What’s on : Lectures

The World in 1822

8 Jun 2022
Start time
2:30 PM
The Yorkshire Museum
Professor Jon Mee, Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York
The World in 1822

Event Information

The World in 1822
Professor Jon Mee, Professor of Eighteenth-century Studies
Centre for Eighteenth-century Studies, University of York.

This lecture will be held in the Tempest Anderson Lecture Theatre in the Yorkshire Museum, York at 2.30pm after the YPS AGM at 2pm. Lecture entry from 2.15pm.

The 1820s is a decade often neglected by historians, perhaps because it seems caught between an ancien regime and a new world of science and reform. The Reform Bill of 1832 did not seem an imminent prospect to many in 1822, despite six decades of agitation for parliamentary reform. The radical fervour that followed Peterloo in 1819 and the Queen Caroline Affair of the next two years seemed to have abated. Despite the fact that Caroline of Brunswick hammered on the doors of Westminster Abbey at the coronation of her ex-husband in July 1821, George IV was able to celebrate his accession with an elaborately stage-managed tour of Scotland in 1822. Sir Walter Scott, at the peak of his fame as a novelist, orchestrated the affair.

Beyond the monarchy, Britain’s ruling classes were still primarily landowners reluctant to come to terms with the idea it might become a country that imported food and exported manufacturing goods. Scott’s historical novels were signs of the decade’s nostalgia for lost certainties but also parables of nation building proposing an approach to historical narrative in sync with the decade’s scientific ambitions, if not its rage for inventions and so-called ‘steam fetishism’. A developing culture of ‘science’ that culminated in the foundation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831, a self-consciously provincial exercise that built on developments like the YPS and the foundation of the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, both in December 1822. The YPS was part of this wave, but its clerical cast made it less obviously part of the liberal ‘March of Intellect,’ to use the fashionable phrase of the decade. The Minster did not fit with the steam cars and the railways that were the subjects of excited anticipation and scathing satirical attacks, but then 1822 was full of such contradictions.

In cultural and literary terms, the decade is often lost between the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Victorian literature. Women writers like Felicia Hemans and the scandalous Laetitia Elizabeth Landon were creating reputations that are sometimes lost in canonical accounts of the two larger movements. The 1820s saw the death of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, as their elders Coleridge and Wordsworth lived on to become establishment figures. 1822 saw Byron and Shelley collaborate on a short-lived journal ‘The Liberal’ that looked to capture the spirit of revolutions in continental Europe, but it barely survived the drowning of Shelley off the coast of Italy in July. Shelley’s poetry is now famous for his atheistical interest in geology, very much at odds with the atmosphere of the YPS. The first published version of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes was issued in the same year, consolidating a trend for domestic tourism that still endures.

If this was a sign of the creation of a solid Victorian idea of Englishness rooted in the landscape, then more broadly Britain was becoming increasingly enmeshed in a world economy and its imperial ambitions. 1822 saw the publication of Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, a celebration of commercial opportunity in a new South American colony that those hardy souls who sailed off in February 1822 to make their fortunes discovered not to exist. There simply was no Poyais, but the consequences of the speculation played an important part in the financial crash of 1825. At least one historian has suggested that the word’ speculation’ was a key word for the 1820s.

For some 1822 would have been a world of exciting possibilities, for others a place where the future seemed dreadfully uncertain. The YPS has turned out to be one of the speculations that endured, but that future was not easy to discern at the time, not least, of course, because it was based on potentially controversial discoveries about the ancient past and the history of the earth with consequences for how the future would be understood.

Image “The March of Progress” by William Heath (Wellcome Trust – Creative Commons)

Member’s Report

Jon Mee painted a picture of a world dominated by the march of the intellect, a world where knowledge was being disseminated, albeit well controlled, a world where there was both hope for the future and a fear of losing touch with the past. News was travelling quickly and inventions were in the air. It was impossible to walk down the street without being bombarded by text and images. It was an age of steam cars, the steam packet from Gravesend, improved road surfaces, together with the idea of flying machines and railways. Scientific societies in Leeds, Sheffield and York were being formed and Charles Wellbeloved’s Manchester Institute moved to York.

Alongside this was a feeling of uncertainty; it was believed something was about to happen, but what?  Following the invasion of Spain by France, in an attempt to restore the Bourbon dynasty, there was a fear of a European war less than a decade after Waterloo. Revolutions were taking place in Spain, Portugal, Naples and South America, while in Britain there was uncertainty following Peterloo in 1819 and the Scottish Uprising in 1820. The Prince Regent became king in 1820, spending vast sums on his coronation only to have this disrupted by his estranged wife Caroline who banged on the door of Westminster Abbey demanding to be crowned queen. In turn George IV was widely known as Old Corruption and much lampooned. Financial speculation from 1822 led to a catastrophic crash in 1825 with the Poyais affair and in 1823 there was an uprising in Demerara (now Guyana). Slavery had still not been abolished and a Quaker, Elizabeth Heyrick was calling for immediate not gradual abolition, which did not come until 1833. Closer to home, William Buckland’s analysis of the finds in Kirkdale Cave showing that the hyenas had dragged their victims into the cave did not support the theory that they were victims of the Flood, laying open the way to the hotly contested debate on creation between Dean Cockburn and Adam Sedgwick.

All in all a time of movement and uncertainty with parallels to 2022 and aptly summed up by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s couplet:

A glorious Phantom may/Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

Dorothy Nott