London Debating Societies: 1776-1799. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1994.
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London in the first decades of the eighteenth century was already rich in a variety of public entertainments. In addition to the theatres and shows, to the coffee houses and inns, there was a series of forums in which people came together to listen to and participate in conversation. By the 1770s, these private or semi-private clubs or societies increased in size and number in the metropolis, as gripping political and religious issues seized the interests and imaginations of Londoners. In 1780 these now enlarged clubs were transformed into large-scale, commercial events, whose managers used the publicity that the burgeoning press sold to advertise their topics of debate, to rouse and create a paying public for such debates, and to combine an expanding interest in public speaking with the respectable pursuit of profit.
This volume contains almost a quarter-century's worth of such advertisements, taken from eleven of the most popular of London's daily newspapers. (fn. 1) Though the commercial, large-scale, inexpensive debating societies which are the chief focus of this book only began in 1780, the debates from the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 to 1780 are also included, to illustrate both the earlier societies, and to highlight the changes in structure and question which such expansion brought. The volume ends with the disappearance, in June 1799, of such advertisement in the popular press, due to government repression of most public assembly and free speech.
The immediate progenitors of the debating societies of the 1780s were the smaller disputing clubs like the Robin Hood Society, which met at a pub of the same name in Butcher Lane, and the Society which met at the Queen's Arms, Newgate Street. In an anonymous History of the Robin Hood Society, published in 1764, the author claimed that the Robin Hood began in 1613, as a small gentlemen's club of only fifteen members. Though this account seems unlikely, it is clear that by the 1730s the Robin Hood was a flourishing concern, (fn. 2) and that by the late 1740s, the Queen's Arms society joined it. The early topics of debate of both these groups were questions of religion, politics and culture.
However, other groups also contributed to and helped form the societies of the 1780s. Among these were the informal clubs that lawyers and actors formed to train novices. Thus, in writing to a young man studying the law, Sir William Weller Pepys noted that:
It is high time [he] established a Mooting Club, for it is by talking constantly upon Law Subjects, by Whetting his own understanding against that of his contemporaries, and trying the truth and clearness of his own Ideas in conversation, that a Man becomes a Lawyer. (fn. 3)
Fanny Burney's shocked rejection of the suggestion that she might have taken lessons in a 'spouting club' for aspiring actors informs us that these too remained active, even after the formation of their more generally accessible and popular offspring. (fn. 4) There is some evidence, as well, that schools for the teaching of elocution set up debating societies as arenas in which their pupils could gain practice while publicly displaying their facility. These societies mirrored in some ways the contemporary creation of circuses as showcases for riding academy students. (fn. 5)
Another possible source for such public debating was the eccentric Oratory set up by William Henley as an adjunct to his sermonizing activities. Although the questions raise there could be very bizarre, like 'Whether Scotland be anywhere in the world?' this popular entertainment, which mixed religion and politics in a potent and sometimes explosive brew, must have exposed many ordinary Londoners to the possibilities, and pleasures, of public discussion. (fn. 6)
Finally, we must note the appearance of mixed-mode entertainment in the 1750s, one element of which was debate. The 'Temple of Taste', the 'Female Inquisition' and the 'Female Lyceum' all attempted both to combine music, poetry, acrobatics with female participation in debate. Unlike their later descendants, however, these earlier societies were expensive and relatively short-lived. (fn. 7)
The number and location of London's debating societies altered from year to year. Because of the frequent change of venue and even of name, it is often difficult to be sure of the identities of some of these societies. For example, was the Select Society, whose debates were held at the Old Theatre, Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inns Fields, in 1779 the same as the Religious Society that met in these rooms in 1780? We know of a number of societies that changed names: the Debating Society at the Crown Tavern, Bow Street, became the Coachmakers' Hall Debating Society when it moved quarters in 1777, the Oratorical Academy became the Mitre Tavern Society after a similar move in 1780 and then changed names to become the Original London Debating Society on its move to Capel Court, Bartholomew lane, in 1787, thereafter changing its name yet again to become City Debates in 1789. Was there any connection or identity between the 1779 Select Society of Portugal Street and the 1792 Select Society which met at the Globe Tavern, Fleet Street? Was the Ciceronian Society, which in 1784 and 1785 met in Margaret Street, Oxford Market, any relation to the society of the same name which met in 1797 at the Haymarket? We do not yet know. (fn. 8) Despite these serious difficulties of identification, a number of generalizations about the chronology, geography and number of debating societies can be hazarded.
