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Richard Pankhurst - Progressive Campaigner, Husband to Emmeline Pankhurst and Father to Sylvia Pankhurst

Born in 1836, Richard Pankhurst was a practising barrister, and founder of the Manchester Liberal Association. During his legal career, he was legal advisor to Lydia Becker, as well as the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. He joined the Manchester Lit & Phil in 1892.

Nicknamed the ‘Red Doctor’ due to his progressive views, Pankhurst was heavily involved with politics. He was outspoken, and famously declared the House of Lord’s as ‘a public abattoir butchering the liberties of the people’. Although outbursts such as this hindered his chances of ever making a serious run for parliamentary office, he won acolytes within the Independent Labour Party.

Pankhurst campaigned for women’s rights, and was a strong advocate for the campaign for women to become lawyers. In 1878, he married Emmeline Goulden—who would become Emmeline Pankhurst—and they established the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s Franchise League. The radical power couple kept company with the likes of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and Annie Besant. Both Richard and Emmeline were members of the Fabian Society. However, in 1900 two years after Richard’s death—Emmeline left the Fabian Society as they refused to oppose the Boer War.

Emmeline and Richard’s legacy can be felt across Manchester today. The Pankhurst Trust was formed in 2014 as a merger between The Pankhurst Trust and Manchester Women’s Aid, a specialist provider of domestic abuse services.


Discover more

  • The People's History Museum, Manchester, celebrate both Emmeline Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst as PHM Radicals
  • Peterloo to the Pankhursts is a free online course created by the PHM in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London


James Prescott Joule - From brewing beer to the First Law of Thermodynamics

A student of John Dalton, James Joule is heralded as the father of thermodynamics. Joule’s initial theories were cast aside in 1843, and he was considered something of a madcap until 1872, when he was named the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Salfordian’s breakthrough arose due to the confluence of Dalton’s tuition and Joule’s hobby of brewing beer. Joule’s experimentation culminated in the discovery that heat is a form of energy. Not bad for an amateur scientist.

Joule’s First Law defined the relationship between the amount of heat generated and the current that is passed through a conductor. Following this he began to take his experiments further.  Joule’s next discovery—that heat could be generated by a current—went against the accepted theory of the time, the caloric theory. Joule’s theories were considered too much of a reach for his peers, and when he presented his results to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1843, Joule’s presentation was met by a stone cold silence.

In 1847, Joule presented his ideas once again to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. At the seminar, both Lord Kelvin and Michael Faraday—Joule’s rivals—were in attendance for what would be a formative event within physics. During the presentation, Joule illustrated what would become the First Law of Thermodynamics, cementing his legacy as a scientific visionary by silencing his early critics.

Today, there stands a statue of James Prescott Joule in the Manchester Town Hall, created by Sir Alfred Gilbert in 1893. The statue is in the entrance to the Town Hall, opposite Francis Chantrey’s sculpture of Joule’s mentor John Dalton.  His former home, where he lived and worked, can be found at The Crescent in Salford.


James Joule is revered as one of the greatest scientists in the history of physics. As someone who was a Salford resident, a student of fellow famous Manchester scientist, John Dalton, and spent the majority of his working life in and around Greater Manchester, his story is one the Science and Industry Museum is proud to tell, and we’re delighted that he is being celebrated as a pioneer by the Manchester Lit and Phil.

Joule's experiments led him to a new understanding of energy conversion in 1845, and this research led to the development of the first law of thermodynamics which is fundamental to our understanding of the world. He is remembered as one of the founders of modern physics, and from 1948 the ‘Joule’ became a standard international unit of energy measurement. It is fantastic that his work is being highlighted by the Manchester Lit and Phil, who I’m sure are very proud to name him as a former president.

Sarah Baines, Curator of Engineering at the Science and Industry Museum


Discover more

  • 'James Joule: From Establishment Irritant to Honoured Scientist' - article on the Science and Industry Museum's website
  • A number of Joule’s apparatus are now part of the Science Museum Group’s collection. This travelling microscope was used by Joule for experiments about energy. He had to make incredibly precise, tiny measurements to prove his new theories about how heat works and this microscope made by Abraham & Dancer in 1843 helped him do that.  You can see some of Joule’s apparatus on display at the Science and Industry Museum when their doors reopen later this year.




