(Many thanks to Susan Bennett (William Shipley Group for Royal Society of Arts History) for allowing us to publish the wide-ranging talk that she gave on the RSA’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century connections at the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop.)


‘Little more…than of a Society in the moon’:  Publicising the work of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (1754-1900)

Often confused with its sister societies, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries and, because of the shortened form of its name also the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Arts’ membership represented the ‘Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, Merchants, etc’ from its very first meeting in 1754.  Through this network, through its activities and through its publications the Society presents a wide variety of connections and networks, which this paper attempts to illuminate.

Foundation meeting of the Society of Arts, held at Rawthmell’s Coffee House 22nd March 1754, by Anna Zinkeisen, 1954. (c) RSA.

In a footnote in the first volume of his Annals of Agriculture and other Useful Arts, the agriculturist, Arthur Young hoped that ‘the excellent Society…of Arts…will not be forgotten’.  In my opinion’, he added, it has ‘done by far more good with an income under a thousand pounds a year, than has been performed by three-fourths of the men of great property in the nation who have been more inclined to give them their ridicule than assistance…knowing little more of their transactions than of a society in the moon.’  ‘It is possible’, he continued, ‘that the kingdom has benefitted a thousand pounds for every guinea these men have expended’.  In the second volume Young again praised the Society and ‘the most munificent exertion of the aggregate virtue of individuals, that any country in Europe has experienced…but undoubtedly meritorious as it has been in every step of progress, yet the good that has been the result of its patriotic endeavours, was for many years trivial in comparison of what it might have been for want of publishing’.  However, he was now happy to report that they had begun ‘this necessary work’ in 1783, nearly thirty years after the Society’s foundation.

The establishment of a national Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce had been the brainchild of professional artist and drawing master William Shipley.  While living in Northampton he joined the local philosophical society.  In a letter to his friend, Henry Baker FRS, he described it as ‘the Royal Society in miniature’.  In 1751 Shipley launched a successful campaign to combat the Northampton fuel profiteers who laid in great stores of wood and coal in the summer to sell at exorbitant prices to the poor in winter.  He had also noticed that bloodstock at the local races improved year on year as a result of the prizes on offer.  Shipley had been thinking about prizes and their utility as a method of stimulating inventiveness from as early as 1747 and these demonstrations of philanthropy and improvement led Shipley to publish his ‘PROPOSALS for raising a fund to be distributed as Premiums for the promoting of improvements in the LIBERAL ARTS and SCIENCES, MANUFACTURES, etc. on 8th June 1753.  Six months later, in London, Shipley published his ‘Scheme for putting the Proposals in Execution’.

Baker wrote to Shipley to say that as ‘nothing can promote knowledge and discover truth as much as a mutual communication of observations made by people in the same enquiries’, he would send his friend information on the ‘Dublin Society for promoting Husbandry and other useful arts’.  Founded in 1731, the Dublin Society only adopted a plan for awarding premiums in 1753.   Although both advocated the offer for prizes in the same general categories there were certain differences between the societies.   Shipley’s pioneering ‘Scheme’ provided for the inclusion of women and the award of honorary premiums.  Baker advised Shipley to discuss his plan with another Fellow of the Royal Society, the Reverend Dr Stephen Hales, who had been advocating the public adoption of various inventions which he believed would be of national or humanitarian advantage.  Hales supported the scheme and advised Shipley to come to London, where he introduced him to Lords Folkestone and Romney, who were already considering a scheme of their own; they set this aside to support Shipley’s ‘Plan’.  On 22nd March 1754, Shipley joined the two brothers-in-law, Folkestone and Romney, together with Hales and Baker at the society’s foundation meeting held at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden.   Also in attendance were two other Fellows of the Royal Society, James Short, the inventor, and the retired merchant Gustavus Brander, who Baker also knew through their shared membership of the Society of Antiquaries; John Goodchild, a prosperous linen draper who was Hales’ neighbour in Twickenham, as well as being the father of his curate; the jeweller and pottery manufacturer Nicholas Crisp who was known to Shipley; the surgeon Husband Messiter – who had provided Shipley with lodgings, and who like Brander was Swedish born; and finally Charles Lawrence, of whom little is known other than he stood surety for a bond issued by Shipley.    Even though there were only eleven individuals at this meeting, we can see a number of societal connections intersected with family and personal networks.

