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A History of Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution
The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution is a charity promoting advancement in the arts and sciences. With the commitment and energy of numerous volunteers, BRLSI has become a centre of cultural activity open to all. Those passing 16 Queen Square with its many posters describing the variety of lectures and exhibitions may wonder how the Institution originated.
Origin of BRLSI
In the 19th century some prominent residents proposed that a permanent literary and scientific institution be created with its own headquarters. There arose an opportunity in 1820, when a devastating fire destroyed the Lower Assembly Rooms in Terrace Walk. Hastings Elwin, Manager of the Provident Institution, persuaded the owner of the Terrace Walk site to finance the construction of BRLSI's first home.
According to contemporary accounts, the original building, elegantly designed by George Allen Underwood and situated on Terrace Walk, was spacious enough to accommodate the Institution’s vast collection of Roman antiquities, expensive books and geological specimens. William Lonsdale, a highly regarded geologist who became the first curator, boasted that the "museum contained a complete display of the stratification of our island."
The Institution officially opened in 1824 and celebrated the event with a dinner attended by numerous dignitaries including the Marquis of Lansdowne, its first president. Such was its growing prestige that a few years later in 1830 the Duke of Clarence, subsequently King William IV, conferred royal patronage on the Institution and in 1837, under Queen Victoria’s, 'Royal' was added to the Institution's name.
A Golden Age for the Institution
In the 1850s the public's curiosity for natural history matched the expertise of two new BRLSI members, The Reverend Leonard Jenyns and Charles Moore. Charles Moore proceeded to create a Geological Museum for BRLSI and Jenyns, a correspondent of Charles Darwin and other important scientists of the time, established a Natural History Museum.
By 1858, members had raised sufficient funds to purchase the Terrace Walk building including the magnificent botanical garden leading down to the River Avon. Its collections expanded to include rare books purchased with the support of the Duncan brothers who were also important benefactors of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In 1886 BRLSI received a bequest from Christopher Broome of his scientific library and herbarium and on the death of Leonard Jenyns his collection and library were also acquired by the Institution. Another great patron of BRLSI in the 19th century was Jerome Murch, MP and longest serving Mayor of Bath. At that time the Mayor of Bath was automatically the Chair of BRLSI.
As the 19th century came to a close, other societies facing financial difficulties decided to merge with BRLSI such as the Bath Athenaeum that amalgamated in 1899.
In its centenary year, 1924, an appeal was made for funds to renovate the Terrace Walk property but these plans were halted by a new road scheme requiring the demolition of the BRLSI building.
By 1932, BRLSI had relocated to its present site in Queen Square, once occupied by the grand house of Dr William Oliver, an eminent physician, co-founder of the Royal Mineral Hospital and inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit. Donations received during this period included a large number of calotypes by the Rev Francis Lockey. During World War II, the Institution's headquarters in Queen Square were requisitioned and used by the Admiralty until 1959 when the Institution's assets, including the building, were transferred to the Bath City Council. Many of the objects in the collections, which had been in storage during the war, were placed in other museums, while many books were sold to finance the establishment of the Bath City Reference Library which opened in Queen Square in 1964. A governmental reorganisation in 1974 transferred BRLSI's assets to the Avon County Council, which aroused local concerns about the future of the remaining collections. By 1988 the Friends of BRLSI Steering Group had formed to foster the revival of the Institution and their efforts resulted in their acquiring Trusteeship in 1993. A re-launch exhibit, held in May 1993, attracted a great deal of public interest and for the first time in over 50 years new members were enrolled.
From this exciting rebirth in 1993 BRLSI has become a flourishing cultural centre with over 130 lectures delivered annually by leading thinkers and researchers as well as by its own members. A record of the Institution’s activities is published annually. Several exhibitions each year demonstrate the variety and importance of the BRLSI collections. The space is also used for art exhibitions including the regular members' exhibition.
BRLSI continues to receive donations and bequests. Recently material related to the 12th century Bath scholar, Adelard, was gratefully received. All talks and exhibitions are open to the public and those wishing to volunteer their time are most welcome; opportunities include staffing the reception desk, assisting in collections, or helping with publicity.
Information at 16 Queen Square 10:00am to 4:00pm daily or during the regular Saturday coffee sessions 11:00am to 12:30pm.