Carry on up the Nile!’ The first public lecture programme launched by the Cardiff Naturalists Society, 27 November 1873

The Cardiff Naturalists Society was established in September 1867 and this autumn it celebrates its 150th anniversary. As just one element of the events planned by the Society, Iolo Williams will deliver a public lecture, at the National Museum of Wales, on Thursday 5 October. It is fitting that that the celebrations include such an event for the Society’s public lectures have always been seen as a valuable means of extending opportunities for the wider public to engage with and enjoy the natural sciences.

The early years of the Society can be traced through the records held at Glamorgan Archives. It is clear that, initially, the meetings of the society were seen as an opportunity for members to share their knowledge of various aspects of the natural sciences. For example, at the very first meeting, on 11 September 1867, one of the founding members, Philip Robinson, brought along his collection of British butterflies for display and examination by those attending. At the third meeting, on November 11 1867, another member, Professor Joseph Gagliardi, delivered a lecture on the different species of fish. By and large, this set the pattern for meetings in this period although, on occasions, the programme was supplemented by guest speakers.

Within a year the Society had held its first ‘Conversazione’. Using the Town Hall on St Mary’s Street, Cardiff, the Conversazione comprised of a series of exhibitions of aspects of the natural sciences drawing on collections owned by the Society and on loan from Museums. The exhibitions were supported on several occasions by public lectures delivered in the Assembly Rooms. By April 1873 this was so popular that three lectures delivered by a speaker engaged by the Society, Edmund Wheeler, FRAS, were repeated the following week. The local newspapers commended the Society and observed that the event had revived …the drooping Naturalists’ Society.

Encouraged by the success of the April 1873 Conversazione the Society announced, in November 1873, its first series of public lectures. The lectures were to be staged in the Assembly Rooms every fortnight from November through to April and would feature a range of eminent speakers. It was clear that this was announced with some trepidation given the costs involved, both for use of the hall and the fees for guest speakers. Although it was planned that each lecture would be ticketed, with an admission charge of 6d for members and 1s for non-members, there was a concern that the Society would incur a significant loss. To date most guest speakers had not charged for their services and, to assuage the concerns of members, it was agreed that a special fund be established, almost certainly underwritten by a number of committee members, to meet any costs incurred from the lecture series.

Nevertheless the programme of public lectures was announced in November in glowing terms with advertisements placed in the local newspapers detailing the speakers and topics planned. The programme was varied and wide ranging, including lectures on ‘Spectrum Analysis’, ‘The Treasures of the Deep’ and even ‘Personal Reminiscences of Wellington’. As the Society minutes for 18 November 1873 confirm, no expense was to be spared.

The Committee have now completed their arrangements for the delivery of series of popular and scientific Lectures to be given fortnightly during the present session. The lectures are provided by the Society at some considerable expense and are intended for the intellectual enjoyment of all classes.

Many of the lectures will be illustrated by beautiful drawings and dissolving views, and by the performance of brilliant and costly experiments.

The Committee solicit the special attention of the Public to this Series of Lectures which is the first attempt to supply a want long felt in Cardiff, viz the Periodical Delivery of First Class Scientific Lectures, by thoroughly able Professional Men. It is proposed in the event of this experiment proving successful, to establish a continuous Winter Series, embracing the highest Scientific and Literary talent which can be obtained.

The first lecture will be delivered by Edward H Jones, Esq, FCS, Analytical Chemist, on ‘Egypt’ and 1000 miles up the Nile, being a tour amongst the ancient Temples and ruins of Egypt and Nubia, and illustrated by paintings and photographs, shown by the aid of lime light and dissolving views [Minutes of meeting held November 18 1873, DCNS/3/1]

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Much was at stake on the night of the first lecture on 27 November. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian reported the next day:

There was a large and fashionable audience, the room being crowded. The lectures … promise to prove as interesting as they will be intellectual and a rich treat is in store…. [Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 28 November 1873].

In the event the lecture was anything but ‘a treat’. The South Wales Daily News, in a lengthy report, summarised the lecture as:

…a disconnected, unintelligible descriptive outline of a number of places situated between Southampton and the second cataract of the Nile and back through the Suez Canal.

…the precipitate manner in which the audience left the room when the curtain was drawn across the views, without even thanking Mr Jones for his trouble, will perhaps convince him that a description of scenes that might have pleased the juveniles of a school would be ill- suited to the intelligence of the adult educated persons of both sexes present.

All in all, the lecture had …caused the greatest disappointment to the vast majority of the audience [South Wales Daily News, 28 November 1873].

It must have been a severe blow to the Society and they had only days to recover before the next lecture scheduled for 3 December. There was, yet again, a large turnout in the Assembly Rooms and there was little option but to apologise for the debacle on the 27th. The Chair on the night of the 3rd December, Mr Lukis, offered the audience in the Assembly Rooms his theory that:

…the Mr Jones they had was the wrong one and must have been an imposteur as he had not turned up since that evening – not even to call on Dr Taylor for his honorarium [South Wales Daily News, 4 December 1873]

Fortunately for the Society the lecture that night on ‘The Phenomena of Sound’ was to be delivered by Edmund Wheeler whose lecture series had been so well received in April. The newspaper report the next day confirmed that …the lecture was a very able one throughout and was highly appreciated by the audience.  The lecture series was back on track.

So, as the Cardiff Naturalists Society prepares for its public lecture on Thursday 5 October no doubt there is ‘a treat’ in store for those planning to attend at the National Museum. However, reflecting on the circumstances surrounding the Society’s first public lecture series in 1873, it might just be worth double checking that they have engaged ‘the right’ Iolo Williams.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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