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The Derby Philosophical Society

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The Derby Philosophical Society.

One of the greatest philosophical societies of the C18th was the Lunar Society at Birmingham which met at Matthew Boulton’s house on Handsworth Heath. One of its most lively and engaged members was Dr Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield. He was one of the founding members of the Lunar Society and sorely missed being able to meet with the other members when he had to leave Lichfield for Derby in 1782. He particularly missed the fine brain of Matthew Boulton, business man and manufacturer and wrote to him saying.

I am here cut off from the milk of science, which flows in redundant streams from your learned lunations.

Darwin however was not a man to stand still and in short time he had founded a new philosophical society, The Derby Philosophical Society. It would become another learned scientific society that would extend the Midlands network of scientific understanding across the world. His first letter after its establishment was of course, to Boulton. He invited the members of the Lunar Society to his house in Derby and proposed a return visit to Birmingham.

We have established an infant philosophical society at Derby but do not presume to compare it to your well grown gigantic philosophers at Birmingham. Perhaps like the free mason societies , we may sometime make your society a visit, our number at present amounts to seven and we meet hebdomadally.

4th March 1783

Erasmus Darwin

They even went so far as to send a message to the Lunar Society by hot air balloon but apparently the wind blew it off course but still it was an inspired attempt at an experimental form of communication.

C18th Hot Air Balloons

Where and when did the members of the Derby Philosophical Society meet?

The formal inauguration of the society was at Darwins house on the 18th July 1784 but it had been meeting at least a year before that. Susannah Wedgewood wrote to her father Josiah that the society met with great spirit and that all of the ingenious men of Derby attended, meeting every Saturday night at each others houses. They were social events but their purpose remained completely focused on the sharing of ideas about science. The drawing room experiments continued as they had done in the Lunar Society. There was suggestion that these societies would ape the best literary societies and the idea of establishing a scientific library was also advanced. The rules for such a library were drawn up in August 1784 and it was decided that books of natural history and philosophy would be ordered by the President, Dr Erasmus Darwin, at every meeting, if they were approved by the majority of members present.

It would seem that the society never reached the scientific heights of thinking and experimentation that the meetings of the Lunar Society did but the Derby Philosophical Society did manage to generate the same enthusiasm for debate and experimentation as the Birmingham society and to collect a large library of scientific tomes. They did not publish any papers independently but may have contributed to furtherance of scientific study by others. Erasmus Darwin was determined that the society would be one where all who wished, could share and discuss ideas, it ran scientific lectures which of course will have had impact on those attending. Books from the library that it established could be borrowed and they covered topics as diverse as chemistry, medicine, travel, politics, economics, sociology, electricity, botany and geology. They also bought the publications from other scientific societies around the world so that the Derby members might follow the progress of science anywhere on the globe.

The books chosen include many written by members of the Lunar Society including Joseph Priestly, James Keir and John Ash and of course those written by Erasmus Darwin himself. An interesting observation from looking at the catalogue of the library is that these men of Derby were particularly interested in the study of chemistry. James Keir wrote the Dictionary of Chemistry, described by Boulton as the most complete book ever yet published. They showed interest in pollution, spa waters and geology all things that affected their lives most immediately.

Dictionary of Chemistry by James Keir

Members of the Derby Philosophical Society.

There is a catalogue held in the Derby Borough Library that lists resident and non resident members of the society. As mentioned before, Dr Erasmus Darwin was president. Josiah Wedgewood was a non resident member. Robert Darwin son of Erasmus and Ralph Wedgewood, Josiahs cousin were also members. Less well known gentlemen but important people in Derby at the time, include, John Strutt a member of the important family of Derby mill owners. John Whitehurst, watch maker and another ‘lunatic’ also most likely attende but his name is not in the catalogue. Other manufcturers of Derby also attended, William Duesbury porcelain manufacturer, Dr Bage, a paper mill owner. So not the great meeting of minds seen at the Lunar Society but a more grounded gathering of manufacturers who were keen to learn all they could about the new sciences.

Expanding the knowledge.

Discussions were not limited to science and their reading included some of the most thought provoking works of the time on politics and economics including Adam Smiths ‘Wealth of Nations’ and John Howard’s book on prison reform. There was a greater movement in these scientific groups to the discussion of politics and various of their members attracted much attention for their liberal views, in particular the sentiments of Joseph Priestley. Following the Priestley riots in 1791, during which many of his personal books and scientific apparatus was destroyed, the Derby Philosophical Society sent Priestley a message of support whilst at the same time urging him to leave politics alone and return to his scientific studies. The episode created a little storm in a tea cup for the society as views on the Priestley affair seemed to divide the society.


Priestley’s opinion on the French Revolution caused his house to be looted and burned down by a mob in 1791.

The death of Erasmus Darwin in 1802 left a hole that was hard to fill. Darwin’s enthusiasm had driven the wheels of the society but after his death the Derby Philosophical Society continued to meet and arrange lectures. Perhaps its most important legacy was the library of books so carefully selected by the members and which were bequeathed to the Derby Central Library.

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