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Evening Lectures

Our new season of lectures on the theme of 'Transformations and Change Makers' begins in November

Drinks reception from 6pm

Lectures from 6.30-7.30pm

Tickets £10 / Booking essential via webcollect, by telephone or in person at the Institution.


Thursday 2nd November 2023

Key Note

Dr Julia Neville 

“Creating Opportunities for Changing Lives in Devon in the 1920s”

At the end of the First World War the Ministry of Reconstruction proposed a bold reshaping of ‘the social and industrial system of the country’. They judged that the simple idea of going back to what life had been like in 1914 had been overtaken by the ‘larger and worthier’ idea of a ‘better world after the war’, and that ‘out of justice to the living and out of reverence to the dead’ the nation should seek to ‘rebuild the national life on a better and more enduring foundation’.’1

A new suite of opportunities in every walk of life from village life to housing, fishing and industrial relations was suggested. While the Coalition Government elected at the end of 1918 did not pursue all the many suggestions made for a better life, they did pass a raft of legislation intended specifically to improve children’s health and educational opportunities; housing, particularly for the working classes; and the range of opportunities available to women.

The rapid slide into recession after 1920 meant that the funding promised to implement these transformational reforms was almost immediately removed or reduced, and only timidly re-introduced later in the decade. But the ideas to underpin a better society did not completely wither away. Progress on healthy lives, better housing, more educational opportunity and greater openings for women was made, although patchily. In this paper, based on research from the Devon in the 1920s project, Julia will examine the areas where progress was achieved against the odds, and specifically to consider the roles of those championing change.

The case studies used consider individual councillors on the county and county borough councils, often the chairs of committees. They consider the growing influence of individuals with professional qualifications such as the medical officers of health or committee clerks. They also look at the way in which new pressure groups emerged, particularly in relation to issues considered significant by women.

1 Ministry of Reconstruction, Aims of Reconstruction, HMSO,1918.

Dr Julia Neville is an Honorary Research Fellow in History at Exeter University. She is the project manager of the Devon in the 1920s research collaboration, led by Devon History Society, and runs the Devon and Exeter Institution’s ‘West Quarter in the 1920s’ Research Group.


Thursday 7th December 2023 

Richard Dennis

“George Gissing and Exeter: a transformative writer at a transformative time in his own life”

Despite recent radio adaptations of both New Grub Street and The Odd Women, and the reincarnation of the former’s Edwin Reardon as Radio 4’s ‘Ed Reardon’, the Victorian realist novelist, George Gissing (1857-1903) remains a relatively neglected author, a master of irony and acutely observed spoken dialogue, but often dismissed by critics as a ‘miserabilist’. Yet his own life was as eventful as the plots of many of his ‘sensationalist’ contemporaries, and his stories addressed critical transformations in Victorian society – the displacement of a landed elite by business, the challenge of science to religious belief, the transport revolution, the rise of consumerism, attitudes to sexual freedom, gender equality and the role of women in contemporary society – treating these issues from a profoundly human perspective.

In this talk, Richard will focus on the time Gissing lived in Exeter, from January 1891 to June 1893, sandwiched between lengthy, albeit restlessly mobile, periods in London. While in Exeter, Gissing remarried and became a father, and this shifted his attitude both to property (he took the tenancy of a whole house as opposed to living in lodgings) and to family (he began to write short stories, reckoning that this could provide useful income to support his children should he – as proved to be the case – die young). More critically, he ceased writing about the poor and the injustices of poverty, focusing instead on the nouveau-riche and the pressures of ‘modern’ life. He first corrected the proofs to one of his best-known novels, New Grub Street, concerned with the media and the value placed on different kinds of writing; then wrote Born in Exile, another of his most highly regarded novels, much of it set in Exeter, devoted to the impact of science, especially geology, on religious belief, and its implications for faith, doubt and hypocrisy in a traditionally religious community. Indeed, Gissing’s choice of Exeter as a new home was determined by his needing to be ‘in place’ in a cathedral city also associated with scientific progress. A less well-known novel, Denzil Quarrier – about women and politics in a provincial city which owed something to both Gissing’s birthplace (Wakefield) and Exeter – prepared the way for what has now become his most popular book, The Odd Women, exploring the dilemma of newly educated and unmarried middle-class women, set in London, but written in Exeter. Devon and Exeter feature in several other of Gissing’s works, reflecting his own participation in modern tourism facilitated by train travel and the growth of seaside resorts, and culminating in the semi-autobiographical Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, written in the voice of a retired author ruminating on the challenges of modern society from the viewpoint of his Devonshire country cottage – perhaps the retirement Gissing would have wished for himself.

It is fitting that Exeter’s place in Gissing’s literary career is now being marked by a plaque at one of the three properties associated with his time in the city.

Richard Dennis is an historical geographer (Emeritus Professor at University College London) and Gissing scholar.   He has published a series of articles in The Gissing Journal in 2019-20 devoted to the time Gissing spent in Exeter in 1891-93.  Richard has also published academic articles and book chapters devoted to Gissing, the places where he lived and the places that featured in his writing.

Photo credit  –  image courtesy of Robin Gissing II


Thursday 25th January 2024

Ed Selkirk Ford

“Imagining the Future of the Victorian and Edwardian British Empire”

The collapse of the British Empire is a defining feature of twentieth century history. But before the 1930s, no mainstream British politician expected such a collapse. Around the dawn of the century, politicians and writers exerted a great deal of energy exploring and discussing how they expected the empire to develop over the decades and centuries to come. Their unfulfilled aspirations and predictions allow us to see how writers understood empire, as well as the ways in which their expectations failed (and occasionally succeeded) to shape our lives today.

