Untold lives blog

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05 April 2013

Science and Great Yarmouth

The Dawson Turner Collection of printed ephemera includes a range of material relating to the history of Great Yarmouth between 1773 and 1851. The collection was created by Dawson Turner (1775-1859), a Yarmouth banker with a keen interest in scholarly pursuits, and includes numerous posters and handbills which provide much information about the social history of the town during the late 18th and early 19th century.

List of lectures at Yarmouth’s Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society April to June 1831Noc

The collection highlights popular interest in scientific subjects at Yarmouth during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1829 the Yarmouth’s Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society was founded. In addition to regular lectures delivered at the Mechanics’ Institution by residents of Yarmouth, a number of guest lecturers also visited the town during the 1830s, including Robert Goodacre and Thomas Olivers Warwick.

Neither Goodacre nor Warwick was originally involved in science in a professional sense, and their interest in the subject seems to have developed as a personal interest. Robert Goodacre was born in 1777 at Long Clawson in Leicestershire and worked as a tailor before becoming a school master in 1796. As master of the Standard Hill Academy in Nottingham, he upheld the value of science and liberalism in education. He embarked on a career as a public lecturer in astronomy, starting in Bradford in 1821. Between 1823 and 1824 he travelled across the United States of America where he delivered lectures at twenty-four towns and cities and was attended by the president and vice-president.

Six lectures on astronomy by Robert Goodacre 1831Noc


Thomas Olivers Warwick was born in 1771 and began his career as a Nonconformist minister. He trained at the Dissenting Academy at Daventry and Nottingham, a college well-known for providing its students with lectures on scientific subjects such as electricity, magnetism, chemistry and zoology. Warwick became minister of the Presbyterian chapel at Rotherham in 1793, but was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1798.  He began to deliver public lectures on scientific subjects, travelling in the autumn of 1798 to London, and subsequently giving a course of lectures on chemistry at Rotherham.

Dr Warwick's course of lecturesNoc

Material in the Dawson Turner Collection suggests that the lectures which Goodacre and Warwick gave at Yarmouth were as much a form of entertainment as a scientific venture. Both men charged for attendance and used a variety of visual props and experiments to convey the meaning of their message and to attract the attention of their audiences. Goodacre’s astronomy lectures made use of a horizontal tellurian, lunarian, and eclipsareon, a transparent orrery and a plan of the solar system. Warwick’s ‘Lectures on Natural Phenomena’ were also to be “illustrated by geological plans and the most interesting experiments in Chemistry, Magnetism, Electricity, and Electro-Magnetism”. Such an approach does not necessarily undermine the scientific merit of Goodacre and Warwick’s lectures or imply that they were mere amateurs. Rather, it suggests that they were keen to engage with their audiences and to convey scientific knowledge to ordinary people as well as to the learned.

The information which the Dawson Turner Collection helps to provide about Goodacre and Warwick and the content of their lectures suggests that collections of ephemeral material from the past can prove invaluable in shedding light on individuals whose contribution to the society of their day has tended to go unnoticed.

John Boneham
Cataloguer, Dawson Turner Collection   

Further reading:
Ian Inkster, ‘Robert Goodacre’s Astronomy Lectures (1823-1825), and the Structure of Scientific Culture in Philadelphia’, Annals of Science, 35(1878), pp. 353-363.
Michael Brook, ‘Dr Warwick’s Chemistry Lectures and the Scientific Audience in Sheffield (1799-1801)’, Annals of Science, 11:3(1956), pp. 224-237.
David McKitterick, ‘Dawson Turner and Book Collecting’ in Nigel Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family (Chichester, 2007), pp. 67-110.



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