Photographs by the author. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL, or cite it in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.] Comments on "Popular Science," and formatting, by Jacqueline Banerjee.

The former Institute of Popular Science and Literature (which became a Masonic Hall in 1883) by J. B. and W. Atkinson, c. 1845, on the north-west side of St Saviourgate, York. The Grade II listed building has a classical façade rising directly from the pavement, with three main bays and a subsidiary bay to the left which may contain the staircase (interior inspection was not possible). There was originally a central doorway. The façade is stuccoed or plastered in cream; the remainder is brick.

Left: Closer view of window and surround. Right: Three-quarter view of the building.

Two original stucco rosettes can be seen in each of the first-floor window surrounds, while in a raking December sunlight, the remains of two wreaths at either end of the plain band above the ground floor could be seen. This band is where the title THE INSTITUTE once appeared, as mentioned in the Inventory of the City of York, V Central (1981), 208. The Inventory describes "a line of tall, but narrow, clerestorey lights" at the top, but if that means glazed openings, this row now appears blank or blocked (see next paragraph).

Three photographs in a different light. Left to right: (a) The corner of the building, with its "rusticated quoins." (b) Signs of where one of the wreaths had been. (c) The two double pilasters in the middle would have marked the original front entrance.

Here we see the "rusticated quoins, paired pilasters to the ground floor with round-arched windows in rectangular frames above" described by Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, but not the "the narrow clerestory lights below the cornice" that they too mention (231).

An early sketch of the institute in the York Explore Libraries and Archives, as well as the Inventory and listing text, all indicate that the former entrance was in the centre bay of the three main bays. It looks as though there was also a door at the left end of the street frontage at some time because there are steps in that bay. Entrance is now by a matching brick and stone porch added on the south wall in the car park. There is subsidence or settlement at the centre of the street façade, perhaps due to some undiscovered archaeology, or to the alteration of the entrance in 1910.


The central (and originally the entrance) bay. Note the signs of subsidence above and between the pilasters.

The Yorkshire Gazette for 21 June 1845 describes a meeting of the York Institute of Popular Science and Literature which was held in a lecture room in an earlier building on this site. The members wanted a new building with "a lecture hall, a library and other suitable apartments." They were shown Messrs. Atkinson’s plans; these were accepted and members voted unanimously to seek tenders for their early completion. Nearly £700 had already been raised, and the estimate was for £800. A sketch of the façade, taken perhaps in the 1870s to judge by the costume, is preserved as a slide in Explore York Libraries and Archives. This slide shows several differences from the present building, for example, the building is in a continuous frontage on the street, not detached as now, and the clerestory is glazed not blank. Unfortunately, being only a sketch, it is not certain that such details are accurate. The two wreaths still detectable are shown, and have wording between, as noted in the Inventory, whose comments are presumably based on the same image.

"Popular Science" was a term current in the Victorian period and still understood now. The drive to impart a fuller understanding of everyday objects and processes was widely shared by the intellectuals of the day, and was met with interest by working men, who hoped to better themselves and take advantage of new opportunities in a changing world. Local institutes sprang up in towns and villages alike. Among the intellectuals were many clerics. The meeting mentioned in the Yorkshire Gazette was chaired by the Rev. Charles Wellbeloved (1759-1884), who came to York in 1792 to be an assistant at the Unitarian chapel in St Saviourgate. He had founded the York Mechanics Institute as early as 1827 (see Wykes), and was involved in many other projects, being particularly active in the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. Two other Unitarian ministers in the north of England might be mentioned here: Elizabeth Gaskell’s husband William Gaskell (1805-1884) in Manchester, and James Martineau (1805-1900) in Liverpool. All three men were important in the history of Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College, Oxford) — indeed, it had moved from Manchester to York from 1803 to 1840, so that Wellbeloved could serve as its principal.

The Rev. Charles Wellbeloved, the driving force behind the project, by Henry Cousins, after James Lonsdale, a mezzotint, after 1800. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D37635), by kind permission.

In the capital, too, many were reaching out to inspire and deepen understanding. Thinking specifically of science, perhaps the most important populariser was Michael Faraday, whose series of lectures in the spring and early summer of 1850 at the Royal Institution garnered much attention. This was just a few years after the York institute was completed. A little later in the period, Charles Kingsley too was highly influential in encouraging the study of natural history. Among the most influential of those committed to educating the less advantaged in all areas were John Ruskin and others involved alongside F. D. Maurice in the Working Men's College, still operating in north London.

The building in York's St Saviourgate is quite small, for all its imposing classical frontage, and represents quite an early step in this important, widespread and continuing "outreach" movement. It would be superseded in a few decades by the grand York Institute of Art, Science and Literature in Clifford Street, built 1883-85. After becoming redundant, it was repurposed as a Masonic Hall, which, as noted above, it still is today.

Related Material


Explore York Libraries and Archives, Hugh Murray collection (HMU/L/8/1). See "Pictures of St Saviourgate."

Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford: Our History. Web. 16 February 2021.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, and David Neave. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Wykes, David L. "Wellbeloved, Charles (1769–1858), Unitarian minister and tutor." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 16 February 2021.

The Yorkshire Gazette. 21 June 1845: 6 (column 1).

Created 16 February 2021