Clubs and societies were one of the most important aspects of public and semi-public life in Georgian Britain, although women were excluded from many of the more formal. Many took a keen interest in science, or natural philosophy as it would have been called, and so should be seen as important local centres for the production and dissemination of ideas as part of the European enlightenment. Some were informal associations but others were highly organised with rules and regulations and sometimes their own rooms or buildings. Quite a few acquired collections of books, scientific instruments or natural history exhibits, either through purchase or bequest.
A Derby Philosophical club or society met in the eighteenth century and may have included amongst its members individuals such as John Whitehurst, the Lunar Society member, before he moved to London in 1775. The society was meeting until at least 1779 although other clubs or coteries existed in the town prior to this. Another of these, also associated with Whitehurst seems to have included the artist Joseph Wright, his friend Peter Perez Burdett and Rev. Joshua Winter of All Saints Church.
The Derby Philosophical Society was started by Erasmus Darwin and a group of his associates in 1783 just after he moved to Derby from Lichfield, and after living for a short period at Radburn Hall with his new wife Elizabeth and her family. The club was formally inaugurated in 1784 at Darwin's house in Full Street, Derby. He delivered an address to the members which explained what he hoped the society would achieve, including the acquisition of a library and perhaps the production of publications. It seems that he also hoped the Derby Society would be able to hold joint meetings with the 'Lunatics'.
The purposes of the club were several. However the club did create a notable collection of books and entertained guests, some of whom are listed in the records. Its members participated in a collective translation of the works of Linnaeus from Latin to English. The translation of A System of Vegetables, annotated by the most eminent of them, was the first book where the name of Erasmus Darwin ever appeared.
The society met at the King's Head Inn in the Cornmarket in Derby not far from Darwin's house at 3, Full Street.
The founding members were at various times said to be seven, eight or ten people listed as Richard French, Sneyd, Dr John Hollis Pigot, Dr John Beridge, Dr Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Gisborne, Mr. Fox and William Strutt. However Gisborne and Sneyd did not live in Derby so this leaves seven plus Erasmus Darwin who is considered the main reason for the club's existence. The records of the club exist but frequently refer to people only by surname so researchers have had to consider which particular person was intended. The purpose of the club involved meeting socially but there was a variety of interests although many of the members, like Darwin, were associated with medicine. Later members included Josiah Wedgwood, the Rev. William Pickering, the Rev. Charles Hope, Dr Peter Crompton, Erasmus Darwin Jr, Robert Darwin, Richard Leaper and Henry Hadley, Mr Haden, Mr Fowler, Mr Johnson, Sacheverell Pole, William Duesbury jr, Robert Bage and Richard Archdale. About half of the membership was medical like William Brooks Johnson MD, but others included men of great influence like Sir Robert Wilmot, the engineer Jedediah Strutt, the poet and gentleman Sir Brooke Boothby, the chemist Charles Sylvester, and landowners Charles Hurt, Reverend D'Ewes Coke and Thomas Evans. Crompton, Leaper, and C. S. Hope all went on to become Mayor of Derby, and the first Lord Belper was among the later members.
William Strutt and Richard Forester were both to go on to be Presidents of the society following Darwin's death in 1803. Strutt had been a founding member and Forester was the son of Richard French, another founding member. The local schoolmaster and philosopher William George Spencer was secretary of the society from 1815 and his son the philosopher Herbert Spencer gained much inspiration from Derby literary and scientific culture. Significantly it was Spencer who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest", after he read Darwin's grandson's work on evolution. Another notable associate of the society was Abraham Bennet although he was never a member, unlike James Pilkington, the radical minister and the author of a A View of Derbyshire.
During Darwin's time as the leading light of the society he had a house on Full Street in Derby. Although this house is now demolished a plaque was placed on the site in 2002 to recognise Darwin's contribution and that he had founded the Derby Philosophical Society.
The Derby Philosophical Society was just one of a number of literary and scientific associations that existed in the town during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflecting the importance of public scientific culture in the English provinces at this time. Other examples include a Derby Literary and Philosophical Society c1808-1816, the Derby Mechanics' Institute, the Derby Town and County Museum and Natural History Society founded in 1834, and another Literary and Scientific Society that flourished during the 1840s and 1850s. To these should be added the innovative Derbyshire General Infirmary opened in 1810 and John Claudius Loudon's Derby Arboretum opened in 1840, both of which were strongly associated with the activities of the Derby philosophers and helped to create a public platform for science.
In 1858, the Derby Philosophical Society moved to a house on the Wardwick in Derby as it merged with the Derby Town and County Museum and the Natural History Society. This move included the society's library of 4,000 volumes, Mathematical and scientific apparatus and its collection of fossils.
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