The Linnean Society’s precursor: The Society for Promoting Natural History

From its founding principle to methods of sharing scientific accounts and specimens with wider audiences, the Society for Promoting Natural History, in many ways, shaped the Linnean Society of London into what it is today

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By Luke Thorne, Assistant Archivist

Since its foundation in 1788, the Linnean Society of London has been responsible for keeping collections of botanical and zoological specimens, portraits, artefacts, books and archival material from a variety of different people and places. One Collection that has recently been catalogued and incorporated into the archive catalogue are the records of the lesser known Society for Promoting Natural History (SPNH). This Society played an important role in facilitating an open environment for discussing and examining matters related to all branches of natural history. Naturally, a parallel can be made here between the Linnean Society’s mission to study and promote scientific ideas around the subject of natural history and that of the SPNH. This is no coincidence as the SPNH was essentially the predecessor of the Linnean Society and was influential in its development.

When I began my position at the Linnean Society as the Assistant Archivist, I was tasked with cataloguing and repackaging the SPNH collection. The process of arranging and writing descriptions for the bound volumes and files in the collection gave me a perspective on the longstanding interest people have had in natural history and the desire to share knowledge of the natural world with others. In writing this blog I hope to continue this tradition of sharing knowledge about the natural world through a brief examination of the history of the SPNH and to generate interest in this particular collection, the details of which can be viewed in our online catalogue.

The beginnings of the SPNH

The SPNH was established on 13 October 1782 by William Forsyth (1737–1804), chief gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden and later a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society, along with his friends, George and John Prince, Captain Francis Robson and Charles Harris. Similarly to the Linnean Society, the SPNH was a society devoted to examining and discussing “the most curious and rare specimens in natural history” (SPNH1/1). Such specimens were obtained and presented at the meetings by the members themselves. Like many 18th century membership organisations the SPNH did not have an official meeting place to present specimens and scientific papers, but instead resorted to meeting once a month at nearby inns, such as the Black Bear Inn, which was once situated in the east end of Piccadilly.

Pocket calendars like these were given to members to help them keep track of when meetings would take place (SPNH/5)
Pocket calendars like these were given to members to help them keep track of when meetings would take place (SPNH/5)

Membership to the SPNH was not limited by social class or profession, but the prerequisites were that potential members had to be “a known lover of natural history” (SPNH1/1) and had the recommendation of two existing members. Because of these entry conditions the SPNH was seen as a viable alternative to the Royal Society, which had more expensive membership fees and so was easier for men of higher social status to join. The SPNH attracted many members including Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828), who joined the Society in February 1784. During his time there he met and befriended fellow members Reverend Samuel Goodenough (1743–1827) and Thomas Marsham (1748–1819). The friendship between these men would prove to be significant as they would eventually depart from the SPNH to create the Linnean Society. Their departure was the result of their dissatisfaction with how the SPNH conducted its meetings and the many issues that affected the Society.

JES was 1 of 133 members to sign the rules and orders book when he joined the society in 1784 (SPNH/1/1)
JES was 1 of 133 members to sign the rules and orders book when he joined the society in 1784 (SPNH/1/1)

Troubles with the Society

A common problem in the meetings was the lack of clarity amongst members about what was considered “natural history”, which resulted in some members bringing in exhibits that were not relevant to the Society’s interests. For instance, a specimen of unusual glass was once presented by William Thompson to the Society, but to his embarrassment this was objected to and the motion that specimens created by artificial chemicals should not be considered as part of natural history was carried. Fossils and mineral samples were frequently presented at meetings as well, so much so that the agricultural writer Edmund Rack accidentally addressed a letter to the Fossil Society instead of the SPNH. The quality of lectures and how specimens were presented also varied amongst different speakers. A lecture given by Dr George Fordyce on a new arrangement of shells left members baffled as his lecture was constantly interrupted by “such humming, such hawing, mumbling, snuffling, such interruptions in looking for his shells to illustrate as he went on, that not a soul could tell what he would be at” (GB-110/JES/COR/11/9).


William Johnson’s paintings of fossil shells in flint from Devonshire (SPNH/6/1– item 20) are one example of the many fossils presented to the Society
William Johnson’s paintings of fossil shells in flint from Devonshire (SPNH/6/1– item 20) are one example of the many fossils presented to the Society

However, the biggest gripe that Smith and other members had with the SPNH was its ineptitude and inactivity. Despite having meetings once a month there were many occasions where neither papers nor specimens were presented, and when they were the Society did not act upon or promote their findings. In short, nothing noteworthy seemed to be achieved at the Society and Marsham, writing to Smith in September 1786, commented, “after 4 years expectation I think I may venture to say that nothing has nor is there a probability that anything will be done worth Publick notice” (GB-110/JES/ADD/54). Goodenough also wrote of his concerns to Smith in Mar 1787 about the back and forth between the committee and the society, “it [a specimen] is referr’d to a committee to consider of it, the committee call it by some name & send it back to the society. The society desire the committee to reconsider it. The committee desire the society to reconsider it – in the mean time nothing is done” (GB-110/JES/COR/11/8).

