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A tale of two cities

John Phillips. From the Society's portrait collection.

 ... and bad lodgings.  As the current European City of Culture receives the 2008 BA Festival this month, Nina Morgan* investigates the first time it happened…

Geoscientist 18.9 September 2008

Following the success of the first British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) meeting in York in 1831, the chance to host a BA meeting was an honour keenly sought. Rivalry between British cities bears comparison to that between world cities competing for the Olympics today.

The effort involved in staging a BA meeting was also Olympian in scale. Not only did the organisers have to arrange venues for the various sections' meetings, find locations for large public assemblies, make arrangements for everything from breakfasts to balls and ceremonial dinners; they also had to set up exhibitions, supervise ticket sales, arrange post-session activities and attractions, and fix up accommodation for visitors.

The opportunity to host the 1837 BAAS was strongly contested by both Liverpool and Manchester. In this fiercely fought battle, the Liverpool supporters argued that because the city was less scientifically distinguished than Manchester, it had greater need of the stimulus that a visit from the BA would bring. City officials also drew attention to the wide range of extra-curricular activities that Liverpool could make available to ticket holders. These included admittance to various institutions, public commercial buildings, churches and gardens. Also on offer were excursions; ranging from a trip to a chemical works to a viewing of the Earl of Derby's animal collections at Knowsley. In the end, Liverpool emerged victorious.

Hard work begins

As assistant general secretary of the British Association, the geologist John Phillips (picture), who had played a key role in organising the previous six meetings, arrived in Liverpool in August 1837, to start the ball rolling. He detailed his progress in a series of letters to his sister Anne, which are preserved in the Hope Library at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

In a letter dated "Liverpool Town Hall 13 August 1837", he reported that arrangements were looking good. "Our affairs go on very well, I have contributed to get things put in train, & suppose it will be a pleasant meeting though as yet not much money is got together. The places of Assembly are the Town Hall, Amphitheatre, Royal Institution, Mechanics' Institute, Medical Institution, [and] Templar's Hall. The rooms for Lectures at the four latter points will be very good, near & appropriate."

But by 25 August, he was getting a bit discouraged. Anne was to join him at the BA meeting, and in his opinion, the available visitor accommodation was not up to scratch.

"My dear Annie" he wrote: 'Tell me when you will come, so that I may have your rooms ready: for I think it very requisite to engage rooms from Monday next or so, else we shall be forced into dark dingy places little suited to our notions of Sun & Air. Handsome rooms will not be had except at a high price, but handsome apartments I must have, & perhaps I may fix myself this morning (that is for Monday or Tuesday) on a high point near the cemetery. Most people will go to lodgings – it is clear – also I fear many will be little in love with their accommodation: but I shall do my best to help them in their malheur."

In the same letter he confided that Liverpool compared unfavourably with Bristol, the previous year's venue. "This place is now rousing itself to hospitality & shaking off its indolence," he wrote, "but entre nous Liverpool is neither so active in Science nor favoured in members nor Subscriptions as Bristol was & will be. You need not mention this."

Although he eventually managed to secure suitable rooms for his sister, he remained sceptical about conditions for other visitors. In a letter dated 29 August 1937 he informs Anne: "Your rooms are taken, at 86 Bold St, where I am very comfortable & that is more than many of the Association will say during the week of 'happiness'!"

The organisers of this year's BA meeting in Liverpool will have no such worries. Given the standard of accommodation and the cultural attractions offered in the current European Capital of Culture, 'happiness' on all fronts during this year's Festival of Science should be guaranteed!.


I am grateful to the acting director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History ( for permission to quote from these letters, and to the librarian, Stella Brecknell for all her help with this project. Other sources of information for this article included: Morrell, Jack and Thackray, Arnold, Gentlemen of Science: early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981.

If the past is the key to your present interests, visit the History of Geology Group (HOGG) website at:

*Nina Morgan is a freelance science writer based near Oxford, UK