Until 1779 the number and sorts of debating societies stayed about constant; in each of those years about five forums advertised, either regularly or intermittently. In the spring of 1779, the number started to rise, and by 1780 hit an amazing peak of 35 differently named societies advertising debating subjects. Several of these societies were specialized ventures run in the rooms of, and probably by the proprietors of, the parent institution. Such, for example, were the three separate debating societies which met at the Casino, Great Marlborough Street, under the general title of the University for Rational Amusements. This 'University' sponsored separate general debates, debates on theological subjects, and was the home to the Female Parliament, at which only women could speak. Similarly, the Oratorical Society had a theological session and a general one and the Carlisle House Society's School of Eloquence shared its venue with a debating society for ladies only. After 1780, but even more markedly after 1781, the number of societies fell precipitously, with the crackdown on Sunday debating societies launched by Bishop Porteus. In the next few years only two or three societies bothered to advertise, but by 1785 enthusiasm for this form of entertainment seemed to return, and to remain at a steady level until 1792. Though the societies continued to function thereafter, their numbers diminished, as political discussion was outlawed by Parliamentary Act. Only in 1797 were there more than three societies advertising their discussions. (fn. 9)
As the advertisements show, the societies met in several different sorts of rooms. Many societies met in large rooms, purpose-built for various entertainments, in pubs and taverns. Others met in assembly rooms, display rooms or auction rooms. Many shared their facilities with other attractions: the Coachmakers' Hall, for example, was the site of a dancing academy when not occupied by its debating society, the Lyceum on the Strand featured animal exhibits as well as debate, and the Oratorical Hall met in the former Cox's Museum. (fn. 10) A number of societies also shared rooms; at one time or another at least eight societies of different names used Greenwood's Rooms, Haymarket, for their meetings. The number and size of such rooms through the greater London area in this period is surprising. I have located at least 48 such rooms throughout the metropolis. Thus the School of Oratory met at China Hall, Rotherhithe, in the extreme east, the Theological Debating Society in the Surrey Bridewell, St. George's Fields, in the south, the Summer Lyceum at Smith's Tea Rooms, Islington, in the north, and the Lyceum for the Investigation of Historical, Political, Literary and Theological Subjects at the Black Horse Tavern, New Bond Street, in the west. Although, after the 1770s, most of the newer societies met in Westminster, a significant number originated and remained in the City, the most important of these being the Coachmakers' Hall Debating Society, which, in terms of advertisements, is the best-represented group in this volume.
We know little of the proprietors of these institutions. Some were consortiums who invested large sums, others, especially theologicallyinterested societies, were set up by small groups of believers, while others still, like Mr. Smeathman's Lyceum, were practical arenas for a display of the oratorical skills of the proprietor's students in eloquence. By the late century, some of the societies became the vehicles for, if not the properties of, radical voices; both Thomas Holcroft and John Gale Jones were involved in the management of these groups. Though there is no evidence that radicals had earlier acted as debating society owners, Peter Annet of the Robin Hood, and Richard Price, the 'fiery oratory of the Haymarket Forum', were well-known debating personalities. (fn. 11)
In addition to the proliferation in the number of societies, the size of the audiences increased dramatically. While the Robin Hood Society, for instance, is said to have had between forty and one hundred spectators, the size of the audiences at meetings after 1779 ranged from 400 to 1200. (fn. 12) Even with miscellaneous expenses (i.e. rent, heat and light, advertisement, decor), with an average audience of 800, the proprietors' net profit must have been a few hundred pounds.
But what sorts of people came to these debates, and what sorts of questions did they discuss? Again, the evidence is slender, and often comes either from detractors and satirical accounts, or from puffs of the societies themselves. Thus, for example, a review for a mocking theatrical piece, The School for Eloquence, noted 'the present rage for Debate, which seems to inflame all ranks of people'. (fn. 13) Many critics lamented their 'level[ling of] all distinctions [of rank]' which led to the indiscriminate jostling together of 'wits, lawyers, politicians and mechanics'. (fn. 14) In contrast, The History of the Westminster Forum, by their President, claimed that speakers regularly included a 'noble Lord' (an earl in fact), a young gentleman just come from Eton, the son of an eminent Irish patriot, a City Alderman, clergymen both Anglican and dissenting, and a Scottish clergyman who was preceptor to the children of an English earl.
