In December 1780 in the Chapter Coffee House near St Paul's Cathedral, several men led by the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan decided to meet fortnightly to discuss ‘Natural Philosophy, in its most extensive signification’.
The membership of the group grew steadily, and meetings took place in a variety of locations including the Baptist’s Head Coffee House. William Nicholson joined in 1783 and was elected joint secretary with William Babington in 1784.
Nicholson’s copy of the minutes of the society, until 1787 when it folded, are in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science and it was wonderful to be able to inspect them recently.
Compared to other philosophical societies of that time, especially the Lunar Society which had been meeting in the Midlands since 1765, this group seems little known – partly because it never had any name.
In 1785 it was agreed that the group would have no formal name when Kirwan ‘affirmed that the society not being desirous of that kind of distinction which arises from name or title were so far from giving any sanction or authority to the names used by their secretaries that the original determination in this respect was that the society should not have a name.
Fortunately the minutes do include a most interesting list of the members
Mr Benjamin Vaughan, Minster Court, Mincing lane
Mr Kirwan, Newman Street
Mr Magellan, Nevills Court
Mr Nairn, Cornhill
Dr Crawford, Lambs Conduit Street
Dr John Hunter, Leicester Square
Dr Wells, Salisbury Court
Mr Blackall, Thavies Inn, Holborn
Dr Keir, Adelphi
Mr Whitchurch, Bolt Court Fleet Street
Dr Wilkinson, Crutched Friars 22
Dr Cleghorn, Haymarket 11
Mr Alex Aubert, Austin Friars
Mr W. Jones, Inner Temple
Mr Miller, Sackfield Street 17
Honorary members included:
Mr Bright, Bristol
Mr Keir, Birmingham
Dr Price, Newington Green
Dr Bolton, Birmingham
The entire set of minutes, as well as descriptions of all the members of the society, are set out in Discussing Chemistry and Steam: The Minutes of a Coffee House Philosophical Society 1780-1787, by Trevor H. Levere and Gerard L'E Turner.