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Owens College and the Technical School, Manchester

By John Pickstone

By the 1850s Manchester’s central district was fully commercial. The Infirmary was remodelled, losing its sprawl of allied charities, gaining a portico and clock tower as a solid civic monument. On the streets around Piccadilly, the warehouses were becoming grander, now that the railways brought potential buyers to see the stock collected and elaborately displayed. One of the merchants, John Owens, was persuaded by another to leave his fortune to provide a college for young men. This was not to be a sectarian affair like that newly established by the Congregationalists; it was not to be tainted with the Unitarian heresy, like the Manchester New College, now back in its home city after 37 years in York. Owens College was to be like Oxford and Cambridge in what it taught. But it would be non-sectarian and non-residential. It was established in 1851 in the former house of Richard Cobden, merchant, liberal parliamentarian, anti-militarist and phrenologist.

It almost failed. Manchester fathers would go to occasional lectures, and they would turn out for a big fashionable event like the Art Shown of 1857; some of them reckoned their business might benefit through a short course on calico printing or some such; but they were not going to divert their sons into three years of university education. Owens College survived because it came to incorporate a more vigorous form of symbiosis between capital and culture, one learned from Scotland and especially from Germany. 1851, the year of the College’s opening, was also the year of the Great Exhibition in London. British industry was then supreme, but so was German science, and from Prince Albert downward there were educated men who feared that German success in science would lead to more powerful competition in industry. Their answer was to develop in Britain the system of advanced training and research which had been pioneered in German universities. In Manchester it was Henry Roscoe, Professor of Chemistry from 1857, who developed that vision, linking it to the practical concerns of local industrialists, but always insisting that no one could be a useful chemist until he had mastered the principles of the subject; you could not start with applications. That vision led to the largest and finest school of chemistry in Britain. When Owens College moved in 1873 to its present site on Oxford Road, Roscoe built a large chemical laboratory at the rear of the main building. It was Roscoe and his students who helped arrange for the University Charter of 1880, by which the Owens College became linked to newer colleges in Leeds and Liverpool as the Victoria University.

Owens College
Owens College

By then the local medical school had been brought into the College; its staff included notable ‘scientific clinicians’, such as Julius Dreschfield. Engineering classes, under Osborne Reynolds, were becoming established. Horace Lamb’s applied mathematics was to add further strengths. The Physics Department had a good reputation for teaching – several of its pupils, including J J Thomson and Arthur Schuster, had gone on to the new Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge. In the natural historical sciences, the former Natural History Society’s Museum had been rehoused as part of the new College; its curator, W Boyd Dawkins, became Professor of Geology in 1874. Five years later, Arthur Milnes Marshall, the talented Cambridge embryologist, was given the chair of zoology. Williamson remained in the chair of botany until 1891. Like much of the work at Owens, his research was linked to the local community; he was the major British pioneer in the study of coal fossils.

The Mechanics’ Institute had developed in parallel with Owens. A new building was opened in 1856 in what is now Princess Street (it now houses the Labour History Archive). The occasion was marked with an international exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, but enrolments were disappointing, and from the 1870s the development of elementary education under the municipal School Boards robbed the Institute of some of its previous function. It was a night-school educated boot-maker, J H Reynolds, who rescued the Institution. Appointed its Secretary on 1879, he made it part of a growing national movement for technical education, linking it with the new City and Guilds Examination, and soliciting industrial support. As British manufacturers worried more and more about international competition, and as the elementary schools gave a basic education to more of the working classes, so the Technical School grew. By 1889 it was planning a new building and was to be part of a Whitworth Institute, together with the School of Art and a Whitworth Gallery; but new legislation and national funding became available, and the Technical School was taken over by the Council in 1892. A fine new building, of German inspiration was opened in 1901 (later the ‘UMIST main building’, which was extended in the 1950s). The ‘Tech’ was intended to teach science for industrial application; Owens would teach the professional men; there was an agreement to that effect from 1896. But as money and equipment poured into the new Tech, the boundaries became blurred.

Manchester Infirmary, Manchester

By John Pickstone

The Manchester Infirmary in Piccadilly was the main focus for established and incoming doctors. Its leading surgeon, Charles White, was an authority on midwifery and a noted teacher. Its leading physician, Thomas Percival, was a key member of the Unitarian Congregation at Cross Street Chapel (now an office site). With his minister there, and with his colleague Thomas Henry (the leading apothecary and manufacturing chemist), Percival established a scientific society which has continued to the present as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He also helped establish here a College which gave higher education to laymen as well as to future Unitarian ministers. As Manchester’s urban problems grew severe, as fever threatened, Percival and his colleagues addressed the problems of public health and fought for an expansion of the Infirmary to provide better facilities for infectious diseases. They had their successes, especially around 1790, but their projects were increasingly overtaken by the long years of war and repression which followed the French Revolution It was Percival and his friends who first advanced schemes for higher education for industrialists. They brought John Dalton to Manchester, as a teacher of chemistry and natural philosophy. It was here that the young Quaker asked himself why the atmosphere did not separate into the elements that it was now believed to contain; he reflected on the solubility of gases, which his friend Thomas Henry was forcing into mineral waters; he thought about chemical combination, and about explaining chemistry to the young.

