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Meeting places: the scientific congress and the host town in the south-west of England, 1836–1877



This article presents a case-study of ‘parliaments of science’ and their impact on towns in the south-west of England in the second half of the nineteenth century. These were the week-long annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and other national associations for different branches of knowledge which became a much publicized feature of the social and intellectual calendar of Victorian Britain. With particular reference to Exeter, it is argued that these events were used by towns and cities to assert their status and reputation and to compete with rival urban centres, and it is contended that they should be viewed, along with other cultural initiatives, as an important instrument in the shaping of urban and civic identity in mid-Victorian Britain. The study demonstrates the role of towns as scientific locations in the nineteenth century and suggests that they deserve attention in place-centred studies of Victorian science.



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1 Devon Weekly Times, 20 Aug. 1869.

2 Morrell, J. and Thackray, A., Gentlemen of Science. Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Oxford, 1981), 106.

3 Bodleian, Dep. BAAS 147, ‘Conspectus of invitations received and meetings held from 1848–1862’, drawn up by J. Phillips, assistant gen. secretary.

4 See, for example, the account of Sedgwick, in Clark, J.W., The Life and Letters of Reverend Adam Sedgwick, vol. I (Cambridge, 1890), 445–6.

5 Bodleian Library, Dep. BAAS 152: ‘Printed material and correspondence relating to the Exeter meeting in 1869’.

6 Devon Weekly Times, 11 Sep. 1868.

7 The BAAS was not the only national knowledge association to adopt the practice of holding its annual meeting in a selected provincial town. Other organizations which operated on the same principle were the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Royal Agricultural Society of England. A myriad of other professional, religious and charitable bodies also held meetings and events in provincial towns. For a flavour of this, see Rodger, R., ‘The “common good” and civic promotion: Edinburgh 1860–1914’, in Colls, R. and Rodger, R. (eds.), Cities of Ideas. Civil Society and Urban Governance in Britain, 1800–2000 (Aldershot, 2004), 148.

8 See, for example, Morrell and Thackray, Gentlemen of Science; Orange, A.D., ‘The idols of theatre: the British Association and its early critics’, Annals of Science, 32 (1975), 278–94; Higgitt, R. and Withers, C.W.J., ‘Science and sociability. Women as audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1901’, Isis, 99 (2008), 127; Withers, C., Higgitt, R. and Finnegan, D., ‘Historical geographies of provincial science: themes in the setting and reception of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Britain and Ireland, 1831–1939’, British Journal of the History of Science, 41 (2008), 385415.

9 Goldman, L., Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain. The Social Science Association 1857–1886 (Cambridge, 2002); Goddard, N., Harvests of Change. The Royal Agricultural Society of England, 1838–1988 (London, 1981).

10 See, for example, Livingstone, D.N., Putting Science in its Place. Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago, 2003); Finnegan, D.A., ‘The spatial turn: geographical approaches in the history of science’, Journal of the History of Biology, 41 (2008), 369–88.

11 See, for example, Naylor, S., Regionalizing Science: Placing Knowledges in Victorian England (London, 2010).

12 See for example, Lowe, P., ‘The British Association and the provincial public’, in MacLeod, R. and Collins, P. (eds.), The Parliaments of Science. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1981 (Northwood, 1981), 118–44; Miskell, L., ‘The making of a new “Welsh metropolis”: science, leisure and industry in early nineteenth-century Swansea’, History, 88 (2003), 3252.

13 This is a regional case-study, culled from a broader research project on the impact of mid-Victorian ‘parliaments of science’ on the towns where they were held. The initial research for this project was undertaken with financial support from the British Academy Small Research Grants scheme, award number SG-43638.

14 Other studies which deal with these issues of inter-town competition and civic culture include Ellis, J.M., ‘For the honour of the town: comparison, competition and civic identity in eighteenth-century England’, Urban History, 30 (2003), 325–37; Gunn, S., The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class. Ritual and Authority in the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester, 2007).

15 Finnegan, D.A., ‘Natural history societies in late Victorian Scotland and the pursuit of local civic science’, British Journal of the History of Science, 38 (2005), 5372.

