The Manchester Lit and Phil is part of the rich, cultural tapestry of Manchester. Founded in 1781, we are the second oldest Learned Society in the world, and ever since the very first meetings, our members have been involved in sharing knowledge and ideas; sometimes leading to giant leaps forward in our understanding of the world around us.
The beginnings of the Manchester Lit and Phil – 1780s
Thomas Percival was a physician, moralist and a non-conformist, the architect behind sweeping changes to public health. According to his son Edward, it was in 1780, that Thomas Percival started hosting meetings ‘at 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 and Phil, and Percival would become our first president. During his presidency, the bulk of the Society’s membership was made up of radical reformers and slave abolitionists. Percival sought to improve the living and working conditions in the city and, in 1795, he established the Manchester Board of Health.
Visions of a better future for all – 1790s
The father of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen, joined the Society in 1793. It was during this period that Owen set out to improve the lives of the working class. 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.
Major scientific breakthroughs – early 1800s
The Manchester-based polymath John Dalton, born in 1766, influenced a number of different fields. The Manchester Lit and 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.
Dalton is known today as the forefather of nuclear science.
A hive of new scientific ideas – early 1840s
A student of John Dalton, James Prescott 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.
A space for progressive campaigners – 1890s
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 and Phil in 1892.
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.
Leaps into the future – 1910s
Ernest Rutherford came to Manchester from New Zealand, becoming the Langworthy Professor of Physics in 1907, and settling in the city until 1919. During his time in Manchester, Rutherford was a member of the Manchester Lit and Phil and served as Vice President from 1909 to 1912.
In the orbit of the Manchester Lit and Phil, Rutherford moved his research to the University of Manchester. His variations of the ‘gold foil experiment’ of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden resulted in the discovery of the atomic nucleus from which Rutherford produced a model of the atom. For his pioneering efforts, Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.
Early computer science – 1950s
Alan Turing was a computer scientist, codebreaker, mathematician, and member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, too. Frequently referred to as ‘the father of modern computing’, Manchester became Turing’s home following his work as a cryptanalyst with the British Intelligence Service during the Second World War. His contributions at Bletchley Park lead to the breaking of the German Enigma machine.
Our first female President – 1960s
Margaret Pilkington was an accomplished artist and generous philanthropist. During her patronage of the Whitworth Gallery, Pilkington donated water-colours, drawings, and textiles. Due to her efforts, the gallery managed to survive the perilous interwar period. In 1958, when the University of Manchester co-opted the gallery, Pilkington became Honorary Director of the governing committee, a position she held until her death in 1974.
Pilkington was the first female president of the Manchester Lit and Phil, and founded the Society’s Arts Section in 1968, during the final year of her presidency.
Fast-forward to today
Now, in the 21st century, the Society continues to thrive as a place to share knowledge and ideas. Anyone with an interest in learning, through attending lectures by acknowledged experts in a variety of subjects, is very welcome to join as a member. And members of the public are welcome to attend too.
For many years, the Manchester Lit and Phil has held live, in-person events at various venues across Manchester including the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Conference Centre.
In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we moved our lecture programme online. This has meant that the Society can now reach a much wider demographic, and we’re excited about the opportunities our new digital offering could bring in the future.
We will return to holding in-person lectures as soon as it is safe to do so. And in the meantime, we are very much ‘open for business’ online. Find out more about our varied lecture programme here.