The rise of the Linnean Society and the fall of the SPNH

Smith, Goodenough and Marsham had great ambitions and wanted to be part of a society that was actively contributing to the scientific world through publishing and promotion. Although the SPNH had initially piqued their interest, they quickly found that it did not fulfil their desires, and so after meeting together in 1786 the three men resolved to form a new society. The society they had in mind would act in a similar fashion to the SPNH in terms of its mission and appeal to scientists and enthusiasts of natural history, but would take practical steps to be a more engaging society with an established location and committed members. It was also decided that this new society would be named after Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) to honour his contributions to the study of natural history and to house his collections of papers, books and specimens, which Smith had purchased in 1784.

The final meeting of the SPNH was advertised in The Morning Herald on 28th May 1822 (SPNH/7)
The final meeting of the SPNH was advertised in The Morning Herald on 28th May 1822 (SPNH/7)

After its foundation in 1788, the Linnean Society grew and prospered, leaving the SPNH in a precarious position. The SPNH had failed to produce a single publication of its activities, whereas the Linnean Society did so in its first three years. Where once the SPNH was seen as an attractive alternative to the Royal Society, it now found itself supplanted by a much more active and successful Linnean Society. In 1791 Forsyth approached Smith with the suggestion of merging the two societies, but this was rejected by Linnean Society members who felt that a unification would benefit neither society. SPNH meetings continued until early 1801 when they were discontinued. A final meeting was held in May 1822 to decide the SPNH's future. The minutes for this meeting reveal that attendance to the Society had gradually declined and that prominent members had either died or retired. There was no influx of new members since they were joining the Linnean Society and so the remaining members unanimously agreed to consign all of the SPNH’s property to the Linnean Society’s keeping, bringing an end to the SPNH.

The SPNH Collection

The contents of the SPNH collection are mainly administrative and feature many books and documents that were used in the management of the Society. The original and revised versions of the Society’s rules and orders were recorded in both a bound volume and individual pamphlets, which were likely given to individual members for personal reference. These rules set out the mode of proceedings for Society meetings, the processes for selecting new officials, proposing new members, paying admission fees, presenting papers and specimens, proposing new laws and the SPNH’s obligation. This obligation was a promise to adhere to the rules of the Society and was signed by all members upon their entry.

The minute books of the SPNH contain handwritten accounts of the society’s proceedings (SPNH/2/1)
The minute books of the SPNH contain handwritten accounts of the society’s proceedings (SPNH/2/1)

Other items in the collection include minutes books, which were used to record all meetings held by the Society from its first meeting in October 1782 to its final meeting in May 1822. In total over 200 meetings were held by the SPNH and many specimens and papers were presented during the proceedings of each meeting. Information about individual members was kept in the subscriptions book and payments made to and by the Society were recorded in the accounts book. The collection also contains a series of instructions on how to collect, preserve and present animal, vegetable and fossil specimens for members, which would have been a valuable resource to both the amateur and professional collector.

From quadrupeds, insects and fish to salts, stones and metallic ores these instructions were a handy guide for all collectors (SPNH/9)
From quadrupeds, insects and fish to salts, stones and metallic ores these instructions were a handy guide for all collectors (SPNH/9)

However, the most prominent and largest portion of the collection are the scientific papers and letters that were read at society meetings. Originally the papers were kept in an unbound file, but there appears to have been an unfinished attempt to bind the papers into a single volume. Only seven of the papers were copied into this volume and the rest of the book is blank. The topics cover many aspects of natural history, including a description of the island of Trinidad, lists of fossils from Gibraltar, observations of the Sphex sabulosa (red-banded sand wasp) of Linnaeus, the discovery of a new white pigment, accounts of African animal and vegetable poisons, accounts of submarine bodies found on the coral banks of Antigua and other islands in the West Indies, a letter about the Elephas maximus (Asian elephant) and a letter about freezing fish.

Ann Lee’s drawings of insects on vellum (SPNH/6/1 – item 14)
Ann Lee’s drawings of insects on vellum (SPNH/6/1 – item 14)

In addition to the papers are drawings, sketches and other depictions that were presented to the society. Some noteworthy examples include a drawing of Lampyris splendidula (Central European firefly) by James Barbut, sketches of an elephant tusk and bone fragments by William Forsyth, drawings of insects on vellum (parchment made from animal skin) by Ann Lee and drawings of Indian crabs by George Wilson. Finally, the collection also contains some botanical specimens, including twigs, leaves and seeds, all of which have been preserved with the collection.

George Wilson’s drawings of Indian Crabs (SPNH/6/1 – item 34)
George Wilson’s drawings of Indian Crabs (SPNH/6/1 – item 34)

Continuity between the SPNH and the Linnean Society

The significance of the SPNH and its collections lies in the fact that despite its shortcomings and eventual decline it had a profound impact on the development of the Linnean Society and how scientific accounts and specimens are shared with wider audiences. As a member Smith felt that the SPNH was not doing enough to promote its findings and to further people’s knowledge of the natural world. This sense of frustration, which was shared with Goodenough and Marsham, spurred him on into forming the Linnean Society. Even though Smith, Goodenough and Marsham had many criticisms about the SPNH they were clearly inspired by its founding principle of discussing all branches of natural history, but endeavoured to take it a step further.

Today the Linnean Society continues to take similar steps in promoting its collections of specimens, manuscripts, letters, books and artwork through its library, archives and online collections catalogues. These materials can be viewed in person by booking an appointment or viewing material online in digitised formats. While much has changed since the days of the SPNH in how collections are presented the Linnean Society continues to uphold the same values that were laid down by its precursor.