The Royal Society Of Edinburgh and the purchase of 22-24 George Street


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Professor George Chrystal's close connection with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) began with his appointment to the chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh and continued throughout the rest of his life. He was asked to address the Society in 1879, the year of his appointment to Edinburgh, then he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh at its meeting on Monday, 2nd February 1880. In November of that year he was elected to the Council of the Society for the first of three terms of office: 1880-3; 1884-7; and 1895-1901. On the death of Professor Tait in 1901, Chrystal succeeded him as General Secretary of the RSE. He showed great loyalty to the Society and most of his original contributions to science appear in its publications.

The most important achievement of Chrystal's time as General Secretary was to acquire for the RSE a permanent site for its offices and library at 22-24 George Street, Edinburgh, accommodation it still occupies today although it has recently acquired the adjacent property in addition. The RSE had occupied for eighty years the building in Princess Street known as the Royal Institution, the west wing of which had been planned for the RSE when the building was erected. The RSE had been one of the bodies to propose this building in 1821 and, since the completion of the building, had shared it with the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts. For those familiar with Edinburgh today and interested in identifying the Royal Institution, we should say that it has been named the Royal Scottish Academy since 1911.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the need of more accommodation for the RSE's unique library required some change in accomodation at the Royal Institution. By this stage the RSE were the sole occupants of the Royal Institution, the Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts having ceased to exist and the Society of Antiquaries having left in 1892. In 1903, through the initiative of Sir John Murray, a scheme was proposed to secure the whole of the Royal Institution building for the RSE. The RSE would, under this scheme, have been able to accommodate its valuable library, and it was also intended that other scientific societies share the accommodation. The proposal was therefore one which would give the whole of the Royal Institution building over to scientific use. A representative committee was formed, and the Secretary of State for Scotland approached with the proposal. Mr Graham Murray, later Lord Dunedin, met the deputation, and spoke very sympathetically in favour of the whole idea. In 1906 a Liberal Government was elected and one of its first acts was to introduce the National Galleries of Scotland Bill. The Bill was proposed by Mr John Sinclair, later Lord Pentland, the Secretary for Scotland, and introduced into the House of Commons. The Bill was intended to promote the Arts in Scotland and set up an art gallery, one of the National Galleries of Scotland, in the Royal Institution building. There was no provision in the National Galleries of Scotland Bill to provide accommodation for the RSE. That legislation would be framed with such an obvious omission was probably no surprise to Chrystal who had already shown his opinion of legislators when he wrote earlier:-

We all have a great respect for the integrity of British legislators, whatever doubts may haunt us occasionally as to their capacity in practical affairs. The ignorance of many of them regarding some of the most elementary facts that bear on everyday life is surprising. Scientifically speaking, uneducated themselves, they seem to think that they will catch the echo of the fact or the solution of an arithmetical problem by putting their ears to the sounding-shell of uneducated public opinion.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh now had to fight for recognition that it required accommodation and Chrystal, as its General Secretary, had to organise the Society's case. The Secretary of State for Scotland received a first deputation, which consisted of Fellows of the Society led by its President Lord Kelvin, in Edinburgh. In his reply, while sympathising with the Society's aims, the Secretary of State expressed the opinion that the Society was not supported by members of parliament or other public bodies and, worst of all as far as a politician was concerned:-

... it was not supported by the body of public opinion.

This clearly required Chrystal to set to work to have such support on the side of the RSE before a second deputation was to be received in London on Thursday, 22 November 1906. Chrystal approached Scottish members of parliament from all political parties. He looked for support from the Royal Society of London and wrote to Sir Joseph Larmor on 13 November 1906 [3]:-

I hope you will by your presence support a deputation next week to the Secretary for Scotland to make a last appeal for justice to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the matter of its accommodation. We are to be expelled without any previous consultation from the rooms that were built for us and which we have occupied for eighty years; and now government proposes to put us into a miserably inconvenient house in a bad situation and to give for our installation a sum which at the highest computation is less than half of what is necessary. The only compensation being a shadowy promise to remedy another grievance of thirty years standing by giving us a publication grant of £300. Which amounts to enlarging the blanket by cutting off the top and sewing it to the tail. The result of course would be the financial ruin of the Society. Our annual deficit is already about £300 and we are paying for our publications partly out of capital.

