Samuel Alexander’s conception of a university: locality and liberality

This post has been contributed by Anthony Fisher, a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Washington. Previously, he was a Research Fellow (2016-19) and a Newton International Fellow (2014-15) at the University of Manchester. He works on metaphysics and the history of philosophy. At Manchester, his first project was on the philosophy of Samuel Alexander. In June 2021, he edited a collection of essays that celebrates the centenary of Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity, published with Palgrave Macmillan.

Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) was the first Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester, from 1913-1924. Born in Australia, he made his way to the University of Oxford first as a scholar and then a fellow during a phase in philosophy where British idealism was the dominant trend in reaction to the theory of evolution and its explanatory application beyond biology. He became an influential philosopher, defending a unique metaphysical system in the realist tradition. The Faculty of Arts building at the University of Manchester now bears his name and still contains his bust from 1925.

Alexander first arrived in Manchester as Professor of Logic, Mental and Moral Philosophy at Owens College in 1893, when Owens College was a constituent university college of the Victoria University. He was deeply involved in the campaign to make the Manchester constituent its own independent university. He presented his case to The Speaker on 1 March 1902 and again in the Manchester Guardian on 11 June 1902, which was published as a pamphlet titled A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester by Sherratt and Hughes later that month. The timing on his efforts mattered significantly. In June of the previous year, the University Court appointed a committee to investigate the case for dissolution. This committee sent its report, which proposed separation, to the University Court on 31 May 1902. The University Court at the 1902 Convocation on 23 June 1902 voted on whether to support the break-up of the constituent colleges (it did: 137 in favour, 87 not).[1] Owens College received its independence in 1903. For more on the history of the Victoria University, see John Taylor’s ‘1880-2020: A Forgotten Anniversary‘.

For many, Alexander’s pamphlet proved convincing. Owens College was just over 50 years old by 1902. It had had its ups and downs since 1880 within the federal system that was Victoria University. There were many costs and benefits of such an educational system. Liverpool was keen to free itself, whereas Leeds (Yorkshire College) was steadfast in keeping the union alive. Manchester was somewhat on the fence. Alexander’s position on the issue was shared by others such as T.F. Tout, but for him there were philosophical arguments that supported it, arguments that were imbued with his character and that informed his very conception of a university.[2]

Photograph of Samuel Alexander
Owens College Union Magazine no. 20, December 1895

In philosophy, Alexander defended realism but also believed in system and often theorised in systematic terms. Everything is somehow related to everything else and so the best comprehensive explanation is couched in terms of a system. In his metaphysics, spacetime is the fundamental matrix of reality, as he elaborates in Space, Time, and Deity.[3] At the social level, society and social institutions are organic social wholes (which emerge from spacetime, although this is irrelevant here). These social wholes undergo evolutionary progression, just like everything else. Such an idea dates back to Hegel, which Alexander recognised in his early work along with the realisation that Darwinian evolution and Hegelianism converge to some extent on this truth.[4]

From this perspective, the social institution – in this case, Owens College – is inexorably caught up in the organic growth of the city (Manchester) in which it is located and the city’s surroundings (now Greater Manchester). The social whole is the larger organism, namely the city, with the institution as one aspect or part of that social whole. The social whole is its own system. Alexander added that the people of Manchester felt this social reality too; there was growing and intense ‘sentiment of organic connection’, he writes.[5] We now have the makings of an argument, which can be formulated as follows.

The university is one integral aspect of a social organic whole, which is the city and its surroundings. If the university is a constituent of some other external system, then it cannot fill its role in its real place in its social whole. In other words, in order to fill its role the university should be independent of some other system that has parts external to the university and its city. Therefore, Owens College should be an independent university. A subsidiary point is that the federal system is not a true system exhibiting a unity that makes that thing unqualifiedly one. Rather, the federal system is an aggregate or sum of social entities. An aggregate or sum – like a sand dune – is a thing that derives its reality from its parts. It is something that is built from the bottom up. Hence it is not the sort of thing that can suitably govern the parts from above.

By freeing Owens College it would be able to continue its natural course of being caught up in the social life and economic growth of Manchester. People of Manchester would care more deeply for their institution if it was truly theirs. University and community are two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, deans, lecturers, staff, and others at the university would be able to let in new disciplines and faculties such as those of medicine and law, which is exactly what the University of Manchester did. Finally, the university would be able to tend to the specific needs of Manchester and its distinctive development and expansion in the Northwest. The vision of a local and regional university did not foster an inward parochialism, as it was feared by some. Instead the city with its university – as a unified social whole – would attract students from all over the world.

In presenting arguments for an independent university in Manchester Alexander never implemented a destructive endeavour. Talk of ‘freeing the university’ from the chains of the federal system and talk of ‘independence’ were often seen in a negative light, as if independence implied that the federal system was being dismantled, as if it is something that must be torn down. On Alexander’s view, society and social wholes (such as cities with their universities) progress along evolutionary tracks. In the nineteenth century, there were colleges, university colleges, and universities. Owens College began, as the name indicates, as a college in 1851, then it became a university college in the Victoria University, and its next evolutionary step was to become a university. So, for Alexander, Victoria University was not dissolving, it was evolving.[6]

It should be highlighted that when Manchester became independent its name was the ‘Victoria University of Manchester’. On paper Victoria University was evolving into the Victoria University of Manchester and in principle Manchester could become associated or conjoined with other colleges in the future. So the birth of what is now the University of Manchester occurred in 1880, not 1903. From Alexander’s perspective, Owens College was ready to evolve into something that would be better for all those involved. This evolutionary progression supports the optimism that is needed by the people of a city-with-university to make their institution a superior thing in the future. Manchester was ready to make a great university in the twentieth century, and so it did.

What becomes of the University of Manchester in this century remains to be seen. But lessons can be learnt from Alexander’s conception of a university. Besides the metaphysical underpinnings, he held a practical and what he called liberal conception of the university. His views on this are found in a piece he wrote for The Political Quarterly titled ‘The Purpose of a University’, which he wrote 30 years after Owens College had evolved into the University of Manchester.

According to Alexander, the university is an association of students and teachers. The purpose of a university is for students and teachers alike to pursue knowledge in preparation for a job or profession after graduation as well as in advancing research. Specialised research serves as one way to prepare for the professions because it is engaged in building knowledge of a discipline that grounds the professions that students are preparing for. Acquiring knowledge is the key here; hence, the teacher (lecturer) is meant to teach the student, and not simply examine the student. One flaw with the federal system was its focus on examinations removed from personal instruction. The latter model fuelled in the student an obsession with grades, transcripts and the certificate handed out upon graduation.

Alexander also thought that the university’s job of pursuing higher branches of knowledge grounds the professions of ordinary life. The job prospects of engineers would have been greatly diminished if universities did not acquire and extend knowledge in the sciences such that engineering as a special science could be created. A university, therefore, is essentially bound up with practical issues in life. It is not an institution that cultivates knowledge for its own sake or maintains this goal as its sole purpose.

