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Networks of Improvement at York

A big thank you to all the participants at the Networks of Improvement conference this weekend for what was a really stimulating and enjoyable event!  It was fascinating to hear about the incredible resource being compiled by the Nichols Archive Project, and the Laurence Sterne Trust‘s recent project about the York Good Humour Club, as well as an abundance of exciting new work on book clubs, libraries, convivial societies, personal networks and civic institutions.  All involved were suitably improved as a consequence.

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Library Day at Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society

Jon Mee

I was lucky enough to be involved at a Library Day at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne yesterday. Thanks to the good offices of the President Paul Gailiunas and the Librarian Kay Easson I was able to get access to the archives. Paul showed me the recently discovered recommendation book, which covers the period 1794-1801. Prior to looking at this book, I had thought that women were only allowed in the society from 1799, and then only as reading members, but it shows that after a query by one of the members, John Clennell (see below), the committee revealed that women had always been allowed, although none had ever joined, possibly because, the exchange with Clennell implies, they had never been very enthusiastic.

Clennell from the time he joins c. 1798 is an eager recommender of books, including Mary Hays’s Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of Women (1798) and Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education

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One imagines, then, that his query to the committee about their intention of bringing in a new category of membership stemmed from a desire to have women more fully involved. As we can see from the photograph below,
he seems to have got wind of the discussion at the monthly meeting of December 1798 of a new category of ‘reading members’ and asked what was being proposed with regard to the admission of women. They reply from the committee written in below his query claims that that women had always been allowed as members, but this new category allows for their ‘delicacy’. The implication being, I think, from the committee’s point of view that they don’t need to be involved in the rough and tumble of the monthly meetings.

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Clennell follows up by asking the committee to advertise the new category in the papers, but the committee doesn’t think this necessary. The upshot seems to be that the committee, unlike him, are not really that keen to have women in the place.

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When Clennell set up the Hackney Subscription Library and Literary Institution in 1815 women seem to have been heavily involved.

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Registration Open for Networks of Improvement Conference

Registration is now open for the Networks of Improvement Conference on 13-14 March 2015.  For details of the programme, see our conference page.

Registration is available here.

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Anne Lister and the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society

Cassie Ulph

I recently visited Calderdale Archive in Halifax, part of West Yorkshire Archive Service.  Aside from the exciting prospect of playing with microfilm (something I find strangely thrilling), I was also looking forward to getting my hands on the minute books accounts of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society, for two reasons.  Firstly, Halifax’s position in the middle of the Pennines suggested it could offer a link between the burgeoning literary clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire.  Secondly, the Halifax Lit and Phil famously admitted a female member within a year of its inauguration (although according to Jon, Newcastle may well have got there first).  Anne Lister, a prominent local landowner (and go-to example of nineteenth-century alternative sexuality), is well known to have joined the Society in 1831.  However, I wanted to find out more about the nature and extent of her involvement with this civic institution, and what kind of ‘improvement’ was on offer for Lister at the Lit and Phil.

By comparison to that of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society (see my earlier post), the minute book of the Halifax Lit and Phil is strikingly formal.  The relative legibility is in part a quirk of local personnel, but it also reflects the strong sense that the younger Society was operating by a well-established set of practices, arguably down to the retaining of a ‘fair’ copy and the destruction of drafts.  The content is less discursive than that of the minute books at Perth, and is structured relatively strictly around resolutions passed (although these in themselves could be fairly verbose).  More often than not the minutes omit the names of members present, although guests and newly elected members are recorded.  The relatively consistent, business-like structure of these records is perhaps unsurprising, given the preponderance of local bankers and merchants who made up the committee, but also carries a strong sense that these practices are well-established by the time of the Society’s inception.  This sense in the structure is underlined by the content of the minutes, which details the gradual construction of Halifax Lit and Phil as a patchwork of components from sister societies from as far afield as Liverpool, Scarborough and Newcastle, to whom emissaries were dispatched for information, which was freely given.  The membership certificate was based on that of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; the cases for the planned Halifax Museum were constructed from ‘plans and specifications’ borrowed from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and the same cabinet-maker engaged.  The extent of visiting between societies is also notable, as at Perth, with many Halifax men being dispatched to societies in major centres on both sides of the Pennines, returning with information from the societies of Manchester, Liverpool, York, Hull, and Leeds.  Halifax’s relative size in 1830 did not limit the ambitions of its citizens, who set out to provide their town with a civic institution worthy of any Northern powerhouse.