As surprising as attendance of this medley of high and low was the presence and involvement of women. Again we get different accounts of who such women were. Though we read of a fair Quaker and an alderman's wife in the audiences, (fn. 15) more often female participants were merely described as 'fair orators' by their proponents, and as 'hired Reciters of a studied Lesson', bar-maids or Strand girls (i.e. prostitutes), or even men in women's clothes, by their detractors. (fn. 16) That they attended these vast public meetings, and spoke at all, whoever they were, deserves to be noted, for both the press and public critics were harsh in their condemnation, The Times of 1788 opining that '. . . the debating ladies would be much better employed at their needle and thread, a good sempstress being a more amiable character than a female orator.' (fn. 17)
The sorts of questions discussed by the societies were as heterogeneous as the makeup of their audiences. While the societies of the 1770s had discussed mainly political and theological questions, with a sprinkling of topics of wider concern, as the century went on, it was these last sorts of topics that were to grow in number. While never neglecting to discuss national or international issues, or perennially interesting questions of salvation and the afterlife, the proportion of questions about the nature of courtship, marriage, and morals grew. These types of question not only satisfied the new female audiences, but allowed men and women together to consider both the political and social shape they wished for their society. In many ways these social/ moral questions raised problems involving as much fundamental reform and reorganization of the civic polity as did the political questions of suffrage and Parliamentary representation.
It is the very range of the questions and topics debated that makes these societies so full of interest for students of the period. We not only can get an insight into which political issues excited the public, but also what forms such excitement took. In the debates we can also observe the broad spectrum of cultural concerns in which a large, literate public evinced interest. The debates both illustrate the growth of a potent and novel 'public opinion' and the authority it came to claim, but simultaneously display the self-creation of a new type of citizenry, and its interactions with a complex commercial culture of objects and ideas. (fn. 18) Thus the debates form an important part of a unique cultural enterprise: the creation of a public culture both 'learned, sensible and judicious' and amusing, whose object was 'to delight while they reform; eradicate pernicious errors and warm the heart with benevolence'. (fn. 19) In contrast to the unenlightened, who wasted their lives and 'dissipate their Time in Gaming, brutal Diversions, and Frivolity', the audience of the societies was 'a Multitude of both Sexes assembled for the Purposes of rational Entertainment and mental Improvement'. (fn. 20)
Note on editorial method
These advertisements have been culled from a close reading of eleven of the most popular of London's daily newspapers. (fn. 21) I have arranged them in a uniform format, quite unlike their layout in the newspapers. In the papers, they might have appeared on page 1 or 4 as ordinary advertisements, or been interspersed with other news on pages 2 or 3. I have standardised their presentation, consecutively numbering each notice, then using the following as a template for all information:
Number Date of the debate Name of the debating Society
Topic of the debate
Lecture or other entertainment [if given]
Outcome of debate [if known]
Any other interesting or pertinent information
Newspaper in which advertisement placed, and date of advertisement if different from date of debate
The outcome of the debate was usually found in the following week's advertisement. However, if the vote came from another source, the paper and date of that source is indicated by a / followed by the necessary information. The only exceptions to the above format are in those cases where what is being presented is not a notice of debate, but a newspaper comment or letter to the editor about debating societies. These have been included in their proper chronological place, and are identified by having their date of publication followed by the name of the newspaper in which the column appeared.
The index, which refers to the number of the relevant item, assembles debating topics under general and specific headings (such as 'Religion' or 'Fox, Charles James', with cross-references as appropriate. Strictly logical grouping and alphabetisation proved impossible, but the reader will not find it difficult to locate debates on any particular topic of discussion.
I would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a variety of grants which made this research possible, Nicholas Rogers for supporting the project and encouraging me to publish the complete manuscript, and the wonderfully helpful staff of the Microtext Room, University of Toronto, who provided assistance of all sorts for the often tedious process of culling eighteenth century newspapers.