However, acquiring and extending knowledge must be pursued in a liberal spirit, Alexander says. The word ‘liberal’ is not restricted to the liberal arts. It should be broadened because, he argues: ‘It sets us free from the routine which besets the practice of any craft, it saves knowledge from being merely an acquisition or merely useful, animates it with reason and gives it life and zest’.[7] It describes a spirit that we live when we study any kind of subject, from physics and philosophy to art history. This spirit is directed towards understanding what we know. It thus applies to all branches of knowledge, not just Literature, English, and Poetry. Alexander concludes:

A University thus trains its members to perform their craft with liberation from the mere doing of it, because it supplies them with the enlightening quest of reason. All our studies therefore are pursued, not without regard to their utility for life, but not for the sake of their utility. What the University seeks to provide is the command of a subject, afterwards to be applied, which will make the application worthy of a free man. Such education may justly be called liberal.[8]

In sum, the liberal spirit and the practical drive of the university are unified in the interlocking context of the city and local region of which the university is an intimate and central component. The spread of universities across the world vindicates Alexander’s case for letting Owens College evolve into the University of Manchester and his liberal conception of a university is an important reminder of the real nature of a university.[9]

[1] Fiddes, Edward. 1937. Chapters in the History of Owens College and Manchester University, 1851-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 103.

[2] For an account of Tout’s role, see Jones, H.S. 2019. ‘T.F. Tout and the Idea of the University’ in Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929): Refashioning History for the Twentieth Century, ed. C.M. Barron and J.T. Rosenthal. London: University of London Press, pp. 71-85.

[3] Alexander, S. 1920. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow 1916-1918. London: Macmillan.

[4] See Alexander, S. 1889. Moral Order and Progress: An Analysis of Ethical Conceptions. London: Trubner and Co, p. viii.

[5] Alexander, S. 1902. A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester. Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, p. 5.

[6] A Plea for an Independent University in Manchester, op. cit., p. 8.

[7] Alexander, S. 1931. ‘The Purpose of a University’, The Political Quarterly 2(3): 337-52, p. 343.

[8] ‘The Purpose of a University’, op. cit., p. 344.

[9] Images are courtesy of The University of Manchester.

The ‘Kidnapping’ of the Rector of the University of Coimbra during the French Invasions of Portugal

This post has been contributed by Carlos Fernando Teixeira Alves, a doctoral candidate in History in the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.  It explores an intriguing incident in the life of Francisco de Lemos (1735-1822), Rector of the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

The beginning of our history

Francisco de Lemos was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1735, and became an essential piece in Portuguese eighteenth-century political chess.  He was a bishop, counselor, deputy and the Rector of the University of Coimbra, holding this latter position the longest (1770-1779 and 1799-1821).1

From 1772, Lemos was crucial in a process “[…] which saw one of the most far-reaching and ruthlessly authoritarian reforms at Coimbra”.2  After this period, the university went through an important phase with several curricular changes.  The natural sciences and natural law came to occupy an important place, the faculties of philosophy and mathematics were created, and theology, medicine and legal faculties were reformed.

During his second rectorate, French troops, led by General Junot, entered Portugal and assumed the governance of the country.  And in that same year the Rector received a brief but illuminating letter which is partially presented here in the original language and translation:

“[…] Monsieur m’avait monté le desir d´envoyer une Deputation à Sa Majesté l´Empereur, et Roi, mon Maitre,et ce voeu m´a été exprimé depuis par toutes les classes du Royaume […] Sa Majesté […] y a consenti et aprouve la liste, que je lui ai adressée, et dont vous faites partie.”3

“[…] I had a desire to send a Deputation to His Majesty the Emperor, and King, my Master, and this wish has since been expressed to me by all classes of the Realm […] His Majesty […] has consented and approves the list, which I have sent to him, and of which you are a member.”

In this brief letter, the French general made it clear that this was an invitation he could not refuse.  Current historiography agrees with some contemporaries of the Rector when they said that this letter was nothing more than an irrefutable order, aiming to make the rector a hostage.4  Together with the Rector, thirteen more invitations of this kind were sent to other outstanding individuals. With the aim of emptying the country of its most important figures in order to end any kind of opposition to the government of Junot and Napoleon in Portugal.

But why still use the expression “kidnapping” to describe this moment in the life of Francisco de Lemos?  Apart from having the aim of taking the rector to France, where he was closely observed by the French authorities, at no time was he informed of the date of his return.  Thus, this invitation without return meant that he would remain in France as long as his “captors” wanted him to.

rector portugal

Francisco de Lemos, c.1800, unknown artist

Without being able to refuse this invitation, the 73-year-old Rector travelled to France (Bayonne) for the first of two meetings with Napoleon.  On September 16, 1808, Lemos had his first meeting with the French Emperor.  But, what to say, or rather, what strategy to follow?  Other members were present along with the Rector, but the approach and priorities had been previously outlined by Lemos:

  • loyalty to the Portuguese crown;
  • preserving the cohesion of the Portuguese empire;
  • willingness to negotiate other smaller aspects than the previous ones.

On the other side, the demands were quite opposite, and all went to a central point: promote the renunciation of the Portuguese crown.  The meeting ended without any understanding; Lemos and the other members were commissioned to draft a memorandum on the meeting which was subsequently sent and kept on display in Portugal.  The next meeting was in Bordeaux in 1809.  But this was even more fruitless than the first one.  He and other members – perhaps guessing the outcome of the meeting – were not present and this ended up being the last meeting involving Lemos and the remaining members.5

Nevertheless, Francisco de Lemos remained in France, receiving no justification for his enforced stay.  His luck changed only in 1810, where he was contacted again to meet the French Emperor, but this time on an individual basis.  Analyzing one of the many letters that the Rector wrote during this period, he mentioned that the Emperor had in mind a mission for himself and that this implied that he would have to return to Lisbon.  But what mission?  We do not know for sure.  In the various sources analyzed we were unable to obtain a concrete answer, nor did the Rector put forward an answer, even mentioning that he himself was never informed of the content of that mission.  Some authors have already defended the idea that Napoleon wanted to keep Lemos away from the beaches of La Teste de Buch, where he would probably be in contact with English spies.  We risk saying that Lemos preferred to hide the nature of his mission so as not to compromise his situation when he returned to Portugal, we must not forget that in this period the French forces were already losing ground.

Despite the omission we know that Lemos did not refuse his mission because he saw an opportunity to escape from France, despite the inconvenience of being escorted by French troops.  For fear of entering Portugal alongside the enemy troops, he managed to delay one of the stops held in Spain to the point where the troops had to leave without him – health issues, said Lemos.  We conclude that this was finally the moment that the Rector managed to abandon his hostage situation and ended up entering Portugal alone at the end of 1810.

Francisco de Lemos met Napoleon twice, but in view of the complicated situation he was in and fearing reprisals for his stay in France, he did not write much about the French Emperor.  The testimonies of the Rector that have survived show us mainly someone who thought that this trip to France and any possible closer connection with the French authorities, including the Emperor – could be detrimental to his position in Portugal. Maybe that’s why he didn’t write anything about Napoleon, even though he was in two meetings with the Emperor.  He was able to predict correctly that the Portuguese authorities were preparing to accuse him and the other members as traitors and had to infringe a colossal prosecution process as soon as he entered Portuguese territory.