The Lister archive itself, which is rumoured to run to four million words, encompasses personal and official correspondence, diaries, and literary remains.  Fortunately, the archive has a detailed index, available online at the WYAS website.  Much of Lister’s diary is in code, intended to obscure details of her sexual and emotional encounters with other women (Helena Whitbread has painstakingly decoded much of this, using the key established by Lister’s nephew and heir John Lister, and rediscovered by Muriel Green).  However, I was mainly interested in the (arguably) less personal part of Lister’s correspondence, referring to civic life, business and public intellectual activities.  Nevertheless, the wealth of material is overwhelming, and Lister’s handwriting, even in the non-coded sections, intricate and slow to decipher.  Glimpses of her involvement with the Lit and Phil begin to emerge, mostly through her financial support for the new Museum building, but these are thrown into relief by Lister’s more assiduous pursuit of intellectual and social improvement through private and shared reading, informal female networks and continental travel.  My visit to Halifax left me wondering: how did the associational activities of the Halifax Lit and Phil fit in with Lister’s established networks, if at all?  Which question I will be answering, or at least posing in more detail, at the Networks of Improvement conference at the University of York, 13-14 March 2015.

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John Clennell and the Literary and Philosophical Society at Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Jon Mee

There is a Library Day at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne on February 18. Anyone interested in giving a short paper (10 mins) on the Society or research using its resources should contact me at (jon.mee@york.ac.uk) or Ruth Connolly  (ruth.connolly@newcastle.ac.uk)

I’m planning to talk about John Clennell. Lit Phil missionary to Perth (see Cassie’s post below) and then Hackney, where he set one up. Women seem to have been much more involved at Hackney than in Newcastle. Paul Gaulinius – current President at Newcastle – generously informs me that the recommendation book shows Clennell wanted more involvement for women at Newcastle. I’m waiting for the chance to see what he says next time I go up (archive fever)

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Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Cassie Ulph

In December 2014 I visited the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, to consult the archive of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society.  The collection is rich and extensive, containing draft and fair minute books of committee meetings, manuscript copies of papers delivered, original and copy correspondence to and from the society and its members.  My primary task in visiting the archive was to trace the involvement of one member – John Clennell – who was also a key figure in the Literary and Philosophical Societies of Newcastle and Hackney.  The invaluable starting point for this search was David Allan’s 2003 article, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment and the Politics of Provincial Culture’ (Eighteenth-Century Life, 27 [2003], 1-31).  Allan’s emphasis is understandably on the relationship of the Perth Society to others in Scotland, particularly through the common patronage (or antagonism) of the Earl of Buchan, but he also makes tantilising reference to the Society’s cross-border exchange with Newcastle, noting that Clennell ‘eulogize[d] the commitment of his friends in Perth to Buchan’s vision’ (17).

A list of donations received by the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society revealed the extent to which this Society was engaged in friendly commerce with others well beyond regional and national borders.  Gifts of their transactions were made by the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland and of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Plinian Society (Edinburgh), and the Royal Northern Society of Antiquaries at Copenhagen.  Also in the archive is a certificate of election to the Philosophical Society of America for the Earl of Buchan himself, whose ‘Scheme of Communication between the Learned Societies in Europe’ was also presented to the Society.  The minutes of meetings contained yet more evidence of this commerce, and significant overlap in membership between societies: shortly following Clennell’s election as a corresponding member in 1805, the President, Vice-President and Secretary of the Newcastle Society were also elected honorary members.  There is a striking sense of common endeavour, and above all, reciprocity, that appears from the exchanges (of transactions, letters, formal thanks, physical visits) between societies that clearly regarded themselves as distinctive, yet identified themselves as part of a coherent international project.  Precisely how did this interaction shape, and how was it shaped by, the particular aims of the respective societies?

As well as revealing connections between societies, the miscellaneous correspondence of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society illuminates the local, personal relationships that underpinned interactions within that Society.  This overlap is perhaps best illustrated by an invitation (pictured below) to the funeral of James Marshall sent by his son William to fellow Society member and Secretary John McOrmie.  The postscript on the front page is a request from Marshall to McOrmie for the address of a corresponding member (the reverse of the invitation has been used by McOrmie to draft a letter of thanks to a donor, in an excellent early nineteenth-century example of recycling).

Invitation to the funeral of James Marshall, from his son William Marshall to Dr James McOrmie

Invitation to the funeral of James Marshall, from his son William Marshall to Dr John McOrmie

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Eighteenth-Century Social Networks

Georgina Green

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 georgina.green@york.ac.uk

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.

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Welcome to the -Networks of Improvement- Blog

Networks of Improvement is a major research project at the University of York funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Check back here for updates on research by project members, and on the upcoming Networks of Improvement conference, which will take place at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York, 13-14 March 2015.

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