A Sturdy Club

Gentlemen! May I call to order tonight’s meeting of The Greenwich Society for the Acquisition and Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. And may I say how delighted I am that every one of our one thousand seats is full this evening.
Before I introduce tonight’s speaker, Mr William Howarth, who will be instructing us on Some Particulars Relating to the Ancient and Royal Borough of Greenwich, Including Blackheath, Compiled from the Best Authorities, I would like to draw your attention to the latest edition of The Penny Magazine, available from your local bookseller, which will include many articles of substance upon a variety of wholesome and edifying subjects suitable for the lower sorts.

After this evening’s lecture, you will be most welcome to peruse our magnificent library at your leisure; I am sure I do not need to expound upon the merits of the ten thousand books within its shelves. And I am certain that you will be most interested to attend the hustings of our would-be Members of Parliament here next week, given that there is, looming in the distance, a tolerable possibility of a dissolution of Parliament.

But for now, Gentlemen, I present to you, Mr William Howarth!

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Wouldn’t you just love to be a member of a club with a name as cool as The Greenwich Society for the Acquisition and Diffusion of Useful Knowledge?

In my imagination, the library of its grand Royal Hill headquarters would be the place where adventures are planned, grand wagers placed as to the amount of time it would take to cross the Amazon jungle, arguments between white-whiskered gentlemen over the authenticity of fossils would (nearly) come to blows and its major scientific breakthroughs would shock the establishment through the letters pages of The Times.

Of course, it was, in reality, nothing like that, though according to Wikipedia, the title at least has been well and truly hijacked by Steampunk novelists, and, frankly, I would too, if I wrote Steampunk.

The Society was originally begun in 1826 and was, according to Wikipedia, ‘Whiggish.’ It seems to have been a sort of Readers Digest in lecture form, which adapted high-end scientific and literary material for mass consumption. Who said dumbing-down was new?

It published The Penny Magazine, which is usually to be found ripped to pieces on Ebay, its articles sold off piecemeal, its illustrations peddled as ‘original prints.’ It irritates the hell out of me – we’re chucking knowledge in the bin on a daily basis, making articles that have the misfortune to be on the reverse of those ‘original prints’ harder and harder to find, but it would seem that that’s the way to make a buck these days.

Okay, I’ll get off my hobby horse, and back to the Society. The Greenwich Branch was established in 1837, in a building on Royal Hill. Sadly, it’s gone the way of the public baths that used to be at the end, where the Borough Hall is now, but there’s a picture of the lecture hall here. The place used to be the local proprietary school, but it hemorrhaged pupils when the railway made it easy for students to commute to the City.

A book I’ve just acquired, Some Particulars relating to the Ancient and Royal Borough of Greenwich… by William Howarth, published in 1882, waxes lyrical about the club; I can only assume he was a passionate member. He tells us that the venue had several rooms of different sizes, the largest holding 1000 people.

He’s most excited about the range of classes available and lists a whole bunch of them – Magnetism and Electricity, Acoustics, Light and Heat, Theoretical Mechanics, Steam, Mathematics, Machine Construction and Drawing, Plane and Solid Geometry, Telegraphy, Singing and Shorthand.

He admits that the above classes don’t actually attract full attendances – yet – but, ever-optimistic, he is convinced that’s just because there isn’t a proper printed syllabus like at Birkbeck or the City of London College.

Personally, I think it was probably aiming at the wrong audience. The working classes were, as he allows, far more interested in the other activities at the place, such dramatic entertainments, concerts and spelling bees (well, okay, maybe not the last one…)

The Penny Magazine gradually went that way too. It was intended as an alternative to the lower classes’ current favourite reading matter, the Penny Dreadfuls – full of lurid accounts of murders and ravishings. And let’s face it – they were onto a loser there. Even today, I’m willing to bet that New Scientist doesn’t see the kind of circulation figures Heat enjoys…

Nevertheless, Howarth loved it. Okay, he wasn’t particularly impressed with the “would-be MPs” as they “addressed their probable constituents” and he was even less enamoured of the“august assemblage” of local councillors who “summon their friends and supporters in order to state the few things that they have done and the many things that they will do,” especially when “this kind present closed doors to any who do not share the views of the then speakers,” but he really got off on the public getting down and dirty with politics, science and knowledge.

“At times it happens some (meetings) are thrown open to all, and on such occasions as these, the Lecture Hall is often the scene of noise, bustle and confusion, with frequent ejections of the supposed disturbers; at such times the Greenwich Rowdyism is in its element.”

Plus ca change.

The article on Wikipedia tells me that the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge died in 1848, but at the time of Howarth’s writing in 1882, the Greenwich branch (if indeed it was a branch rather than a totally different club with a similar name) was still going strong, if a little rough around the edges. I don’t know when it finally breathed its last, but the Town Hall was built in 1939, so it must have been gone by then.

A real shame. I’d have joined it for the name alone…

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