The traitor and the end of the journey

Francisco de Lemos’s predictions were correct, after the French forces left Portuguese space, the national authorities began to pursue all those who were somehow linked to the invaders.  His situation got worse when he was still in France, because the French authorities based in Lisbon circulated false information, the main one being especially negative: Lemos would be in France to invite Napoleon to occupy the Portuguese throne. False, as we have seen, this news had a considerable impact and was central to the narrative of the accusation.  Questioned twice, he ended up counting on the help of the regent to see himself innocent only three years later, in 1813.  His network of influences, which extended to the Court itself, was also effective in this positive outcome.

Very characteristic of the resilience and pragmatism that characterized his personality, in this stay in France we highlight a very significant action.  Francisco de Lemos, and perhaps this is why his personality generates so much interest, often showed a quite correct intuition and reading of reality.  Keeping himself informed of the progress of the conflict and the setbacks of the French forces – during his stay in France he maintained lines of communication with Portugal – he tried to prepare himself for the post-invasion.  Thus, throughout his stay in France he rejected any financial contribution from the French authorities, knowing that this would harm him.  Thus, he financed his stay and all expenses during the years he spent in Bayonne and Bordeaux, which cost around 37 thousand of Portuguese real (Portuguese currency in the period).

In 1813, he returned to his duties as rector of the University of Coimbra where he remained until he resigns from office for health reasons in 1821.  He died the following year without knowing for sure the cause.  He left a very important legacy in the field of ecclesiastical administration, but also in the area of higher education in Portugal, guiding the university in one of its most emblematic processes of university reform.

One of his biographies already left us a phrase well known in his study of the life of Francisco de Lemos: “Reconheçeram-se-lhe virtudes, teve defeitos. Era um homem.”6  In translation: “He was recognized for his virtues, he had defects. He was a man.”



[1] Carlos F. T. Alves, “O intermediário entre o arquitecto e a sua obra. A actuação de D. Francisco de Lemos no seu primeiro reitorado (1770-1779)”, Fragmenta Histórica, n. 4 (2016): 141–77; Carlos F. T. Alves, “O segundo reitorado de D. Francisco de Lemos na Universidade de Coimbra: uma ação conjunta?”, Revista HISTEDBR On-line 16, n. 70 (7 de Maio de 2017): 210–31,

[2] Robert D. Anderson, European universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 30–31.

[3] LEMOS, D. Francisco de, “Exposição dirigida a Sua Alteza Real o Príncipe Regente.” O Instituto, Revista Scientifica e Litteraria. Vol. 46 nº 4, nº5, nº8 bis, nº9 bis, nº10, nº10 bis e nº11. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 1899.

[4] Ana Cristina Araújo, “Revoltas e ideologias em conflito durante as Invasões Francesas”, Revista de História das Ideias VII (1985): 7 – 90.

[5] Francisco de Lemos refrained from being late, although he did not give any plausible explanation; nevertheless, the members present at the meeting followed a script previously written, again, by the Rector.

[6] Genoveva Marques Proença, “D. Francisco de Lemos de Faria Pereira Coutinho. Reitor da Universidade de Coimbra” (Dissertação para a licenciatura em Ciências Histórico e Filosóficas, Coimbra, Universidade de Coimbra, 1955).





Writing a history of the University of Otago, New Zealand

This post is contributed by historian Dr Ali Clarke, a research fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand.  Her most recent book ‘Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University‘ has just been published by Otago University Press and will be launched during the university’s 150th celebrations in March 2019.

The University of Otago takes pride in its status as New Zealand’s oldest university and has organised numerous events to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2019. Establishing a university in Dunedin in 1869 was remarkably ambitious. It was the chief town of the Otago colony, begun just a couple of decades earlier by members of the Scottish Free Church. Gold rushes in the region in the 1860s led to an influx of people, but the population of Dunedin was still only around 15,000.

In response to a suggestion from the Otago high school rector, the New Zealand government appointed a select committee to investigate establishing scholarships to send promising young New Zealanders to universities in the United Kingdom; most people consulted believed a local university would be premature, or even ‘absurd’. Otago, headed by an entrepreneurial provincial council, decided to go ahead and set up a university anyway. It was no accident that it was in a community dominated by Scots that this happened: many Scottish migrants highly valued education and believed it should be offered widely. Furthermore, the Presbyterian Church was willing to fund a couple of professorial chairs.

After two years of preparation – in those days of slow boat transport, it took time for advertisements, applications and professors to travel between Europe and New Zealand – classes began in 1871. The 81 founding students came from around the country. It was a promising start, although many of the students were ill-prepared, without any secondary education. Other regions took note and wanted their own higher education facilities. In 1874, after much debate and negotiation, the University of Otago became a constituent college of a new University of New Zealand, which served as the country’s only degree-awarding body until the 1960s. It left all the teaching to its constituent colleges, established in the main centres of population; those colleges, including the University of Otago, became independent bodies in 1961.

Home science

Professor Ann Strong (right) with the staff of the Home Science Extension Service in the mid-1930s. They travelled around the region providing adult education courses. Faculty of Consumer and Applied Sciences records, MS-1517/064, S15-621E, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

The University of Otago has been in some ways highly entrepreneurial. Within its first decade it had, as well as its arts and science courses, law classes, a medical school and a mining school; its dental school opened in 1907. Women were granted admission from the beginning, and in 1911 a home science school opened, attracting women from around the country. The university also attracted students from near and far to its health science courses; it added further health professional courses later in the 20th century. New campuses in Christchurch and Wellington helped cater for the needs of the expanding medical student roll. Commerce courses started in the 1910s, and Otago boasted New Zealand’s first MBA course in the 1970s.

But the university could also be deeply conservative. It was very slow to recognise the rights and interests of Māori. Although it attracted Māori students, especially to its medical courses, from the 1890s, it was not until the late 20th century that their numbers became significant. Otago was also the last of the New Zealand universities to introduce academic programmes in Māori studies, in the early 1980s. In its early decades almost all of Otago’s academic staff boasted degrees from distinguished old world universities and a remarkable number of Oxbridge graduates continued to be appointed throughout its history. There was much suspicion of American degrees: the first US graduate on staff was Ann Gilchrist Strong, who joined the home science school as a professor in 1921.

HyperFocal: 0

The campus in the 1890s, with the newly-built ‘tin shed’ of the mining school on the right.  H.J. Gill photograph, Box-140-001, S17-172A, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

The biggest challenge in writing a new history to mark the University of Otago’s 150th anniversary was to turn a huge amount of material relating to a complex institution – it currently has campuses in four cities, over 20,000 students, 15 residential colleges and numerous research centres – into one readable volume. Previous histories, written for the jubilee and centenary, focussed on the administration of the organisation and its ‘great men’. The centenary history included a brief biography of every professor, past and present – that left little room for anyone else. The new book pays much more attention to students, and also tells the stories of early women staff and students and of the involvement of Māori with the university. The development of technology and the changing makeup of the student roll, including the rise of international students, also feature strongly. The book is arranged thematically, with about half devoted to the various academic and research programmes, and the remainder covering a diverse range of subjects, from administration and student life to changing teaching styles and the organisation’s built environment.

