Unravelling 200 years of the social network

Laurence Scales discovers a Victorian social network bursting with eccentric characters in the archives of Ri membership forms – when he can read the handwriting, that is.

  • Image of Arnold Henry Savage Landor and his cats

    Arnold Henry Savage Landor with cats Kerman and Zeris

    Credit: Public domain

In celebration of International Archives Day, this blog launches a new series in which Ri volunteer Laurence Scales tells the stories of some of the weird, wonderful, and fascinating Ri members through the ages.

The Royal Institution was set up to diffuse science to the public and so its membership records have reflected a diverse public: from accountants to poets, engineers to clergymen, charlatans to spies. One member went down with the Lusitania. Another founded an early airline.

As programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have made people more interested in their ancestry, the Curator of Collections, Charlotte New, has been keen to have the archive of old membership records at her fingertips on computer. I have been working as an Ri volunteer to make that possible.  

Although there are a few forms of early date, most of the records that still exist are from after 1848. Until the 1990s the Ri operated rather like a gentleman’s club (except that it always admitted women). Applications for membership were posted up on the notice board for a month and existing members were invited to sign in support. Inevitably there was also a fast track for Dukes and Earls. 

In the membership forms and supporters’ signatures we glimpse a social network. There were fewer people then, and there were more possibilities for wide ranging links through marriage, church attendance, teaching, business etc. I often wish I had been at some of their dinner gatherings when perhaps engineering met zoology, or art met geology. The conversations must have been amazing.

Some of the membership forms are begrimed as if covered in soot. A special smoke sponge can help with that. Unfortunately, what the sponge cannot do is to unravel some of the handwriting. In those days there was no obligation for people to print their name. Knowledge of Victorian scientists helps. One trap for the unwary is that before the 20th century a double ‘s’ was often written as ‘fs’. Many members lived to a great age and their writing became spidery to say the very least. (Louisa Tyndall, widow of Professor John Tyndall was still signing in 1935 at the age of 90. Another member was England’s oldest serving judge.) If I say that many Ri members have been doctors I need hardly state the difficulty of reading their signatures any further.

Of course one of the first signatures that I came across was that of the great Michael Faraday. In around 3,000 records that I have so far looked at, I have no hesitation in saying that his signature is to me the most beautiful, to the extent that I scanned it and have it in a frame now at home. All signatures are individual but his looks as if it was designed by an artist. I am no graphologist but it has grace, flow, modernity, style and it is beautifully clear without being in the least stilted. To my 21st century eye it looks almost like a logo.

  • Faraday's signature

    Beneath Michael Faraday’s signature is that of wealthy wine merchant and amateur scientist, John Peter Gassiot whose name is written with the double s written as fs.

    Credit: Ri

  • The signature of Theophilus Caldwell Sandeman.

    The signature of Theophilus Caldwell Sandeman.  Luckily he did not have to fit it on the back of a credit card.

    Credit: Ri

  • Douglas Galton’s signature

    Versions of Douglas Galton’s signature ranging from the indistinct to the ambiguous.

    Credit: Ri

It is impossible to identify every signature but I have unscrambled most. I have some printed membership lists at my side, but these do not always help to identify the signatures. One of the worst that I regularly see is Douglas Galton, collaborator with Florence Nightingale, engineer, and cousin of another member, the ‘mad’ Victorian explorer and statistician, Francis Galton. At each encounter it seems to metamorphose, at one time looking like Myles Grafton and the next like Rufus Gaydon. I often have to record my own interpretation or rendering of a signature, however outrageous, so that I can come back to it weeks later if I see something like it again.  J. S. Highfield I would never have deciphered without a helpful typed note left by someone who knew. It looks more like Quilp, just a few vertical strokes and dots. Other extraordinary renderings which I have put on one side, waiting for them one day to resolve into something meaningful, include: ’Worshibo’, ‘Lewkstraw’ and ‘Izitulf’. 

I take pleasure in the euphonious names of antique members, the personal equivalent of a fine cabriole leg or well-proportioned scroll foot. Take for example these grand Victorian handles: Surtees Harwood Harwood, Shelford Bidwell, Theophilus Caldwell Sandeman and Falconer Larkworthy. Harwood Harwood died young but Bidwell invented an early type of fax machine, Larkworthy was a banker and Sandeman, of course, was in the port wine trade. 

Searching on the web for many of the names will find a photograph from the National Portrait Gallery or perhaps a portrait among Your Paintings. I particularly like explorer Henry Savage Landor with his cats. Or maybe there will be an odd little detail of a life. Another Sandeman, John Glas Sandeman, had his dead horse shipped home from the Crimean War for burial on Hayling Island. One pictures Nelson’s corpse in a barrel of brandy - only bigger. Or maybe it was salted like biltong. I will probably never know.

From the very beginning in 1799 women have been able to join the Ri, a very unusual stance for an organisation at that time. Women have been instrumental in much of the Ri’s scientific progress, and members have included Lady Chantry (wife of the sculptor of Michael Faraday) and Agnes Clerke, a Victorian writer on astronomy who has a lunar crater named after her.

Some of the names are so famous that seeing their handwriting gives me goose pimples: Robert Stephenson, I. K. Brunel (dreadful signature!), Joseph Lister, Lord Kelvin, J. J. Thomson. Their stories are well known. But outside the Ri I devise London walking tours celebrating colourful lives from the history of discovery and invention. So I find particularly rewarding the parade of lesser known Ri members with extraordinary life stories and achievements to their credit. Watch this space in the coming months for a few of the more remarkable tales.

  • Arnold_Henry_Savage_Landor

    Henry Savage Landor and the cats he travelled with from Russia to India

    Credit: Public domain

  • The membership form of Robert Stephenson

    The membership form of Robert Stephenson, railway engineer (also MP and Fellow of the Royal Society), was signed by William Grove who invented the fuel cell and Charles Wheatstone whose telegraph started the ‘Victorian internet’ revolution.

    Credit: Ri

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence.

He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries. In 2013 he helped to set the annual Talk Science quiz at the British Library.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

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