Swansea’s golden age of innovation

February 16, 2024 3 Comments

After five years of labour our baby was born last week.  It weighed in at a whopping 1.88 kilograms and almost 600 pages.  Its many parents are rightly proud of it.  You’ll have guessed by now that it’s a big book.  Entitled Swansea’s Royal Institution and Wales’s first museum, it will stand for many years as the standard account of a remarkable society and an important museum.  The Royal Institution of South Wales (RISW), founded in 1835, has a good claim to be the oldest voluntary association in Wales with a continuous existence, and Swansea Museum, which it created in 1841, is the oldest public museum in the country.

The conception of the book goes back to 2009, but it took till 2018 before the RISW set up a group to steer it towards birth.  We realised quickly that no single person would be qualified to write it.  We’d need to draw on the services of numerous people – academics, museum professionals and others – who were experts in their own fields.  In the end, twenty-two authors contributed chapters.  The two editors, Helen Hallesy and Gerald Gabb, wrote multiple chapters themselves, as well as taking on the monumental task of coordinating the work of the other writers.  We certainly underestimated how hard it would be to recruit contributors, negotiate with them and integrate so many different texts into a single account.  Despite all our efforts, some gaps remained.  We failed to find a writer to set the RISW in the context of pre-existing philosophical and literary societies in Britain, and an architectural historian able to explain the intricacies of the ‘Egyptian classical’ style of the Museum’s architecture.  But it’s still a book of amazing scope.  It pays plenty of attention to the RISW’s founders and the Museum’s collections, while Jenny Sabine shines a light on the role, overlooked in the past, of women in the RISW’s development. Anyone interested in the history of Swansea, museums and intellectual development should find the book happy reading.

William Grove’s fuel cell (1843)

There were many other labours in its production.  One was to find a publisher.  We soon concluded that we didn’t fancy publishing the work ourselves, and turned to the University of Wales Press to take care of publishing standards, printing and marketing.  Sourcing and acquiring illustrations, and gaining copyright clearance to use them, took up a huge amount of effort.  The volume was clearly going to be substantial and to need serious funds to produce it.  We invited subscribers – the sum we charged them, just £25, turns out to have been a great bargain – and we sought corporate sponsors and other donors.  Covid interrupted work for quite a time.  Later on, proof-reading and indexing turned out to be burdensome.

But here we are at last, with a handsome book that does justice to the task of describing how Swansea developed, from the 1830s, a scientific and technological culture far in excess of its size and population.

Sir Henry de la Beche and his daughters (1853)

By 1835, when the RISW was established – it was called the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Institution until 1838 – the town was already well-known as a centre of non-ferrous metal industries, and was attracting attention and incomers.  Among the early members were people who had already made a mark for themselves in many fields.  John Henry Vivian owned Swansea’s preeminent metal and chemical works, Vivian and Sons, and wrestled with the challenges of how to improve the smelting copper and mitigate the problems of pollution.  William Robert Grove was a physical chemist, who later became known as the inventor of the first fuel cell.  Lewis Weston Dillwyn owned the pioneering Cambrian Pottery and published major works on botany.  Another natural historian was John Gwyn Jeffreys, an expert on molluscs.  Henry de la Beche, the first professional geologist in Britain, brought the Geological Survey to Swansea.  His recognition of the importance of geology in developing the coal industry was followed up by another RISW figure, Sir William Edmond Logan, a Canadian who had settled in Swansea, and who later became the father of Canadian geology.  Though science and technology were always of primary importance to the RISW – the new Museum included a laboratory as well as a lecture theatre – historians and archaeologists, like George Grant Francis and Matthew Moggridge, were also among the founders.

The RISW provided these and other pioneer scientists and engineers with a forum where they could meet and discuss their ideas – and share them with other members and with the public.  From the start they organised regular talks, on all kinds of subjects, that were open to the public – a tradition that continues to this day.  Many of them were great collectors, of natural and man-made objects that illustrated their interests.  A museum was started almost immediately, but soon the collections overflowed their accommodation, and the members decided to commission a new building, what is now Swansea Museum.  It still stands, despite the devastation caused all around it by German bombers in February 1941, and Its classical façade is the first distinctive building you see in the city when arriving by road from the east.  Inside, Lizzie the elephant, who once greeted visitors in the foyer, may be long gone, but much remains as it was.  Swansea Council now has plans to modernise and extend the building, though it’s keeping them to itself for now.

Lizzie the elephant

This constellation of talent and buzz of intellectual energy in Swansea in the 1830s and 1840s attracted interest well outside Wales.   In 1847 the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) decided to hold its week-long annual meeting in Swansea – even though the railway hadn’t yet reached the town, forcing many attendees to take a steamer from Bristol.  Lectures, meetings and demonstrations filled the week, and the social programme included fireworks at Singleton Abbey, the demonstration of a rocket to save stranded ships, and a visit to Penllergare lake to see the battery-powered boat that John Dillwyn Llewelyn had devised using Grove’s fuel cells.

Most of the RISW pioneers belonged to the gentry and upper middle classes, people in a position to make real contributions to scientific and technical innovation in an age before professional and academic expertise sidelined the amateur.  What they achieved now appears entirely remarkable.  The new book helps us understand how they interacted and combined to rethink old assumptions, spread knowledge and promote the common good, especially in their home town.  It also raises interesting questions about the relationship between innovation and its local benefits in our own day.

The middle of the nineteenth century was Swansea’s heyday.  By the end of it, other countries were producing copper and local metal smelting was in decline, leaving industrial dereliction and environmental damage in its wake.  It’s taken many decades to recover.  Research and innovation didn’t come to a halt, but became professionalised, especially after the foundation (very late, in 1920) of Swansea University.  Today, researchers in science and engineering still thrive.  Some of their activities relate directly to Swansea and its area, but you could argue that Swansea University is too intent on international competition with other research universities to feel fully committed to benefitting the community in which it’s located.  Community teaching and learning services like adult education have dwindled to almost nothing.  Where, you wonder, will Swansea’s next network of innovators emerge?

Swansea’s Royal Institution and Wales’s first museum is published by the University of Wales Press: hardback | 595 pages | 9781837720903 | £45

Comments (3)

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  1. Hal Moggridge says:

    In the 5th paragraph of the summary on people, why is Matthew Moggridge uniquely not shown in green?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Merely because there’s no readily accessible online source of information about him, eg in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography or on Wikipedia. Maybe you could correct that omission?

  2. Gill Lewis says:

    Looking forward to reading it.

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