While I was working on the project I ran a blog, and found it a hugely valuable exercise – I thoroughly recommend it to anybody researching an institutional history (although it can be pretty time-consuming!). I posted regular stories on a wide range of topics relating to the university’s history. It was a good testing ground for material for the book – people corrected errors and provided further information, including identification of photographs. It also allowed me to share stories which, for reasons of space, couldn’t fit into the final book. The metrics were valuable in identifying areas people found most interesting. The blog was popular with the university’s communications and alumni staff, who are always on the lookout for interesting content. They publicised it widely and a couple of stories even made it to the local newspaper. This helped spark further interest in the project. Now the project is complete, the blog is being maintained by the Hocken Collections, the university’s research library, archive and gallery, using posts written by history students as part of their course work.  Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University will be launched during the university’s 150th celebrations in March 2019.


A class underway in the late 1980s/early 1990s in the Castle Lecture Theatres. University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/060, S17-550A, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

Chairs That Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a historic student hall of residence at the University of Manchester.  Over 250 students who passed through Hulme Hall fought during the First World War.  Forty were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the men’s stories.  In 2017, he published Chairs that Stand Empty based on his research.  James was a student at the University of Manchester from 2001 to 2005 and resident at Hulme Hall for his first three years.  In this post, he reflects on using war diaries in his research.

Lies; deception; reluctant courage; absent without leave; rearguard action; administration errors; bravado; missing in action; a court marshal and victims of friendly fire and fate.

If it wasn’t such a tragic reminder of one of our low-points in recent human history, it would be easy to mistake the stories of many of the men who are remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial as having been lifted straight out of a novel or Commando Comic.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018, I want to use this blog post to share how war diaries, written by individual Battalions whilst serving overseas, helped to piece together the stories of three of the men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  The diaries help indirectly to shape an understanding of where and how an individual would have fought in the war and provided a glimpse into some of the horror, bravery and sheer terror that men were exposed too; too often with tragic consequences.

Eyre Spenser Wilkinson
Hulme Hall 1908-09; Classical Studies

Wilkinson - Profile

Battalion ordered to advance – this done by platoon rushes – on leaving assembly trenches [right half of] Battalion met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire in enfilade & shell fire, both high explosive and shrapnel – during this advance, [right half of] Battalion lost 3 officers and 120 men

The [left half of] Battalion, which advanced at the same time, suffered very little.

This entry is from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) on 9 May 1915 at 6:10am.1  Reviewing the diary confirmed that the action at Aubers Ridge in France, in May 1915, was the first of two major offensives that Eyre Wilkinson was involved in with the Battalion.  The indiscriminate nature of warfare is captured in the entry.  With the Battalion split into two, one half advances with little loss of life whilst the other half is torn down within seconds of leaving the relative safety of their trenches.

Four months later Eyre was involved in the Battalion’s second major offensive, this time part of the opening attacks of the Battle of Loos. During the fighting, he was blown up in the blast of a high explosive shell, from which he survived, physically unscathed.  Shortly after being blown up, Eyre joined the Royal Flying Corps as an observer; perhaps having tried to escape the horrors of trench warfare he had witnessed.  He was shot down and killed in January 1916.

A letter from Eyre’s father to Professor Thomas Tout, shortly after Eyre’s death was confirmed, hinted at the toll ten months of fighting had taken.2

The boy is gone, indeed, but I know something of the inner battles that he had to fight to which I think he won. He was with us five days in mid-December radiant and tender and I think with some presentiment of what was coming

William Lawton
Hulme Hall 1913-14; Mathematics


The 1 July 1916 is infamous as the first day of the Battle of The Somme; one that saw over 19,000 British soldiers lose their lives.

For Second Lieutenant William Lawton, and men of the 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, the morning proved uneventful.3

The “great offensive”, as long looked forward to, began at 7.30am; but in Tyler’s Redoubt at Millencourt, we could see nothing, and heard practically nothing.

The first hints of the horrors that had unfolded that day would have come later that evening when the Battalion was ordered to attack the village of La Boisselle at 10.30pm.

Battalion was fallen in, and all the Bombers collected at the front. Unfortunately no guide was obtainable to guide us up to the front line until 9.30pm. We then started up the one communication trench, which was found to be blocked with wounded, and odd men, chiefly from the TYNESIDE SCOTTISH, and others of the 34th Division, who had made an attack in the morning.

As a result of this, our bombers did not get up till 12 midnight, and the 10th Worcesters, who were going to help us in this attack, were in the same plight. The 3 Companies that were following, B, C, D (A being left behind) did not arrive up till 4.30am. As a result of this, we did not attack, because it was broad daylight then, and we were meant to attack in the dark.

The war diary confirms a similar occurrence happened the following night; Staff at Headquarters had agreed to ensure communication trenches were clear but the Battalion encountered a number of wounded men on stretchers which caused more delays.

Finally arriving at the front line at 4am on the morning of the 3rd July, the attack could not be postponed again, which meant the men were not fully briefed before they moved towards the village.

William was killed in the attack, with men of his company later writing to this family that:

Just before his death he was walking around the village (which was still held by the Germans) as if such things as bullets and shells did not exist.4

A victim of circumstances, William, as part of A Company, wasn’t assigned to be part of the original attacks on La Boisselle on the morning of 2 July.  How different would his story have been if the original attacks had taken place as planned?

Robert Southward
Hulme Hall 1915-16


Robert was killed during an attack on The Somme in August 1916 whilst serving with the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

In trying to establish more details surrounding his death, Robert’s family were told by his Commanding Officer that he was killed whilst crossing no-man’s land and that he was buried on the spot where he died, near High Wood.

The description of Robert’s death had struck me as odd.  The Battalion suffered 190 casualties that day during the attacks: 30 were killed, 110 wounded and 50 were reported as missing.  Did they really have time to bury Robert?  Wouldn’t it have been too dangerous?  Robert had only been with the Battalion for four days before the attack – would he have known many of the men he was attacking with?

Included in the war diary for August 1916 was an account of the attack, written by Major Phillips.  He noted that:

The right platoon, which was detailed to attack trench X and to form a strong point at NW corner of High Wood, left their trenches and was seen to advance into our intense bombardment, which was not timed to lift until 2.48pm. Remainder of right appears to have followed on too quickly and suffered a similar fate.5

Reading the above account along with the information provided to his family, it seems certain that Robert was part of the platoon that advanced into their own bombardment, subsequently being killed by his own side.

It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services.  Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.  Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

If you do pause for a moment of silence on Remembrance Day, spare a thought for the men of Hulme Hall who never made it home.  Their stories serve a powerful reminder of the horrors and futility of war and send a clear message to future generations.  They should never be forgotten.



[1] 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) War Dairies, held at the National Archive, Kew, reference WO/95/1730/0/397

[2] Letter written by Henry Spenser Wilkinson, father of Eyre, to Professor Thomas Tout dated February 1916, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1

[3] 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment War Diaries, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/2081

[4] Extracts from letters received by the Lawton family following William’s death, sent to Rev T Nicklin, undated. Extracts held within Hulme Hall Administration Records 1907-1915, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/7/3

[5] 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diaries January 1916 to December 1916, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/1270/3

Photographs of Eyre Wilkinson, William Lawton and Robert Southward: Hulme Hall Chronicle 1916-1920, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1


Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business

Dresser cover31_header

This post was contributed by Henry McGhie, head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum.  

