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Book of the Month

December 2001

Chemistry Laboratory Christmas Annuals 


Sp Coll MS Gen. 81

As Glasgow University's 550th anniversary draws to a close, our December book choice celebrates both the old college and festive seasons past. Comprising six volumes in all, MS Gen 81 is a series of manuscript annuals produced at Christmas between 1863 and 1869 by the staff and students of the University Chemistry Laboratory.  These manuscripts offer us a glimpse of academia in the mid Nineteenth Century and give us some idea of the intellectual aspirations, interests, and humour of the students of the day.

1863: page 1

The introduction to the first volume of 1863 relates how one day 'a youth' at work in the laboratory suggests having a 'Christmas number' as he thinks it disgraceful 'that the talent of chemists should be like a great deal of their heat - latent'. The magazine was subsequently produced by the laboratory members  'for the sole benefit of their worthy selves and their beloved  friends and relations'. Conceived as a compilation of edifying literature, it includes a mix of original poems, translations and short stories.  According to the preface of the 1864 number, this first volume was such a success that it 'electrified the provinces'. Certainly, its production inspired enough enthusiasm for at least five further Christmas annuals to appear. By 1867, the editor proclaims it an 'institution', describing it as an annual purgative for mouldering thoughts. Much time and trouble was evidently taken to compile the annuals, each volume being carefully written out in uniform, ruled notebooks in the different hands of the many contributors. While often sentimental, the spirit of good humour in which they were composed shines through in the frequent in-jokes, self-deprecatory asides from the editor, and - not least of all -  the generous salutations and compliments for the festive season.

Thomas Anderson (1819-1874) was the Professor of Chemistry during this period. Anderson was educated at Edinburgh University where he developed an interest in the subject. After further studies abroad, he began teaching at Edinburgh in the Extramural Medical School where his classes attracted students from far and wide. In 1852 he became Professor of Chemistry in the University of Glasgow. At this time, the bulk of the teaching of chemistry was the responsibility of the professor; there were systematic lectures daily at 10am during the winter session.

1869: frontispiece

During his twenty-one years as Professor, it is said that Anderson  found 'ample scope for the exercise of his talent as a teacher' ; certainly, there is evidence of his conscientiousness in some surviving lecture notes for his introductory course in chemistry: these exist for a span of several years and demonstrate that he troubled to re-write his lectures to incorporate new material. Forced to retire early through ill health, he died at the age of 55 in 1874. According to his obituary in the BMJ (January 9, 1875) he had 'few, if any, equals'. 

1867: frontispiece


1864: frontispiece 
The 1864 annual attributes this photograph of the Chemistry Laboratory to a Professor Dlonadi  who 'carries back with him to Venice a cartload of thanks for his shadow of a laboratory'

The Chemistry Laboratory was based at Shuttle Street off the High Street; it was sited outside the college walls because of the fear of fire. Set up in 1831 under the first Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Thomson, this was the first modern laboratory in Great Britain in which instruction in Analytical and Practical Chemistry was systematically given to students. The lab was open daily from 9.30 to 4.30 for teaching chemical analysis and the application of chemistry to medicine and the arts. According to the 1863 University Calendar, 'each student  works independently. He is supplied with a table, gas, re-agents, etc, and goes through a regular series of analytical experiments of gradually increasing difficulty, until he is capable of performing a complex analysis. The more advanced students engage in original investigation'.

1863: page 111

Unfortunately, we do not know exactly who was responsible for editing and contributing to these annuals. The articles are all either anonymous or signed with pseudonyms such as 'Homunculus', 'M2' and 'Nemo'. It seems, however, that while the contributors changed over time, the editorship remained the same. It is possible that Anderson himself edited the volumes, or that one of his assistants did. 

1864: page 11

There were two Chemistry Assistants at this time, one of whom was responsible for giving the tutorial classes which supplemented the Professor's lectures. Between 1863 and 1869 these post were variously filled by  Edmund J. Mills (later Professor of Technical Chemistry at Anderson's University), Magnus M. Tait, William M. Watts, Walter Stewart, and John Ferguson. 
Students working in the laboratory must also have contributed to the annuals. In the session 1863-64, for example, of the thousand or so matriculated (male) students,  there were 110 enrolled for the chemistry classes although only eleven (including John Ferguson) undertook the course in analytical chemistry. It is interesting to note that several of these were Arts students: although Chemistry was part of the Medical Faculty at this time, the broad based arts curriculum did also include examinations in science subjects.

