Philosophical Societies to BRLSI

Alongside the Agricultural societies, 'Philosophical' societies appealed to those particularly interested in the newly emerging field of science. Bath had one of the first, but it took four attempts to create one that lasted - the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution, which needed a disastrous fire in one of Beau Nash's favourite haunts to give it a purpose-built home.

The formation of the Bath Agricultural Society in 1777 was by no means an isolated incident. By the middle of the 18th century similar societies were being formed throughout the country. In some respects they highlighted the isolation felt by the intellectual or, more particularly, the scientifically inclined. They became meeting places for the sharing of mutual interests As well as the agricultural societies there were others which leaned rather more towards the newly emerging science than towards technology. By far the most important was the Royal Society of London founded in 1660; another significant one was the Lunar Society of Birmingham (c 1765 - 1791), so called because it met monthly around the time of the full moon, in order that members could have some light on their way home. These institutions were often known as Philosophical Societies, and the Bath Philosophical Society was one of the earliest.

The Bath Philosophical Society's foundation can be attributed to Thomas Curtis. A Governor of the Bath General Hospital, he was already a member of the Agricultural Society. On 27th December 1779 he suggested to Edmund Rack "the Establishment of a select Literary Society for the purpose of discussing scientific and Phylosophical subjects and making experiments to illustrate them."

As early as the 28th December 1779 the Society was formally established and within days a set of rules had been agreed upon. These included the schedule of meetings - on Friday evenings, once a week in winter and once a fortnight in summer. One interesting feature was the restricted membership; the maximum number of members was fixed at 25, with election by ballot only. Members were at liberty to discuss "the Arts and Sciences, Natural History, the History of Nations or any branch of Polite Literature", but not "Law, Physic, Divinity and Politics". Edmund Rack, already Secretary to the Agricultural Society was also elected Secretary to the Philosophical Society.

Edmund Rack

Like the Agricultural Society, the Philosophical Society was concerned to build up a collection of books. In addition, the rules stipulated that, when funds were available, instruments should be purchased for experimental work house in Milsom Street was subsequently used for this purpose.

Hugh Torrens has compiled a list of the original members which is reproduced below:

Members of Bath Philosophical Society (1779 - 1787)

1. Hon. Hugh Acland (1728-1805)
2. John Arden (1702-1791)
3. Mr. Atwood
4. Charles Blagden (1748-1820)
5. John B.Bryant (fl 1779-1792)
6. James Collings (c 1721-1788)
7. Thomas Curtis (c 1739-1784)
8. William Falconer (1744-1824)
9. John Henderson (1757-1788)
10. William Herschel (1738-1822)
11. John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815)
12. John Lloyd (1749-1815)
13. Mathew Martin (1748-1838)
14. William Matthews (1747-1816)
15. Constantine John Phipps (Lord Mulgrave) (1744-1792)
16. Caleb Hillier Parry (1755-1822)
17. Thomas Parsons (1744-1813)
18. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
19. Samuel Pye
20. Edmund Rack (1735-1787)
21. Rev. Samuel Rogers (1731-1790)
22. Benjamin Smith (fl 1779-1807)
23. John Staker (c 1731-1784)
24. John Symons (died 1811)
25. John Walcott (1755-1831)
26. John Walsh (1726-1795)
27. William Watson (1744-1824)

William Watson

It is noted that the list is in excess of the maximum number of 25. Comparison with the list of founder members of the Agricultural Society shows that several people were members of both. A remarkable feature of the list is that no fewer than eleven members were, or became, Fellows of the Royal Society, London and ten featured in the Dictionary of National Biography.

There are few printed records of the Society and it published no papers or journals, but we can glean some indication of its activities from several sources. One of these is Edmund Rack's journal A Disultory Journal of events at Bath. This notes the attendance of Dr. Priestley on 22nd March 1780.

