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Guest book review by LH Member Laurence Scales.

Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation
by Anton Howes


coverHistories of institutions are usually either exercises in public relations ‘puffery’, or of interest only to their own coterie. Happily, here, we have a distinguished exception from Anton Howes, a young economic historian, formerly lecturing at King’s College London, with a particular interest in innovation – economic, institutional, social and technical. He has been attached to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (known today as the RSA) for a couple of years as their Historian in Residence and has neither had the time to be institutionalised himself, nor the long term self interest to whitewash its history. He therefore charts both the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the bright ideas and foibles, and the occasional venality and intrigues of this grand old organisation off Strand.

I must declare an interest, but also a qualification for writing this review. When some manuscripts needed cataloguing Anton invited me to help (unpaid) as we have professional interests in common, and so I was inducted into the RSA’s archive and began weekly visits. (See my previous LH article on the subject.) This has helped me to understand the territory as the RSA is a very difficult institution to characterize compared with, say, the different and more famous scientific Royal Society, or the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, which had a very specific purpose. Anyway, my views here are my own, and not those of the RSA!

If, after reading this, you are still confused by London’s abundance of Royal Societies you can read my Londonist guide here!

Behind our industry and even our landscape, and our social and economic systems the RSA has been something of a benign eminence grise for over 250 years. It was established in 1754, a product of coffee house and enlightenment culture, a mainland echo of the Dublin Society for Improving Husbandry, Manufactures and other Useful Arts. But, based in London, the crossroads of the world, it grew to be better known, more ambitious, and more significant. By 1801 even Napoleon felt that France needed something similar, a Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. The Society of Arts, as it was then abbreviated, later returned the compliment by staging a great international exhibition in 1851 to surpass the French national expositions. It is high time that the RSA’s part in history, not just its own history, becomes known to a wider public. The RSA is almost invisible but it has long been a catalyst in the sense of promoting a reaction (social, economic, technological, institutional and artistic) without ever taking a permanent role in what it is changing. It remains to ferment enlightened change in other areas, both tangible and intangible, another day.

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The first medal awarded by the RSA.

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A meeting of the Society in 1804.

So, the first thing to say about the book is that it gives a hidden history behind Britain’s public history, whether it be planting great swathes of forest, founding the Royal Academy, curbing the exploitation of children to sweep chimneys, organizing the Great Exhibition of 1851, establishing school examinations, fostering modern environmentalism, or filling the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It answers some of those how and why questions about events where, previously, we may have just taken them for granted. It is therefore a book for everybody interested in British social and economic history including the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the storms and stresses of the twentieth century.

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The Great Exhibition, 1851.

But there is something very British about such an odd organisation, one that lacks both narrow membership criteria and a grand plan other than to suggest plans to others and maybe find some them initial support. It has periodically slumbered and then been roused to new efforts and a new direction by a newcomer. From its early days of awarding monetary prizes or medals for worthy inventions and initiatives such as tools for the one-handed or for slicing turnips, it is (among other things) the inspiration behind a group of academy schools in the midlands at the present day.

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Turnip Cutter

Of its unlikely movers and shakers the best known is probably the Victorian, Sir Henry Cole, railway journalist, but a force behind the Great Exhibition, South Kensington Museum, penny post and much else besides. We learn something of Cole’s motivation, and the special fanaticism he had for making the world more beautiful, which was an aspect of his story that certainly I had not heard before.

In this extraordinary organisation we discover a strange alternative to politics. If politics is about ordering the way we all live, we find here a parallel world in which strong personalities strive through research evidence, consensus and a certain amount of skillful intrigue to make a better life for us all – but without the conceit, unthinking reflexes, tribalism, and hunger for power of parliamentary politics. The RSA would claim not to be political. And yet it undoubtedly has had, and continues to have, an effect on the way we live.

The last and most important thing to say about the book is that it is simply a very good read. Anton avoids the trap of writing as if for a dissertation and laying on the jargon, and simply tells a rattling good story, full of eccentric characters and colourful detail.


Arts and Minds, How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation Anton Howes is published by Princeton, available in Hardback and Kindle eds.

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This article, by London Historians member Laurence Scales, first appeared in our monthly members’ newsletter from April 2018. 

I recently had my hand on some squares of black silk lace, made by young girls of Bridgenorth in 1774, the residents of a workhouse. This was over fifty years before Sir Edwin Chadwick’s ‘reforms’ and some workhouses were enlightened. Training girls to make lace could save them from destitution.

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Black Silk Lace, 1774.

A few months ago I was invited by the Historian in Residence at the Royal Society of Arts (Royal since 1908), to help catalogue some papers. I cannot claim that they are new discoveries, just that they are little seen. No one has had the time to make the list, until now. So, once a week I commute into the 18th century to make more accessible for future researchers this stash of cultural heritage.

The RSA started in Rawthmell’s coffee house, Covent Garden, in 1754. Since 1774 it has lived in a fine Adam building nearby, now awkwardly equipped with lifts and network cables, and with one or two steps scattered in odd places as if to catch the unwary. The RSA, full name the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (n.b. it has not much to do with art), is not to be confused with the famous scientific Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nor the Royal Academy of Arts, nor yet the Royal Institution. Dr Johnson was a member of the Society of Arts, as was Benjamin Franklin, William Wilberforce and Karl Marx – and a few other members will make an appearance shortly.