The University of Manchester’s cultural institutions are home to millions of objects, specimens, artworks and books. Each of these tells a story, or can tell a story with a bit of detective work. Among these are a collection of bird skins and eggs from Henry Dresser (1838–1915), one of the leading ornithologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dresser had an exciting life: his father was engaged in the Baltic and New Brunswick timber trade, working in London. Henry was sent to Germany and Sweden, alone, as a teenager to be schooled and learn European languages. He worked in the timber business in Finland and New Brunswick, where his father owned an enormous forest and sawmill. Following on from this he spent 14 months in Mexico and Texas at the height of the American Civil War. He settled in the timber and iron trades in London. Throughout his life, Dresser was a most ambitious natural history collector and ornithologist. He played a leading role in scientific societies, at a time when these were being established, as the world’s birds were being discovered and described, and as the bird conservation movement developed. Dresser made extensive collections that formed the basis of over 100 publications, including great illustrated books that combined masterpieces of bird illustration with cutting-edge scientific information. Dresser’s life is explored in the book ‘Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: birds, books and business’, recently published by Manchester University Press. The book is also an exploration of transformations in 19th and early 20th century ornithology, and the role that private gentlemen naturalists played in a time without institutions or professionals.

Dresser cover31

Natural history blossomed in the nineteenth century, as imperial and colonial expansion made inroads into hitherto unknown lands (at least unknown to Westerners). Official collectors accompanied many government, geographical and military expeditions, while even greater numbers of people involved in the machinery of empire took up natural history as a hobby and participated in ‘informal empire’. The subject was dominated by the discovery, description and classification of the world’s wildlife and natural resources. This great endeavour involved enormous numbers of people in a kind of production line connecting those in the field—farmers, lighthouse keepers, indigenous peoples, gamekeepers, fishermen, entrepreneurs—with a natural history readership, mostly in the seats of empire. Great numbers of natural history specimens flooded into ports and cities, with London described as ‘a kind of emporium of the whole world’. Natural history discoveries were presented at scientific meetings, and published in societies’ proceedings and, more especially, in beautiful, hand-coloured plates in subscription books.

The great bird books of the late 19th century were a combination of close observational accuracy, artistic talent, and scientific illustration. They brought to life the preserved remains of birds, many of which still reside in museums today. Among the finest was ‘A History of the Birds of Europe’ by Henry Dresser (1838–1915), begun with Richard Sharpe and issued between 1871–82. The illustrations in the great natural history books were, arguably, among the most beautiful ever produced and brought great fame to their publishers. John James Audubon had his own illustrations produced for his famous (and extremely valuable) ‘Birds of America’, famous (infamous) for both its price and its scale, in Double Elephant Folio size. Among British naturalists, John Gould is especially famous for the beautiful books that he produced (with the assistance of a team of artists, including Edward Lear and Gould’s wife Elizabeth).

Illustrations had been important in ornithology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as specimens themselves were liable to be destroyed by clothes moths and other insect larvae. A reliable preservative was discovered, in the form of a bar of soap mixed with arsenic and camphor, the lather of which was painted on the inside of bird skins and which was a very effective deterrent. After this time, ornithology blossomed, aided by a number of instruction manuals with detailed instructions on how to prepare birds. For the most part, field collectors prepared birds as study skins: they removed the body via a shallow cut on the breast, cutting it off at the knees, shoulders and base of the skull. The ‘empty’ skin was filled with cotton wool or similar soft material, and positioned to lie on its back, with collecting information written on labels that were attached to the legs of specimens. This standardised preparation method meant that specimens from different places and different people could be amassed together in series of similar specimens, aiding comparison. Indeed, this preparation method is still used in museums, over 150 years later.

The great artists of the mid–late nineteenth century could do an amazing thing: in the days before photography or good-quality printing, and working in Europe, they could take a study skin and imagine what the bird had been like when it was alive, producing beautiful, detailed illustrations that captured the positioning, colouring and patterning of birds as they would have been in life. Joseph Wolf was especially famous and worked as the official artist at the London Zoological Gardens, but developed eye problems. A young Dutch artist, John Gerrard Keulemans, took over from Wolf, and worked at a time when great numbers of bird books were in production. Both Wolf and Keulemans made great use of visits to London Zoological Gardens, the original ‘zoo’, to study the form and attitude of birds when they were alive. The positioning of birds was standardised, so that the more colourful sex (usually the male) occupied the dominant position in plates. Joseph Wolf, who was criticised by some ornithologists as being ‘too much of an artist’, was similarly critical of artists who produced ‘nothing but a map of the animal’. Keulemans was in great demand, and illustrated many (most) of the great birds books produced in Britian in the late 19th century.

Dresser’s collections have much to tell us about both birds, and the ways people have studied and come to know what we know today. In a world where many birds face an uncertain, or all too certain future, Dresser’s collections are a testament both to the foundations of ornithology, and a priceless resource that continues to be made use of by researchers, who use these century old specimens as a source of DNA, to study changes in pollutant levels, and to understand the diversity of the world’s birds. They are very much the building blocks of ornithology.

‘Of the greatest practical importance’: Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester

David Woodbridge received a Cultural Engagement Fellowship from the British Inter-University China Centre, for which he undertook a study of the E. H. Parker Collection at the John Rylands Library. A summary of the collection, along with links to relevant handlists, can be found here:  For further information, David can be contacted on:

In September 2015, in a speech in Chengdu, China, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne invited Chinese investment in his Northern Powerhouse scheme. His visit formed part of a broader attempt to increase ties between China and the UK. During his speech in Chengdu, Osborne referred to an announcement, made a few days before, that the government would be investing £10 million with the aim of increasing the number of children in Britain learning Mandarin to an additional 5,000 by 2020.[1] This, Osborne claimed, would ‘give more young people the opportunity to learn a language that will help them succeed in our increasingly global economy.’[2]

This is not the first time that the study of Mandarin has been promoted in Britain in order to strengthen economic ties with China. Nor is it the first time that it has been done particularly with the economy of northern England in mind. In 1901 E. H. Parker (1849-1926) became Professor of Chinese at Owens College, Manchester (then a constituent part of the federal Victoria University, and reconstituted as the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903). Parker’s appointment was perhaps the first time that the study of Chinese was promoted in Britain with the stated intention of enhancing the country’s commercial prospects in China. As Henry Harrison, the Blackburn manufacturer who funded the chair, stated in 1903 in a letter to Owens College: ‘a knowledge of the Chinese Language has become of the greatest practical importance’.[3]

