Our History

We’re nearly 250 years old. Which makes the Manchester Lit & Phil the second-oldest learned society in the world. Our members have been sharing knowledge and ideas ever since the first meeting in 1781, paving the way for giant leaps forward in the way we understand the world.

historic photograph of a meeting room at the manchester lit and phil's original premises on george street manchester


Beginnings - 1780s

In 1780, Thomas Percival started hosting meetings at his house, ‘the resort of the literary characters, the principal inhabitants and of occasional strangers’.

This gang of characters, inhabitants and strangers, many of them radical reformers and slave abolitionists, became the ‘Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester’. The society’s first official meeting took place on 28th February 1781. And Percival became our first president.

Percival himself was a remarkable physician, moralist and a non-conformist, responsible for sweeping changes to public health. He was on a mission to improve the living and working conditions in the city, establishing the Manchester Board of Health in 1795.

Better future for all - 1790s

Robert Owen, father of the co-operative movement, joined the Society in 1793. It was the perfect forum to discuss the new wave of Enlightenment thinking. He determined to improve the lives of the working class, as religion took a back seat to science, and reformers worked towards a fairer society through unity, cooperation, and progress.

Scientific breakthroughs - 1800s

Manchester-based polymath John Dalton was influential across many fields and is widely regarded as the father of nuclear science.

The Manchester Literary and Philosophical loaned him a room on George Street for teaching and research, where his work flourished.

Dalton came up with a new atomic theory that shook the world of 19th-century chemistry, leading to a deeper understanding of chemical reactions. And in 1801, he formulated the Law of Partial Pressures, later to become an important component of atmospheric studies.

Thermodynamics & beer - 1840s

James Joule, student of Dalton’s, was the original pioneer of thermodynamics. A Salford man, his early theories were considered oddball until 1872, when he was named President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Joule’s breakthrough arrived thanks to his his beer-brewing hobby, which led him to discover that heat is a form of energy. Not bad for an amateur scientist.

Progressive campaigners - 1890s

Barrister Richard Pankhurst was founder of the Manchester Liberal Association and a noted campaigner for women’s rights. He joined the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1892.

During his legal career, he advised suffragette Lydia Becker, as well as the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1878, he married Emmeline Goulden (later Emmeline Pankhurst) and they established the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s Franchise League.

Leaps into the future - 1900s

New Zealander Ernest Rutherford became Langworthy Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1907. He was vice president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society from 1909 to 1912.

Rutherford’s refinement of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden’s ‘gold-foil experiment’ resulted in the discovery of the atomic nucleus, from which he produced a model of the atom. This won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.

Computer science - 1950s

Alan Turing was an exceptional computer scientist, codebreaker, mathematician, and member of the Literary and Philosophical Society. The father of modern computing made Manchester his home after working as a cryptanalyst for British Intelligence during WWII. His team in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park were instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code.

Female president - 1960s

Margaret Pilkington was the first female president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and founded our Arts section in 1968.

An accomplished artist and generous philanthropist, she donated water-colours, drawings, and textiles to the Whitworth Gallery, which helped it survive the perilous interwar period. In 1958, when the University of Manchester took over the gallery, Pilkington became Honorary Director of the governing committee until her death in 1974.

Here and now - 2020s

Manchester Lit & Phil continues to thrive as a place to share knowledge and ideas. Anyone with an interest in broadening their minds and horizons is very welcome to become a member and hear inspirational speakers enlighten us on all kinds of fascinating subjects. Members of the public are very welcome too.

“...talks of the highest possible quality over the widest possible range of topics, delivered by speakers of the highest possible calibre often at the very top of their professions!”

Dhun Dhaji - Member since 2018

“As well as the programme of activities, it is the people of course, who make a difference. I could not have hoped to meet a more friendly, warm and interesting group of people.”

Cigdem Balim - Member since 2021

“By going to the Lit and Phil events, I am exposed to a series of lectures on subjects that I would otherwise not discover… I find out all sorts of new things I wouldn’t otherwise choose to know about. It’s my mind broadening guilty pleasure!”

Nancy Jaeger - Member since 2018

“I became a member because I wanted to hear authoritative voices in the fields of study which interested me…The Lit and Phil’s calm and considered approach to understanding our world has now become even more important in a ‘post-truth’ age of misinformation and the often incoherent cacophony of social media.”

Christopher Burke - Member since 2009

Notable Past Members

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