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Reference group
Founders of the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (act. 1753–1783) were a twelve-strong group of noblemen, clergymen, gentlemen, and merchants who sought to put into practice William Shipley's Proposals for raising by subscription a fund to be distributed in premiums for the promoting of improvements in the liberal arts and sciences, manufactures, etc. (1753).


William Shipley, a drawing master with scientific and philanthropic interests, was a friend and correspondent of Henry Baker, an authority on the use of microscopes and a key figure in the affairs of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. When Shipley settled in Northampton in 1747 he informed Baker of the existence of a local philosophical society and of the warm welcome he had received from its members, among whom was Thomas Yeoman, millwright and surveyor, who later became active in the affairs of the Society of Arts. Shipley showed his Proposals to the members of the Northampton society and to the president of the Board of Trade, George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax, whose country seat was at Horton, Northamptonshire. Halifax was a member of the Dublin Society for Promoting Husbandry and other Useful Arts, which in 1740 had adopted Samuel Madden's plan for awarding premiums (prizes of money) which foreshadowed Shipley's Proposals. Neither Yeoman nor Halifax joined the Society of Arts until 1760 so may not be accounted as founders, but both knew the natural philosopher Stephen Hales who, with Baker, made sure that Shipley was aware of the work of the Dublin Society. In 1753 Shipley moved to London and published a second broadsheet pamphlet, A scheme for putting the proposals in execution, modelled partly from the plan used by the Dublin Society. In London Shipley lodged with Husband Messiter (1740–1782), surgeon, in Great Pulteney Street. There he was conveniently placed between the fashionable area surrounding Piccadilly, where many potential subscribers to his scheme had their town houses, and the Strand and Fleet Street district where the initial meetings of the Society of Arts were later held and where lived Henry Baker and other leading members of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Nicholas Crisp (1704?–1774), a public-spirited jeweller said to be known to Shipley and well disposed to his project, was a little farther away in Cheapside. Hales lived at Teddington but had lodgings for occasional use in Duke's Court, Westminster.

Shipley's canvass for supporters began in December 1753 with an approach to Robert Marsham, second Baron Romney, a relative of Hales. Starting with a diffident preamble to the effect that he had heard from Hales that Romney and Romney's sister's husband Jacob Bouverie, first Viscount Folkestone, had a similar scheme to Shipley's in view and offering to withdraw his own if that were the case, Shipley appears to have convinced Romney of the merits of his plan. He received from Romney a signed paper authorizing him to canvass for subscriptions and shortly after Lord Folkestone signed the same authorization. Three months of wearisome canvassing followed. Out of thirty-five noblemen and numerous gentlemen who admitted him when he called, Shipley received only fifteen promises of subscription, and only one extra signature to his paper. Fortunately the latter was provided by Isaac Maddox, bishop of Worcester, a powerful supplier of public improvements. Maddox urged Shipley to get some of his own friends to join the scheme, which Shipley said might be possible if Folkestone and Romney would agree to hold a meeting. The two peers dutifully attended the meeting at Rawthmell's Coffee House in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, on 22 March 1754. The surviving minutes show that also present were ‘the Revd Dr Stephen Hales, John Goodchild Esq [and] Messrs Lawrence, Baker, Crisp, Brander, Short, Messiter and Shipley’ (RSA, minutes, 22 March 1754). Maddox could not be present, but paid his subscription and subsequently served as a committee chairman. Of the other founders, Gustavus Brander, a retired merchant, and James Short, inventor, would have known Baker and Hales through the fellowship of the Royal Society, and Baker and Brander were also linked as fellows of the Society of Antiquaries. Little is known of Charles Lawrence except that in 1759 he stood surety for a bond used by Shipley. John Goodchild (d. 1756), a prosperous linen draper, was Hales's neighbour in Teddington.


Henry Baker's Plan for the government of the society, suggesting ‘that for the orderly Dispatch of Business there be one President, four Vice Presidents, a Treasurer and a Secretary, to be elected by Ballot … annually’ (Baker, 1) was carried into effect at the society's fifteenth meeting on 5 February 1755. Folkestone was elected president; Romney, Hales, and two new members, the politician Charles Whitworth and the merchant James Theobald were elected vice-presidents, John Goodchild, treasurer, and Shipley, secretary. Folkestone and Romney often presided at meetings and took an interest in the award of premiums. Hales, though almost eighty, attended on several occasions and supplied information on sheep marking and the work of the Dublin Society. Theobald recorded the society's early development in a manuscript ‘Account’, while Whitworth guided Shipley on many matters of policy. Until the beginning of 1756 Shipley performed his secretarial duties without assistance or payment. After these defects had been remedied he was given the title of register, and he held this office from 1757 until 1760. Between 1760 and his retirement to Maidstone in 1768 he regularly attended meetings of the society's committees and between that date and 1787 he occasionally came up to London to be present. His last recorded attendances, when he was within a few days of his seventy-second birthday, took place on 2 May 1787 when, in the absence of the elected chairman, he presided over the committee of manufactures. Under Baker's Plan the society was expected to make ‘rules and orders’ for the proceedings of the society. By 1758 these had developed a distinctly ‘parliamentary’ character. Votes were taken on every possible occasion and matters had to pass through several stages at society meetings before being referred to committees and then coming back for final approval or disapproval.