Henry Harrison (1834-1914), was a cotton manufacturer, and from 1887 also served as president of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce. In 1896 this Chamber sent a commercial mission to China, and in its report the mission drew attention to the many potential export and investment opportunities, particularly in the cities inland recently made open to foreign trade. But the report also highlighted the challenges that presented themselves to British businesses in China. Prominent among these was the lack of foreign merchants with a good knowledge of the Chinese language, a deficiency which left them dependent on compradors who, according to the report, could not be relied upon to act in the best interests of the foreign firms they represented. ‘The want of a knowledge of the language was so frequently brought home to us in our journey through the country’, concluded the report’s authors, ‘that we are quite prepared to advise, that every junior attached to a mercantile house should be compelled to learn the language of the country’.[4]

Harrison appears to have taken this advice very seriously. In 1900 he donated £200 ‘for the study of Eastern Languages and ultimately for the establishment of a Chair in Chinese.’[5] His donation was recorded in a list of subscribers to the College’s commercial education scheme, which had been initiated the previous year. This scheme consisted of a series of evening courses, completion of which led to the award of the Certificate of Commercial Education. Candidates had to select from a range of courses on economics, commerce, geography and commercial law, and also to study at least one modern language. Initially students could choose from French, German and Spanish, but thanks to Harrison’s donation, Chinese was soon added to this list. Over the next few years, the courses offered in commercial education were expanded and formalised, and in 1904 a Faculty of Commerce was established, at that time only the second such faculty to be formed in a British university.

A professorship in Chinese was instituted in 1901, and further donations from Harrison safeguarded its future. Parker was appointed to the professorship, and would remain in position until his death, in 1926. This was not Parker’s first academic position. Since 1896 he had been Reader in Chinese at University College Liverpool (which became the University of Liverpool in 1903). Prior to this, Parker had worked for over twenty years for the British consular service in China. During this time, he had been a prominent member of what Norman J. Girardot has described as ‘a remarkable group of hyphenated missionary- and consul-scholars’.[6] These amateur sinologists undertook a range of enquiries, and their findings and disputes filled the pages of journals such as the China Review, and represented a first flourishing of English-language scholarship on China. Parker’s most distinctive contributions were in the field of Chinese dialectology, but he wrote on a wide range of topics, including history and religion.[7]

Parker’s classes were deemed a great success. As early as 1904, the University Council asserted that ‘the value of the classes has been demonstrated by the nature of the appointments obtained and of the work entrusted to those who have studied the Chinese language under Professor Parker’s instruction. The advantages offered by these classes ought to be more widely known in the mercantile community.’[8] Manchester’s professorship in Chinese was only the fifth to be founded in the UK, and the first outside of Oxford, Cambridge and London. But more significantly, it was distinctive in its focus on training students for an engagement with the China of contemporary times. As Parker proudly asserted a few years later, what set the University of Manchester apart from Cambridge, Oxford and London was that it was involved ‘actively in preparing students for China’.[9]

However, despite the attested benefits of offering instruction in Chinese, other universities did not follow Manchester’s example in establishing chairs. Neither did Manchester appoint a successor following Parker’s death in 1926, though Edgar W. Mead (1887-1941) was later employed for a while as Reader in Chinese Language and Social Economy. Following this, it was not until 2006 that Chinese studies again became a programme of study at the University of Manchester. This time, however, it is one of many such programmes that have commenced in British universities since the turn of the century. The courses offered predominantly have a contemporary focus, often with the option of combining Chinese language with business studies. It would seem that, though it did not catch on at the time, Harrison’s vision of Chinese studies as a practical training for those seeking to engage with contemporary China, and particularly with its commerce, has become the predominant model in British universities today.




[3] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Harrison to The Treasurer, 21 May 1903. University of Manchester Archives.

[4] Report of the Mission to China of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce, 1896-7 (Blackburn: The North-East Lancashire Press Company, 1898), pp. 326-7.

[5] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Extract from Owens College Council Minutes, 10 October 1900. University of Manchester Archives.

[6] Norman J. Girardot, The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage (London: University of California Press, 2002), p.7.

[7] For Parker’s work on Chinese dialectology, see: David Prager Branner, ‘The Linguistic Ideas of Edward Harper Parker’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 119:1 (1999), pp. 12-34. Many of Parkers books can be viewed at

[8] Printed Minutes of Court /Reports of Council to Court, GB 133 OCA/8/3: 10 November 1904. University of Manchester Archives.

[9] Report of Council to Court: 1919, GB 133 UOP/2/16. University of Manchester Archives.

Image Credit: Historic Images, Lancashire

University Academics and the First World War

This entry is by Dr James Peters, Archivist at the John Rylands Library and member of the Research Group on University History. It originally appeared on the library’s Special Collections blog, and is reproduced here with Dr Peters’ kind permission.

The First World War not only dislocated the everyday work of the University’s academics, but also undermined some of their cherished beliefs about transnational scholarship. Long-established academic networks between Britain and Germany soon broke down.

At Manchester, few academics were either publicly jingoistic or pacifist; most seem to have agreed with the official policy on the War, and encouraged  students and colleagues to enlist. Some, especially those with German connections, experienced public hostility because of their previous links with belligerent states. One of the most eminent was the physicist Arthur Schuster.

Schuster (1851-1934), who held chairs in physics from 1881 to 1907,  had built up an international reputation for Manchester’s physics department.  He had been born in Germany, but moved to Manchester in the late 1860s, and became a naturalised citizen in 1875. He lived at Kent House, Victoria Park (now part of St Anselm Hall), before moving to Twyford, Berkshire  after his retirement.


Schuster was a passionate believer in international academic co-operation, particularly between national scientific academies, in support of free enquiry and scholarly communication. Like many other British academics, Schuster was a great admirer of the German university system and he helped organise British-German student exchanges in the years before 1914.

This made him a source of suspicion for some once War had broken out. Schuster had to remove radio equipment from his house after being accused of spying, and one of his brothers was forced to issue a public statement declaring the family’s loyalty to Britain.

In early 1914 Schuster had been appointed president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Manchester in September 1915.  This was a great personal honour, but unfortunately, Schuster’s  German background was to become an issue.

Anti-German feeling in Manchester had been relatively muted in the early months of the War, but riots had occurred in May 1915, with German shops and homes being attacked. The triggers for these outbursts appear to have been the sinking of the Lusitania and the use of poison gas at the second battle of Ypres.

The British Association meeting became embroiled in these conflicts as this flier indicates.

Schuster (1)

The leaflet was discovered during the cataloguing of the papers of Henry Roscoe, another eminent University academic, who was using his good offices to support Schuster’s presidency.

In the event, the Meeting, which was held at the University, passed off without incident. Schuster’s presidential address, “The common aims of science and humanity”,  was a passionate assertion of the benefits of free scientific inquiry. Carefully avoiding controversy, Schuster hoped that scientists’ support for the War effort would not be self-defeating: “…only through victory shall we achieve a peace in which once more science can hold up her head, proud of her strength to preserve the intellectual freedom which is worth more than material prosperity, (and) to defeat the spirit of evil that destroys the sense of brotherhood among nations”. Poignantly, he learnt on the same day that his son had been wounded at Gallipoli.

Schuster’s experience was by no means uncommon. Academics who were German nationals and of military age faced internment, while others lost their jobs or faced ostracism from colleagues. By comparison, Arvid Johannson, the University’s professor of German and a Baltic German by background, was something of an exception, when he was appointed dean of the faculty of arts in 1916, apparently without controversy.

