Science for a Penny

Dr Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder


At Soapbox Science HQ, we get quite a few invitations to come and speak about the initiative and the issues facing women in science generally. Between our day jobs (of being scientists!), family and other commitments we sadly have to turn down many of these. However, we found it difficult to turn down a recent invitation from Morley College, one of the most valuable resources in London for public education for all ages. The founding principles of Morley College and Soapbox Science have a lot in common: education for the masses, and equal opportunities.  It is rare to come across organisations that promote both: this is why we simply had to find time to squeeze the Penny Lecture into our hectic lives.

And so it was that on one windy March evening last week, I found myself trekking down to Waterloo to deliver a “Penny Lecture” at Morley college about Soapbox Science. It was a thought-provoking experience, with a small but perfectly formed audience (blamed dually on tube delays and the free wine reception next door…). I was reminded how Soapbox Science is founded on the very same societal battles as Morley College was, and with sadness I reflected how they persist today.

One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, an extraordinary woman did an extraordinarily brave and unusual thing. The philanthropist, Emma Cons, took over the notorious Theatre Vic in Waterloo and turned it into the ‘Royal Victoria Coffee Hall’ – an establishment offering affordable education and ‘improving’ entertainment for the local community. Emma threw out the drunks, the prostitutes and the debauched; she imposed order and provided meaningful and useful entertainment for the working classes. At the time, Waterloo was an extremely disadvantaged district, ridden with poverty, overcrowding (4 times the number of people who live there today), high mortality (1 in 5 children died before they were 1), lawlessness and ‘low-life entertainment’. It was an unlikely site for an adult education college! Yet, the ‘Royal Victoria Coffee Hall’ was one of a number of establishments in London striving to improve life for the working classes.

Emma Cons set up the “Penny Popular Scientific Lectures” as a weekly series of lectures given (unpaid) by well-known scientists of the day. The punters paid anything from a penny to three pence, making it affordable for anyone to come along and learn about important scientific breakthroughs: ‘The Telephone – How to talk to a man a hundred miles away’ was the first lecture, given by William Lant Carpenter in 1882. Emma recruited her lecturers by writing to Nature, appealing to the magazine’s authors to come and speak. Later speakers included the founder and editor of Nature, the astronomer Norman Lockyer. Interestingly, these science events took place within an otherwise entirely arts-driven enterprise, and they were introduced in order to save money (not needing to pay artists on nights when there were science lectures)! The Penny Lectures became so popular that audiences were 800-900 people strong. I felt somewhat humbled, 127 years later, to be giving a Penny Lecture about Soapbox Science and the current state of gender equality in science (albeit to a much more modestly sized audience!). The punters to my lecture paid a penny, just as those in 1880 would have done. I couldn’t resist working out that 1d (one old penny) in 1880 would be equivalent to about £3.50 today, based on the proportion of a full-time “working man’s” salary from 1880, and the London living wage today. So, a Penny Lecture, in today’s money, would cost you (a lot!) less than a pint of beer.

The other extraordinary thing that Emma Cons’ institution did was to admit women on an equal basis to men in an era when women had no voice or power to access education. The Penny Lectures were so popular that Emma also set up science classes which ran in the disused dressing rooms of the theatre. It was these classes that led to the formal establishment of the ‘Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women’, in 1889; Morley College claims this to be the first (or one of) working man’s (people’s?) colleges to admit women. To put this in perspective, University College London was the first UK further education institution to admit women (in 1878) and award degrees to women (in 1880). But of course, only the wealthy would have attended a university. Gender equality in education became accessible to the working classes of London 11 years later, at Morley College.

Interestingly, Morley College was named after the man who coughed up the funds (Samuel Morley), rather than Emma Cons, the woman with the brains and brawl to dream it up and make it happen. Predictably, it was Emma herself who suggested this….

Giving a Penny Lecture about Soapbox Science evoked a strong sense of history in me: it is an historical lecture series that promotes science as important, entertaining and for everyone; the lectures were established by a trail-blazing woman in an era where women rarely had voice or power; they embodied education for the masses from all backgrounds; they played an important role in the slow seep of educational rights for women. Uncannily, these are also the key elements on which Soapbox Science was founded. I find this depressing – have we progressed so little in 127 years?  It has also instilled a special nostalgia in me and I am sure it is an experience that I won’t forget. That, along-side a comment from a friend who, when realising my lecture would cost him a penny, said: “That won’t do much to address the gender pay gap!”


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