William Gaskell - Unitarian Minister and pioneer in the education of the working class

If you want to escape the hubbub of Oxford Road, you might want to visit Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, located a stone’s throw from the Manchester Royal Infirmary. Elizabeth lived here with her husband, William, between 1850-1865. William Gaskell, born in 1905, was a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, as well as being an ardent pioneer for the education of the working classes.

Gaskell was the minister of the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester for over fifty years. During his half-century in the role, he trained men without previous academic background for the Unitarian ministry. Alongside his wife, he also worked with poverty relief societies and the sanitation commission.

To this day, the Cross Street Chapel continues the legacy of William Gaskell. The chapel works with Shelter to campaign and promote safe housing for the homeless. The chapel is also a member of the Challenging Hate Forum, a group of religious bodies that gather monthly to combat hate crime. They also offer support for refugees, too, and host City of Sanctuary every other month, a safe environment for people fleeing persecution.


“William Gaskell was such an influential Mancunian during his lifetime, influencing social and cultural developments, giving working people the chance to learn and gain access to the world of literature, philosophy and science. We are thrilled that he’s being celebrated as part of the Manchester Lit and Phi’s 240th anniversary. I’m not sure if he would have enjoyed the attention but the team at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House are delighted to see his achievements acknowledged.”

Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, House Manager, Elizabeth Gaskell's House


Discover more

  • The John Rylands Library holds some papers relating to the Gaskell Family




Peter Mark Roget – Vocabulist, phonologist, lexicographer, glossographer

What’s another word for inventor? I’ll check the thesaurus for synonyms: Creator. Initiator. Pioneer. Begetter. Architect. Author. And so on; a list possible due to the innovations of Peter Mark Roget.

Roget created ‘Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases’, a dictionary of synonyms that was published in 1852 and has never been out of print. It was a book that Sylvia Plath infamously said she would ‘rather live with on a desert isle than a Bible’. Prior to its creation, though, Roget was a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, having joined in 1805, the same year in which Roget began his classification scheme for words. Roget became Vice President of the Manchester Lit & Phil within two years.

At the Society, Roget rubbed shoulders with physicians and surgeons, an academic climate cultivated by the city’s bubbling intelligentsia.  It was also during this period in which he became first secretary of The Portico Library, and began to give public lectures.


Peter Mark Roget served as The Portico Library’s first Secretary from 1806. It was during his time at The Portico that Roget began his decades-long work of compiling his Thesaurus, which has sold over 30 million copies since its first publication in 1852, empowering generations by expanding our vocabularies and developing our understanding of how words work. His achievements are remarkable and diverse – from ground-breaking work in medicine and metrology (the study of measurement) to serving at the Royal Society, his influence can be found in the development of film, computing, health, and lexicography. 

Sarah Hill, Communications Officer, The Portico Library


Roget’s time as a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil was spent alongside John Dalton. Dalton was a workhorse, too busy to pursue a romantic relationship and kept himself to himself. Dalton’s only pastime was to play bowls on a Thursday at the Dog & Partridge pub in Manchester, during a period in which both Dalton and Roget served as officers at the Manchester Lit & Phil.

Although Roget’s stay in Manchester was brief, it was a formative period in his career. For instance, Roget’s time spent with Dalton was an influence on his work on vision and optical illusions. Roget was also a member of faculty at the old Manchester Medical School, where he delivered courses in medicine. A most remarkable man, all things considered!


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John Dalton – The forefather of atomic science

Have you seen him around? There is a street named after him; a building, and he has a statue, too. John Dalton, a former president of the Manchester Lit & Phil, is ingrained into the architectural furniture of Manchester.

Additionally, the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester is an internationally renowned hub for nuclear research, named in honour of John Dalton and his pioneering work in atomic theory and atomic weights.

The Manchester-based polymath, born in 1766, influenced a number of different fields. The Manchester Lit & Phil provided Dalton with a room for teaching and research at its building on George Street. In turn, his research flourished.

Dalton developed a new atomic theory that shook the world of chemistry in the early nineteenth century, allowing for a clearer understanding of chemical reactions. In 1801, Dalton formulated the Law of Partial Pressures, which would later become an important fixture within atmospheric studies.


Since I am a chemist by origin, Dalton's ideas have been a foundation for my entire working life. It is worth reflecting that what is basic and obvious now was anything but two centuries ago, and I have great respect for Dalton's insight. It is indeed sobering to realise that this is just one area of science where he made a profound contribution.

