A Short Account of the Origin of the Association
Trans. Devon Assoc., vol. 44, (1912), illus., pp. 154-156.
Rev. W Harpley, M.A., F.C.P.S.
Prepared by Michael Steer
The Account was read at the Association’s Jubilee, July 1912 Exeter meeting. The Devonshire Association was founded in the great age of Victorian optimism at a time when so much of the world was being discovered and explored for the first time. It was modelled on the work of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1861, William Pengelly FRS, advocated the establishment of a local association to be organised like the British Association but focused on Devon. He put the idea to two friends as they walked along Millbay Road in Plymouth on a geological expedition. This casual conversation resulted in the formation of the Association and the holding of its first meeting in Exeter the following year. Initial membership was just 69. A handsome portrait of Mr Pengelly as “Father of the Association” appears at the end of the short account. The article is from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal that can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.
On a bright afternoon towards the end of October, 1861, three gentlemen, Mr. W. Pengelly, Mr. C. Spence Bate, and the writer, each armed with a formidable geological hammer, were to be seen marching from the Hoe at Plymouth along the Millbay Road with the intention of breaking a few stones in the quarry behind St. George's Hall, Stonehouse, which was rapidly being removed and the ground levelled in order to be built upon.
The travellers attracted considerable notice from the passers-by, on account of the loud bursts of laughter that were continually issuing from them; caused by their relating reminiscences of some stories full of wit and humour which had been heard at recent meetings of the British Association.
Just as they arrived at the corner of the road where the head-quarters of the Royal Western Yacht Club then stood, Mr. Pengelly suddenly remarked, "I say, you men, I have been thinking lately that it would be a very good thing if an Association for the County of Devon on the lines of the British Association could be formed." We were startled by the boldness of the idea, but said it should have our warmest support if we found it practicable. Of course, during our labours among the blocks of stone, a good deal of conversation was held as to the advisability and practicability of carrying out Mr. Pengelly's suggestion.
A few days later Mr. Bate called upon me and asked me whether I had given Mr. Pengelly's suggestion any further thought. "Yes," I answered; "very little else has been in mind, and I have come to the conclusion that our friend's idea is quite feasible." We agreed that we should on every opportunity communicate to our personal friends what was contemplated, and inform Mr. Pengelly what we proposed doing. He fully approved, and said that he would take similar action among his personal friends. This was continued throughout the winter months, and on comparing notes we found that we had enlisted about twenty persons who approved of the scheme and promised to join the Association if formed. We considered that we had fair grounds to convene a meeting and pass a formal resolution that an Association be formed. A meeting was held at the Athenaeum, Plymouth, on Tuesday, 22nd April, 1862, at which were present W. F. Moore, Esq., President of the Plymouth Institution, in the chair; also Mr. Pengelly, Torquay, Mr. Vicary, Exeter, Mr. Spence Bate, Rev. W. Harpley, Rev. J. E. Risk, Mr. J. N. Hearder, Mr. Oxland, Mr. A. Balkwill, and Mr. A. Rooker.
Mr. Pengelly, at the call of the President, moved the following resolution: "That an Association be formed called the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art." This was carried unanimously, and the following was then proposed as a statement of the object of the Association: "To give a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific inquiry, to promote the intercourse of those who cultivate science, literature, and art in different parts of Devonshire, with one another and with others; and to obtain a more general attention to the objects of science, especially in relation to this County."
It was agreed that the first meeting be held at Exeter, and Mr. Spence Bate and myself were requested to act as secretaries to the Association for the time being. And now began for me a very anxious time. It fell to my lot to find a President. I wrote to several of the leading men in the county and invited them to fill the office, but, alas!, without avail. All rather curtly declined; I need not mention their names. I began to despair, but one morning the post brought me a brief but very welcome letter from an unknown correspondent. He must, however, have known my difficulties. He simply wrote, "Try Sir John Bowring." I did so, and was successful. Sir John readily and cordially accepted the office. From that time everything went smoothly. There was no difficulty in getting gentlemen to fill the other offices, and thanks to the good citizens of Exeter the Association was warmly received and cordially welcomed on 14th August, 1862. Sir J. Bowring gave the Association a favourable start by an admirable address or, to use his own metaphor, "launched the good ship" successfully. She has sailed through tempestuous seas once or twice, but has always weathered the storm. I hope she may sail on through many years successfully, under her skilful pilot now at the helm.
I must apologize for this short account, but I trust it will make it clear how the Association came into existence, and so relieve the anxiety of many members who have often urged me to give the story of the Origin.