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Harcourt, William Venables Vernonlocked

  • Jack Morrell

William Venables Vernon Harcourt (1789–1871)

by John & Charles Watkins, in or before 1866

Harcourt, William Venables Vernon (1789–1871), founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was born on 1 June 1789 at Sudbury, Derbyshire, the fourth son in a family of eleven boys and five girls of Edward Vernon Harcourt (1757–1847), and his wife, Anne, third daughter of Granville Leveson-Gower, first marquess of Stafford. His father was bishop of Carlisle (1791–1807) and archbishop of York (1807–47). Harcourt was adopted as the family surname in 1831 after Archbishop Vernon inherited the Harcourt estates at the death of the third and last earl, William Harcourt (1743–1830). William Venables Vernon thus became William Venables Vernon Harcourt. Educated at home by his father, he imbibed a taste for chemistry from Isaac Milner, dean of Carlisle. From 1801 to 1806 he served in the navy. Intent on a clerical career, in 1807 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in classics in 1811 and was befriended by Cyril Jackson, the dean.

At Oxford Vernon developed an interest in geology, attending Buckland's lectures and making the acquaintance of the Conybeare brothers, John Josias and William Daniel; his commitment to chemistry was strengthened by attending the lectures of John Kidd. After leaving Oxford he received private instruction from two celebrated chemists, William Wollaston and Humphry Davy. In 1814 his ordination launched him on a comfortable clerical career as the incumbent of three livings near York, at Bishopthorpe (1814–24 and 1835–8), Wheldrake (1824–34), and Bolton Percy (1838–61), all presented to him by his father, who was by then archbishop of York. In 1824 he was appointed canon residentiary of York Minster where he was active in ecclesiastical politics until he resigned in 1863. After the minster fire in 1829 Vernon took a leading part in the choir screen squabble which raged for two years. From the late twenties and especially after the minster fire of 1840, he abominated the unbusinesslike nonchalance of William Cockburn, the dean, whose adherence to scriptural geology he despised. As the leading critic of Cockburn in the York chapter, he not only persuaded his father to take the extraordinary step of holding a visitatorial court in 1841 to investigate Cockburn's behaviour but also gave evidence against the dean. Cockburn was deprived of office, a verdict quickly quashed by the court of queen's bench. As the senior canon Harcourt published a reformist hymn-book, Symmetrical Psalmody, and concerned himself with diocesan training schools.

In 1824 Vernon met and quickly married Matilda Mary Gooch (1804–1876), fifteen years his junior. They had five daughters and two sons, Edward William Vernon Harcourt (1825–1891) and William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt (1827–1904). Happy in his marriage and favoured with extensive and powerful family connections, Vernon interested himself in local philanthropic and scientific affairs. He laboured and lobbied hard on behalf of the Yorkshire School for the Blind, the Yorkshire County Hospital, the York Sanitary Committee, the Castle Howard Reformatory, and St Peter's School, York.

Vernon was above all a masterly developer and consolidator of organizational initiatives or suggestions made by others. In 1822 three York worthies formed a philosophical society to run a museum in the city on the basis of their collections of fossil bones from the famous cave at Kirkdale in north-east Yorkshire. Vernon transformed their plan into one for a county philosophical society which would tap local opportunity and pride by concerning itself primarily with Yorkshire geology and York antiquities. As first president of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (1823–31), he nursed and promoted it, engaging the young John Phillips (1800–1874) as keeper in 1826 and providing for it, in the grounds of St Mary's Abbey, a Yorkshire Museum (designed by William Wilkins and opened in 1830).

When David Brewster suggested early in 1831 that a meeting of British men of science be held at York later that year, Harcourt remained in the shadow of Phillips, his lieutenant, until late summer when he sketched his ideas to various confidants about a British Association for the Advancement of Science which would give systematic direction to research, and lobby government effectively. At its first meeting, held in York in September 1831, Harcourt produced a title for the new body, proposed for it aims and a constitution which were broadly accepted, and suggested enduring mechanisms such as reports on the state of science. As the general secretary of the association from 1832 to 1837, Harcourt managed it with consummate skill. Typically he helped it in an emergency by assuming its presidency at the meeting held in Birmingham in 1839. In his address he characteristically claimed for science freedom of enquiry, but at the same time rashly pressed the claims of Henry Cavendish against those of James Watt as the discoverer of the composition of water.

Harcourt, who was elected FRS in 1824, deprecated his own scientific work, referring to himself as only a humble worshipper in the porch of the temple of science. Yet in the 1820s he was a practising and respected field geologist and in the 1840s taken seriously as a scientist by the great German chemist Liebig. His main distinction, however, lay in his launching and managing two new scientific organizations, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and the British Association, the former becoming the mother of the latter through his efforts. As an organizer and administrator he was distinguished by a fine command of English, an intellectual vision developed in part by his reading of Francis Bacon, a tenacious dedication to the task in hand, and, in his public behaviour, by a persuasive combination of dignity, gentleness, and firmness. In 1861, on the death of his elder brother, George Granville Harcourt, he succeeded to the Harcourt estates in Oxfordshire where he continued the experiments with furnaces he had conducted for forty years. Though most of the results were inconclusive, he studied the effect of long-continued heat on minerals and, encouraged from 1862 by G. G. Stokes, the preparation and optical properties of glasses of a great variety of chemical composition. He died of bronchitis on 1 April 1871 at Nuneham Park, near Abingdon, and was buried on 6 April at Nuneham Courtenay.


  • E. W. Harcourt, ed., The Harcourt papers, 14 vols. (privately printed, London, [1880–1905]), vols. 13–14
  • PRS, 20 (1871–2), xiii–xvii
  • J. Morrell and A. Thackray, Gentlemen of science: early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981)
  • J. Morrell and A. Thackray, eds., Gentlemen of science: early correspondence of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, CS, 4th ser., 30 (1984)
  • A. D. Orange, Philosophers and provincials: the Yorkshire Philosophical Society from 1822 to 1844 (1973)
  • G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant, eds., A history of York Minster (1977)
  • Report of the proceedings of the visitatorial court of the archbishop of York … (1841)
  • G. G. Stokes, ‘The late Reverend W. V. Harcourt's researches on glass’, Nature, 4 (1871), 351–2
  • J. B. Morrell, ‘The legacy of William Smith: the case of John Phillips in the 1820s’, Archives of Natural History, 16 (1989), 319–35
  • Jackson's Oxford Journal (8 April 1871)
  • Jackson's Oxford Journal (15 April 1871)


  • Bodl. Oxf., family corresp.
  • priv. coll.
  • U. Cam., scientific periodicals library, notebook
  • BL, corresp. with Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 37186–37200, passim
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40494, 40530–40531
  • CUL, corresp. with Sir George Stokes
  • GS Lond., letters to Roderick Impey Murchison
  • U. St Andr. L., corresp. with James David Forbes and his son


  • F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1833, Yorkshire Museum Archives, York
  • J. & C. Watkins, carte-de-visite, 1866, NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Noble, plaster bust, 1872, NPG
  • F. Chantrey, bust, AM Oxf.
  • lantern slide, Yorkshire Museum Archives, York

Wealth at Death

under £30,000: probate, 12 May 1871, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, , 4 vols. (1833–8); new edn as , 3 vols. [1843–9] [many later edns]
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
Camden Society