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Leeds Literary & Philosophical Society

Leeds Literary & Philosophical SocietyExtract from Yorkshire, Past and Present by Thomas Baines, 1873 [1].

Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society

Charles Waterton was a supporter and early contributor to this society. This extract from Yorkshire Past & Present, written shortly after his death, shows the high regard in which the Squire was held in Yorkshire.

The Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society.-The preliminary meeting at which this most valuable and successful institution took its origin, was held on the 11th December, in the year 1818, and it was then resolved to form a philosophical and literary society, somewhat on the plan of the societies of a similar kind which already existed in the towns of Manchester and Liverpool, but on more comprehensive principles, calculated to bring within tbe institution members possessed of every kind of literary and scientific knowledge. It was in a great measure owing to the largeness of the principles on which the institution was founded that it had so strong a vitality, and that, at the end of fifty years, it could boast of still possessing the support of the principal lovers of literature and science in the town of Leeds. On the 3rd of May, 1870, this society celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its formation, when some two or three hundred of the original members were present, supported by most of the leading inhabitants, devoted to the noble objects for which this society was formed.

At this meeting the past history of the society was traced by the chairman and the few remaining founders of the society; and we are ourselves able to add a few particulars to their statements, from the recollection of the first thirty years of the present century.
Amongst the founders of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society was one of the best and greatest men whom Leeds ever produced - William Hey, F.R.S., then in his eighty-third year, and within three months of his death. He united the present with the past, having been one of the principal founders, and for more than forty years one of the medical advisers of that excellent institution, the Leeds Infirmary; having been a member, along with Dr. Priestley, of a small and comparatively private scientific society, which existed in this town many years before the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society was formed, and having been amongst the founders of that valuable institution, the Leeds Library. Associated with him in the founding of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in the year 1818, were Mr. Marshall, Mr. Gott, Mr. Tottie, Mr. George Banks, Dr. Thorp, Mr. John Bischoff; Mr. Thomas Blayds, Mr. W. Hey, jun., Mr. Michael Thomas Sadler, Mr. John Atkinson, surgeon, Mr. Jonathan Wilks, Mr. W. Osburn, Dr. Payne, Dr. Hunter, Mr. C. T. Thackrah, Mr. J. Gott, Mr. West, Mr. Edward S. George, Mr. Samuel Clapham, Mr. J. S. Tennant, the late Edward Baines, M.P., and his son, the present Edward Baines, M.P., the latter of whom had the honour and happiness of presiding in 1870, as chairman at the fiftieth anniversary of the society, which he assisted in founding in the year 1818.

The beautifully classical hall, designed by Mr. Chantrell, architect of Leeds, for the meetings and the museum of the Leeds Library and Philosophical Society, was not opened until the 6th April, 1821, although several meetings were held, papers read, and discussions took place, in the interval between the forming of the society and the opening of the hall. The first president was Mr. Marshall, the inaugural address was read by Mr. Charles T. Thackrah, and Mr. West and Mr. Edward S. George gave jointly the first course of scientific lectures that was delivered in the institution. Subsequently courses of lectures were delivered by many of the leading men of science of the age, including in the early days of the Society, John Dalton, the Rev. Professor Sedgwick,, Professor John Phillips, and at a more recent time Professor Owen, Sir John Herschel, Professor Huxley, and many others. Single lectures, or series of lectures, were also given by James Montgomery, the poet; Dr. Whewell, master of Trinity; Sir H. Rawlinson; Sir John Bowring; and Sir Gilbert Scott. The first curator was Mr. John Atkinson, surgeon, of Park Square, who lost his life in making investigations in comparative anatomy; and he was ably assisted by Mr. Henry Denny, who held the office of assistant curator for nearly fifty years. To Mr. Denny's indefatigable attention the society was indebted for a large portion of the fine collection of objects which now adorn and enrich its museum.

Yorkshire Past and PresentAmongst the earlier contributors to that museum was Charles Waterton, of Walton Hall, near Wakefield, who presented it with some specimens of the most beautiful tropical birds, captured by himself in the forests of South America, and preserved by him with a skill that has never been matched. He was the discoverer of the art of preserving the most beautiful shades and colours of tropical birds, and other objects of natural history; and we remember his informing the society, in his usual humorous way, that the whole secret of preserving natural objects, in their original brightness and beauty, consisted in washing them in a strong solution of ingredients which no insect could touch without being poisoned. He observed that if that was done, and the poison was made strong enough, no insect would touch a specimen washed in it, however hungry it might be, any more than a London alderman would eat even the most tempting slice of a haunch of venison served up with arsenic sauce. Charles Waterton was not only a liberal contributor to the Leeds Museum, but he also drew up an interesting account of his adventures in the forests of Demerara, and upon the River Orinoco, for the society. This was read by one of his friends, Mr. Waterton accompanying it with a most characteristic representation of the manner in which he had fished out the cayman or alligator from the river Orinoco, and of the manner in which he had caught an enormous serpent, whilst it was taking an afternoon nap in the same forest. Both the cayman and the serpent were present, or at least their skins, to contradict him if he had at all exaggerated the dangers that he had run in capturing them; but his adventures were as truthful as they were surprising.

(Read The Wanderings, Third Journey for more about the capture of the cayman. It seems, though, that the river upon which the cayman was captured was the Essequibo not the Orinoco. Waterton, of course, had travelled on both.)

[1] Yorkshire, Past and Present (Vol. 2): A History and a Description of The Three Ridings Of The Great County Of York, Volume II: from the earliest ages to the year 1870; with an account of its manufactures, commerce, and civil and mechanical engineering. By Thomas Baines. Published by William Mackenzie, London, 1873.

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