Books-in-Kind: Philanthropic Resources for a New 1960s University

This post has been contributed by Dr Triona Fitton, who has recently published a monograph on the hidden history of philanthropy at the University of Kent. Triona blogs about her research here, and will be speaking at this year’s ARNOVA conference in Chicago.

The universities of the 1960s started out exceptionally short on books and other library resources. They were especially sensitive to the fact that this set them back behind the long-established ancient and Red Brick universities in Britain and their vast, distinguished and often donated collections.

The first University of Kent library was housed one mile away from the campus, above a shop on Station Road West near to the Canterbury city walls. No provision was available for a library building at the time, so the library remained at that site until October 1964, when the need for further space for the library collection necessitated some resources relocating back up the hill to a hut on Beverley Farm.

The first Librarian at the University was a man called G.S. Darlow, himself a philanthropic donor to the University (a cup bearing his name and years of service sits in the silverstore of Eliot College, a gift from the librarian when he left in 1977).  Darlow recorded in his first report in January 1964 that, in addition to those purchased by the University, over 3,000 books had been donated to his catalogue. By 1970, donated books had risen to a formidable total of 36,638 – one fifth of the entire library collection[1].

An early appeal was made through the Kent Messenger Newspaper and through that over 12,000 volumes were collected by the arrival of the first intake in 1965.

Many volumes came from early benefactors, including Pfizer; from the Sponsors of the University, such as Lord Cornwallis, and from the first members of staff and early recipients of honorary doctorates such as Bonamy Dobrée.

Other early library donations of note include volumes from the Labour Party library, the French Foreign Office, London Transport, the Navy League, United Africa Company, Wye College (with whom Kent would later collaborate to host courses in the Medway area); even three of Kent’s fellow 1960s universities, Lancaster, Sussex and Essex, donated small collections of books to the library.

Library-e1426612753665Unpacking books arriving at the University Library, late 1960s.

However, perhaps the most esteemed donations to the University library were in the form of collections, including the T.S. Eliot Collection (given in part by Bonamy Dobrée, including some with inscriptions from Eliot himself), the Darwin Collection (given by Maidstone donor Jack Johns, a collector of books on evolutionary theory and biology), the Weatherill papers (some of which were given by Lord Weatherill himself, including many personal correspondence), the Melville Collection (given by Andrew Melville III’s widow Joan, featuring documents that span over 100 years of the Melville family’s theatrical history) and the John Crowe collection (a collection of Shakespearean texts that formed the basis for the University of Kent’s Special Collections archive back in the 1970s), among others.

The first Templeman library opened in 1968. It has continued to grow and and is currently undergoing a £12 million extension and a £10 million refurbishment. The early philanthropic gifts may well get forgotten as the library grows and far exceeds the University’s early plan for it to house 1 million books and room for 2,500 people to study. But these first books-in-kind – and the benefactors who gave them – are remembered here as part of the philanthropic groundwork of the University of Kent.

This blog contains excerpts from ‘Hidden History: Philanthropy at the University of Kent’

[1] King, P.G. (1970) “Progress and Developments in the Library of the University of Kent at Canterbury”, Masters in Arts thesis, University of Loughborough. p.44

Hannah Beswick, the ‘Manchester Mummy’

Guest Contribution by Robert McCombe

The history of the University of Manchester is far from straight forward, entailing physical relocations, mergers, separations and expansion. As might be expected, the ideas that underpinned the various bodies and institutions have shifted almost as much over the years. One way to approach these movements is through a particular aspect of the University – its Museum and the people associated with it. There are a large number of recognised and lauded figures who played prominent roles in this history, but this article approaches one very particular woman; Hannah Beswick (1688-1758). Her relationship to the University reflects its evolution, touching upon the unconventional and unsavoury through the merging of two very distinct entitles; Owens College and the Manchester Natural History Society (MNHS).

Hannah was wealthy Oldham resident who became recognised for her subsequent mummification following her death and the display of her remains at her surgeon’s house and latterly the Museum of the Manchester Society of Natural History, before her eventual burial in 1868. Her preservation was a reflection of a personal preoccupation with mortality and a fear of being buried alive. The use of her body traced the increasingly formal and respectable atmosphere engendered within museums as ideas of curiosity and morbid voyeurism became replaced with notions of education and respectable taxonomies.

As both a person and an object she was explicitly local in her context and her treatment encapsulates the development of University and Museum and the shifting boundaries between spectacle and science, boundaries that saw both physical and intellectual shifts. Yet unlike the numerous other human remains in Manchester Museum, she no longer remains on display, nor is any mention made of her. What I want to argue, in fact, is that there is a rich history of unseen objects and local history that eventually became literally reburied as it refused to fit emerging ideals of a morally respectable and civic culture that emerged through the establishment of the University’s predecessor, Owen’s College and the nascent Manchester Museum.

Charles White, mediumDr. Charles White, Manchester Surgeon

To return to the question of Hannah Beswick’s identity; she was the daughter of John Beswick of Failsworth, Hannah was born in 1688, into a wealthy family. Apparently increasingly fearful of being buried alive, following an experience of her brother’s near living burial in York, she commissioned her family physician, the Manchester surgeon Dr Charles White (1728-1813), to ensure that a similar fate did not befall her.[1] Popular stories indicate that Dr White was paid a significant sum of money to embalm Hannah. However, the lack of any such explicit mention of this process within the will suggests that a briefer period of close observation was intended rather than any more permanent solution such as embalming.[2] Nonetheless, White, a well-recognised collector of curiosities (such as the skeleton of highwayman Thomas Higgins) and student of the anatomist William Hunter (1718-83) was familiar with the principals of embalming and conducted the process upon Hannah.[3]

While the details of Hannah’s preservation are unknown, Hunter’s preferred process (and therefore White’s probable approach) consisted of injecting the body with a mixture of vermillion, turpentine, and oil of lavender and rosemary. Following this, organs were removed and cavities packed with plaster of paris. [4] Following her preservation at Cheetwood, Hannah was placed within a wooden case in White’s home in Sale, Ancoats Hall, where she remained until his death. She was bequeathed to a Dr Ollier, who then in turn donated the remains to the recently established NHSM Museum in 1828. The donation to what was ostensibly a collection focusing primarily upon Natural History was not as odd as it immediately appeared. Contributions to the Society provided a point of patronage and social recognition and covered a variety of objects from the obvious to the obscure and curious including other human remains such as a bitumen coated Peruvian mummy, a Maori head and one Egyptian mummy ‘Asroni’.[5]

The wider fascination with displays of human remains had continued into the nineteenth century in a variety of guises. At the more professional – and therefore respectable – spectrum was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) desire to become an auto-icon and tool of anatomical education.[6] In stark contrast were the public unwrappings that formed part of an emerging trend known as ‘mummymania’. Taking place across the country, Egyptian remains were displayed and dissected in both private and public displays, designed to, nominally at least, inform, but primarily to entertain.[7]