Three days later, the first notice ‘To the Publick’ was published.  The premiums offered were for the discovery of good quality cobalt, the raising and curing of madder and drawings by boys and girls under the age of 14 and between the ages of 14 and 17.  The fuller ‘Plan’ of the Society was published on 19th February 1755.  As well as outlining the rules and regulations it included the statement that ‘Foreigners, or Persons that do not usually reside in Great Britain may be elected…corresponding Members…without being subject to Contribution’.   Shipley wrote to Benjamin Franklin, in September 1755, that, although they were strangers to each other, he had seen Franklin’s plan for promoting useful knowledge among the British plantations in America and the Society would be very happy if Franklin would become one of their ‘correspondent members’.  The Society believed that Franklin’s extensive general knowledge would provide them with intelligence regarding the premiums that should be offered to help the colonies, supporting ‘their desire to make Great Britain and her Colonies mutually dear and serviceable to each other’.    Franklin replied accepting their offer but insisted on sending 20 guineas as his contribution to the fund.  He did more than correspond.  During his stay in England, Franklin actively participated in the Society’s affairs as chairman of the committee of colonies and trade.  He also judged submissions for the polite arts premiums.

The official name of the Society is rather long, and somewhat cumbrous:   The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, with the addition of ‘Royal’ granted in 1908.  It became better known as the Society of Arts, although in the early years it was sometimes known as ‘The Premium Society’, while James Boswell and others referred to it as ‘The Society of Arts and Sciences’.  Another, less used, variant was ‘The Society for Useful Arts’.

The membership quickly grew from the eleven at the foundation meeting to over 2,500 within a few years.  ‘In a word, the society is so numerous, the contributions so considerable, the plan so judiciously laid, and executed with such discretion and spirit, as to promise much more effectual and extensive advantage to the public than ever accrued from all the boasted academies of Christendom’ wrote Tobias Smollett in A Complete History of England.  He also included a reference in Humphry Clinker; Jery Melford writes to Sir Watkin Phillips that, ‘we are become members of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, and have assisted at some of their deliberations, which were conducted with equal spirit and sagacity’.

Annual membership fees were two, three or five guineas and life membership was twenty guineas, although Lord Bute paid £40 for his perpetual membership.  The peers generally paid more than the minimum two guineas and the annual subscription remained the same until 1920 when the lowest rate was increased to three guineas.  It was only in the late 20th century that the subscriptions were raised substantially.  Candidates for election had to be sponsored by a member who knew them personally, and seconded by two others.  The manuscript subscription books from 1754 to the 1840s allow us to identify other possible networks as they give the name of the proposer against the entries.  In the main, members only proposed one or two of their acquaintances; some suggested a few more names for election, but nothing like the numbers put forward by two 18th century members.  In the first year of his membership alone, Dr Thomas Manningham proposed 27 new candidates, including Laurence Sulivan, Chairman of the East India Company and the clock maker Thomas Grignion.  Over a ten-year period he nominated 112 individuals for election and, as the Deputy Master of the Grand Lodge in Great Queen Street, it is not surprising to find that a number of these were also masons.  One of Manningham’s nominees, the surgeon Fleming Pinkstan, was the executor for another serial recruiter, the architect Sir Thomas Robinson, who became a member of the Society of Arts in 1755 on the proposal of Henry Baker.  The more than 150 names proposed by Robinson illustrate the breadth of his social circle and his desire to encourage rising architects and craftsmen like James Adam, Thomas Chippendale and Lancelot Brown.  He also nominated the composer Dr Thomas Arne and one of the early female members, the Duchess of Northumberland.  Networks may have developed through the Society’s committees which any member could attend, and which called in non-member expert witnesses to advise on submissions.

The members felt, from the earliest days, that the Society’s objectives would not be fulfilled unless thorough accounts of all the inventions and advances stimulated by the Society’s initiatives, and all the valuable information contributed by competitors for awards, were available for public appraisal.  A unanimous vote saw the appointment of the bookseller, publisher and writer Robert Dodsley (elected 1755 on proposal of Sir Richard Manningham) as the Society’s first Printer and Stationer.  As a literary man, Dodsley felt that the Society’s encouragement should extend to ‘Letters’, but thought the offer of premiums to authors for writing on given subjects ‘might tend only to set many scribblers at work’.  Dodsley’s persistent advocacy for an award for an ‘extraordinary Work, in literature’ paid off and in 1758 he was appointed to a committee to consider a premium for composing ‘the most useful History of the Arts, of the Peaceful Industry and Civil and Commercial Improvements within that part of Great Britain called England’.