Professor Francis Livens, Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute


Dalton was also colour-blind, and developed theories about achromatopsia. Following his death, Dalton donated his eyes for study. The result? Dalton’s rejected theories were proven correct, as the pathologist confirmed his colour-blindness.  The eyes were retained by the Manchester Lit & Phil, before being donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in 1997.


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Robert Owen - Social reformer, 'Co-operator', and utopian visionary

Born in Wales in 1771, Robert Owen was no arm-chair agitator, but a proactive reformer for the rights of the working class. He is now lionised as a progenitor of British socialism.

By the age of 19, Owen was managing a cotton mill in Manchester after training as a draper and a cloth merchant. It was during this period that Owen set out to improve the lives of the working class. His ideas formed in tandem to his time as a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, joining the society in 1793. It was as a member that Owen would discuss theories pertaining to the Enlightenment, with the society serving as his academic snorkel to a new world of ideas. As a result of the new wave of Enlightenment thinkers, religious orthodoxy became eclipsed by science, as thinkers sought to better society through unity, cooperation, and progress. Owen’s ears were pricked.

Robert Owen felt that if his workers were happy, then they were more productive. At his mills in New Lanark, he sought to improve the education of children as well as improving their housing conditions.

In Manchester, Owen’s statue can be found close to Victoria Station, on the corner of Corporation Street.

Owen is known to many as the ‘father of co-operation’ such was his influence on those who went on to found the modern co-operative movement such as the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and the Co-operative Wholesale Society.  Owen’s keenness to improve the education of the working classes was of great importance to the co-operative movement.


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John Leigh Philips - Commander and Collector

John Leigh Philips, born 1761, was a Manchester-based manufacturer and art collector. Philips was heavily involved in the textile industry, alongside his brother Francis. Not only was Philips a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, but he was also associated with the Roscoe Circle in Liverpool, a group of reformers coordinated by William Roscoe. Radical ideas were beginning to spread around the North West, and Philips was heavily involved.

During the French Revolutionary Wars, Philips was granted command of the First regiment of Manchester and Salford Corps. In a dispute over rank, Philips challenged Joseph Hanson of the Salford and Stockport Independent Rifles to a duel. The two met on Kersal Moor on 28th July 1804.  Both were both arrested before the duel could start, but were released and ordered to remain civil. Philips began a war of words with the Earl of Derby and Lord Hawkesbury, as both had backed Hanson.  This led to Philips resigning from the regiments...along with all of his 53 officers, too.

The collection at the Manchester Museum on Oxford Road is built on the personal archives of Philips. Following his death, a band of wealthy men purchased Philip’s ‘cabinet’, using it to set up the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821. The collection soon began to grow as members began to donate artefacts, before it eventually subsumed the collections of the Manchester Geological Society. The Manchester Museum attracts thousands of visitors each year; and the personal collection of John Leigh Philips can still be viewed today.


We are delighted to join the celebration of the 240th birthday of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. John Leigh Phillips’ collection was the seed from which Manchester Museum grew. Bird specimens that he collected more than two centuries ago are still inspiring Manchester Museum audiences today and his commitment to understanding nature endures through our mission to build a more sustainable world.  He was an inspirational Mancunian who matched an interest in nature with scientific curiosity, leaving a lasting legacy for the city.

Georgina Young, Head of Exhibitions and Collections


Did you know?

In 1994 a portrait of John Leigh Philips was stolen from the Manchester Lit & Phil, along with 6 bottles of wine (!). To date, its whereabouts remain unknown...



Thomas Percival – The beginnings of the Manchester Lit & Phil

According to his son Edward, it was in 1780, that Thomas Percival started hosting meetingsat his own house; the resort of the literary characters, the principal inhabitants and of occasional strangers.’ This gang of strangers would become the first meeting of the Manchester Lit & Phil, and Percival would become the society’s first president. During his presidency, the bulk of the Society’s membership was made up of radical reformers and slave abolitionists.

Percival was a physician, moralist and a non-conformist, the architect behind sweeping changes to public health. In the 1789 and 1795 the population of Manchester was devastated by epidemics of typhus and typhoid. Percival’s research focused on the impact of epidemics in the health of the working class, and he sought to improve the living and working conditions in the city. In 1795, Percival established the Board of Health which worked to stop the spread of further diseases. The Board also campaigned against other social evils within Manchester, such as child labour.