The display of Hannah in Manchester fell somewhere between these two extremes mentioned above. Despite the Society’s focus upon fauna, flora and conchology, she highlighted the often arbitrary methods of collecting and her designation and display as a ‘curiosity’ emphasised this. Nonetheless, contemporary museum guides made some attempt to provide a little information about her origins, but were unable to place her within an obvious taxonomic framework. This uneasy situation continued until the collection in its entirety was sold to the recently established Owen’s College in 1868, as the Society was unable to continue financially or logistically.[8] The geologist William Boyd Dawkins, then head of the College’s own collections, expressed his dismay at the lack of obvious organisation of taxonomy with the Museum.[9]

As problematic as the collection itself and the display of remains such as Hannah’s may have been, the College itself was far from unimpeachable. At the point of sale, Owens College had recently relocated to its current site on Oxford Road, but its earlier establishment in 1851 on Quay Street had seen as variety of criticisms levelled at it. A Free Lance article of 4th January 1868 described the area as ‘difficult to imagine a public edifice in a less reputable and pleasing locality.’[10] Henry Brierly, a loyal member of the College agreed, observing that

‘the entrance from Deansgate was guarded by a very Scylla and Charybdis of disreputable licenced houses…traditions of our day reported that a former Owens College porter had been inveigled, robbed and ejected in puris naturablis[11]

Such an environment was greatly at odds with the aspirations of the College. Aware that other Institutions in Birmingham, Durham and even Kings College, London were in financial difficulties, the decision was made to move to more salubrious quarters and expand on Oxford Road under the auspices of Thomas Ashton.[12] It was also at this stage, well over a century after her death, that Hannah was permanently removed from display.

The use of a new site on Oxford Road from 1868 can be seen as a deliberate attempt to engineer a location towards the purpose of polite middle class discourse for the College and through this, the Museum.  Given Owens’ establishment of the College, a key figure in the role of patronage can be established, although his direction through his will was minimal, meaning that these decisions cannot be attributed to an individual, but rather the various governing bodies of the College. The relocation and design of the new buildings by Alfred Waterhouse can also been seen as part of a wider attempt to redefine the role of both College and Museum. With Waterhouse having designed the South Kensington Museum (Now the Natural History Museum), the choice of architect reflected ambition and aspiration in a specific museal context. Considered within the context of Manchester city itself, the Museum can be viewed as an extension of middle class control tied together by one architect. Waterhouse also designed the Assize Courts and Town Hall. While out on the city’s periphery, the Museum can be seen as an architectural shift from civic control towards a place of cultural control, or at least influence.[13]

As well as the upheaval of a physical relocation and architectural redefinition, Hannah’s removal was also due to the role of another significant individual from the Museum’s history. R.D Darbishire, one of the early members of the Museum Committee and its Commissioner, had been involved since the early days of the 1868 Commission that sifted the Natural History Society’s collections for ‘suitable’ material as well as acting as a personal donor. His most notable donation was the collection that became known by his name – the Darbishire lithics.[14] He was also a Legatee and Committee member of the Whitworth Institutive (later to become the Whitworth Art Gallery), and he played important roles in establishing both sites and the nature of their collections. Objects considered to lack an edifying or educational purpose were disposed of by the commissioner of the newly formed Manchester Museum.[15] The difficult and complex meanings placed around Hannah’s remains evoking troubling concepts of spectacle and entertainment, rather than morally certain education meant that her exclusion had always been probable. Yet others, such as Asru, emerged with the opening of the Museum in 1889, while predating the establishment proper of an Egyptian collection, reflecting the continuation of an ad hoc approach to the Museum’s collections.

Yet if she was not to be put on display, the troubling question of what to do with Hannah’s Christian remains…remained. Following consultation with the Bishop of Manchester, surviving relatives and the Home Secretary, a discreet and unmarked burial took place at Harperhuy Cemetery, near Manchester.[16] The reason given for the secrecy was the fear of grave robbers, who might seek to profit further from Hannah’s notoriety. Although the worries proved unfounded, descendants viewed the incident as a ‘scarcely creditable episode’.[17]

Hannah Beswick’s preservation, exhibition and movement through private to public viewing reflects the ability of the modern, as well as the ancient dead to have new meanings placed around them post mortem and for these in turn to evolve, become forgotten and rediscovered.  She went from being an individual, to a source of wealth and bequests, to a curiosity, and an inconvenience before finally being recognised as an individual again in the course of her final internment.

Selected Further Reading

Alberti, Sam (2009) Nature and Culture: Objects, disciplines and the Manchester Museum (Manchester, Manchester University Press)

Anon. ‘Response to Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian March 31st 1900

Dobson, Jessie (1953), “Some Eighteenth Century Experiments in Embalming”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Oxford, Oxford University Press) 8 (4), 431–441

Fiddes, Edward (1937) Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University (Manchester University Press, Manchester)

Grimshaw, William (1900) ‘Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian, 4th May

Gunn, S. (1999) ‘Middle class. modernity and the provincial city: Manchester 1860-80’ in Kidd, A, and Nicholls, D, (1999) Gender, Civic Culture and Consumerism: Middle class identity in Britain 1800-1940 (Manchester University Press, Manchester)

MacGregor, Arthur (2008) Curiosity and Enlightenment (Yale, Yale University Press)

Rogers, Beverley (2012) ‘Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian mummies on show’, Popular Exhibitions, Science nad Showmanship, 18401910 (London, Pickering and Chatto), 199-218

Zigarovich, Jolene (2009), ‘Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life (Duke University Press) 33 (3), 65–104

[1] Grimshaw, Wlliam ‘Miss Ann Beswick, The Manchester Guardian 4th May 1900

[2] Ibid  and Anon. ‘Response to Miss Ann Beswick’, The Manchester Guardian March 31st 1900

[3] Dobson, Jessie (1953), ‘Some Eighteenth Century Experiments in Embalming’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Oxford University Press) 8 (4), 433

[4] Zigarovich, Jolene (2009), “Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth-Century England”, Eighteenth-Century Life (Duke University Press) 33 (3), 86

[5] Asroni (now Asru) is the sole survivor of the earliest human remains collected by the Society and is currently on display in the Egyptian Gallery at Manchester Museum.

[6] MacGregor, Arthur (2008) Curiosity and Enlightenment (Yale, Yale University Press), 279-80

[7] Rogers, Beverley (2012) ‘Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian mummies on show’, Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 (London, Pickering and Chatto), 199-218

[8] Alberti, Sam (2009), 20-2

[9] Alberti (2009), 22

[10] Fiddes, Edward (1937) Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University (Manchester University Press, Manchester), 25

[11] Brierly, Henry Memories of Quay Street and Owens College (Private Printing), 6-7

[12] Fiddes (1937), 63-6

[13] Gunn, S. (1999) ‘Middle class. modernity and the provincial city: Manchester 1860-80’ in Kidd, A, and Nicholls, D, (1999) Gender, Civic Culture and Consumerism: Middle class identity in Britain 1800-1940 (Manchester University Press, Manchester), 116-118

[14] Manchester Museum Annual Report 1908-9, 9

[15] Alberti (2009), 22

[16] Grimshaw, Wlliam ‘Miss Ann Beswick, The Manchester Guardian 4th May 1900

[17] Grimshaw (1900)