From the Archives 2020

From the Archives

Peter Hogarth (Hon. Librarian and Archvist)

150 years ago: 1870

The Annual Report for 1870 provides an illuminating picture of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society at that time. The President was His Grace the Archbishop of York, the Vice-Presidents include an Earl, a Baron, the son of a Baron, four clerics (including William Vernon Harcourt), two Fellows of the Royal Society (one of them John Phillips), and two each of the Linnaean Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Henry Baines was still Sub-curator, although ‘from old age and incapacity of body, he [had] declared himself unequal to the duties of superintending work … in the grounds of the Society’.

The mission of the Society, then as now, was – as the Annual Report put it – ‘an anxious endeavour to further the special scientific objects for which the Society was founded, whilst promoting in respect of its Finances a judicious economy.’

Furthering the special scientific objects of the Society included, as now, a regular series of lectures. Topics for 1870 included: The origin of the English people (twice); On heat; Life in the depths of the ocean; The last of the Tasmanians; The operations of war; The pterodactyl and its alliances; and The mineral waters of Harrogate considered in a geological point of View. Measures to promote judicious economy included the ‘discontinuance of the Tropical Plants’, it being estimated, somewhat improbably, that this would realise ‘not less than £100 a-year’ to support the continued payment of Henry Baines’s salary in retirement. The Society always did have a generous approach to the pension arrangements of long-serving and valued staff. Gate receipts had risen to an annual total of £242, and the ‘number of strangers visiting the Grounds’ had been far above the average, ‘the Continental War, no doubt, having induced a great number of persons to travel over their native land, who would otherwise have spent their holiday on the Continent’. ‘Staycations’ are not new.  Overall, the Society was in a financially optimistic mood.

100 years ago: 1920

Fifty years later, ‘management’ of the Society looked rather different. With the decline in gentleman amateurs of science, the number of lords in the upper reaches of the Society had declined to one, and the number of Vice-Presidents and Council members with University degrees had risen – and even included at least two with identifiable science degrees.

The Society was beginning to consider how to mark its centenary (as the present Council is currently engaged with respect to our forthcoming bicentenary). Accordingly, the Annual report gives a lengthy account­­­ of the history of YPS, from the Kirkdale Cave onwards. (It is slightly surprising to find one of our Founding Fathers, the Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, retrospectively promoted to Archbishop). It was also noted that, in the centenary year, the Sub-curator, William Watson, would be celebrating the half-century of his own employment with the Society, slightly exceeding that of his predecessor, Henry Baines.

Lectures delivered during the year included Great engineering adventures; Don Quixote; A few astronomical instruments; and Visits to volcanoes. More exotically, perhaps, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah delivered an address on Afganistan [sic] and its people. The Sirdar, apparently a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was an Indian-Afghan diplomat, who occasionally worked for the British Foreign Office. Some members may remember his son, Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufi Islam were popular in the laid-back 1970s.

The Great War, recently concluded, left its mark: there were lectures on Baghdad; Surgery of the war; and The uncrowned King of Arabia, the last by Captain Laurence Gotch, who had met T.E. Lawrence in Arabia during the War, and who seems thereafter to have made something of a career out of discussing his acquaintance.

75 years ago: 1945

The Second World War had ended, and the Society was looking forward to a brighter future. But, first, the aftermath had to be coped with. Bomb damage to St Mary’s Abbey and the Museum had been repaired, exhibits that had been evacuated to places of safety had returned, and the Post Office Engineers and other official agencies who had been operating unobtrusively from the Society’s premises during the War had discreetly removed themselves (unmentioned in the Annual Report, naturally).

The Gardens had had a good war, with enormous numbers of visitors – free for anyone in uniform, or nurses, but not for ordinary members of the public. Never again would the Society have to contend with the RAF deploying barrage balloons, without first asking the Society’s permission. And the expected appointment of a ’Kew-trained Gardener’ would restore to its former glory anything that needed to be so restored.

As for lectures and the like: the Tempest Anderson Hall, thrown open to the general public throughout the War for free lectures and film showings, was now back to normal. The Society’s own lectures were also back to normal: the 1945 lecture series included talks on Science and crime (with exhibits), Alcuin and European civilisation, Popular customs and superstitions, and Our native Alpine plants. Interestingly, and in contrast to 1920, none of the lecture topics had any connection with the recently concluded War

Remarkably, the Society found itself ‘in a comparatively prosperous situation’, looking forward to a buoyant future. Within two years, however, it would be reduced to selling off its assets – Audubon’s Birds of America, for instance, raised a (paltry) £2700, and in 1961 the Society would transfer Museum and Gardens to the care of York Corporation.