When Dr Peter Templeman became the Society’s Secretary in 1760, he was instructed to prepare an Historical Register for publication.  Ill health prevented him from completing the project and some years later the material that he had collected was bound up in two volumes and entitled Dr Templeman’s Transactions.  An anonymous author (later identified as Thomas Mortimer) of a rare eighteenth tract, A Concise Account of the Rise, Progress and Present State of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce…by a Member of the said Society, published in 1760, said that he had drawn most of his information from a manuscript entitled ‘Chronological Register of the Present Age’, compiled by James Theobald for the Society of Antiquaries.  This document was then ‘lost’ for over two hundred years and was only found in 1994 among a collection of unsorted prints and drawings at the Antiquaries.  In 1765, Edward Bridgen published A short account of the Great Benefits which have already risen to the Public, by means of the Society.  As the result of reading this account, and seeing Bridgen’s comment that the Society had not received a grant or donation from any public bodies or corporations, the Mayor and Council of Liverpool sent a donation of one hundred pounds.  In the same year, a Society of Gentlemen, members of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, published The Complete Farmer, Or a General Dictionary of Husbandry which featured many of the Society’s premium-winning essays and designs relating to the subject.  According to the landscape and garden designer John Claudius Loudon, this dictionary contained a ‘mass of matter, new and old, good and bad… [and it] was the best of its kind at the time of its publication’.

Many of the Society’s early communications were published in the Gentleman’s Magazine and other periodicals, or as pamphlets like Experiments and Observations on American Potashes by William Lewis in 1767.  The first publication to offer a regular selection from the Society’s proceedings was the monthly Museum Rusticum et Commerciale which was published from 1764It had no official connection with, and did not confine itself to, the activities of the Society and when it failed in 1766, the chemist Robert Dossie, an active member, decided to publish Memoirs of Agriculture and other Economical Arts.  In the preface to the first volume, Dossie wrote that ‘It is too little purpose, that the encouragers of these improvements amass together all the intelligence in the world, if they only bury it in their own records and papers where it soon falls into oblivion…This is, in fact, to waste time and money improvidently, not to say irrationally, in attaining those means of being serviceable to the public, which are not afterwards to be applied to any real end’.  To encourage the members to continue to support the prize fund with their subscriptions, the Society published A Register of the Premiums and Bounties given [between] 1754-1776 to provide a retrospective view of the Society’s activities and show the ‘good effects produced by [the members’] laudable endeavours’.  Alongside premiums for new inventions and discoveries, the Society also awarded Dr James Egan a Gold Medal in 1786 for teaching languages.  His students were given silver medals after an examination.  This tradition continued into the nineteenth century, during which Hyde Clarke (1815-1895), a linguist with considerable knowledge of a hundred languages and a member of the Society, gave much thought to spreading a knowledge of modern languages through the Society’s examination system.

Witt Bowden, in his 1919 thesis on The Rise of the Great Manufacturers of England 1760-1790, says that the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society was established in 1781 along the lines of Shipley’s ‘Plan’.  A letter in the RSA Archive from the founder of the Patriotic Society of Hamburg (established in 1765) acknowledged the London society as the ‘mother’ of his own.  After seeing the premium lists, and hearing about its work from two members of the Society at her court, James Mounsey and J.J. Sievers, the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great established the Russian Free (Imperial) Economic Society in 1765, based on the model of the London Society.

The work of the Society also featured in a number of poems and plays such as The Good-Natured Man by Oliver Goldsmith, a member since 1762, in which he includes a reference to the Society’s premium offers for supplying London with fresh fish when Lofty mentions ‘a land carriage fishery’.  In 1760, Goldsmith had considered applying for the vacant position of Secretary.  The Society’s Registrar, George Cockings, wrote an epic poem published in 1766, dedicated to the Society and its work, entitled Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.  The award of a silver medal and 15 guineas in 1807 to a poor man who had reclaimed an area of swamp land inspired an unknown poet to pen Turf House and in Thomas Morton’s 1813 play Education: A Comedy in Five Acts, we find Mrs T wishing ‘some of Society of Arts’ people would offer a premium for the best system of visiting one’s friends’.  Other literary men elected to the Society included James Boswell; however, he never paid his subscription.  He wrote in his London Journal for 1st December 1762 that he avoided payment of the arrears he had accumulated by telling the Society’s Collector that he had been in Scotland since his election.  However, Dr Samuel Johnson was a paid-up and active member, serving on a number of committees, including one set up to help prostitutes find an alternative lifestyle.  Johnson was once heard to speak on a subject relative to mechanics ‘with a propriety, perspicuity and energy, which excited general admiration’, although at one meeting Johnson told a friend that when he rose to deliver a prepared speech, ‘all my flowers of oratory forsook me’.

Shortly after his appointment as Secretary in 1769, Samuel More assembled yearly manuscript volumes of transactions but, following Dossie’s death and therefore the cessation of the Memoirs, the Society decided to formally continue More’s series and the first printed volume appeared in 1783.  More, a trained apothecary, skilled chemist and geologist with a knowledge of mechanics, who Pitt the Younger consulted on economic policy, was required to visit manufacturers, or to acquire information from them as part of his duties as Secretary.  This fitted with his own interest in new and developing technologies and led to the formation of many important friendships with men including Josiah Wedgwood, John Wilkinson, Joseph Priestley, John Aikin, Matthew Boulton and James Watt.  More occasionally dined with the members of the Lunar Society.

