Two hundred years ago …

Friday 9th December 2022

December 1822 – as remembered in 1831

Last week we left the founding members of the Society attending a scientific meeting at York in 1831, during which numerous and lengthy speeches were made. Unfortunately, in one such, Lord Milton – Patron of the Society – said that he ‘could not conclude without saying a few words of well deserved praise of your Reverend friend, to whom the Yorkshire Philosophical Society owes its origins’: the Reverend friend in question being, of course, William Vernon Harcourt.

This took place on Tuesday 27th September, and was reported verbatim in the York Courant of Saturday 1st October.  By the following Wednesday the Courant had reached Rokeby Park. Salmond read the article: and exploded.  In an indignant letter to Lord Milton – by now at his family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse – ‘Your Lordship’s most obedient, and very humble Servant’ complained that ‘injustice has been done me’ in not being given sole credit for founding the Society, and for ‘that Rev. Gentleman having received such a complement without correcting the mistake’ particularly as ‘erroneous reports on this subject [had previously] circulated’.

Salmond’s letter reached Milton, at Wentworth Woodhouse, two days later and Milton replied immediately: ‘I hasten to express my regret that any thing which is reported to have fallen from me, should have had the effect of appearing to deprive you of your merited honor’. But he really couldn’t remember his exact words: besides, ‘a gentleman who was present’ had observed that Harcourt ‘indicated by his gestures that he was not entitled to the praise of being the founder of the Society’.

Not good enough!  By the time of Lord Milton’s reply, Salmond was on a tour of the Lake District: by 18th October the letter had caught up with him at Eden Hall, near Penrith.   In his reply, ‘your Lordship’s most obedient humble Servant’ demanded nothing less than ‘as public a correction of the mistake, as that to which it was given to the Scientific world’ at the York meeting.

One suspects that the Viscount Milton (later Earl Fitzwilliam) was not altogether used to demands.  But, noblesse oblige, he bit his tongue and (October 22nd) replied rather tersely to the effect that Salmond had ‘my full permission to make any use that you may think advisable, of this acknowledgement of my mistake’.

William Salmond thereupon published the entire correspondence in the form of a booklet, and circulated it – as he thought advisable – presumably sending a copy to the Rev. Harcourt.

The sequel to this tale is a letter from Harcourt to Milton, dated 11th November, and printed (presumably with Lord Milton’s prior agreement) in the Yorkshire Gazette the following day:


The first foundation of the public collection … was unquestionably laid by Mr James Atkinson, Mr Salmond, and the late Mr Thorpe, their donation of the fossil bones … from the Kirkdale Cave.  With whom the proposal to deposit these remains in a Public Museum originated, I know not. The idea was suggested to me by Dr Buckland, and I communicated the suggestion to Mr Thorpe.  Having afterwards consulted on the manner of carrying it into effect, I proposed to extend the plan, and instead of a public Museum only at York, to found a Yorkshire Scientific and Antiquarian Society.  I drew up a Prospectus of such a Society … and on the principles of that Prospectus our Society was formed.’

‘With a mind intent on other things’ (such as the establishment of the British Association) he hadn’t really noticed the remarks of Lord Milton to which Salmond took such exception: but that evening, at a public dinner in the York Tavern when Roderick Murchison had similarly referred to him as the founder of the Society ‘I did not neglect to rectify a similar statement … an honour which I said I only shared in an inferior degree with those, who by their public-spirited contribution of the Kirkdale remains, had laid the basis of the Collections’. (Note: ‘Collections’ not ‘Society’)

This is somewhat ambiguous: did Buckland gave Harcourt the idea of a museum and Harcourt then have the idea of a Society, which he took concrete steps towards founding? Was Harcourt first to have the idea of a Society, and Salmond the first to implement the idea?  Everyone remembered what was important to them at the time, and only vaguely recalled the rest …

The fuss seems to have subsided at this point, although relations between the President of the Society (Harcourt) and Vice-President (Salmond) may have been a trifle strained.  Perhaps the latter, all along, had thought he should be occupying the prestigious post of the former?

What of James Atkinson, the other surviving member of the founding trio? Atkinson must have issued the invitation to Salmond and Thorpe to meet at his house to discuss their respective Kirkdale collections and put together the proposal to found both Society and Museum, then to invite Harcourt to join them in this endeavour.  He doesn’t seem to have shown any interest, ever, in who was recognised as founder of the Society.  He was certainly in York at the time of the 1831 meeting (busy raising funds for a bust of Harcourt, actually) and probably attended at least some parts of the Great Scientific Meeting. If he was present when Lord Milton made his faux pas, then his mind, too, may have been intent on other things, such as the forthcoming dinner at the York Tavern, rather than worrying about who was rightfully due credit for the founding of the Society, ten years earlier.

So the conventional account of the founding of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society is – more or less – what actually happened.  But not quite.

Peter Hogarth