At a general meeting of the Birmingham Street Commissioners held on September 4th, 1848, exciting news was revealed: the British Association for the Advancement of Science had announced that it would hold its nineteenth annual conference in Birmingham the following year. This was great news for the town, and a strong indicator of a growing cultural reputation. The Association, formally established in 1831, had become an institution of some national importance, holding annual meetings, attracting great scientific minds and, of greater importance, pooling ideas into readily accessible publications.
As was the habit in Birmingham, visiting members of the Association were treated to a warm reception lasting several days. Aris’s Gazette recorded an impressive list of ‘noble and distinguished visitors’ who were entertained by the Mayor. Amongst the names can be seen local gentry and European dignitaries, including Charles Bonaparte, Prince of Canino and nephew of the Emperor, he was also a recognised ornithologist who discovered a new breed of petrel during a trip to America. Other visitors to the conference included easily recognisable names, Charles Darwin, whose grandfather Erasmus had been part of the Lunar Society, Michael Faraday (also no stranger to Birmingham, he worked with the Chance brothers on improving lighthouse efficiency) and Hugh Edward Strickland, who had just published his groundbreaking work on the anatomy of the dodo.
Frontispiece from Strickland’s ‘The Dodo and its Kindred’ (1848)
The arrangements for the conference had been undertaken with suitably rational organisation, utilising Birmingham’s numerous cultural buildings. The Gazette reported how the Association’s various groups and committees were accommodated across multiple sites. This is interesting, as it reveals the diversity of the Association and an inkling of how exciting the conference might have been but also really shows an impressive array of cultural institutions in Birmingham; this was not just a dusty town of lodging houses and puddled courts (although there were plenty of those too!):
The most ample accommodation was provided by the Local Committee for the comfort and convenience of the members. Eight departments in the Free Grammar School were devoted to the use of the four sections, A, C, D and G; the Philosophical Institution was set apart for the section of chemistry; section F and the sub-section of Natural History were accommodated in the Queen’s College. The large room of the Society of Arts was converted into a reception room, where every facility was afforded the members for procuring lodgings and obtaining information upon all subjects. The Town Hall was also thrown open, and nearly all the manufactories of the town were accessible to the visitors
For all its culture, Birmingham clearly also kept an eye on the commercial opportunities that such a large and nationally important event might bring.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science still exists, now known as the British Science Association. Their website can be found here :
The minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners are available to view by appointment at the Wolfson Centre, Library of Birmingham, the 1848 entries are in MS 2818/1/7 – this is a free service but recent staff cuts means that access is now limited.
Aris’s Gazette is available via subscription to British Newspaper Archives, or free of charge in the Library of Birmingham Local Studies department, floor 4. Again it is perhaps best to check on opening times. Please support our local archives and resources in any way you can. They are a vital part of preserving and understanding our heritage and culture. If we lose them, and the experts who manage them, there is little chance of getting them back. Ta.