Nine o’clock in the morning in central Manchester. It’s busy; it’s hectic; its streets are teeming with commuters. Picture the scene 150 years ago, and you’d spot quite a few similarities. Merchants are flogging their wares on Market Street, clerks are busying themselves into offices, and there are even some travellers brought in by the new railway wandering lost and confused around the metropolis of the north.
Yet there is one key difference. Whilst I take my place in a quiet, sparsely populated library, in various corners of Victorian Manchester sat hundreds of men and women absorbed in scientific books and journals. They were reading the latest editions of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions; they were internally questioning the merits of the last formal attempts to divine a theology from nature in the Bridgewater Treatises;
and they were working out for themselves how the latest inventions and discoveries, from the steam engine to electricity, worked. They were men and women, aged between 15 and 70, coming from long, arduous days working in warehouses, and shorter (and less dangerous) days in Council offices and Dissenting chapels. Yet they had in common the fact that they were devoting every spare moment, from an hour a day to an entire month of study, to science. In this light, it is amazing that nobody knew their stories. This project aimed to recover that history.
The history of readership is notoriously difficult to access. Very few libraries are known to have kept their historic lending registers – Innerpeffray and London libraries being two rare examples. Even then, simply knowing the names of readers is of little use if we cannot know something more about their history. Yet on this project, with some ingenuity and the kind help of a few excellent librarians, I have been able to trace and compare the reading habits of avid amateur scientists in Manchester. This gives the historian a great insight into the social and cultural lives of the northern city, and opens up many potential avenues for future research. The project has been incredibly eye-opening. I have enjoyed the chase of the evidence, commiserated in the dead-ends, and become a part of these readers lives as I met them as young teenagers engrossed in learning about mechanics and traced them to their deaths aged 60 in the workhouses of Salford and Greater Manchester. I am very grateful for the opportunity to lead my own research project, and be able to rely on the sound advice of my supervisor, Dr Aileen Fyfe. There is so much more ground to cover, I would be happy to spend much longer on this project … But for now, it’s time to tell these stories in the write-up.