The YPS at war, 1914-1919

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society at war, 1914-1919

Peter Hogarth, YPS Hon Librarian

On 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Although remote from the fighting, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society was not unaffected. It adapted to circumstances, maintained as far as possible ‘business as usual’, and strove to make its contribution to the War Effort. How it did this is revealed in the YPS archives, particularly in the minutes of Council and other committees, as well as in Press reports of YPS activities.


In the months before the declaration of war, YPS Council had been preoccupied with routine matters: arranging for the York Female Friendly Society to have a tea party in the Museum Gardens, concern that the Gardens were being ‘used for improper purposes at night’, the arrangement for an English Folk Dance Society session. All that changed with a Special Meeting on 14th August. The Society “had heard from the Chief Constable that he had heard from the Military Authorities that they might require to billet a certain number of men & horses in the Museum and Gardens.”

Council responded with alacrity, writing to the Chief Constable that the Society would do “everything in its power to assist… and to place at their disposal the grounds & buildings of the Society” and helpfully enclosing  a “plan … marked in red ink … what I think will be  the most suitable sites for horses … where forage could be brought in & there is a water hydrant”.  For the troops, “we have a large Marquee.” Patriotic duty was somewhat tempered by caution: “no doubt the command would give instructions that no damage would be caused to the antiquities.”

In the event, neither horses nor men were billeted in the Museum Gardens, but soon “considerable use has been made of the terrace and other parts of the gardens for drill instruction.”

Initially for a trial period, soldiers in uniform were permitted free entry to the Museum and Gardens on Sunday afternoons between 2.00 and 4.00 p.m. “subject to a sufficient number of suitable watchers offering their services gratis”. The Society was later pleased to note that “This privilege has been enjoyed and appreciated by large numbers, no less than 762 availing themselves of the opportunity”. Afternoon lectures on natural history, and the antiquities of York, were arranged for the troops.

In early December 1914 the YPS received an enquiry from the Scarborough Museum, concerned at the risk of a possible German naval bombardment: would the Yorkshire Museum be prepared to give sanctuary to some of their principal exhibits? The Secretary immediately agreed “at their risk as to carriage and insurance”. In the event, the exhibits were still in Scarborough when the German bombardment took place on 16th December, but the Museum was not damaged, and the items in question subsequently arrived safely in York.

A full YPS programme of evening lectures, and Lectures to Young People, continued, although some of the lectures took on a wartime flavour: Miss Maud Sellers talked on England’s struggle with Prussia for Sea Supremacy in Mediaeval and Modern Times, and the Rev. T.T. Norgate spoke on The War Drama up-to-date, with Lantern Slides. Professor Bower, recently returned from a recent visit of the British Association to Australia, reported on Australia and the War. In Australia, apparently, ‘anti-Teutonic enthusiasm was very great’, though apart from ‘the unbounded patriotism and loyalty of Australians as Britishers’, German Australians had seemingly been pointing out the pieces of Australian land that ‘would drop into their mouths like ripe fruit’ after a German victory.



In March, an attempt to obtain from the Scarborough Philosophical Society a German shell “from the late bombardment” failed.

The Society agreed to the Lord Mayor’s request for the use of their marquee and the Tempest Anderson Hall for a cinematographic show on July 14th “for the wives of the York Soldiers and Sailors” (the Lord Mayor, naturally, to be responsible for any resulting damage).

In September, the Society – anticipating German aerial attack – reviewed its fire precautions: 36 firebuckets were assembled, firehoses were renewed and placed next to hydrants rather than tucked away in the Conservatory.

By November, the Assistant Librarian, Wilfrid Robertshaw, and a gardener, Edward Hall, had enlisted, while the Keeper of the Museum, Henry Platnauer (then aged 59) was commissioned in the Territorials with the rank of captain. Although Robertshaw had held his post for less than 3 months before enlisting, Council decided to keep his post open, and that his military service would, on his return, be counted as service to the YPS for purposes of salary increase.

The Rev. Norgate returned, to talk on The Eastern War Campaign. Otherwise, the usual range of evening  lectures continued, ranging from ‘Comets and Meteorites’ to ‘The use of the divining rod’.



The Society was perhaps beginning to feel the strain of war. In the minutes of the first Council meeting of the year, the Secretary, Charles Elmhirst, notes plaintively that “So many of my Clerks have enlisted that I have copied these minutes myself.”

In May the Society was summonsed for “having an outside lamp burning in the gardens at 1.15 a.m. on April 27”.  On 8th May, the matter came to Court and a fine of five shillings was imposed. Concern over bright lights was justified: between these dates, on 2nd May, the first Zeppelin raid on York took place, in which 9 people were killed. Subsequently, “As a memento of “frightfulness” an Incendiary Bomb, dropped by a Zeppelin airship in the neighbourhood, was presented to the Society by the Lord Mayor, and has been appropriately placed in one of the large cases in the Central Hall with the thumb screws and branding irons of mediaeval times”.

