lthough neither the largest nor the most prominent scientific institutions of their time, the chemical societies of Victorian London nevertheless played vital roles in the development of British chemistry. Throughout the nineteenth century, they existed alongside larger organizations, such as the Royal Society and the Royal Institution with broader mandates including virtually everything that fit under the umbrella of "natural philosophy." In contrast to these larger organizations, chemical societies provided more intimate, and often less socially exclusive, contexts for the exchange of chemical information, associated publications, and equipment than ordinarily allowed by the larger societies. These organizations, which often evolved from social clubs, were typically private and informal, though the formal presentation of papers and lectures did become more important as the nascent discipline matured. The importance of these smaller associations to the development of chemistry as an independent scientific discipline appears in the fact that no public, speciality society for this science existed in England until 1841, despite flourishing chemical activity in London and elsewhere.
The dissemination of discoveries and theories of prominent chemists, such as Humphry Davy, Joseph Priestley, William Hyde Wollaston, and Antoine Lavoisier, provided only one of the functions of these societies, which were shaped by the interests of their members.Thus, student societies provided training for careers in chemistry or teaching, and other societies focused on the needs of skilled practitioners seeking to exchange information and materials. Still others were devoted to newcomers who wanted to deepen their understanding of this relatively new and fashionable science and, in some cases, to gain access to chemical apparatus as well. Although society members were stimulated by major discoveries and theoretical advances, they did not by any means see themselves simply as promotional organs for famous men and their ideas. Many societies recorded and disseminated minutes of their meetings; some launched publications featuring the ideas and experiments of their members. Although societies in allied fields like mineralogy, included chemistry within their research purview, more than a dozen London societies devoted themselves exclusively to chemistry.
Perhaps the earliest London chemical society was The Chemical Society of the Lunar Society, London Branch. Members met at Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row during the 1780s. This society was an offshoot of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a dinner club established in 1765 that met monthly during the full moon, when abundant moonlight eased nighttime travel. Early members included the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, the inventor James Watt, and the the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood. By the 1780s, the group had coalesced, socially and intellectually, around the prominent natural philosopher Joseph Priestley.
In 1794 the Irish physician, lecturer and experimentalist Bryan Higgins, M.D. (1741-1818) founded the Society for Philosophical Experiments and Conversations in London. Higgins, who also ran a school of practical chemistry in Soho and famously clashed with Priestley over the distribution of credit for a series of experiments related to air, distinguished his society from others and anticipated features of later chemical societies by supplementing club-like social opportunities with lectures and experiments.
Other London chemical societies formed around the turn of the century included the London Chemical Society of 1806; the Lambeth Chemical Society, founded 1810 by Anthony Carlisle; the Chemical Club, which met until 1807 and counted William Hyde Wollaston and Davy among its members; and the Animal Chemistry Club of London, founded in 1808 and superseded by the Chemical Club, whose members included also Humphrey Davy. The City Philosophical Society, founded by silversmith and natural philosopher John Tatum (1772–1858) in 1808, counted Michael Faraday among its members. Tatum convened meetings at his home, 53 Dorset Street, Salisbury Square. A contemporary advertisement detailed the group's activities: “Lectures are delivered every fortnight, original papers are read, and subjects connected with the various branches of science are discussed by the members. Its object is to afford every facility to those who may wish to obtain scientific information” (“City Philosophical Society,” p. 312).
The short-lived London Chemical Society was founded on August 12, 1824 “for the study of chemistry in all its branches” (qtd. in Brock 2008: 69). Its first president was Dr. George Birkbeck (1776-1841). The Society’s inaugural meeting was held six weeks later at the City of London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street. As an outgrowth of the Mechanics’ Institute movement, the LCS was linked as well to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded 1826 by Henry Brougham (1778-1868). Meetings were held in hired rooms near Guildhall, and the society's proceedings were reported in The Chemist. The society withered soon after its founding due to disagreements among members, financial difficulties, and lack of support from prestigious chemists such as Davy, Faraday, and Wollaston, who held the group's working-class membership and orientation in overt contempt.
Other mid-Victorian chemical societies included the Chemical Society (later the Royal Chemical Society), founded 1841 by Robert Warrington, and the the Philosophical and Chemical Society. Despite being based in London, the Cavendish Society, founded in 1846, attracted subscriptions from industrial chemists all over Britain. Named in honor of the natural philosopher Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) and instituted for the promotion of chemistry and related sciences through the diffusion of relevant literature, this society published translations, historical works, and original monographs considered too specialized for commercial publication, including a translation of Gmelin's landmark Handbook of Chemistry.
“City Philosophical Society.” Philosophical Magazine and Journal, vol. LXI. Eds. Alexander Tillich and Richard Taylor. London, 1823: 312.
Goodwin, Gordon. "Higgins, Bryan, MD." Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 26. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1885-1900. 366-367.
Averley, Gwen. "The 'Social Chemists': English Chemical Societies in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century." Ambix 33 (1986): 99-128.
Brock, William H. "The London Chemical Society, 1824." Ambix 14 (1967): 133-9.
Brock, William H. “The society for the perpetuation of Gmelin: The Cavendish Society, 1846-1872.” Annals of Science 35 (1978): 599-617.
Brock, William H. The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008.
Kinraide, Rebecca Brookfield. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Democratization of Learning in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain. PhD Diss. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006.
Schofield, Robert E. The Lunar Society of Birmingham: A Social History of Provincial Science and Industry in Eighteenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Last modified 3 October 2017