From the foundation years suggestions for premiums and administrative questions were referred to appointed committees. Thus in 1755 Crisp was named as one of a committee to examine some ore sent up from Truro, and in 1756 Baker proposed that medals should be given as well as money prizes and was appointed with Crisp to a committee to consider the matter. In the same year both were on committees concerned with the manufacture of paper, the production of buff leather and the growing of grapes, dates, and cochineal. When the functions of the various committees were classified, Baker and Maddox served as chairmen of the miscellaneous committee in 1756, Crisp as chairman of the committee of chemistry in 1756, 1757, and from 1759 to 1762. Both Baker and Crisp were chairmen of the agricultural committee in 1759 and 1762. Baker was chairman of accounts in 1759, as well as in 1761. Crisp served in the same office in 1761 and Baker from 1764 to 1770, during which period he devised a method of keeping note of the society's finances.

Baker, Folkestone, Romney, and Shipley were awarded honorary gold medals in 1758; Baker and Shipley had also been granted honorary life membership. Crisp received neither honour and evidently sacrificed his own business interests in the unpaid service of the society. His attempt to obtain something for his labours, through somewhat duplicitously obtaining a premium for the discovery of a cobalt mine in 1764, did his reputation in the society considerable harm. He continued to attend the committees of agriculture, chemistry, colonies and trade, and manufactures down to 1767.

Membership and premiums

The growth in the general membership of the Society of Arts and the number of celebrities from various walks of life it contained in its early years impressed both contemporaries and later historians. At the beginning of 1755 there were only 15 subscribers and by the end of 1764 there were over 1000. In February 1758 Henry Baker told a correspondent that the
Society now consists of near 700 members, all the Ministers of State and most of the chief nobility, and 20 new members at the least coming in every week … So much public spirit is nowhere else to be found and the Attendance and of all its members is almost incredible. I doubt not in a few years they will gain and save millions to this Nation and its Colonies. (Baker to Arderon, 28 Feb 1758, Baker and Arderon correspondence, 4.41)
The increase in membership led to higher income, and more premiums could thus be offered. The premiums list of 1754 offered four awards, that of 1755 twelve, the third, in 1756, twenty-two, and the fourth, in 1757, sixty-three. In 1758 more than 100 awards were offered and the lists were expanded each year until 1765 with a spectacular increase in 1762. In the first four years the premiums were listed more or less in the order in which they had occurred to the society. In 1754 the offer of a premium for the discovery of cobalt deposits came first, followed by the premium offers for madder cultivation and drawings by boys and girls. In 1758 the practice was begun of dividing up the lists into broad subject classifications which expressed the society's basic concerns with agriculture, arts, chemistry, colonies, manufactures, and mechanics. These categories would be continued down to the demise of the premium system in the mid-nineteenth century.

After 1765 the society's income and the financial value of its awards began to fall, a trend which would not be arrested until the 1780s. The economic depression and the conflict of opinion over the American war both in the country and the institution, no less than a series of disputes in the society's administration, all had damaging effects. The promotion of the resources of the North American colonies came to an end and attention was turned to the economic products of the residual empire. The objects of the Society of Arts became well known in the West Indies. Chemical, mechanical, and manufacturing topics continued to invite attention as did the fine arts.

The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture: James Barry's pictures in the society's meeting room

It was in the sphere of the fine arts that the society gained the greatest prestige, as the patron of James Barry's widely acclaimed murals The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, exhibited to the public for the first time in 1783. From that year onwards visitors to the society's house in the Adelphi or purchasers of Barry's descriptive Account, or his various sets of engravings, could see the society's ‘patriotic and truly noble purposes’ (Barry, 71) expressed in iconographical terms. From 1783 annual volumes of Transactions clearly set out the current policies and work of the society. Coincidental with the conclusion of peace with France, America, and Spain, and the renewed national optimism that this engendered, these events marked the year 1783 as one of recovery for the Society of Arts. Of the twelve founding members only two, Shipley and Romney, then remained alive. Shipley survived until 1803 and two of his contributions, the holding of public prize-giving ceremonies and the encouragement of education, would become all-important for the society in the nineteenth century.

In 1755 Shipley had believed that the society would be incorporated by royal charter and receive grants from parliament. These ideas were floated again in the 1780s, but a recovery in the society's membership totals and income from subscriptions seemed to make this unnecessary. A charter was eventually obtained in 1847 but the institution's independence from the state was a frequent cause for congratulation in the Victorian period. The granting of the prefix Royal to the society's title in 1908, a cause of endless confusion to historians, was a personal act by Edward VII and a recognition of his interest in the institution which he shared with his father, Prince Albert.

D. G. C. Allan


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