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Exit, pursued by a bear

As geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers, a curator's life is not always a happy one

The geologist John Phillips (1800-1874) first came to the attention of the fledgling Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) in 1824 when he helped his uncle, William Smith (1769-1839), give a course of lectures in York. Recognising a major geological and curatorial talent when it saw one, the Society appointed Phillips as Keeper of its Museum in 1826, and charged him with the task of organising the burgeoning collection of specimens donated to the Society. For a salary of £60 per annum, Phillips was expected "to give his attendance at the Society's rooms, during nine months of the year, for three days in each week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, from Ten o'clock a.m. to Four p.m.) and conjointly with the [honorary] Curators, to take charge of the various departments of the Museum."

But the job actually encompassed much more. In practice, as well as maintaining, arranging and cataloguing the various collections, Phillips also welcomed museum visitors, assisted lecturers to prepare their material, kept records of the scientific communications read at the monthly meetings, and dispatched the annual reports of the Society. When time permitted, he accompanied various members on geological expeditions, gave lectures at the YPS and at other scientific and philosophical societies elsewhere, conducted his own research, and wrote a number of books. He also played a key role in organising and running the first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in York in 1831, where according to the Yorkshire Gazette he, "delivered an animated lecture on the Geology of Yorkshire – got up on the spur of the moment, without any premeditation, which showed the complete mastery he has of the science."


Phillips' duties expanded further in the 1830s after the YPS established its Museum at its current site. One of the conditions for the grant of the site required the establishment and maintenance of a botanical garden. And in 1830 a group of members also proposed that a ‘limited collection of living animals could be maintained in the grounds' and established a small private fund to 'defray the expense of it'.' A few purchases were made for the menagerie and some 'valuable donations' received, including, it appears, a golden eagle, several monkeys and a bear. But the project was short-lived and ended in 1833. Misbehaviour on the part of the bear, it seems, was one of the precipitating factors that led to the menagerie's 'early extinction'.

After escaping from its cage and chasing Phillips and William Vernon Harcourt (1789- 1871), first President of the YPS, into an outbuilding, it was offered to the London Zoo. The Zoo was happy to accept, and when it came to removal arrangements, the Zoo's resourceful Secretary offered a novel suggestion:

"Zool. Soc. London, Dec. 26th 1831

Sirs, We shall feel much pleased in taking your bear on the terms proposed in your letter of 21st.

The best mode I can conceive of forwarding him to us is by one of the York coaches, you booking him on as an outside Passenger, and promising the Guard a recompense on his delivering him safe in London. Be so good as to send us a line to inform us of the Coach by which the animal is to travel and the place and probable time of his arrival in town. You will also oblige me by stating to whom we shall pay the price of the animal."

The response of the bear's fellow passengers is not recorded.


  • Sources for this vignette include a blog by Ann- Marie Akehurst at, the booklet Philosophers and Provincials: The Yorkshire Philosophical Society from 1822 to 1844, by A D Orange, published by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1973, and the YPS Annual Report for 1831. I also thank Bob Hale, Honorary Archivist at the YPS, for providing helpful information about contents of the YPS archives and other sources of information about the early history of the YPS.
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter, visit the HOGG website at:, where you'll also find abstracts for the talks and posters presented at the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting, April 2011 available free to download as a pdf file.