The Society allowed the gardens to be used for various fundraising events: a Garden Fete “to raise money for the purchase of cigarettes &c for the soldiers”, and a combined garden fete and gymkhana on behalf of the Lord Roberts fund for wounded soldiers. The latter included “various sports … both for men and women … and a number of events for wounded soldiers, who entered into the spirit of the thing with great zest”, as well as Morris dancers and an evening concert.

The patriotic event of the year, however, was an open-air pageant version of Mr Parker’s play Drake. This was performed in the Museum Gardens for two successive days in July, accompanied by the band of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, and raised “a substantial sum” for V.A.D. Hospitals.

The usual run of evening lectures continued, including Mr John Ward on The house fly in war time. Apparently there were fewer house flies in towns because the Government had commandeered so many horses for the War. A proposed lecture by Mr F.E. Tillemont Thomason on The end of the war and afterwards was thought likely to be of a controversial nature, hence unsuitable to be held in the Tempest Anderson Hall, while the Society of Friends’ request for the use of the Tempest Anderson Hall was declined “owing to the pacifist propaganda which was carried on by the Society”.



In view of the continuing threat of bombing (there had been three Zeppelin attacks on York during the previous year), the Society decided to increase by £10 the insurance premiums on the Museum contents “to be divided between Fire and Air Craft.”

In view of the national emergency, the birds in the Museum Gardens aviary had their rations reduced: “the question whether the Aviary should be put down in view of war time was brought forward & the birds were inspected.  There was corn unconsumed in each partition which pointed to more being given to the birds than necessary and it was decided to instruct Wright to reduce the allowance until it was cleared up each day & to scatter the corn instead of putting it all in one place”. Four English pheasants were disposed of.

The most important event in the Gardens was probably the Fête Champêtre promoted by the York Cheer and Comforts Committee for wounded soldiers. The programme included concerts by the band of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment; pierrot entertainments; bowls and other games; an exhibition of war relics, including captured German field guns; flat races; a tea for wounded soldiers; and a stirring speech by General Sir John Maxwell, G.O.C. Northern Command, and a veteran of the fight against the Mahdi, the 2nd Boer War, and the brutal aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Despite the earlier refusal of the Tempest Anderson Hall, the Society of Friends did in fact hold their quarterly meeting in the Museum: it was duly followed by a complaint “in strong terms … [about] the presence of conscientious objector’s [sic] literature which was offered for sale in the Entrance Hall of the Society”.


Lectures continued, including the ‘controversial’ Mr Tillemont Thomason, author of “Our King and Empire”, talking on airships, and the return of the Rev. Northgate on The miscalculations of the Kaiser.



Events in the Museum and Gardens included a celebration by the Women’s War Service Recruiting Committee of the war work of women in agriculture and munitions which had “done so much to enable  the country to win the war”; a parade of “400 United States Flying Men” who, at the instigation of the Archbishop, sang “their War Song, Over here”; and a Concert by the Zouave Band in aid of the French Red Cross.

The most noteworthy of the year’s lectures was probably Observing an eclipse in War-Time by the Rev. Father Cortie.  Father Cortie, from Stonyhurst, was an astronomer who was determined to observe the solar eclipse of 1914. This was visible only from far northern latitudes, and Cortie travelled to northern Sweden (having, as a Jesuit, been barred from entering Russia). Observing the eclipse was fairly uneventful: Fr Cortie’s return trip – war having been declared in the mean time – less so. After travelling by land to Bergen, Cortie sailed through two Swedish minefields “under the escort of armed vessels” and entered the North Sea. Here the ship was stopped by a British Cruiser, to warn of floating mines ahead: “the lifeboats were got ready, and the course was changed for … the north of Scotland. Eventually, the intrepid astronomers were “convoyed into the mouth of the Tyne by three torpedo-boats.” Rarely has astronomy been so exciting; but, given that the talk was four years after the event, perhaps for the YPS the war was beginning to recede into history.

Finally, on 11th November 1918, the Council of YPS reported that “Owing to this being the day on which the terms of the Armistice were signed by the German representatives and the occasion of great rejoicing the attendance at the meeting was less than usual”. (In fact nine Members attended).

As the subsequent Annual  Report concluded: “So much for the War, which we all hope is now over” (before going on to record “some notable additions to the stuffed specimens in our Bird Gallery”, and other matters of import.)

In the course of the following year, Captain Platnauer, Lance-Corporal Robertshaw and Private Hall returned to their respective duties with the Society, the Museum Gardens were thrown open to the public during the Peace Celebrations, and the Society avoided the placing of two captured German field guns on the terrace in front of the Museum: where two Russian cannon had been placed, briefly, after the Crimean War.

Also avoided, somewhat later, was the construction of a triumphal arch – an Arch of Constantine in miniature – as a War Memorial, proposed for the Museum Street entrance. This was a 1919 design by Edwin Ridsdale Tate, member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and architect of the Tempest Anderson Hall.


Yorkshire Philosophical Society: Annual Reports, Council Minutes, General Purposes Committee Minutes, Garden Committee Minutes, and other material in the YPS archives;


Yorkshire Post

Yorkshire Evening Post

Daily Mail Hull Packet & East Yorkshire & Lancashire Courier

Army Service Records.