Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

John Ford and the Natural History Society of Bootham School

1834 -

18th and 19th Century Quakers interest in observing the natural world led to a flourishing of Quaker scientists, particularly in the fields of botany, meteorology and astronomy. In Britain, one important way in which this interest was fostered was through Bootham School’s Natural History Society, founded by the school’s second headmaster, John Ford. David Allen in ‘The Botanists’ described the society as that great nursery of Quaker naturalists.

John Ford was appointed as Headmaster to Bootham, the Quaker boys school in York, England, in 1829. Stimulated by contact with the newly founded Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and its collection of scientific instruments, he determined to bring more focus on science into the school. From 1833 Ford encouraged the boys to produce their own journals, The Naturalist, and The Ornithologist (later collated as The Observer). Early issues included diary extracts sent by James Backhouse, whose son was at the school, from his expedition to Australia.

The following year Ford set up the school’s extracurricular 'The Natural History, Literary and Polytechnic Society', which was to influence generations of school boys. From the start, students participated in field trips (particularly to the nearby Askham Bog). They collected specimens, including plants, insects, shells and fossils, and carried out meteorological and astronomic observations. By 1837, the herbarium contained a collection of 379 flowering species.

In the 1840s, the school was lent a transit telescope by Joseph Pease, a Quaker banker. When the return of this instrument was requested in 1849, Ford began raising money for the school to have its own telescope, and in 1853, supported by a donation from another Quaker banker, Samuel Gurney, Bootham became one of the first schools to have its own astronomical observatory. The boys were soon using the telescope to make observations of Saturn, the moon, sunspots and binary stars.

In the 1860s, the assistant commissioner for schools in the York area described the school’s science provision as more ample than any school I have ever visited.

Focusing the boys’ interest in natural history was seen by Ford and other Quaker educators as a way of engaging with them, fostering cooperation and discouraging ‘idle, frivolous or pernicious pursuits.’ Girls at the neighbouring Quaker school, The Mount - in contrast to many girls’ schools of the period – were also encouraged to learn science. On at least one occasion, Ford invited girls from The Mount to observe a range of chemical experiments.

In 1877, a consortium of Quaker Schools began publishing the Natural History Journal, with articles on botany, zoology, entomology, meteorology and astronomy, written by both current and former pupils. At one point, the journal reached over 600 subscribers.

In 1908, the Natural History Club were invited to contribute an exhibit to the Franco-British Exhibition. Their contribution was notable as the only one to consist entirely of work done by boys in their out-of-school time, and was awarded a Diploma of Honour.

The society continued to be influential for many generations, helping to encourage many students to pursue a career in science including the meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson, naturalists John Gilbert Baker and James Backhouse Jr and the physicist Silvanus P Thompson. Fifteen ex-pupils became members of the Royal Society.

In a speech given at the school in 1902, Silvanus Thompson recalled the “many memories some of us have of the mysterious operations, the photography, the bird-stuffing, and the chemical explosions which went on.” He approved of how students were taught “not to be afraid to try, to put forward their strength, to make experiments.”

The society is still going strong today, having celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2009.

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Further Reading and Credits

Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain 1650-1900 G. N. Cantor (2005) 

Allen, D. E. (1986) The Botanists. St Paul’s Bibliographies, Winchester.

Natural History at Bootham: The Early Years, by Bridget Morris , David Robinson, Barry Smith, 2009

Bootham School history