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The Stamford Institution

John S Hartley
2018

THE STAMFORD INSTITUTION – the “Graeco-Egyptian” building on the north side of St Peter’s Hill.

 

 

Foremost among the cultural societies in Stamford in the mid-nineteenth century was the Literary and Scientific Institution, which had been founded in 1838. By 1850 the first general enthusiasm had worn off, and in 1851 its Annual Report was critical of the absence of the local clergy ‘who from their mental cultivation and general pursuits ..... were eminently qualified in this way to convey information and sound instruction to the members.‘ Lectures were poorly attended, people preferring, so the President stated, ‘slackness of attendance at Lectures from which valuable information might have been obtained; whilst such frivolous exhibitions as those of “Bloomers” and conjurors were crowded.’ There were problems, however, for ‘no lecturers had offered themselves during the past year, a circumstance to be attributed ‘ the President believed, ’to the disturbance of the ordinary current of events by the Great Exhibition.’

During the nineteenth century membership fluctuated considerably; in 1851 there were 136 members but by 1856 there were some 316 paid up members, a most impressive number for such a relatively small country town. However, some saw the Institution as a force for the education of the ‘lower classes’ and there were too few, so it was thought, of such people who were members. A Mr. Chapman reflected, in 1853, upon the fact that it was regrettable that although shops closed early, few assistants used their spare time wisely. ‘They had not joined reading societies, and he feared they had imbibed (sic) habits which severely taxed their resources, and in the pursuit of pastime which was neither conducive to their health nor mental improvement.’

Attempts were made to provide lectures which were educational and which covered a very wide range of topics. In 1854 a writer in the Annual Report observed that it was ‘easier to train the juvenile taste than to correct old habits – to mould the infant mind than to change the adult idiosyncracy.’

A series of lectures on Human Physiology had a total of over 2000 attendances, while other single lectures in the same year, 1854, included subjects like the Uses of Poetry, the Circulation of the Blood, the Origins and Uses of Coal, and Sanitary Science. On the lighter side there was a lecture on Popular Illusions, while in the following year the best attended lectures were probably those by George Grossmith author (with his brother Weedon) of The Diary of a Nobody, who spoke on Lecturing, and Wit and Humour.  He was a regular visitor to the Institution, and his lectures were generally very popular indeed though the most at any one meeting in the 1850’s and 1860’s seems to have been when 319 attended a lecture on Microscopical Science.

On occasion, lectures had a relevance to the town and its immediate problems. When the local Medical Officer of Health spoke to members in 1868 he chose as his subject Drainage and the Water Supply of Towns, and this was later published by the printer to the Institution, John Ford of Red Lion Square. Newman’s theme was the unsanitary nature of the cesspits and pools which were scattered all over the town. He proposed the use of earth closets, and the closure of all open wells. Water, he argued, should be supplied to all the town from the springs to the north-east and east of the town. Two years later Newman’s summary of the state of the town and his plans for improvement were echoed in an official report.

As well as providing series of lectures, the Institution had a substantial library, containing over 6000 volumes in 1862, from which members might borrow. At first there were limitations on borrowing since it was felt that quarterly members (generally of the ‘lower classes‘), who paid a considerably lower subscription than annual members, might damage the books they borrowed!  [see the 1845 letter to the Mercury at the end of this article].  

This fear seems to have been overcome, perhaps through a pair of lectures in 1855, entitled What is a Gentleman? and The Elevation of the Working Classes. Newspapers were taken in the Reading Room, and there was also a sizeable museum, though this appears to have been mainly a casual collection of items. Members, like Samuel Sharp, printer and publisher, and no mean geologist, may well have ensured that some parts of the collections were satisfactorily arranged. For a time there was a flourishing Chess Club.

The finances of the Institution were never very secure - far too much reliance seems to have been placed on meeting any extra-ordinary expenses out of profits from special events and the shareholders, who had helped to build the magnificent headquarters on St. Peter’s Hill in 1842, had frequently to go without any dividends at all. Most years a ball was held to raise money, and in 1855 a ‘Panorama of the Seat of War in the Crimea’ was exhibited at the Mid-Lent Fair, partly for the benefit of the funds of the Institution. One source of income which was both uncertain and insubstantial was the Camera Obscura on the roof of the building. There were several attempts to encourage people to take advantage of it, but it made little money and was removed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

In spite of all its failings, the Stamford Literary and Scientific Institution played an important part in the life of mid-Victorian Stamford. With its lectures, library and museum under the same roof it provided something which no other single organisation provided in Stamford.  The Institution survived until 1910 when all its effects were sold; the library and museum, both containing important items relating to Stamford, were scattered. From sale catalogues it is possible to gain some idea of the value and content of its collections, and it must be a cause of great regret that they were not preserved intact. Part of the reason for the closing of the Institution is probably to be found in the lack of regular support from the most influential members of’ the town establishment, but the opening of the Town Library in 1906 must have further undermined the already shaky, financial position of the Institution.

 

Notes

Sources for a History of the Stamford Literary and Scientific Institution.

This article has been based on the annual reports and minute books, to be found in the Phillips Collection Room in the Town Hall. Further information about meetings, the closure etc. will be found the local papers. Many handbills and notices survive in various collections.

John S. Hartley

 

 

To the EDITOR of the MERCURY. 

Sir,-By a droll coincidence, I find in one column of your last week's paper the letter of Juvenis, complaining that the quarterly members of the Stamford Institution are dissatisfied at not being allowed to take books out of the library; and in another column, that even villages are applying to be admitted as branches to, and to be supplied with books from, the Lincoln Institution. This is indeed a queer contrast; and it is not to be wondered at that members should be seceding from our Stamford Institution and (as stated in your paper two or three weeks ago, from their report) that at Lincoln the number of quarterly members is constantly increasing, and that the Committee are thereby enabled to expend liberal sums in the purchase of new books. We read that in the early days after the Reformation, when copies of the scriptures were few, bibles were affixed in churches, but chained so as not to be carried away; now, our religious societies are circulating the scriptures in the prisons and the abodes of poverty at home, and among the heathen abroad. At Stamford, as "Juvenis" justly complains, he cannot take home with him such excellent works as the "Bridgwater Treatises," because forsooth bound volumes are sealed books to mere quarterly subscribers; whilst in the more fortunate vicinity of Lincoln, not only available are those works containing the writings of Sir Charles Bell, Dr. Buckland, Prout, Roget Chalmers, and the plebeian quarterlies (and even to the juveniles who may choose to read them), but such books are, it seems, likely to be sent forth to enlighten abroad, and to be at the service of the reading public in the villages. Do, Mr. Editor, urge upon certain members of the Committee the necessity of a journey to Lincoln. Stamford, Dec.30, 1845.Your's &c.,SENSEX.