John Dalton collecting marsh fire gas, from Ford Madox Brown's mural in Manchester Town Hall
John Dalton collecting marsh fire gas, from Ford Madox Brown's mural in Manchester Town Hall

It is to this college teacher, befriended by industrialists and by enthusiasts for Newtonian science and rational amusement, that we owe the Atomic Theory in Chemistry. His book, A New System of Chemistry and Philosophy, was published in 1808. It was Dalton, as a scientific hero, who maintained the Literary and Philosophical Society through the difficult decades which opened the new century.

Camera Obscura, Edinburgh

By Chris Renwick

Outlook Tower
A diagram of the Outlook Tower (now Camera Obscura) from Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics (Ernest Benn, 1915), p. 324

Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is a building located at the far western end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, close to Edinburgh Castle, in the Scottish capital’s Old Town. Currently a tourist attraction featuring a “world of illusions,” the Camera Obscura should interest historians of science for two reasons: its late eighteenth-century origins as a museum for scientific instruments and the period during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries when the biologist Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) transformed it into the “world’s first sociological laboratory.”

Constructed in the 1770s by the Short family, who were makers of scientific instruments, what is now the Camera Obscura opened as a museum displaying the finest examples of the family’s work. These collections – in particular, the telescopes – served as the basis for the development of the building into a “Popular Observatory” during the early nineteenth century. This identity was further developed in the 1850s when Maria Short – the daughter of the museum’s founder – purchased the townhouse next door to the museum, installed a camera obscura on top of it, and renamed the enterprise “Short’s Observatory and Museum of Science and Art.”

However, in 1892 the museum was bought by Patrick Geddes: a protégée of “Darwin’s bulldog” T. H. Huxley and the professor of botany at the University of Dundee. Although Geddes had begun his career in the late 1870s as an experimental biologist he was also renowned outside the scientific community for his efforts to use he what he had learned in Huxley’s laboratory to improve conditions in Edinburgh’s slums. Inspired by the belief that evolutionary ideas could be the basis for social progress, Geddes and his wife, Anna, had moved into James’ Court – a tenement block close to Short’s Museum – during the early 1880s and set about rejuvenating the area by repairing dilapidated buildings and establishing communal gardens. Such was the success of this programme that scientific thinkers and social activists, including the infamous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, visited the Geddeses at James’ Court to see what they had achieved.

Exhibition Diagram
A diagram (drawn by Geddes’ collaborator Victor Branford) of an exhibition that was held at the Outlook Tower in 1910, which is from Victor Branford, “The background of survival and tendency as exposed in an exhibition of modern ideas,” Sociological Review, 18 (1926): p. 207.

This programme for social improvement was driven by Patrick Geddes’ efforts to develop a new theoretical framework for social science and his purchase of Short’s Museum was part of his plan to communicate his social scientific ideas to a wider audience. Renaming the museum the “Outlook Tower,” Geddes used the building to host exhibitions that explored how Edinburgh’s physical and cultural identity had evolved in the context of regional and world history. Beginning with the panoramic views from the roof of the Tower, visitors moved through exhibitions that encouraged them to think about how the Edinburgh they knew was the product of much wider forces. Geddes’ hope was that visitors would exit the Tower with a new perspective on the Scottish capital and an understanding of how they could play an active role in its future through schemes for social improvement such as his own.

On account of this effort to present a systematic picture of the shaping of people and society, the Outlook Tower was praised as “the world’s first sociological laboratory” in the American Journal of Sociology in 1899. However, despite this recognition and visits from the likes of the psychologists Lloyd Morgan and William James, Geddes’ project at the Tower gradually lost momentum during the early twentieth century. In part, this loss of momentum was a consequence of the financial problems that dogged Geddes’ work but it was also linked to his decision to leave Edinburgh for India in 1914.