At the age of 34, Arthur Aikin (Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s nephew) was appointed Secretary in 1817.  During his twenty-three years in office, he realised that the best hope for the Society’s future lay in disseminating information about the industrial arts and sciences, and the publication of new discoveries and inventions.  From 1829, Aikin instituted a series of lectures on manufactures and delivered more than forty of them himself, which he published under the title of Illustrations of Art and Manufactures in 1841.  With others, Aikin founded the Chemical Society at a meeting at the Society of Arts.

By the mid-19th century the Society’s membership was in decline and, due to its anti-patent stance, the premiums offered were not so attractive.  The loss of income from subscriptions saw the cessation of the Transactions.  Shortly after his marriage to Queen Victoria, the Society elected Prince Albert to the membership and appointed him their President from 1843 until his death in 1861.  His active involvement made the Society, once again, a force for change.  Asked by the Society for advice on subjects for special prizes at the proposed exhibition of British Manufactures and Decorative Art, Henry Cole decided to submit a tea service under his pen name ‘Felix Summerly’.  He won a silver medal for his design, became a member and took an active role in the Society’s affairs.  Over the next three years, these exhibitions attracted increasing visitor numbers rising from 20,000 to 100,000 by 1849.  Prince Albert called for a Royal Commission to plan a much larger – and international – exhibition for 1851.  The Society played a role in the event and arranged for the Lectures on the results of the Great Exhibition to be published and it took on the arrangements for the second international exhibition held in South Kensington in 1862.  The Society also held an exhibition of photography in its ‘Great Room’ in 1852.  This led directly to the founding of the Royal Photographic Society, with Peter Le Neve Foster serving as Secretary for both societies.

Membership rose, enabling the Society to develop a programme of authoritative talks, which dealt not only with aspects of arts, manufactures and commerce but also with topics of general interest.  The Society’s lectures proved very popular.  When Alexander Graham Bell gave a talk, on 28th November 1877, on his new invention, the telephone, demand was so great that the ‘Great Room’ was filled to overflowing, with members spilling out into the street.  They were able to try Bell’s invention, as phones had been set up in the Society’s House, in the Adelphi Hotel across the street and at the Society’s printing office in Fleet Street.  Bell agreed to give a second talk.  Even the large hall at Freemasons’ Tavern proved inadequate to the demand for tickets to hear him speak.  Guglielmo Marconi also chose the Society of Arts as his platform from which to deliver news of his achievements.  Due to the demand for tickets, a larger venue was also required when the expert on central Asia and the Russian threat, Arminius Vambery, agreed to give a talk to the members.

From 1852, the Society published a weekly Journal, detailing its lectures and discussions, together with reports from the committees set up to consider various issues, such as public health, sewage, food, industrial education, housing and musical pitch, as well as reports on the various conferences and events organised by the Society.  This new publication also served as a medium for communicating with the Union of Institutions the Society had set up as a central organisation for institutes around the country.  Education was a key focus of the Society’s work in the 19th century and as a result of the success of the educational exhibition in 1854, the Society established an examinations system which ran from 1856 until the late 20th century.

To deal with this increase in its workload, the Society advertised for an Assistant Secretary in 1856.  One unsuccessful candidate was the poet and novelist George Meredith, who would later be nominated seven times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Another Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, was an active member of the Society.  His ‘Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent’ for Household Words assisted in mobilising public opinion in favour of the Society’s proposals for patent law reform.  Dickens was invited to join the committee tasked with sending British artisans to Paris to see the international exhibitions of 1855, 1867 and 1878.  His reply regretting that prior commitments prevented him taking part still survives in the RSA Archive.

When the membership grew too large for the Society’s annual dinners, they instituted an annual conversazione usually held at the South Kensington Museum.  In 1869 Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny were among the four thousand members and their guests who attended that year’s conversazione.  In response to the printed warning against ‘mobbing’ royal personages, Jenny commented that the Society was ‘A Society of Snobs’ and told Engels ‘they won’t catch us there a second time’.  ‘Fancy’, she continued, ‘a crowd in full evening dress, wedged in so closely as to be unable to either move about or to sit in the chairs, and they were few and far between’.  Over ten thousand people attended the conversazione held at the International Inventions Exhibition 1885.  The Society continued to be involved in less grand exhibitions and ran campaigns and competitions alongside an extensive lecture programme.  It also held conferences to discuss concerns of the day, such as sanitation and water supply, technical education, music education, labour banks and many other subjects.  The membership ranged from three to three and a half thousand during the 19th century with all members worldwide receiving a copy of the Journal.

I hope this paper has demonstrated the expansive nature of the networks represented at the Society of Arts.

For more information, see the William Shipley Group for RSA History at www.williamshipleygroup.btck.co.uk.