The Twitter book club like ‘1book140’ has over sixty three thousand followers. You might imagine that twenty first century sociability, with its increasing recruitment of technology, has little in common with eighteenth-century forms of sociability. But even ‘1book140’ has forerunners in the eighteenth century, where book clubs and other learned societies brought learning “out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges”, as Joseph Addison put it. Other connections between then and now are more literal: the Birmingham book club and the Dalston book club have literally been meeting continuously since the eighteenth century. Other types of club also proliferated in the eighteenth century, from the ‘Lit & Phils’ which still thrive today as gathering points “for lively minds”, to the antiquarian clubs which established many of the museum collections we’ve inherited.
Partly because of this growth in clubbish behaviour, the eighteenth century has been credited with a transformation of ‘the public sphere’ involving the proliferation of coffee-house culture and other ‘public’ places where the issues and media of the day were discussed, circulated and debated. A team of researchers at York are investigating the role of clubs and societies from 1760 to 1840. The project team are Professor Jon Mee, Jennifer Wilkes, and myself.
As part of my research for this project, I recently visited the Bristol Record office to investigate sibling clubs that sprang up there in the first decades of the nineteenth century: the “Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society”, and the “Bristol Institute for the advancement of science, literature and the arts”. An article by the historical geographer Jon Stobart on clubs in Liverpool in this era argued that they partly evolved as a means of redeeming the image of Liverpool from its association with the slave-trade, abolished in the British empire in 1807. Bristol, too, was an important centre for the slave-trade. Stobart also argued that in the late eighteenth century commercial and popular spaces had crowded out the spaces of polite or genteel sociability in Liverpool, spaces like promenades and residential squares. Again, I saw potential parallels in Bristol. Bristol’s Queen’s Square, a genteel residential square of the early-eighteenth century, suffered a similar encroachment of commerce around 1800. I was also reminded of Queen Square in Bath, the first residential square outside of London, and the address of the Royal Bath Literary and Scientific Institute. Unlike its neighbour Bristol, Bath was a fashionable centre of polite society, rather than of the commerce so conspicuous in Bristol and Liverpool. How would the ‘geography’ of the Bristol learned institutions compare to their genteel neighbours? The potential for comparative work like this makes me think that Bristol might be an interesting place to start my research.
In a lecture which the prominent geologist W.D. Conybeare gave at the first general meeting of the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Society, he identified clubbish behaviour as the fulfilment of human nature: “to associate in the pursuit of a common object is desired from the first principles of our nature”. In addition, for him, such association was the natural and inevitable counterpart of scientific enquiry. But what should we make of the full title of the institute, which seems to resist specialism: “The Bristol Institute for the advancement of science, literature and the arts”. And why did the members of this society feel the need to establish a society within a society, the “philosophical and literary society”? What do these disciplinary markers mean at this time, and how have they influenced our own disciplinary boundaries today? What does the “literary” in “literary and philosophical” mean?
As I decipher the first few names recorded in the register of members for the philosophical society attached to the Institute, a sense of an elite group is emerging; an elite that included dissenters and Anglicans, geologists, physicians, sugar plantation owners, city sheriffs, and future mayors. The neoclassical building that housed these two societies was constructed by them “for literary and philosophical purposes”, and its impressive architecture and facilities reflected the elite status of the club members. Today, their building houses a masonic lodge. Belief in a supreme being, and not being female, are preconditions for joining. We are suspicious of such barriers to membership today; how inclusive was the eighteenth-century public sphere? How inclusive were its clubs, and did they consider themselves public or private?
Our research is in its early stages, but by looking further at clubs like these Bristol societies, and asking questions like these, the project hopes to shed light on a number of issues. For instance, many of these clubs represent themselves as “improving”; but what were the political or ideological associations of the idea of “improvement”? Was it a conservative force, encouraging conformity to existing ideals, or did it have a more radical aspect? How are technological or scientific and ‘moral’ or individual ‘self’-improvement related? Most of our research will be on the British Isles, but we will also be looking at club activity in the key cities of Philadelphia, Calcutta, and Sydney. By extending our research to these cities, we hope to begin to understand the global networks that these clubs participated in, and the circulation of knowledge and ideologies within those networks.
To find out more about this project, and follow our progress, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Further reading: Peter Clark. British clubs and societies: the origins of an associational world. Oxford: OUP, 2002.
Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community 1762 to 1830. Oxford: OUP, 2011.
Stobart, J. (2002). Culture versus commerce: societies and spaces for elites in eighteenth-century Liverppool. Journal of Historical Geography, 28(4), 471-485.
Morgan, K. (1993). Bristol West India merchants in the eighteenth century. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 3(1993), 185-208.