In 1870, Charles Dickens gave one of his dramatic public readings in Wolverhampton and it would inspire the birth of a new society. Dickens would sadly pass away that same year, but memories of his visit lived long.
The Era of Self Improvement
A full decade after Dickens’ dramatic reading and subsequent death, Britain would find itself nearly half a century into Victoria’s glorious reign. By the end of The Lit’s founding year of 1880, Broadway has its first lights installed. The era is one of self improvement through literature and a greater understanding of the sciences. It is important to remember, that at this time, many still did not have access to sanitary conditions, let alone have the ability to write.
Wolverhampton is thriving at this point, and a meeting of some of the town’s great and good is held. The event takes place on 24th November, 1880, and is held at the residence of Rev. John Thomas Jeffcock (1834-1895); if the name looks familiar, that’s because the road in Pennfields is name after him.
The Birth of “The Lit”
Those in attendance that day at Reverend Jeffcock’s determine a Literary and Scientific Society should be established in Wolverhampton.
The aims of the society are stated as:
“The advancement of literary and scientific knowledge among the members by the delivery of addresses (which may be followed by discussion), and such other means from time to time may seem good to the committee.”
Historical Review of the Work of the Society for Fifty Years, 1929.
The members at the first committee compromised of Messrs. John E Morris, H Holcroft, Theodore Mander, John Ford, W P Turnbull, Thomas F Beech, Henry Walker, Richard Williams, Rev. J W Rodger, Dr C A McMunn, Dr Hunt and Mr Hatton. Dr C R Smith and Mr Edward Banks were appointed as secretaries.
Some Notable Early Members
Sir Rupert Kettle
Kettle was the society’s first President and you can find a blue plaque at his residence at Merridale House, where he lived and died. He was a barrister and county court judge, famed for establishing a legal system of arbitration.
In 1864, a strike in the Wolverhampton building trade had lasted seventeen weeks and Kettle accepted an invitation from from both sides to mediate. He arranged a settlement and the scheme pioneered in Wolverhampton spread across much of the English building trade.
Col A C Foster Gough
The society’s first Vice-President was Colonel Alexander Clement Foster Gough, who succeed Kettle as President.
Foster Gough was born at Heath House, in Wombourne and was the son of Ralph Gough, a gentleman and landowner.
At the age of 9, he went to live with his uncle, Joseph, in Wolverhampton and gained a Doctor of Laws degree at Trinity College, Dublin. He ascended the ranks of the Yeomanry, or Territorial Army of its day. Following a meeting with Colonel Vernon of the Coldstream Guards, he formed the first Volunteer Rifle Corps and ascended to Captain by 1860.
In 1861, Foster Gough’s uncle died and he inherited his estate, including Claremont Villa, one of the grand houses on the Penn Road. He worked as a solicitor, based in both London and Wolverhampton and was an extremely high ranking Freemason. He was also rumoured to be connected to Stan Laurel, but that’s a tale for another time!
Upon his passing, he was returned to his home in Wolverhampton.
A Picture of 19th Century Penn Fields
The funeral itself would have seen a very different surrounding area. On the map above, you can see the house “Claremont” on the Penn Road. Beginning here, shortly before where the current Marston Road/KFC junction is, the only recognisable features on the Penn Road would be Goldthorn Terrace.
Rising up to the Orphan Asylum (Royal School), the view down the slope would have been very different. None of the modern roads on the opposite side were present. The view was largely fields spreading out far and wide, with only Graiseley Old Hall in the distance. Shortly before the turn to Stubb’s Road, the cortege would have passed Graiseley Lodge; a building which still remains and much of the area around the junction would have been terraces or shops.
Jeffcock Road, or Cemetery Lane, would have been a procession largely devoid of houses. Only Merridale brick works and a small row of terraces fronted the approach to the graveyard. Contemporary reports suggest the funeral route was thronged with people, showing Foster Gough being both well known and liked.
He left the equivalent of over £3.5 million upon his passing.
The first meetings of The Lit were held in the boardroom of the South Staffordshire Mines Drainage Board, located in Darlington St.
After this, lectures were held in the Exchange Hall, Lecture Hall, Garrick Street and the Agricultural Hall.
One of the earliest decisions was also, arguably the most “important”. In 1883, it was decided to have tea after lectures. By October, it was resolved to supply both tea and coffee after meetings. Sound decision making, which I’m sure any society member can attest to!
Due to the large volume of members, larger premises were desired and throughout the first 20 years, the subject of a specific lecture hall premises with library was discussed. The plans never came to fruition at this time but would be discussed again in future.
The original subscription cost was 10/6 for two tickets.Historical Review of the Work of the Society for Fifty Years, 1929.
Society Members and Financials
Throughout the society’s first 20 years, membership levels fluctuated, whilst the society grew in financial health.
By the time complete records were recorded in 1892, the 1891 balance showed as £44, 12 and 10, or the equivalent of £6,000 today. By 1899, the balance was £103, or the equivalent of over £13,000 today.
Membership levels were consistently solid, but fluctuated in the first twenty years. In 1885, memberships were 274, and the following year this grew to 353. By 1888, the number was 541 members, with the admission of 1,208 persons.
The 1890s saw a decline in membership; from 505 in 1892, to 392 in 1894 and 336 members in 1896.
Subjects and Speakers
The inaugural speaker for The Lit was Mr Lawson Tait, a surgeon, who is considered one of the two Godfathers of gynaecology. He presented on the subject of evolution.
Tait would return the following year with a talk on the electric light. Also in the first season, talks were by Dr J A Langford on Robert Browning (the poet and playwright), “Botany” by Miss Pope and “The Literature of the Elizabethan Era” by Edward Aber, M.A.
Lectures over the course of the following years were given in “Life Under Water”, “Modern English Humorists”, “Deep Sea Sounding”, “Wives of British Poets” and “Museums”.
A notable lecture was given on “Primaeval Man” by William Boyd Dawkins, who was a noted geologist and archaeologist.
Dawkins was full of practical experience on archaeology, having led digs at Wookey Hole and Aveline’s Hole. His work led to the first evidence for use by palaeolithic man of the Caves of the Mendip Hills.
At Windy Knoll in Derbyshire, he proved the existence of exotic animals that lived in England prior to the ice ages. He co-discovered bones from bison, cave hyena, cave bear and a large cat. The latter of these is thought to possibly be a relative of the sabre tooth tiger. Many of the finds are found in the museums of Buxton, Derbyshire and Manchester.
Sir Robert Ball
Ball lectured twice in the first three years, firstly on comets, then the transit of Venus. An Irishman, he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. Later, he became Royal Astronomer of Ireland and Andrews Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin at Dunsink Observatory. He was also the pioneer of the screw theory.
Moving Into the Edwardian Era (Post 1905)
The first twenty years of the society were a period of relative stability. There were certainly some interesting names in terms of both members and speakers.
Next time, we will move forward in time, to a period of greater success and extremely noteworthy speakers indeed!
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