The whole thing is the result of an intrigue by some friends of the R. S. A. You will have a similar trick played on you in London some day.

Two days latter in another letter to Sir Joseph Larmor he wrote [4]:-

The deputation is fixed for Thursday, 22nd at 12.30 in Dover House. I can not see that you have no locus standi in a matter affecting one of the oldest scientific societies in the kingdom. If I heard of a proposal to evict the Royal Society of London to make way for the R. S. A. and to transplant the former to inferior rooms, say, in Bloomsbury or London Tower, I should certainly come up to London and join a deputation to Government to protest against such an enormity, although I am not a member of the R. S. L. and not an Englishman.

We are going to the Secretary who is not likely to know you by right. All we want is the outward expression of your sympathy; and that would be of great value to us just now. I hope you will think better of it. I shall be in London from Tuesday morning early till Thursday night, and my address will be my son's rooms 78 St George's Square.

The next day Chrystal again wrote to Sir Joseph Larmor, replying to Larmor's letter of 15 November 1906 [5]:-

Many thanks for your kind letter of 15th and promise to countenance our demonstration. Thursday 22nd at 12.30 in the Scottish Office Whitehall is the hour and place. It is kind of the Royal Society of London to take up our cause. It is taking its proper place in so doing for it is the mother of scientific societies and therefore leader of them all.

The second deputation, again headed by Lord Kelvin, consisted of Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scottish members of parliament, Fellows of the Royal Society of London and other eminent scientists. The deputation achieved all that had been hoped for and the National Galleries Bill of Scotland had a clause added to it allocating sums of money for the purchase and equipment of buildings for the RSE. The Bill, with this amendment, was passed and became law on 21 December 1906.

Chrystal discovered that 22-24 George Street could be purchased by the Society. Sir William Turner persuaded [1]:-

... the Secretary for Scotland, Lord Pentland, that the Treasury granted the necessary £25 000 for purchase of 22-24 George Street and £3 000 to cover the cost of removal and equipment.

John Horne in The Student, 11 July 1916, stated:-

The present rooms may not inaptly be regarded as a monument to two distinguished men, Chrystal and Turner.

Lord Kelvin, the President of the RSE, died in 1907 and Sir William Turner was elected President. In his Presidential Address on 8 November 1907, Turner said:-

It is due to Lord Pentland that we should record our sense of his courtesy at our interviews with him, as well as our hearty thanks for the effective advocacy of our claim to obtain the requisite funds from the Treasury, both for the purchase and equipment of our habitation and for an annual grant of £600 to assist in the discharge of our scientific work. We are now, therefore, no longer tenants-at-will of apartments, to be dispossessed on short notice; we sit rent free in a handsome and commodious building, and with our occupancy ensured by a parliamentary title. We have a lecture theatre equipped with modern appliances for the illustration of the subjects from time to time discussed in our meetings; we are provided with ample library accommodation and with storage and safety for our publications and manuscripts of value. We have reading and other rooms for the use of the Fellows and the officials, and a house of residence for the caretaker. It is sometimes said that history repeats itself, a saying which in one particular applies to that of our Society. In 1810 the Society purchased No.40 George Street, in which house it was accommodated until 1826, when it removed to the Royal Institution Buildings. George Street again provides us with a home, larger, more dignified, and more fully adapted to our present needs than the house purchased by the Society a hundred years ago, and with much more accommodation than was at our disposal in the rooms in the Royal Institution which we have just vacated...

Other MacTutor references

History of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

References (5 books/articles)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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