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200 Years of Science in York

David R reports...

The discovery in 1821 of a cave in Kirkdale, near Pickering, packed with prehistoric animal bones was the genesis of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS), currently about to celebrate its Bicentenary. Catherine Brophy, its president, spoke to the Club on June 4th about its origins, achievements and personalities over the 200 years of its existence.

The discovery in Kirkdale reported in the York Courant in 1822 drew the interest of a number of local professional men who decided to form a society in York devoted to the study of natural science at a time when the long-held Christian beliefs about the origins of the world and the universe were being questioned. The society was founded under the leadership of James Atkinson, retired surgeon, and soon found ready support including a number of members who donated their collections of fossils and other natural history objects to form a small museum initially located in Ousegate.

This soon outgrew its premises and thanks to the efforts of one notable member, the Rev William Harcourt, son of the Archbishop of York and with family links into government, the society was able to negotiate the purchase of the site of St Mary’s Abbey, seized by Henry VIII and still at that time in Crown ownership, and construct purpose built meeting rooms and a museum.

If nothing but ambitious, 1829 saw the first gardens developed and soon after John Naysmith the famous garden designer was asked to create a setting for the growing botanical collection of plants and trees brought back by plant hunters from across the world.

More adventurously, a small menagerie was established, reportedly containing a bear, a golden eagle, monkeys and peacocks. The bear subsequently escaped and chased Rev Harcourt and its keeper into a shed and soon after was despatched south to the zoo in London! Peacocks remained around the site well into the C20th.

In 1831 the British Institute for the Advancement of Science was launched in York. The aim of the institute was to bring matters of scientific interest to the attention of provincial audiences, and it continues to meet for that purpose each year in a different provincial city. 1831 saw also the construction of an observatory in the Museum Gardens. The original telescope was replaced in 1837 by one made by Thomas Cooke, founder of the well known York optical instrument makers and was responsible for early photographs of the moon.

With growing membership and well attended conferences and public lectures throughout the late C19th brought a need for enlarged lecture facilities, and thanks to a significant bequest made by the York surgeon, explorer and volcanologist Tempest Anderson, the society was able to construct in 1912 a purpose built lecture hall adjoining the museum and accommodating 250 people. It enabled the society to expand its activities and became an important source of income. The garden too, whilst remaining regularly open only to members, was made available for public fund raising events, and performances of the York Mystery Plays were staged occasionally from 1912.

Post WW2 saw the slow decline in membership and attendances at the museum. Income could no longer sustain the necessary upkeep of its premises and in 1961 a decision was made to hand over the museum, its collections and its gardens to the City Council, maintaining the YPS as a separate private society .

Today the gardens are open to the public, their botanical status is being resurrected and they are a popular destination for recreation and public events. The museum is part of the York Museums Trust and has been in receipt of significant investment, and once again is active in adding to its collections. The Middleham Jewel is perhaps the most notable acquisition of recent years, and its holdings of large Jurassic fossils make it a popular destination for youngsters.

The YPS maintains a current membership of about 500 and continues to run a busy programme of annual lecture and tours. Post-Covid it will be celebrating its bicentenary with a special series of events.

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