This talk will explore these forgotten debates to uncover how the future of the British Empire was imagined and expected. By using items in the DEI’s collection as a framework for these ideas, Ed will approach this subject through the eyes of the DEI’s Victorian and Edwardian membership, who were consumers and active participants in the political and intellectual projects of empire. Ed will give a brief overview and explanation of the campaigns for imperial federation and imperial preference, as well as arguments about racial destiny, humanitarianism, and civilisation to understand how they interacted in the libraries and lecture halls of Britain. Ed will also explore perspective on the future of the empire that are not reflected in the DEI’s holdings – particularly on the claims made by imperial subjects of colour for an empire of racial equality and will discuss what these exclusions can tell us about the nature of the imperial debates in Exeter and in Britain more widely. 

Ed Selkirk Ford is a PhD candidate and teaching associate at the University of Exeter working on the political history of Britain and the British Empire. He previously studied at the University of Oxford and have also worked in parliament. He researches parliamentary representation, constitutions, imperial identities, international organisations, and the intellectual history of global orders. Ed’s current project is entitled Parliamentarism and the Construction of the Settler Colonial Nation: The Politics of Representation in Australia and South Africa, 1890-1910.


Thursday 22nd February 2024

Dr Richard Bradbury 

“Frederick Douglass in Exeter”

In the early 19C Exeter was an important centre of anti-slavery, abolitionist, activity. At least one public meeting commanded an audience of over 700 people and the local press repeatedly carried stories and letters debating the existence of, and the need to abolish, slavery

With one minor exception, though, Exeter did not host an escaped enslaved person able to present the reality of chattel slavery in the USA until August 1846. Frederick Douglass’s speaking tour of Britain between 1845 and 1847 was immensely successful. His visit to Exeter was described in “The Western Times” as “one of the most important, unanimous, and decided public meetings which this city ever witnessed”.

Douglass, with leading American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had been invited to Exeter by Francis Bishop, a young Unitarian minister whose involvement in social reform campaigns extended beyond the abolition of slavery to opposition to capital punishment, support for religious freedom, and social welfare.

Richard would like to shine a light on this forgotten corner of Exeter’s history. He will present the story of Douglass’s visit to Exeter through a combination of a talk and two very short pieces of live drama with Neville Connor and Aidan Casey.  There will also be a screening of a short film about Douglass’s visit made this summer by Dr John Sealy.

Dr. Richard Bradbury  is a writer, academic and artistic director of Riversmeet. He has taught in higher education for more than thirty years at the universities of Warwick and Exeter and until the end of 2023 at the Open University. His interest in Frederick Douglass is longstanding and his play about Douglass ‘Become A Man’ was the first to be performed in the London City Hall as part of the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade commemorations. During his research for the play in the DEI he found the reports of Douglass’s visit to Exeter which has led to the current project.

Neville Connor is an actor and facilitator with extensive experience in culture and diversity work. He is founding member of UBUNTU consultancy which brings inspirational and accessible education to young people in Devon. He is part of the Riversmeet team working on the Frederick Douglass project and plays Douglass in the film. Nev recently performed his one man show ‘Farewell Jamaica’ about the Windrush generation as part of the Windrush 2023 celebration at RAMM and Positive Lights in Exeter.

John Sealey is an award winning film director and academic at Plymouth University and director of Fabian’s Film https://riversmeetproductions.co.uk/


Thursday 28th March 2024

Amber Flood

“Proposing change in the Enlightenment subscription library – a monstrous request?”

Subscription libraries have featured in written histories as an innovation which emerged from a culture of Enlightenment sociability in the late eighteenth century. Historians described the advent of the subscription library as expected when looking at its trajectory – beginning in relatively open spaces in an earlier period, and becoming more compartmentalised in clubs and societies in the second half of the eighteenth century. By the end of the century, intellectual sociability became institutionalised in the form of proprietary and subscription based organisations. Throughout England, many regions adopted the subscription library model and maintained that their purpose was for the advancement of knowledge. The members of the subscription libraries viewed themselves, and the circles they engaged with, as Enlightened, and used rhetoric surrounding rationality, education and egalitarianism to establish themselves within intellectual spheres.

Through an examination of organisations like the Devon and Exeter Institution however, this idealised vision of the Enlightenment subscription library becomes muddied. The need to erect financial, physical and social barriers to participation in circles which were relatively open in a previous period demonstrates that a massive change had occurred in society; the most perceptible being, class. The strengthening of class consciousness in the late Georgian and Victorian periods emerged simultaneously to the establishment of more exclusive intellectual organisations. These spaces were largely the preserve of the wealthy elite and professional classes who were increasingly referred to as the middle class. In this way, their aspirations for egalitarianism and an access to knowledge was really an egalitarianism amongst those who had access to wealth and strong social connections. By looking at the institutional records of subscription libraries, it becomes clear that this exclusivity could not be maintained alongside the large scale social changes which were happening outside the institution’s walls. In this way, the history of the Devon and Exeter Institution, and other subscription libraries across the nation, is one which is punctuated with conflict surrounding proposals and dismissals towards change. This paper, will therefore provide an overview of how transformations in society are reflected in the minute books and how they were received. Evidence from the Suggestion Book, which came on the scene in 1861, will provide some more subjective considerations from the members themselves on the prospect of social change in terms of organisation, class and gender.

Amber Flood is a PhD student at the University of Exeter in collaboration with the Devon and Exeter Institution. Her research interests include social change and intellectual culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with particular reference to class, industry, and gender. As part of her collaborative PhD, Amber is undertaking training that will equip her with valuable skills in the heritage sector.