In the mid-twentieth century the Tower passed into the hands of the University of Edinburgh, who subsequently sold the building to its current owners. Despite being renamed and turned to more explicitly commercial purposes, the Tower still retains much of the spirit of its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century usage. Whilst plaques celebrate Geddes’ work, the camera obscura and views from the building’s roof allow visitors to appreciate what a powerful tool the Outlook Tower must have been for communicating ideas about the wider context in which cities exist and develop. In this sense, Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is a testament to late Victorian and Edwardian beliefs in the power of evolutionary ideas to make sense of the world around us.

Ilkley, West Yorkshire

By Mike Dixon

Ilkley’s only claim to scientific note (but it is a notable claim) is that Charles Darwin stayed here in 1859 at the time On the Origin of Species was first published.

Wells House front 1
Figure 1. Wells House. The building is approached via Brodrick Drive off Wells Road. The single story building on the right originally housed the treatment rooms.

Darwin came to Ilkley on the 4th October 1859 to undergo hydropathy (“the water-cure”) at the prestigious Wells House Hydropathic Establishment which had opened three years earlier. Ilkley’s reputation as a hydropathic centre was established by Dr William MacLeod at the Ben Rhydding Hydro, which opened in 1844. The Ben Rhydding establishment fell into disuse after the Second World War and was demolished in the 1950’s. Wells House, however, survives as a building, although it is now given over to luxury apartments. Access to the interior is solely the prerogative of the residents, but the handsome exterior can be viewed at close quarters when its overall design by Yorkshire’s foremost architect of the day, Cuthbert Brodrick, can be readily appreciated. Wells House can be found, fittingly, at the top of Wells Road (LS29 9SP) From there the energetic visitor can walk up to the old bath-house, White Wells, on Ilkley Moor.

White Wells in winter frost
Figure 2. White Wells in winter frost. Wells House stands below, now surrounded by mature trees - and houses.

White Wells was constructed in the first half of the seventeenth century close to a spring issuing from the hillside. Ilkley owes its development to this so-called ‘spaw’, and it has since become something of an icon for the town and its residents. Although the water issuing from the drinking fountain had no dissolved minerals, it gained a reputation for purity and softness that allowed it to ‘reach the utmost and finest limits of the circulation’. The plunge-bath depended for its efficacy on the coldness of the water which was consistently around 4°C, summer and winter. After ten minutes immersion and a brisk rub-down by the bath-attendant, the bather experienced a feeling of health-giving warmth accompanied, no doubt, by a sense of relief at surviving the icy shock to the system. However, Darwin and the other guests at Wells House are unlikely to have availed themselves of these rustic amenities. Wells House was equipped with a splendid suite of treatment rooms and baths (situated at basement level beneath the eastern terrace of the hotel), under the supervision of the resident physician, Dr Edmund Smith, a man who, according to Darwin; ‘cared very much for the fee and very little for the patient’. For much of his stay Darwin was in reality an out-patient, living in rented accommodation adjacent to the hotel.

Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court)
Figure 3. Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court). The building originally comprised three houses, two west-facing at the front and a third, north-facing, house (North View) that was occupied by Darwin and his family.

Darwin was joined by Emma and the children on the 17th October and the family took up residence in one of the three houses that made up Wells Terrace. The building, which was constructed in 1857, also survives as apartments and can be found at the junction of Crossbeck Road and Wells Road (LS29 9TF). For many local residents the association with Darwin is secondary to their own ‘origins’, the building having been used for many years as Ilkley’s Maternity Hospital – ‘St. Winifred’s’. The broadcaster and writer, Alan Titchmarsh, was born here in 1949, although the Blue Plaque on the building recalls the Darwin connection and not the birth-place of this latter-day celebrity. Darwin and Emma occupied the north-facing house on Crossbeck Road; perhaps its northerly aspect made it particularly dismal. Certainly their daughter Henrietta described their stay in Ilkley as; ‘a time of frozen misery’, but this comment might not be solely attributable to the prevailing climatic conditions. The family left Ilkley on November 24th , the day of the official publication of the Origin. Darwin returned to Wells House, finally leaving for London on December 7th, a stay of just under nine weeks.

Darwin memorial
Figure 4. The bas-relief memorial to Darwin at the foot of Darwin Gardens / Millenium Green

Across Wells Road from Wells Terrace is Ilkley’s most tangible acknowledgement of the Darwin connection – ‘Darwin Gardens’. The ‘Gardens’ are something of a misnomer in that they comprise an open area of grass enclosed by shrubs and trees, and were created in 2000 as the town’s Millennium Project. However, visitors with accompanying children will find the paved maze an enjoyable distraction from tracing the great man’s footsteps. There is a car-park at the top of Wells Road immediately below Darwin Gardens (turn right after the cattle-grid) which would serve as a useful starting point for an exploration of Darwin’s Ilkley.