, 19 August 1878.

64 MS. Dep. BAAS 422, Scrapbook 3 (Press-cuttings 1911–13), Birmingham Post, 7 June 1913.

65 Worboys, op. cit. (6); Dubow, op. cit. (6).

66 G. F. S. Elliot, M. Laurie and M. J. Barclay (eds.), Flora, Fauna and Geology of the Clyde Area, Glasgow, 1901, p. v.

67 A. W. Paton and A. H. Millar, Handbook and Guide to Dundee and District, Dundee, 1912, p. xiv.

68 MS. Dep. BAAS 253, Correspondence Relating to Regional Surveys, 1925–6, f. (no date). Some indication of the ways in which regional survey was to be tied to the work of the BAAS is evident in a letter from the leading geographer H. J. Fleure to John Linton Myres: ‘My idea … was that the B.A. Correspon. Socs. Cttee. Should take an interest in the places the B.A. proposes to visit & should stimulate local groups to include in their preparations for the B.A. visit the setting up of an exhibition which could be more or less permanent (i.e. the drafting of maps of social & cultural distributions which would form the nucleus of a permanent local collection to be stored and exhibited from time to time & along with the maps there would be pictures, diagrams + so on to supplement the local museum. My feeling is that if we could press that in a few cases it would spread over the country + that our Regl. Surveys Cttee. of the G.A. [Geographical Association] could help enormously here.’ MS. Dep. 253, f. 3 Fleure to Myres, 12 November 1925. On regional survey in Britain in this period see Matless, D., ‘Regional surveys and local knowledges: the geographical imagination in Britain, 1918–1939’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1992), 17, 464–80.

69 MS. Dep. BAAS 253, op. cit. (68), f. 6, Russell to Myres, 14 December 1925.

70 MS. Dep. BAAS 253, op. cit. (68), f. 13, Sheppard to Howarth, 23 December 1925.

71 MS. Dep. BAAS 253, op. cit. (68), Myres to Howarth, f. 14, 31 December 1925.

72 Mitchell Library, MS M.P. 31 D-TC, 4.1.31, op. cit. (42), f. 512.

73 On diaries and female audiences at BAAS meetings see R. Higgitt and C. W. J. Withers, ‘Science and sociability: women as audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1901’, Isis (forthcoming).

74 Punch (1842), 3, 6–7; (1872), 63, 77 respectively.

75 Dublin Evening Post, Tuesday 25 August 1857.

76 ‘A word of welcome’, The Nation, 29 August 1857, XIV, No. 52, 341.

77 National Library of Ireland, MS 4792, op. cit. (62), 31 August 1857. The reporter to the Dublin Evening Post explained Livingstone's inaudibility thus: ‘His voice had suffered severely from constant speaking under trees, which had no covering but the vault of heaven, and he regretted that he was not able to make himself better heard’. Dublin Evening Post, 1 September 1857.

78 ‘The British Association in Edinburgh’, Scotsman, 3 August 1871.

79 Scotsman, op. cit. (78), 9 August 1871.

80 Glasgow News, 13 September 1876.

81 Dierig, Lachmund and Mendelsohn, op. cit. (18).

82 D. Aubin, ‘The fading star of the Paris Observatory: astronomers’ urban culture of circulation and observation', in Science and the City (ed. S. Dierig, J. Lachmund and J. A. Mendelsohn), Osiris (2002), 18, 79–100, 81.

83 Lorimer, H. and Spedding, N., ‘Locating field science: a geographical family expedition to Glen Roy, Scotland’, BJHS (2005), 38, 1334, 33.

84 Livingstone, D.. ‘Text, talk and testimony: geographical reflections on scientific habits. An afterword’, BJHS (2005), 38, 93100, 99.

85 Harris, op. cit. (15), 297.

This paper is based on research undertaken as part of an ESRC-funded project ‘Geography and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1933’ (ESRC Ref RES-000-23-0927) and we gratefully acknowledge this support. For permission to quote from material in their care, we are grateful to the Bodleian Library, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mitchell Library Glasgow, Leeds University Library, the National Library of Ireland, the Cambridge University Library, Bristol Record Office, the University of Birmingham Library, and the National Library of Scotland. For comments on an earlier draft we thank Carolyn Anderson, Innes Keighren, Geoff Swinney, the anonymous referees and especially Simon Schaffer.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed