From the Archives 2011

by Bob Hale (first published in the YPS Annual Report 2011)

150 years ago: 1861

The Society’s public swimming bath in the corner of the Museum Gardens by Marygate Landing had provided a modest income for some twenty years.  In 1859, however, the Corporation had opened the Yearsley Swimming Bath. The Society had never been able to rely on a clean supply of water from the Ouse, whereas the Yearsley bath enjoyed the fresher water of the Foss, and YPS profits plummeted.  Perhaps this lay behind a novel suggestion from Mr W H Rudston Read, Chairman of Council, on 4 March 1861:

The Chairman asked if the Society would grant a lease of a small parcel of ground contiguous to the Swimming Bath for the purpose of erecting Turkish Baths thereon.

But though Council considered the chairman’s detailed plans they fought shy of approving them. No Turkish baths would ever materialise.

[Council minutes 1852-1868, ref. Acc 18/2007 Box 1b.]

The year 1861 saw the deaths both of Queen Victoria’s mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, in March, and of her husband, Prince Albert, in December. The Annual report noted:

By the demise of H.R.H. the Duchess of Kent the Society has lost one of its Patronesses. The Council feel that it is unnecessary for them to dwell upon the many estimable qualities of the deceased Princess, but they cannot refrain from expressing their deep sympathy with Her Majesty the Queen upon the mournful event of her mother’s death, to be followed so soon by the severest of earthly bereavements. The Address of Condolence to Her Majesty bears with it, the Council feel assured, the heartfelt sympathy of every Member of the Society.

125 years ago: 1886

The Revd W C Hey, Curator of Insects and Crustacea, read a paper entitled “Some notes on the scarcer water beetles of York” at the Society’s May monthly meeting.  A local news report said:

There were between 3000 and 4000 species of beetles in England alone. A number of various kinds of water beetles, alive and dead, were passed around the room, and Mr Hey drew attention to the peculiar flat formation of the hind legs, which enabled them to swim quickly. Some of the most interesting were found in the neighbourhood of York, which was exceedingly rich, and he did not think there was another neighbourhood in the country so rich in the rarer species of beetle. He exhibited a number of specimens found in Askham Bog, which he described as a remarkable place. It contains hardly anything that is not rare, and the rarer the thing is the more common it seemed to be there. [Because of nearby land drainage, however,] he was afraid that within fifty years most if not all the species that exist at present will be extinct.

The Chairman remarked that many rare things were to be found at Askham Bog, which had been a noted fox cover for many years. It was thought that the railway would frighten them out of the district, but owing to its peculiar situation there were as many foxes there now as ever.

[Press cuttings 1869-1892, ref. Acc 18/2007 Box 3.]

It was a time of commercial and agricultural depression, and Council attributed to this a reduction in income both from members’ subscriptions and non-members’ admission fees at the gates. Nevertheless, at the Annual General Meeting, it was proposed to repeat the gesture to the general public of allowing free admission to the gardens not only on Whit Monday, long the custom, but on Whit Tuesday too.  According to the Yorkshire Herald:

Mr Councillor Procter, proposing this resolution, had heard, in connection with the celebration of Her Majesty’s Jubilee [in 1887], that the Museum gardens should be thrown open to the public for ever (laughter) – but he did not think such a proposition would meet with much approval by the Society.

It was noted at the AGM that amongst those whom the Society had lost during the past year was Mr Thomas Ellis, formerly Medical Officer of the County Asylum, who had died at advanced age, and who the Hon. Secretary said…

…will be chiefly remembered by his very liberal donation a few years ago of the Iron Gates, which are so great an ornament to the entrance Lodge at Lendal.

[Annual report for 1886.]

100 years ago: 1911

The statue of William Etty (1787-1849), celebrated York artist and honorary member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, was unveiled in Exhibition Square on 20 February 1911. Sculpted by Mr G W Milburn, it would make, said the Yorkshire Evening Press,

a striking object in one of the finest positions in York. The massive head, with its strong and impressive face and picturesque mass of hair, was beautifully modelled, and old citizens like Mr W.W. Hargrove, who knew Etty intimately, regarded the likeness as an excellent one.

