The Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, locally known as the Lit. and Phil., was founded in 1835 by Dr G. Shaw and Mr. A Paget. Its nominal President was Sir Henry Halford of Wistow, Royal Physician to George III, George IV and William IV, but its Acting President was Dr Shaw, who had been involved in the early days of the Manchester Scientific Society. The style “Literary and Philosophical” seemed to embrace all the intellectual as distinguished from the practical and religious sides of life. The Society was not intended to specialise in any particular branch of knowledge but the subjects introduced should be of intellectual interest, should not be of a religious or political nature and be as much as possible undisturbed by political or sectarian strife.
Regular meetings were held, as now, on a fortnightly basis. One of the earliest topics considered was that of a Museum for “the proper display of fossils, minerals, etc. belonging to the Society which would form the nucleus of a Museum”. The collection was presented to the Town in 1849. It was moved from place to place until finally it was housed in the empty Proprietary School in New Walk, designed by Joseph Hansom, of cab fame. The Museum was associated with the arguments on the mechanisms of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Bates in 1860.
All early lectures were given by members of the Society and their popularity is indicated in the Minutes by a note which states that the Lecture Room was “crowded to excess”. It was during this period that the Lit. and Phil. was granted, free of charge, the use of the Lecture Hall and also the free use of the Council Room “at all such times as they require”.
In 1870 professional lecturers began to be engaged and in that year Professor Thomas Huxley and three other Fellows of the Royal Society visited. Members were from time to time entertained at Dramatic and Musical Evenings and at Soirees attended by large numbers of ladies. Ladies were not admitted to full membership until 1885 and it was not until 1913 that a lady, Mrs William Evans, was elected President, to be followed in 1923 by Miss Margaret Gimson.
In the 1860s the Society was deeply involved in a campaign for a Public Free Library and in 1872 it agitated for a Physics Laboratory. In 1882 it made a donation to the Wyggeston Boys’ School Laboratory Fund and also financed the Cambridge University Extension Lectures.
In 1884 Dr George Shaw, one of our founder members was again elected President, 50 years after his first Presidency. His Presidential Address is printed in full in the Society’s Centenary Book. Among the lectures of this period were addresses by the mountaineers Edward Whymper and Martin Conway, Sir Oliver Lodge and James Ramsey MacDonald, M.P.
As early as 1850 specialist sections of the Society were formed in the fields of Geology, Zoology, Botany, Fine Arts and Archaeology. Excursions were organised to various parts of the County which sometimes attracted as many as 100 members. Two Sections remain as part of the Society’s activities, Geology and Natural History. The rest have either disappeared or have become independent societies.
In 1885 the President, Rev.West, Headmaster of the Wyggeston Boys’ School, suggested in his Presidential Address that the courses of lectures to the Lit and Phil could prepare the way for the establishment in Leicester of a University College. However it was not until 1912 that this suggestion was revived by Dr Astley V. Clarke, who from time to time raised the idea until the Declaration of War on Germany in 1914 caused it to be shelved. Dr Astley Clarke continued his advocacy for a University until 1920 when the College was at last founded to become, with Lutyens’ splendid arch, Leicester’s Memorial to the war dead. The first Principal was Dr R. F. Rattray a member of the Society and the first students, eight in number, were all women.
The 1904 president Dr F W Bennett was a local surgeon but a keen amateur geologist and endowed a Professorship in the departement of Geology which is housed in the Bennett building. A number or University buildings and rooms are named after former presidents Astley Clark, Percy Gee, Bennett, Gimson and Rattray. The University College has now outgrown its parent to become a full and thriving University but the links between the two establishments remain very close.
The Lit and Phil was soon back in its stride after the War and the names of W. Flinders Petrie, Patuffa Kennedy Fraser, Cyril Burt and W.B. Yeats appear on the list of lectures for 1921 and 1922. The Society survived another World War and after 165 years it still meets every fortnight during the winter and brings to Leicester speakers of national and international reputation. A selection of names from the last 25 years will underline the contribution which Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society has made to the intellectual and cultural life of the City. Sir David Attenborough Lord Attenborough (Richard Attenborough) Sir Alfred Ayer Lord Montagu of Beaulieu Dr David Bellamy Atarah Ben-Tovin Professor Malcolm Bradbury Marjorie Blamey Dr Robert Burchfield Heather Couper Lord Deedes (William Deedes) Cohn Dexter Margaret Drabble Dr Levi Fox Jane Goodall Ray Gosling Professor Richard Hoggart W.G. Hoskins Professor Arthur Humphreys Baroness James (P.D. James) Penelope Lively Patrick Moore Professor Andrew Motion Anna Pavord Margaret Rule Helen Sharman Professor Jack Simmons C.P. Snow Lars Tharp Marina Warner Professor Stanley Wells Colin Wilson Sir John Wolfenden
The history of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society 1835 – 2010 and its influence on society is contained in a book entitled “Exchanging Ideas Dispassionately and without Animosity” edited by Patrick Boylan and published by the Society in 2010 (ISBN-13: 978-0956540003).