As the newest member of the library team, I must admit that I was a little nervous about writing my first blog post. The Society has such interesting and varied collections I wasn’t sure where to start, so if anyone has any suggestions for my next post, I’m all ears…
I was reading Mary Barton (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell, a rather grim Victorian novel, based in Manchester at a time of economic depression. In the book she referred to how learned the working men of Manchester could be. For example, one of her characters, Job Legh, had a particular interest in natural history and had built up a collection of specimens from around the world. It was no surprise then the next day when a small volume entitled Science Lectures for the People: science lectures delivered in Manchester grabbed my attention whilst I was looking around the collections. Given that it was on the same day as one of our history of science lectures, it seemed the topic had chosen me.
In total the library has 5 volumes which between them cover each series of lectures that were held from 1866 to 1879. In fact they had begun life some years earlier during the cotton famine in 1862 as a way of entertaining unemployed mill and factory workers, but we do not have any copies of the earlier lectures in our collections.
The lectures covered topics that were designed to give both a basic introduction to scientific concepts and appeal to the ‘working’ man. The lectures had titles that included, ‘Coral and coral reefs’, ‘The temperature and life of the deep sea’ and ‘How coal and the strata in which it is found is formed’. In fact coal featured regularly throughout the course of the lectures. The lectures were largely organised by Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe FRS, and he delivered many of them himself but he was far from being the only Royal Society fellow to have been involved. Other fellows included William Huggins, Joseph Norman Lockyer, Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall who requested a ‘glass of good dry champagne at dinner’ as it was ‘important for the well-being of my brain during the lecture’, making him my personal favourite of the lecturers.
As Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe was the driving force behind these lectures, I thought I’d better find out a little more about him. Born in Liverpool in 1833, he completed his initial degree at UCL in 1853. He briefly moved to Germany, where he worked with Robert Bunsen (yes, he of Bunsen burner fame) before returning to England in 1856, moving to Manchester in 1857. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1863 on the strength of his chemical work, but it was his continued dedication to teaching science that really struck me. Apart from organising the lectures he was Chair of Chemistry at Owens College, Manchester (which evolved into the University of Manchester) and he also founded a working mens’ college in the city. I think this is a legacy anyone could be proud of.
I have enjoyed reading about the lectures, but for me personally researching the life and character of Sir Henry has been the most interesting part of my first blog post. I expect to come across many more fascinating fellows during my time at the Royal Society and perhaps they too will feature on our blog.