There has been quite a lot of research on the scientific culture of the English provinces in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and the time may be right for a summing-up. In the last couple of decades, the pioneering work of Roy Porter, Margaret Jacob, and Larry Stewart has inspired several local studies. A fair amount has now been learned about institutions in such commercial centres as Manchester and Birmingham, about the work of itinerant lecturers in towns like Bath and Norwich, about the scientific contents of periodicals and newspapers, and about the trade in scientific instruments. Paul A. Elliott’s book goes some way toward the goal of organising all of this information, though it falls short of a comprehensive synthesis.
Each of Elliott’s chapters is focused on a different site of scientific activity in the period, including the home, the school, the garden, the county town, and the Masonic lodge. He acknowledges what has been written on the historical geography of Enlightenment science by Charles Withers, David Livingstone, Vladimir Jankovic´, and Miles Ogborn. He also alludes to the ‘spatial turn’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge, but without engaging substantially with theoretical issues. Instead, he covers fairly concrete practices, like domestic architecture, the layout of gardens, and urban planning. The focus on a series of locations is a good device to organise his summaries of historians’ work and to integrate the results of his own archival studies. He provides ample references to the scholarly literature and to selected primary sources, which will add to the book’s value.
Elliott succeeds in showing how his chosen sites were connected to wider networks through which printed materials, instruments, and specimens were circulated. Discussing the household as a place of scientific activity, he mentions books that taught botany, meteorology, and chemistry to women and children. He shows how natural history collections in private houses evolved into public museums in Lichfield and Darlington.He tells of itinerant lecturers who brought their shows into middle-class homes, and of the learned societies in towns like Spalding, Derby, and Birmingham that began as domestic gatherings. The chapter on Dissenting academies notes how influential were the works of such writers as Joseph Priestley, Isaac Watts, and Philip Doddridge, whose pedagogical ideas were shaped by their experience in those institutions; and in two chapters on botanical gardens, Elliott links European-wide debates about classification and nomenclature to the horticultural practices adopted in particular English towns.
At several points, Elliott uses his own archival research to add detail to the overall picture. His previous book on Derby informs the chapter on Erasmus Darwin’s botanical gardens, and that on the significance of county towns. Another chapter presents a casestudy of Nottingham, describing the importance of learned societies, visiting lecturers, and local Dissenting clergy in sustaining the scientific culture of that town. The final chapter sketches the career of Abraham Bennet, a Derbyshire clergyman, electrician, and meteorologist.Elliott shows that Bennet’s scientific work was nurtured by connections to the aristocratic Cavendish and Russell families, and to experimenters in Birmingham, Manchester, and London. At the same time, it was specifically rooted in the climatic and geological peculiarities of the Peak District, and in the concerns of the local lead-mining industry.
The book is enriched by nearly fifty illustrations, including maps and plans, though one wishes for more originality in the choice of a cover image. (The over-familiar Joseph Wright, again!) Strong as it is on specific information, it is weaker on the level of interpretation. The passages in which Elliott summarises the perspectives of other historians are hampered by a wooden prose style and a tendency to avoid taking sides on contentious issues; for example the role of freemasonry in Enlightenment scientific institutions. This limits the book’s analytical bite. There are also too many sentences that cry out for the attention of a rigorous copyeditor, which it seems the publisher did not provide.Nonetheless, the book will be valued for its coverage of recent scholarship, its original contributions to the field, and its stimulus to further thought about the geography of science in Enlightenment England.