 Medical Ethics, the most well-known of Percival’s work, was a codification of Percival’s medical practice, a document that was later adopted by the British and American Medical Associations.


Discover more

  • The University of Manchester Library holds some papers on the history and proceedings of the Manchester Board of Health.  A description of them can be found here.
  • The Wellcome Collection's online archive holds historical papers relating to the Manchester Royal Infirmary and papers written by Thomas Percival.


Join in our celebrations on social media

The Society was formed on the 28th February 1781, and over the next week we're going to be celebrating the lives of some of our former members, and what they did for Manchester and beyond.

We've got lots of interesting stories to tell and illuminating facts to share, which we hope you will enjoy reading.  We're delighted to say that a number of Manchester organisations are getting involved too!


So many stories and so many wonderful people helped shaped Manchester into the radical, radiant city it is today. It's important to celebrate these pioneers who are part of Manchester's rich history and embody it's fearless spirit.

Rachel Sills, Manchester Histories


Find us on social media

Twitter @manlitphil

Facebook @manchesterlearning

Instagram @manchesterlitphil


Get involved

You can join in the celebrations using the hashtag #MCRLitPhil240.  Alternatively, if you have some interesting facts to share about any of the chosen members - about their work and how their legacies live on today - do please send us an email and we'll share them on your behalf.

Interview with Jim Howell

24th February, 2021


On Thursday at 6pm, Jim Howell's pre-recorded talk will be available to access via the Manchester Lit & Phil website. You can register for 'Dying Laughing - a short walk around Romanian culture' by clicking here.

NB: If you have already registered for the event you will be contacted on the day with details of how to watch the talk.

In the meantime, as part of our ongoing series of interviews with our speakers, we had the chance to talk to Jim about his love of Romania and Lucien Blaga.

Q: Could you share an interesting anecdote about your time rambling through the Romanian countryside?

A: Quite often I would hitching up into the mountains. These had not been collectivised and were little changed from what they had been for centuries. During all these journeys I never had trouble finding food and shelter and never once did the question of payment arise. Perhaps the most surreal time was an afternoon I spent on the terrace of a peasant farmer’s house discussing the artistic merits of different kinds of wood block printing techniques used to produce the initial letters for bibles and sermons in Romania before modernity hit. I still have the book I was given that day.

Q: How was your experience in Romania as a student?

A: I was sponsored by the British Council in 1972 for post graduate studies in Romanian. The country and its leader, Ceausescu, who had not then begun his descent into madness, were then well regarded by many Western countries. Looking back on it the signs of the coming tragedy were there but I did not spot any of them. There were restrictions and you had to be aware of the limits but the relationship of a foreign student with the authorities was relaxed compared to that France a few years earlier.

In my student hostel I was the only Brit. There were lots of other Europeans while my next door neighbours were Russian on one side and Vietnamese on the other. Opposite were people from Somalia and from the Congo and just down the line were Americans, (North and South) and even a couple of North Koreans, who were in my class at university.

The teaching of the language was by very traditional methods but probably best for class with members from seven nations and effective enough for us to be able to put on a sketch at the students’ Christmas bash! After the first term my tutor encouraged me to travel round the country as much as possible and to record my impressions.

Q: What was it about Lucien Blaga that attracted you?

A: I have always loved poetry and then as now I was fond of the seventeenth century metaphysicals such as Donne and Herbert. Lucian Blaga had been fairly recently rehabilitated was and coming back into public consciousness when I was there. I found I liked his verse for the same reason as these English poets. It always took time to read and to savour but the result was well worth it.

Q: Is there a particular line from a poem that you enjoy, could you share what you like about it?

A: There are so many as Blaga’s subject matter was so wide. But the one I have chosen is both because it is a summary of what he was trying to do both as philosopher and as poet and because it is most beautifully written to set out a complex idea with an image that seems simple but which can be thought over for a long time.

'I’m always translating. I translate

Into Romanian

The song which my heart

Whispers softly to me in its own tongue.'

— Words from 'The Rhymer' by Lucian Blaga


Thanks to Jim for taking the time to speak to us. We hope to 'see' you soon!




**Please note that booking closes at 1700 on the day of the event, and we are not able to process registration requests after that time.  If you believe you have sent a registration request but have not received a confirmation email with joining instructions, then please contact the office as soon as possible.  Enquiries regarding bookings sent to the office after 1730 on the day of the event may not be answered.**