On 31st December 1780 Rack comments "this institution promises much rational improvement and instruction; and has a much more favourable beginning than the Royal Society in London had 100 years ago - there being only five members for more than two years: and those 5 not superior in learning and genius to most of our members". On another occasion he reports the presence of Mr.Herschel - "optical instrument maker and mathematician".

William Herschel

Not all members of the Society lived in Bath; for example, Messrs Blagden, Lettsom, Walsh Phipps and Priestley were none of them strictly "local ". A number of members were medical men by training but who widened their interests to include a much broader range of activities.

John Arden was the roving populariser of science, always ready to lecture on scientific topics for a fee. Product of the age, he was responding to the sudden outburst of scientific and technological activity which started in the 17th century and which we now recognise as the beginnings of the modern scientific revolution. The public imagination had been caught by this new subject. Scientific and technological encyclopaedias, popular books and public lectures abounded and it was in the latter sphere that Arden really came into his own.

William Watson, as we mention elsewhere, had a considerable influence on Herschel. Although he did not live in Bath, Charles Blagden F.R.S. was an important member of the Society, submitting papers and forming an important link with the main stream of British Scientific work. As Secretary to the Royal Society, London and a former personal assistant to the great chemist Henry Cavendish (who discovered hydrogen), Blagden was an influential man in the world of science.

The Bath Philosophical Society came to an end in 1787, the year of Edmund Rack's death. Hugh Torrens speculating on the reasons for its demise concludes that a major cause was fragmentation due to members leaving the neighbourhood. Herschel, one of its most active members, (he contributed 31 papers, one of them on the discovery of Uranus) moved to Datchet in 1782; Priestley moved from Calne to Birmingham in 1780. Two of the original members, Curtis and Staker,died in 1784. An attempt was made to reconstitute the Society in 1799 - Watson and Herschel were elected members - but the new Society soon petered out. In 1815 there was a third attempt to form a Bath Philosophical Society, this time under the inspiration of Charles Hunnings Wilkinson, a geologist and friend of William Smith. Like its predecessors, it too failed. The fourth society, the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution, was the most successful; its origins were more complex and its aims were more broadly based.

Birth of the BRLSI

The first stirrings of a movement towards the foundation of a literary association were felt, naturally enough, among the educated members of the community. Bath cannot be said to have played a pioneering role, possibly because the existence of the assembly rooms, clubs and booksellers went a long way to disguise the city's need for a library of classics and a cultural centre for the studious. However January 1801 saw the birth of a plan to found a "Bath Publick Library" of learned books not usually found in circulating libraries or private collections. The president of the proposed library was Sir George Colebrooke, its treasurer, Mr. William Matthews, its secretary Dr. George Gibbes and its librarian Mr. John Browne; the committee of 20 was dominated by the Church and the medical profession. The scheme was doomed to failure; Bath did not number sufficient wealthy permanent residents to subscribe to such a library and the project sank, almost without trace.

In 1812 the Rev. Joseph Hunter, remarking that he found it necessary to journey to Bristol for his books, produced a further plan for a "better public library than any then existing", but this too met with no success.

In 1819 a Bath physician Dr. Edward Barlow, produced a circular letter and inserted notices in the local press inviting interest in an institution offering facilities for a library and reading room, a botanic garden, a museum of natural history, a cabinet of mineralogy, a cabinet of antiquities, a cabinet of coins and medals, a hall for lectures and a gallery to exhibit paintings and sculpture. To build this would need £30,000, to be raised in £50 share units. The Rev. Hunter expressed misgivings about such a sum being raised but purchased his share and was elected "member of the Board of Directors of the Bath Institution". The Board met monthly and added several new members but the money did not appear and they had to rethink their scheme radically. By 1820 less than £4,000 had been subscribed and both Dr. Barlow and the Rev. Hunter proposed greatly reduced alternative schemes.

