What’s on : Lectures

Transpennine Enlightenment: the Lit Phils in the North, 1780-1830

19 Apr 2016
Start time
6:00 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Prof Jon Mee
Transpennine Enlightenment: the Lit Phils in the North, 1780-1830

Event Information


A lecture by Professor Jon Mee, University of York

There has been a lot of talk about the northern powerhouse of late. Much of it harks back to an age of prosperity associated with technological and scientific innovations of the industrial revolution. Various economic historians have lately traced take-off of this period to a faith in progress as much as older narratives of heroic inventors and their inventions. Dissemination and circulation sustained deep-seated change. This paper looks at the distinctive role played in this process by the literary philosophical societies that began in Manchester in 1781, but took root in all the great cities of the north over the next four of five decades. These societies were focussed above all on the production and circulation of knowledge, but not everyone agreed on what constituted knowledge or progress, especially in a period dominated by revolutions in America, France, and elsewhere, pressure for various kinds of political reform at home, and nearly continuous war in Europe and across the globe. This talk looks at the phenomenon of the literary philosophical societies as part of the transpennine enlightenment, a period when the idea of progress in the Northern Powerhouse Mark I was widely espoused but also fiercely contested.

Please note this is earlier than our usual start time

Member’s report

The Literary and Philosophical Societies that formed in northern England during the Industrial Revolution owed their origins greatly to the dissenting Warrington Academy, which later moved to Manchester and taught non-Anglicans debarred from Oxford and Cambridge. Manchester College then removed to York in 1803 when its Unitarian director Rev Charles Wellbeloved was appointed to St Saviourgate Chapel.

Lit Phils were founded in Manchester (1781), Newcastle (1793) and Liverpool (1812), each encouraging ‘improvement’ and disseminating knowledge by gathering to spark conversation and enquiry. They were followed by Leeds (1819), Hull, Sheffield, and ourselves in York (all 1822), Whitby (1823) and Halifax (1830). ‘Literary’ meant more than belles lettres, covering all writing, and particularly the writing up of progressive ideas in natural philosophy and the new sciences (religion and politics being excluded). Papers were submitted to be read out loud for discussion at members’ meetings. Wellbeloved played his part in establishing the YPS on similar principles of active participation and exchange. The spread of knowledge by publication for private reading would only become the norm c. 1850.

Bob Hale