16 See, for example, Stobart, J., ‘Identity, competition and place promotion in the Five Towns’, Urban History, 30 (2003), 163–82. The hosting of large-scale festivals has been examined in, for example, Gold, J.R. and Gold, M.M., ‘Culture and the city’, History in Focus, 13 (2008), 18.

17 Everitt, A., ‘Country, county and town: patterns of regional evolution in England’, in Borsay, P. (ed.), The Eighteenth-Century Town. A Reader in English Urban History, 1688–1820 (London, 1990), 83115.

18 Bristol Record Office (BRO), 32079 (39), minute book of the reception committee for the British Association visit, Oct. 1835.

19 BRO, 37454 (15) d, autograph book, British Association meeting, 1836.

20 Neve, M., ‘Science in a commercial city: Bristol, 1820–1860’, in Inkster, I. and Morrell, J. (eds.), Metropolis and Province. Science in British Culture, 1780–1850 (London, 1983), 186–97.

21 The establishment of the Royal Institution of South Wales, for example, provided an alternative focus for Welsh-based members of the Bristol Institution such as Guest, J.J.. See Annual Report of the Council of the Royal Institution of South Wales (Swansea, 1839), 1011.

22 ‘A reminiscence of the late William Pengelly FRS, in his connection with the Devonshire Association: by a Member of the Association, of nearly thirty years’ standing’, in Pengelly, H. (ed.) A Memoir of William Pengelly of Torquay, FRS, Geologist, with a Selection from his Correspondence (London, 1897), 130–1.

23 Barker, A.C., Exeter Scientific and Literary Institution. Its Progress, Position and Prospects. A Lecture Read at the Annual General Meeting, 12 Jan 1847 (Exeter, 1847).

24 Bishop, M.J., ‘Pengelly, William (1812–189), geologist and archaeologist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

25 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, 27 (2002), 494513.

26 Devon Weekly Times, 31 Aug. 1866.

27 Saturday Review, quoted in the Devon Weekly Times, 16 Aug. 1867. The firmly south-east rooted Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland held this perception. Deliberating likely meeting venues in 1867 in its council in London, it was reported that, ‘Of the places spoken of at the London meeting, Exeter, which for some reason inscrutable to ordinary minds has been held to be inaccessible for so many years, is held to be inaccessible still.’

28 Sallnow, J., ‘British Association visits to Plymouth, past and present’, in Chalkley, B., Dunkerley, D. and Gripaios, P. (eds.), Plymouth: Maritime City in Transition (Newton Abbot, 1991), 8.

29 Sacks, D.H. and Lynch, M., ‘Ports, 1540–1700’, in Clark, P. (ed.), Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. II: 1540–1840 (CUHB, II) (Cambridge, 2000), 402.

30 Although there was a physical coalescing, the three towns were not formally amalgamated until 1914. Gill, C., Plymouth. A New History (Tiverton, 1993), 242.

31 M. Brayshay, ‘Plymouth's past: so worthy and peerless a western port’, in Chalkley, Dunkerley and Gripaios (eds.), Plymouth, 47.

32 Gill, Plymouth, 222–3.

33 J.M. Ellis, ‘Regional and county centres’, in Clark (ed.), CUHB, II, 679.

34 G. Jackson, ‘Ports, 1700–1840’, and D.H. Sacks and M. Lynch, ‘1540–1700’, in Clark (ed.), CUHB, II, 707–8, 400.

35 J. Barry, ‘South-west’, in Clark (ed.), CUHB, II, 86.

36 Newton, R., Victorian Exeter, 1837–1914 (Leicester, 1968), 24.

37 Burns, A., ‘Phillpotts, Henry (1778–1869)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, online edn, 2006).

38 Rubinstein, W.D., ‘Northcote, Stafford Henry, first earl of Iddesleigh (1818–1887)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

39 Museum of English Rural Life, SR RASE/B/I/6 minutes of council, 1858–68 (rough copy), 4 May 1864.

40 Attendance figures for RASE shows can be found in Goddard, Harvests of Change, 35.

41 Newton, Victorian Exeter, 173.

42 Devon Weekly Times, 31 Aug. 1866.

43 See, for example, discussion of its climate, favourable for the cultivation of ferns and other plant specimens, in Allen, D.E., Naturalists and Society. The Culture of Natural History in Britain, 1700–1900 (Aldershot, 2001), 403.

