The photographs on these pages are thought to be the earliest ever taken in York. They record an extraordinary meeting of scientists in York in 1844. The photographs now form part of a new walking trail in Museum Gardens. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

ON a day in 1844, a group of Britain's leading scientists - many of them world-renowned - gathered in York. The occasion was the 14th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). It was the second time the BAAS had met here - the first time had been in 1831, when the Association was formed.

That 1844 meeting was very much a return to the Association's 'spiritual home', therefore: the first time it had been back to the city in which it had been founded 13 years earlier.

Among the scientists present at the gathering were the astronomer Sir John Herschel; Henry Thomas de la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain; and the Arctic explorer and scientist William Scoresby. Also present were Sir David Brewster, the principle of St Andrews University and the man who had been instrumental in the association being set up in York 13 years earlier.

The meeting also included several leading lights of the York scientific and cultural scene, including the artist William Etty, the surgeon Thomas Simpson, and Anne Harcourt of Swinton Park, the first woman member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

It was quite a gathering. And astonishingly, there were two photographers on hand to record it.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were Scots who are now widely regarded as among the most successful early photographers.

According to the late York historian Hugh Murray's book 'Photographs and Photographers of York', they set up an open-air studio in the grounds of St Mary's Abbey (early photographs, known as calotypes, had to be taken in natural daylight). And there, they took what are widely regarded as the first-ever photographs taken in York, as well as the first-ever photographs of a scientific conference.

Afterwards, they took their equipment to Bishopthorpe Palace, where they photographed the Archbishop of York, Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, and members of his family.

Those photographs are now part of a collection held by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

But 12 of them also form the focus of a new walking trail set up in the Museum Gardens by the York Museums Trust.

The portraits, reproduced at strategic points around the gardens, are presented alongside information about the person or persons pictured.

“These photographs are exceptional in that they are the first taken in York and are revolutionary in their technological advancement," says Andrew Woods, senior curator at the Yorkshire Museum. "For them to also capture the scientific minds who played such an integral role in history is extraordinary.

“Some of the individuals featured in the trail are well-known and some are less so, but all have incredible stories and made great contributions in their fields.

“Come along to find out more about photography, these trailblazing scientists and the role that the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens played, and still plays, in the scientific world.”

  • The new Victorian Visionaries trail runs through the Museum Gardens and its historic buildings until November 4.

Here are potted biographies of the 12 scientists and 'visionaries' featured in the Museum Gardens trail. All photos courtesy of National Galleries Scotland...

John Herschel (1792-1871)

York Press:

John Herschel was one of the most important scientists in Britain. He was an astronomer and discovered many double stars and nebulae. Herschel was also a mathematician, chemist, inventor, and experimental photographer. He was the first person ever to use the word ‘photograph’.

Henry De la Beche (1796 – 1855)

York Press:

Henry De la Beche travelled across Britain and Europe studying geology. He founded the British Geological Survey, which explores and records Britain’s geology. At the 1844 conference he served as Vice President of the Geology Section. This met in the Hospitium in York Museum Gardens.

Henry Baines (1793 - 1878)

York Press:

As well as working in the Yorkshire Museum, Henry Baines was responsible for the gardens, and obtained many rare and unusual plants for them. Born in a cottage over the ruins of the medieval St Leonard’s Hospital, he began work as a gardener at the age of twelve.

The Baines family

York Press:

Henry Baines is shown with his wife Rebecca, and four of their five daughters. For many years the family lived in the museum basement. In 1845 they moved to the newly-built Manor Cottage.

Anne Harcourt (1796-1879)

York Press:

Anne Harcourt was the first woman member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. She donated items to the Yorkshire Museum. Anne set up and endowed a free school for girls in Masham near her Swinton Park home. In Masham she also founded six almshouses for men and women.

William Etty (1787 - 1849)

York Press:

Born in York, William Etty was one of the most famous painters of his day. He campaigned for an art school in York, and to preserve the city walls. He is commemorated with a statue in Exhibition Square. You can see his tomb in St Olave’s churchyard through the railings in the Abbey ruins.

David Octavius Hill (1802 - 1870) and Robert Adamson (1821 - 1848)

York Press:

DO Hill

In 1843, Robert Adamson set up a studio to make calotypes – a form of early photograph – in Edinburgh. He was joined by David Octavius Hill, a landscape painter. They came to York in 1844 where they used the new technology to photograph the scientists attending the British Association conference.

Edward Harcourt (1757 - 1847)

York Press:

Edward Harcourt was the Archbishop of York. Even at 87, he remained one of the most influential men in York and had many aristocratic connections. He laid the foundation stone for the Yorkshire Museum in 1827, and was a life member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (today the British Science Association).

John Johnstone (1799-1869)

York Press:

John Johnstone was a wealthy landowner and Member of Parliament. He provided the stone to build the Yorkshire Museum and the Scarborough Rotunda. He gave a home and employment to the impoverished ‘Father of English Geology’, William Smith. At the 1844 conference, he served as a Vice-President of the Statistics Section.

William Scoresby (1789-1857)

York Press:

William Scoresby was an Arctic explorer and scientist. He made his first voyage when he was ten years old. Later, he captained a Whitby whaling ship and studied the animals, weather and sea of the Arctic. By 1844, he was a vicar and retired from Arctic exploration. He continued to study, publishing important work on magnetism.

Charles Peach (1800-1886)

York Press:

Charles Peach was a coastguard officer who became an amateur naturalist and geologist. He presented a paper on marine zoology at the 1844 meeting. Although he had no formal training, the British Association was impressed by his findings and offered to help him with his studies.

Thomas Simpson (1788-1863)

York Press:

Thomas Simpson was a surgeon who lived and practised in York. He helped to found the York Medical Society and twice served as its President. At the 1844 conference he served as Vice-President of the Medical Science section.

The Trail

The Victorian Visionaries trail is a joint project between the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (, York Museums Trust ( and Explore York Libraries and Archives ( An events programme of talks and workshops complements the new display, please visit the websites for details.