The Evening Press quoted the Manchester Guardian as saying that Etty

was a thorough Briton in his tastes; when he travelled in France he always took care to have a teapot with him, which he carried from inn to inn.

The medieval cartulary of St Mary’s Abbey was auctioned in London in May.  Despite attempts at the eleventh hour, sufficient funds could not be raised to secure it for the Museum and it “passed into other hands”. Dr Evelyn proposed an Emergency Fund to buy such objects, and the Society did make a purchase in the autumn. The Evening Press reported on 2 November:

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society have recently come into possession of an interesting personal relic of the famous highwayman Dick Turpin. It is his leathern wallet, in which he carried food and other effects required on his long journeys on the roads or when he was lying in wait for victims.  The wallet is a capacious receptacle made of stout brown leather, and the sewing still holds good… The interesting relic was purchased from a resident in London for a small sum after undoubted proof had been given of its genuineness. One proof of this is that it bears the letters “R.T.” stamped on the leather…  The relic has been placed in the Museum alongside grim implements connected with the tragic close of Richard Turpin’s career.  There are the manacles which he wore while confined in York Castle prior to his execution… [and] an iron girdle for the body, and two clasps for the wrists.

The Society continued to give free admission to the museum gardens at Whitsun, and charged non-members only a nominal penny on Saturdays (on other days of the week it was a shilling). The grounds were also thrown open to the people of York free of charge on 22 and 23 June 1911, to mark the Coronation of George V.   School classes visited the museum throughout the year for science lessons.  Council in its Annual report felt it necessary to assert:

All this shews that our members are no selfish clique… The public are apt to forget that the Philosophical Society purchased at heavy cost fully two-thir ds of their grounds, and are still engaged in repaying the money borrowed for this purpose, and if the gardens are attractive and the membership restricted, that our members are willing to continue the comparatively high annual subscription by which alone that beauty can be maintained.

And Council issued a reminder:

Prior to our Society’s rescuing these grounds the Abbey was used as a target for musket practice, whilst a row of lime kilns were rapidly converting the ruins into building material and agricultural tillage.

Also in the Annual report for 1911:

Zoology: The American Grey squirrels, presented by Mr St Quintin over a year ago, are still at large in the Gardens and are a source of great interest to our members and visitors.

75 years ago: 1936

The society had from the very beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign enjoyed the patronage of the sovereign. On the death in January 1936 of King George V, it conveyed its “sincere and heartfelt sympathy” to his successor, adding:

It is our earnest hope that your most gracious Majesty may have a long and happy reign, and, with Her Majesty Queen Mary, may continue to enjoy the affection and loyalty of your devoted subjects.

This was, of course, addressed to Edward VIII.

[General Meeting minutes 1884-1944, ref. Acc 18/2007 Box 4c.]

50 years ago: 1961

On 2 January 1961 the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens were handed over in trust to the city.

But not everyone was confident about the future. Mrs Violet Mason (not, apparently, a YPS member) wrote to the Yorkshire Evening Press in May:

Now the York Corporation have taken over the Museum Gardens with free admission to the general public, it is to be sincerely hoped that the gardens will be placed under strict supervision and surveillance of the authorities.  Having due regard to the vandalism and destruction which has taken place from time to time, in the parks for instance, perhaps it would be wiser to retain a small fee for admission. The general condition of the gardens has been deteriorating slowly and, from this conclusion, it is obviously going to call for a lot of hard work from our parks superintendent and staff, who should be given carte blanche and extra assistance to bring the gardens back to their former picturesque beauty. I would point out that the herb garden and the fountain and also the bird sanctuary are in very bad condition. Many of the seats are broken too.

On 10 October 1961 the Evening Press reported:

One result of the Museum Gardens being taken over by the Corporation seemed to be that the peafowl strayed less. For since admission had been free, and consequently the number of visitors had increased, the peafowl had not had to look far for titbits to eat. As a result their excursions outside the gardens had been fewer lately, and they were rarely seen now in Exhibition Square.


Extracts from the Yorkshire Evening Press by kind permission of the Editor, The Press, York. The Society’s archives may be consulted by appointment at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York.  (YPS annual reports can be seen at the Lodge.)

David Rubinstein’s history of the Society: The nature of the world: the Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1822-2000 (York, 2009), is available to purchase from the Lodge.