The British Association Conference 1844, and the first photographs taken in York

In his excellent book on early photographs of York* the late local historian, Hugh Murray, told the story of how he believed the first photographs were taken in the city in 1844.

This was very early in the history of photography – it was only five years since the Frenchman Louis Daguerre had patented the first practical photograph, the Daguerrotype, and promptied the English aristocrat William Henry Fox Talbot to refine and demonstrate a different photographic process which he had been experimenting with for some years. In 1841 he patented it in England. Fox Talbot called his images ‘Calotypes’

The Fox Talbot patent did not cover Scotland, and in Edinburgh, prompted by the physicist Sir David Brewster, Principal of St. Andrews University, two young men, David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson began to experiment with the calotype process. They were so successful that they set up their own studio, and took remarkable photographs of a wide variety of subjects.  Hill and Adamson are now widely regarded as among the most important early photographers, and collections of their work can be found in some of the most important galleries and museums around the world. The best collection is to be found in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Sir David Brewster was an important figure in the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and when, in 1844, the Association came to York for their annual meeting, Brewster encouraged Hill and Adamson to come to York to photograph the delegates. This required permission from Fox Talbot, but Brewster, who was a friend of his, was able to arrange this.

This conference was a very well attended event. Although the official report does not give a comprehensive list of who was present, the local newspapers went to some trouble to list them. ‘The York Herald’ of Sat 5 Oct reports the concluding meeting, and has a ‘List of Company’, giving the names of 651 gentlemen who attended the conference. On the same page, a summary from the treasurer reports the number of ‘tickets issued’: 266 to old life members, 146 to new life members, 192 to new annual members, 47 to old annual members, giving a total 651 – plus 9 issued to ‘young persons for admission to the Sections’, and ‘257 tickets issued to the ladies’. Many famous scientists and engineers were present, including Herschel, Faraday, Wheatstone, Murchison, Sedgwick, Brunel, Stephenson, and many attendees had aristocratic backgrounds, such as Spencer Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton.

Because these early photographs needed to be taken in daylight, the photographers set up an open-air studio in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, where they took the first ever photographs of a scientific conference. Clearly, with such a large number of attendees, only a tiny fraction could have been photographed. Sadly, many of the people we would really like to see do not appear to have taken advantage of this opportunity – perhaps they were just too busy. Herschel was photographed, but the other famous people listed above were not, and neither were our own John Phillips, first keeper of the Yorkshire Museum and distinguished geologist,  and William Vernon Harcourt, YPS first President, in spite of the fact that, after the conference, the photographers moved to Bishopthorpe to take photographs of Harcourt’s father, the Archbishop of York, and other family members. However, those calotypes which do exist still give us a wonderful insight into the characters of scientists and others at that time.

In 2019, the YPS staged an exhibition entitled: York’s First Photographs’, which included ten of these calotypes, printed on waterproof panels displayed around Museum Gardens. Our selection included some notable scientists, including Sir John Herschel, astronomer and polymath, and Henry Thomas De La Beche, first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.  We also included a number of characters who were important to York and the YPS, including Henry Baines, the sub curator of the Museum, and his family, along with the Archbishop of York, and one of his daughters-in-law. The pdf Calotypes and biographies from the 2019 exhibition provides more information on these people.

Our research for the exhibition also provided interesting information on the history of photography, the calotypes taken at the conference which we were not able to include in the exhibition, and the organisation of the 1844 conference. We put some of this in the following pdfs:-
The calotype and its place in the development of photography
York 1844 calotypes not included in exhibition (images)
York 1844 calotypes not included in exhibition – biographies
BAAS 1844 sections and locations


*Photographs and Photographers of York – The Early Years 1844-1879, by Hugh Murray. Published in 1986 by Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society in association with Sessions of York

Portraits in the banner above are all calotypes taken by David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) & Robert Adamson (1821-1848) and licensed from the National Galleries of Scotland. From L to R :-
Title:-‘Called Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1792 – 1871. Astronomer’
Title:-‘Rev. Dr William Scoresby, 1789 – 1857. Whaler, Scientist and Arctic explorer [b]’
Title:- ‘Charles William Peach, 1800 – 1886. Coastguard; naturalist and geologist’
Title:-‘Sir Henry Thomas De La Beche, 1796 – 1855’
The images behind the banner portraits are:-
The New Museum with Part of the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, York, N. Whittock, 1829.  YPS & St. Mary’s Abbey Gateway, Thomas Rowlandson, 1801. Image YMT