Friday 18 February 2022

'Following a short address by the President and the inspection of a ruin...'

 I am reading, for pleasure and research, David Easton Allen's The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (1976), a ground-breaking (and notably well written) work that takes as its epigraph an utterance of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'All the facts in natural history, taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life.' Well, Allen's book certainly is.
  In his chapter on the formation of field clubs, those popular and characteristic features of natural history in this country, Allen notes the British taste for 'a curious mixture of gravity and gaiety, a blend of the formal with the informal'. Ever eager to form clubs and societies of the like-minded, the British would invariably lay down an impressive formal framework of meetings, minutes, regalia, collections and proceedings, while at the same time providing ample opportunity for convivial gaiety. With 'exact limits drawn and observed between private and public business', there was scope for plenty of fun under the guise of instruction and self-improvement. Picnic outings, open to both sexes, were especially popular, and Allen gives an account of one that was held in 1861 in Bradgate Park by the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society:
'Some 70 or 80 members and their guests assembled at the gates and, after being officially welcomed by the Mayor, marched into the Park with the Volunteer Rifle Band at their head. Following a short address by the President and the inspection of a ruin, lemonade, apple wine and sherry were freely distributed, the band struck up a lively air and a number of the company danced. An open-air lecture on 'The Geology of Leicestershire' came next, for which the speaker was given three cheers. An excellent tea was then 'partaken of with vigour' at a nearby inn, after which there was another lecture (three cheers again) followed by more dancing; until finally, towards dusk, no doubt thoroughly exhausted, the party broke up and the members made for home.' 
  The presence of ladies on these occasions was not to everyone's taste. When Charles Kingsley (the famous author and muscular Christian) came to Chester as Canon of the cathedral, he founded the Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature and Art. This proved to be a runaway success, and the Society's excursions attracted many wives, daughters and girlfriends, much to the disgust of Kingsley, who was once heard to remark: 'Those good ladies quite spoilt my day – but what can you do? When they get to a certain age you must either treat them like duchesses or sh-sh-shoot them!' (He had a slight stammer that he never quite shook off.)
  However, there was no way of keeping the ladies away from the fun, and the field clubs' grand social occasions continued to offer a wonderful blend of edification and entertainment, lavish hospitality and good cheer. The programme for a 'conversazione' held by the Oswestry and Welshpool Naturalists' Field Club and Archaeological Society in 1864 gives a flavour of what the amateur naturalist might expect from a field club beano in those happy times: 
6.15  MUSIC (Instrumental): Trio – Flute, Violin and Pianoforte; Mr Whitridge Davies, Mr A. Davis and Mr Oswald Davies.
6.45  PAPER, by the President – On Ornithology, Illustrated.
7.0  MUSIC (Instrumental): Violin Solo – Mr Charles Eyeley.
7.30  PAPER, by the Vice-President – How I learnt to see.
7.45  MUSIC (Instr.): Pianoforte Solo – Mr Sloman, Mus. Bac. Oxon. 
8.15  PAPER, by the Rev. D.P. Lewis – On Bronzes found near Pool Quay. Illustrated.
8.30  MUSIC (Vocal): Glee – Sir Knight, Sir Knight – Glee and Madrigal Society.
9.00  PAPER, by Mr D.C. Davies – A quarter of an hour in Old Oswestry  Gravel Pit.
9.15  MUSIC (Instrumental): Cornet Solo – Mr J. Evans.
9.45  PAPER, by Mr A.W. Dumville – The new metal magnesium. With experiments.
10.0  MUSIC (Vocal): Part Song – O, who will o'er the downs so free – Glee and Madrigal Society. 
                                            GOD SAVE THE QUEEN'

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