1863: page 63 'Alchemy'

John Ferguson (1837-1916) is a strong contender for being involved in the creation of the annuals. He matriculated in 1855 and spent nine years as a brilliant student, beginning in the Arts Faculty. After working  in the Natural Philosophy Laboratory under the  influence of Professor William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), he entered the Faculty of Medicine in 1863 so that he might study chemistry and gradually devoted himself to this subject. From working in the Shuttle Street Laboratory as a student, Ferguson became Anderson's private assistant, his duty being to help in the detailed work connected with the Professor's original researches. In 1868 he became the Assistant, in charge of tutorial classes and the superintendence of students in the laboratory. When Anderson took ill in 1869, Ferguson took on the general running of the department, including delivering lectures; he was formally appointed as Anderson's successor to the professorship in 1874. An excellent teacher, his interests lay in the historical and philosophical side of chemistry and his work on alchemical and early chemical writers, the Bibliotheca Chemica, has yet to be superseded. 

There was a vogue for producing personal anthologies of this kind during the Victorian era. In his Memories of the Old College in the High Street, Ferguson says 'it was the period when keepsakes and albums and caskets and annuals, which sometimes never appeared after the first year, enjoyed considerable popularity'. There was even an official printed precedent to be found in the University  'college album'. Such albums would invariably include verse, prose and translations, as well as occasional lapses into philosophy: the Chemistry Laboratory annuals are typical examples of the genre. In the first volume, for instance, is an article on the nature of poetry, an adaptation from Horace, several songs and poems, reminiscences,  and a romantic essay entitled Love in a Cottage.  However, these volumes unsurprisingly also contain a scientific element; while chemists tend to pop up as characters in the stories, there may also be found in the 1863 volume an article on apparitions, a long poem on alchemy and a chemist's comic alphabet. The following year A Chemical Play appears: this purports to inform the 'vulgar' as to the proceedings in laboratories - as well as trying to cadge beakers from one another, the intellectual inhabitants of the lab discuss the latest issue of Good Words and favourite poets. 

Much of the appeal of these volumes lies in their illustrations, a mix of skilfully drafted pen and ink drawings and occasional watercolours; the illustration on the right is one of two charming watercolours which adorn The Mobesenn, a short story concerning a witch-like Countess who could transform herself into a black cat. The editor acknowledges the debt owed to the illustrators in making the annuals a success on several occasions. However, while the first two volumes are profusely illustrated, the drawings tail off by 1866  - as a result of our 'sweet friends' having 'fled to other climes' - until by 1869 there is a distinct lack of artwork. 

1865: page 44

1865: page 162

The books are also interesting  for including occasional photographs of the old college on the High Street. The last annual was, in fact, produced just prior to the University's move to Gilmorehill, and feelings of regret and nostalgia for the old site and its traditions and buildings are evident from several comments in the later volumes. Accompanying the photograph here, for example, are the emotive lines from The Tempest slightly misquoted to read 'Our cloud capp'd towers, our gorgeous palaces ...' . Speaking some years after the move, Ferguson summed up such nostalgia in describing 'the dreary, dingy, quaint quadrangles, so quiet, so refreshing, of the Old College in the High Street'. But while the editorial of the 1869 volume asks 'shall the new university dare to hope for a future as grand as the past days of the old College, and shall it rear within its walls names as worthy of a niche in the monument of fame as its parent has done?' it also acknowledges that 'we must not get sentimental over the old College... If a man's word is to be trusted, everybody will be glad to leave the High Street'. In fact, the buildings were  too small for student numbers, the fabric was decaying and the area was polluted: the new buildings at Gilmorehill formally opened on 7 November 1870. No Christmas annuals were apparently produced (or at least survive) from the new Chemistry Laboratory. 

Nineteenth Century Chemistry teaching: lectures delivered by Prof. Thomas Anderson (Edinburgh and Glasgow: 1844-1871): MS Gen 911; notes of Anderson's lectures (c.1860-1862): MS Gen 821; lectures delivered by Dr. Edmund J. Mills (1876-77): MS Gen 454. For earlier Chemistry teaching see the Cullen papers and Cullen Papers on-line exhibition.

See also: John Ferguson Memories of the Old College in the High Street Glasgow:1930 in Ferguson Af-y.41; the principal part of Ferguson's library (some 7,500 volumes) was purchased by the University in 1921 and is still available for consultation in Special Collections today: see the Ferguson Collection web page.

Glasgow University albums: The College album, a selection of original pieces continued as The Glasgow University album 1828-1834 Sp Coll Mu21-d.3-7 and Stack College Coll Periodicals; copy for 1869: Sp Coll Bh12-g.27 and Sp Coll Jebb 103


1863: page 184

Now, with a sweeping flourish, we make our editorial bow, - and wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - vanish, - "more nostio" in blue fire, with a fiz, a pop, and a bang.-

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Julie Gardham December 2001