Research Project

Networks of Improvement: Literary Clubs and Societies c.1760- c.1840

Principal Investigator: Professor Jon Mee

A Caricature, John Hamilton Mortimer, c.1760

About the Project

This project challenges the idea of literature as the product of isolated genius read in private. It looks at the sociable life of reading and writing in clubs and societies in a period that saw a rapid expansion in all forms of civil association, especially those committed to the idea of ‘improvement’. The project examines the role of the ‘literary’ in a world of rapid technological and commercial expansion, where associations formed to conduct scientific experiments or combine for the improvement of roads and street lighting or argue for parliamentary reform. In the process, it also attempts to examine how definitions of the ‘literary’ were changed and contested in these associations; their relationship to nineteenth-century disciplinary specializations; and how they defined themselves in relation to other ideas of ‘improvement.’ The project will also explore the politics of inclusion and exclusion, how these related to questions of location, in the home, the coffee shop or tavern etc, and how participation related to issues class, gender, national identity and race. This work builds on Jon Mee’s Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention, and Community, 1762-1830 (Oxford 2011), funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2006-2009).

John Freeth and his circle, Johannes Eckstein, copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

During the course of the project (2011-2015), we will build a database of clubs, memberships, and activities in Britain and empire, including America, over the period, tracking the movement of people, texts, and ideas. Ultimately, this database will be accessible through a website.

The project is funded by a Leverhulme project research grant. 

Get involved

We’d particularly like to hear from current societies that descend from the eighteenth-century clubs we’re studying.


Visit the Networks of Improvement blog


Team members

Project Team Members

Principal investigator: Professor Jon Mee

Research fellows: Dr Georgina Green

                          Dr Cassandra Ulph

Doctoral candidate: Jennifer Wilkes

Database ECCSN

The Project database


Eighteenth-Century Clubs, Societies and Networks (ECCSN)


Networks of Improvement: British Literary Clubs and Societies 1760-1840

Friday 13 March 2015, 11.00am to 5.00pm 14 March

 - Programme -

Friday 13 March

 10.30-11.15     Registration and Coffee                      

11.15-11.30     Welcome 

11.30-13.00     Panel 1: Metropolitan Societies

Georgina Green (University of York): Translating hemp into a 'Band of Reciprocal Interest': The Society of Arts and the construction of a trans-Atlantic actor-network in the 1760s

Matthew Sangster (University of Birmingham): British Institutions, Literary Production and National Glory in the Romantic Period

13.00-14.00                 Lunch

14.00-15.30     Panel 2: Book Clubs and Reading Societies

Ina Ferris (University of Ottawa): Bordering Literary Culture: The Place of Rural Book Clubs

Christy Ford (University of Oxford): Urban reading associations in Britain: practices and representations           

15.30-15.45                 Coffee

15.45-17.15     Panel 3: Scotland and Improvement

Alexander Dick (University of British Columbia): Reading, Religion, and the Politics of Improvement in Eighteenth-Century Scotland

Mark Towsey (University of Liverpool): 'Attended with great improvement as well as entertainment': Reading for Improvement at the Selkirk Subscription Library, 1772-1814.

17.15-19.30     Convivial conversation at a local hostelry

19.30               Dinner


Saturday 14 March

9.00-9.30                     Coffee

9.30-11.00       Panel 4: Convivial Societies

Rhona Brown (University of Glasgow): Literary Communities and Commemorations in the Edinburgh Cape Club

Kate Compton (York Army Museum): "Improved by friendship": York's Good Humour Club and the founding of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society

11.00-11.15                 Coffee             

11.15-12.45     Panel 5: Authors and Networks I

David O'Shaughnessy (Trinity College Dublin): Stages of Irish patriotism in 1780s London: Irish Playwrights and the Benevolent Society of St Patrick

Julian Pooley (University of Leicester): ‘A Laborious and Truly Useful Gentleman’.  Mapping the Networks of John Nichols (1745-1826), printer, antiquary and Biographer

12.45-13.45                 Lunch             

13.45-15.15     Panel 6: Authors and Networks II

Mark Philp (University of Warwick): Converazioni in Prison - Godwin's networks

Timothy Whelan (Georgia Southern University): Mary Steele, Mary Hays, and the Convergence of Women’s Circles in the 1790s

15.15-3.30                   Coffee                         

15.30-17.00     Panel 7: Transpennine Enlightenment

Cassie Ulph (University of York): ‘Under the existing rules’: Anne Lister and the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society

Jon Mee (University of York): Transpennine Enlightenment: The Northern Lit Phils

Location: Huntingdon Room (K/122), The King's Manor

Registration will is available here