Two hundred years ago …

Friday 2nd December 2022

December 1822

Who founded the Yorkshire Philosophical Society?

We all know the answer, don’t we?  William Salmond, Anthony Thorpe, and James Atkinson: who met in Atkinson’s house in Lendal on 7th December 1822, talked about what was to be done with the Kirkdale fossils, founded the Society, and invited William Vernon Harcourt along to their next meeting.  Voilà!  The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was up and running. The rest – to use the tired old cliché – is history.  Trouble is, history keeps getting rewritten, or at least edited. (Which is, of course, precisely what historians do, and what they’re for, ‘History’ always being a rear-view-mirror reconstruction of events.

So – is this what really happened?  More or less, but not quite …

William Salmond himself saw things slightly differently. A few years later the question of who founded the Society surfaced, and, in Salmond’s words ‘I am the person who originated that Society.

Jump forward in time to 1831.  The Society is approaching its tenth year of existence, and establishing its position on the national stage.  William Vernon Harcourt, after much correspondence with the great and the good of British Science, convenes a General Scientific Meeting attended by ‘upwards of 300 gentlemen’, including Brewster, Babbage, Coneybeare, Whewell, Murchison … as well as members of the Society.  Out of this meeting emerged the British Association for the Advancement of Science – partly as a rival to the august Royal Society.  Unsurprisingly the first Secretary of the BA was none other than William Vernon Harcourt.

Of our founding Trinity, Atkinson was presumably present, Anthony Thorpe had recently died, and William Salmond was enjoying the hospitality of John Bacon Sawrey Morritt at Rokeby Park (near Barnard Castle), probably indulging in a spot of shooting. Morritt, although never a member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, was acquainted with a number of relevant scientific gentlemen, many of whom had stayed at Rokeby Park, Humphry Davy and Roderick Murchison among them.  Murchison, indeed, had decided on a scientific career while on a shooting party at Rokeby, and was again staying there a few days before the York meeting.  If he didn’t meet Salmond at Rokeby on that occasion, their respective stagecoaches must have crossed between Rokeby and York.

In his youth, Morritt travelled widely in Greece and Turkey, and while in Athens had made a serious attempt to acquire sculptures from the Parthenon frieze.  Had things turned out differently, the Yorkshire Museum, rather than the British Museum, might today have been under pressure to return the ‘Morritt Marbles’ to Greece.

Peter Hogarth

To be continued … or see more in our November newsletter here.  (Members should have already received this either by post or email; please let us know if not.)