Turnip rooted cabbages, starting a forest from acorns, new recipes for manures, hats made of wood shavings to rival those from Leghorn, cobalt glazes, carrot marmalade, medicinal rhubarb, whale harpoons, and zebra wood from the Mosquito Shore – these all became a focus for the Society of Arts in its first 50 years. It was a period just before progress began to be clearly identified with science, so prizes were awarded for enlightened and patriotic efforts to fill particular wants or shortages in agriculture, colonies and trade, manufacture, chemistry, mechanics and ‘polite arts’. ‘Art’ used to cover all the other things in the list, not just drawing and sculpture. There were also bounties awarded for unsolicited worthy efforts such as lace making at Bridgenorth.

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The ‘Great Room’ of the RSA as depicted c.1810. It remains, complete with allegorical paintings by Sir James Barry.

I see some intriguing items in a day – mostly letters, but sometimes there is drawing, or an ear of wheat, or a square of black silk lace – an exhibition in microcosm, in fact. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a later initiative by this Society, by the way.

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Drawing included with a letter about harpoons, presumably just for the joy of it, in 1777.

It may seem I have found a rather out-of-the-way interest at the RSA. Not so. That recipe for carrot marmalade was eventually copied to Captain Cook at Deptford to try out for a long voyage and avoid scurvy. But it turned out that he did not like it and watered his crew with pine beer instead.

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A Simple Diagram, Georgian Style. Yoke for Ploughing with Oxen Instead of Horses.

And who cares about acorns? Well, the Royal Navy did for a start. And people needed firewood. And then there was new interest in smelting. By 1775 England was going bald. Over 50 years or so the RSA prompted the planting of 50 million trees. (It is believed that the great storm of 1987 only toppled 15 million trees.) While deforestation was one concern, others were already starting to worry about pollution and occupational diseases, and to come up with remedies.

Those awarding the prizes at the Society often did not see the thing they were rewarding. It was a strangely egalitarian society in the sense that the Earl of Winterton, for example, to be considered for his medal had to get his illiterate farm hand (‘X, his mark’) to sign a certificate attesting to the fact that he really did plant all those acorns that the Earl claimed. Sometimes it was the other way round, the farm hand invented something and had to get his boss to testify to its efficacy – the fumigating bellows for example, against ravening caterpillars, tried out in the royal gardens at Kew.

Correspondence about manure and rhubarb criss-crossed the land, long before the penny post. The postal service was very good, even if the best address someone could give was the wagon stopping outside the Bear and Ragged Staff at Smithfield – or at the Artichoke, Radcliffe Highway.

Another member or fellow of the Society was John Howard, the first person ever to be described as a philanthropist. The Howard League for Penal Reform is a name you hear in the news sometimes. But he did not found it. It is named in his honour. John Howard was a landowner of Bedfordshire, interested in new strains of wheat. ‘I often eat some good puddings made of that Turkey wheat,’ he said in a letter to the Society in 1772.

In 1773, when he was aged 52, he suddenly began an obsessive round of visits to hundreds of prisons. Having been appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he took the job sufficiently seriously (unlike some) that he visited his local jail, and was horrified to find that the only pay received by the jailer had to be found by the prisoners. And many of the prisoners were there because of their debts! It was the same everywhere else in England. Howard then devoted himself to improving prisons for the next 17 years until he died of typhus, from poking his nose into a prison in the Ukraine. Holland produced the best prisons, but at least Britain produced John Howard.

His modest Bloomsbury home rightly wears a blue plaque, the heritage scheme started by the Society in 1866. That scheme has now landed with English Heritage, and imitators. The RSA starts things and then hands them on.

Did the Society find a space for women? Yes. An intriguing 18th century correspondent was Ann Williams, post mistress of Gravesend who hatched silkworms in her dead letter pigeon hole, and reared them in a hatbox, sometimes referring to her little creepy crawlies as ‘reptiles’ with the imprecision of the time. The Society awarded her 20 guineas (equivalent to several thousand pounds today). She wrote, ‘I shall ever think it the happiest period of my life.’

The RSA continues good work. I risk sounding like a commercial. But my real point is that I always come away from the RSA with a feeling of optimism about what people are capable of, even those who are not superhuman. Georgian life was a hard grind, and often cut short. Here was a bunch of rich Georgians rewarding a bunch of usually less well-off people for doing something outside their usual toil, public spirited, worthwhile, perhaps risky, often something as little as planting experimentally a few rows of medicinal rhubarb. Not selling it, mind – just planting it to see if it would grow, for a better future. That spirit is real cultural heritage.

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Another happy ending, from 1768.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in offbeat historical walking tours focusing on intriguing and amusing tales of discovery, invention and intelligence. He is a volunteer working at the Royal Institution for which he has devised walking tours, and also guides walks and tunnel tours for the London Canal Museum. Welcoming residents and visitors who want to look beyond the main London attractions he reveals a wealth of lesser known historic sites and offers a double-take on some famous ones.
Please contact Laurence via his web site.

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