44 Devon Weekly Times, 31 Aug. 1866.

45 Ibid., 31 Aug. 1866.

46 Newton, Victorian Exeter, 185–6.

47 Stone, G., ‘Bowring, Sir John (1792–1872)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

48 The Plymouth delegation included Charles Spence Bate who had recently returned to his native Devon after a decade practising dental surgery in Swansea where he became a member of the Royal Institution of South Wales and participated in the visit of the BAAS in 1848. Foote, Y., ‘Bate, Charles Spence (1819–1889)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

49 See, for example, Hewitt, M., ‘Confronting the modern city: the Manchester Free Public Library, 1850–80’, Urban History, 27 (2000), 6288.

50 Westcountry Studies Library (WSL), WEB LIB150, Exeter Free Library: public meeting, 6 May 1869.

51 Bodleian Library, BAAS, Dep. BAAS 152: ‘Printed material and correspondence relating to the Exeter meeting in 1869’, extract from Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegram, 18 May 1869.

52 Bodleian Library, BAAS, Dep. BAAS 152: ‘Printed material and correspondence relating to the Exeter meeting in 1869’, ‘Programme of proceedings’.

53 Henry Ellis in Aug. 1869, quoted in Newton, Victorian Exeter, 186.

54 Devon Record Office (DRO), Exeter City Archives (ECA) Bk 37 minute book of the chamber, 7 Nov. 1868, 9 Nov. 1868.

55 Campbell, W.A., ‘Men of science in nineteenth-century Newcastle’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th ser., 8 (1980), 60.

56 Devon Weekly Times, 13 Aug. 1869.

57 See, for example, the comments of John Phillips to William Harcourt, 10 Aug. 1838, quoted in Morrell, J. and Thackray, A. (eds.), Gentlemen of Science. Early Correspondence of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (London, 1984), 272–3.

58 Kargon, R.H., Science in Victorian Manchester. Enterprise and Expertise (Manchester, 1977), 32.

59 Bodleian, Dep. BAAS 152, Printed material and correspondence relating to the Exeter meeting in 1869.

60 Devon Weekly Times, 20 Aug. 1869.

61 Ibid.

62 Bodleian, Dep. BAAS 152, ‘Printed material and correspondence relating to the Exeter meeting in 1869’.

63 Devon Weekly Times, 27 Aug. 1869.

64 Ibid., 27 Aug. 1869.

65 Ibid., 20 Aug. 1869.

66 See, for example, Pall Mall Gazette, 20 Aug. 1869.

67 For details see Brayshay, M., ‘The reform of urban management and the shaping of Plymouth's mid-Victorian landscape’, in Higham, R. (ed.), Landscape and Townscape in the South West. Exeter Studies in History, 22 (Exeter, 1989), 105–30.

68 Gill, Plymouth, 239

69 There were similar challenges elsewhere to the location of assizes. See, for example, Peacock, A.E., ‘The creation of the West Riding court of assize’, Northern History, 23 (1987), 119–37.

70 DRO, ECA Bk 37 minute book of the chamber, 13 Jan. 1870.

71 Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, 8 Jul. 1874.

72 Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, Western Counties Winter Assize, 20 Dec. 1876.

73 An account of the week's events can be found in Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 Aug. 1841.

74 See reports in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 14 Sep. 1872, and Jackson's Oxford Journal, 21 Sep. 1872.

75 Times, 16 Aug. 1877.

76 WSL, s707.4 PLY Catalogue of the Fine Art Exhibition, St Andrew's Hall, Westwell Street, Plymouth.

77 Devon Weekly Times, 13 Sep. 1872.

78 Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, 18 Sept. 1872.

79 Devon Weekly Times, 17 Aug. 1877.

80 Clapp, B.W., The University of Exeter: A History (Exeter, 1982), 20.

81 Ibid., 57–63.

82 Alberti, S.J.M.M., ‘Civic cultures and civic colleges in Victorian England’, in Daunton, M. (ed.), The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 2005), 334–56.

* A version of this article was presented at the Institute of Historical Research's Modern History Seminar in November 2009. I am grateful to members of the audience for their thoughtful comments, questions and suggestions and also to the helpful observations and suggestions of two anonymous referees.

Meeting places: the scientific congress and the host town in the south-west of England, 1836–1877



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