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The Bristol Institution

The Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts had been founded in 1823 (Neve, 1983; Taylor and Torrens, 1987; Taylor, 1994), and it was housed in a grand building at the foot of Park Street, today the home of Bristol's freemasons.

The building of the Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts in Park Street in the late 1820s, from a watercolour in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

The Bristol Institution was established with the aim of fostering scientific and literary discourse and advancement through the provision of museum collections, a library, scientific apparatus, and a lecture room. Meetings were normally private, for the benefit of the members, and public lectures were also offered. Entry fees and annual charges were high, and this restricted membership to gentlemen.

The wide range of topics discussed included scientific advances from across Europe, and included questions of evolution, geology, and palaeontology, then very much debated. Pioneering work was done by the eminent West-country geologists William D. Conybeare (1787-1857) and Henry T. De la Beche (1796-1855) in the 1820s, and it was at the Institution that Conybeare first publicly announced the discovery of the first complete plesiosaur.

Gentlemen members sought to acquire important fossil specimens, including some from Mary Anning the younger of Lyme Regis (1799-1847). In the 1820s and 1830s, before the full development of the great natural history museums in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, the Bristol Institution was a major national player. The Bristol Institution declined under financial pressures from 1836 onwards, eventually to be taken over by Bristol City Council in 1894, and its remaining fossil collections are in the Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery (Barker, 1906).

  • Barker, W.R., 1906. The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The Development of the Institution during a Hundred and Thirty-four Years. Arrowsmith, Bristol, 75 pp.
  • Neve, M., 1983. Science in a commercial city: Bristol, 1820-60. In: Inkster, I., Morrell, J. (Eds.), Metropolis and Province: Science in British Culture 1780-1850. Hutchinson, London, pp. 179-204.
  • Taylor, M.A., 1994. The plesiosaur's birthplace: the Bristol Institution and its contribution to vertebrate palaeontology. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112, 179-196.
  • Taylor, M.A., Torrens, H.S., 1987. Saleswoman to a new science: Mary Anning and the fossil fish Squaloraja from the Lias of Lyme Regis. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 108, 135-148.

The paper

Benton, M.J. 2012. Naming the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus: politics and science in the 1830s. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association 123, 766-778. Download pdf of the paper.


Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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