It was a disastrous fire in the Lower Assembly Rooms on 21st December 1820 which finally got the scheme on its way. The building, at Terrace Walk near the Parade Gardens, had originally been Harrisons Assembly Rooms, one of the favourite haunts of Bath's Master of Ceremonies, Beau Nash, in the early 18th Century. It belonged to Earl Manvers, who generously offered to erect a new building on the site and to rent it to the Institution. In 1823 money was still short but plans went ahead; a trust deed was prepared and a lease of the premises was granted by Earl Manvers to a committee of "friends", one of the most noteworthy being Mr. Francis Ellis.

Engraving of the first BRLSI building at Terrace Walk, Bath.

On 19th January 1825 the rooms were opened to subscribers and the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution was in being. The first annual report, published in 1826, named Henry Woods F.L.S. - a zoologist, who also published papers on Bath fossils - as secretary and William Lonsdale, a geologist, as curator. In 1830 it received royal patronage from the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), and in 1837 became the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution when when Queen Victoria continued patronage.

The Institution's chief activity for the first 15-20 years of its existence was in offering a series of lectures at £1 for a series of 8 or 3/- for a single lecture (prices which in those days would have excluded all but the comparatively wealthy). Enthusiasm waned and after 1840 the lectures from visiting celebrities were changed to fund-raising events given by members. By 1848 it was clear that the members would either have to increase their income somehow or give up their premises. In 1852 there was an attempt to form a genuine public library in the City and there were suggestions that the Institution should either transfer its books to this or even transform itself into a rate-supported body.

A letter in the Bath Herald of 26th February 1853 asserted that the Institution had fallen down on its aims, that its reference collection was moribund and that its lecture rooms were empty; if it would open its doors to the public and accept rate support, it would be doing the city a favour. In spite of its dire financial straits, still a motion that the Institution should combine with other bodies was defeated. Once again it was saved by the generosity of an individual, Mr. William Tite, M.P. for Bath from 1855 until his death in 1873. Through him the Institution was enabled to buy its premises outright and during the 1860's it enjoyed a slight improvement in its affairs. The year 1899 saw an amalgamation with the Bath Athenaeum which had been set up as the Mechanics Institute in 1825 but had changed its name twenty years later.

BRLSI's building at 16-18 Queen Square, Bath.

The modern BRLSI

In 1932 the Institution was forced to moved to new premises at 16-18 Queen Square, after its building in Terrace Walk was compulsorily purchased to make way for a road scheme. Unfortunately its new premises were requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1940 (like many buildings in Bath) and occupied until 1959, by which time the Institution was considered defunct.

In accordance with the Trust Deed of 1859, the building and other assets were transferred to Bath City Council "for the advancement of Literature, Science and the Arts in the City of Bath" The buildings were used to house the City Reference Library, the Geology Museum and a Reading Room. In 1968 the Institution was registered as an educational charity.

In 1974 with local government re-organisation Avon County Council took over control of the assets causing local concern about their future. This led a group of people to consult the Charity Commissioners; the BRSLI Steering Committee was set up in November 1987, and the Friends of the BRSLI in February 1988. In April 1992, on the Charity Commission's advice, Shadow Trustees were appointed (3 from the Friends, 3 from the Bath Society working party, and 3 from the University of Bath), and in 1993 Avon County Council approved their Forward Plan and the transfer of the Trusteeship them. A Relaunch Exhibition was held in May 1993 at which the first new members for more then fifty years were enrolled.

A Company, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution Trustees was incorporated and in September 1993 the Trusteeship of the charity and the ownership of the buildings was transferred to them. Part of the building was leased to Bath Training Services in return for a substantial contribution towards its restoration and by March 1995, the Institution was able to return to its own premises.

Mostly taken from: Bath Some Encounters with Science (Chapter Four: Societies and Institutions), W J Williams and D M Stoddart, Kingsmead Press, 1974.

Additional material and Editing, Joy Whalley, Ruth Abbott, Paul Stephens. Also used: The Revival of the Institution, Jane Coates and Michael King, BRLSI Annual Report,1996.