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Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK)


It was founded in 1826 by Henry Brougham, later Baron Brougham and Vaux, with a number of fellow educational reformers, many of them Whig or radical MPs and lawyers, to bring instruction to a mass readership

These reformers included James Mill, Zachary Macaulay, Lord John Russell, William Tooke, and George Birkbeck, founder in 1823, with Brougham’s support, of the first London Mechanics’ Institution (The Times, 3 December 1824, 31 January 1825, 9 July 1825)

The extension of education to all classes and all ages was the larger aim of this group of reformers, some of whom (Brougham, Birkbeck, and Macaulay) had also started a society to encourage the spread of infant schools in 1824 (The Times, 7 June 1824)

The SDUK was first proposed at a meeting convened by Brougham in Furnivall’s Inn in November 1826 (Quarterly Journal of Education, vol. IX, 1833)

The aim was to exploit recent advances in printing and distribution by publishing cheap, informative works to “supply the appetite which had been created by elementary instruction” (through infants’ schools and mechanics’ institutes) and to “direct the ability to read to useful ends”, as the Whig MP Thomas Spring Rice declared at a meeting of the Society in 1828 (The Times, 19 May 1828)

It was agreed that the Society’s publications in its Library of Useful Knowledge would avoid party politics and religion, in order to appeal to the widest audience and also to avoid controversy among its members, who represented a broad spread of religious affiliation, from non-believers to liberal Anglicans and dissenters of various kinds

Despite this precaution, the Society attracted negative attention from Tories and Church of England commentators

This was because its founders were well-known for other activities on behalf of political and educational reform

Many were prominent members of the Council of the new University of London (later University College London), founded in 1825 and preparing to open in October 1828 to teach students of all faiths and none, who were prevented from graduating at Oxford and Cambridge because they were not confessing Anglicans

Birkbeck, Macaulay, Mill, Russell, Tooke, Joseph Hume, George Grote, and Isaac Lyon Goldsmid served on the committees of both institutions; Thomas Coates was Secretary to both, and Brougham was both the Chairman of the SDUK and the first President of the University

While the new metropolitan University catered for middle-class Londoners who lacked higher educational opportunities, the SDUK, through its cheap publications, offered educational self-help to the masses in the years before universal schooling

Opponents of both organisations tended to collapse the two into one in their parodies and cartoons, pretending to think that the new University was intended for the working class, who would thus be encouraged to rebel against the social and political status quo

A characteristic example is the poem by Winthrop Mackworth Praed, ‘The London University; A Discourse delivered by a College Tutor at a Supper-Party’, which includes the lines:

But let them not babble of Greek to the rabble,
Nor teach the mechanics their letters;
The labouring classes were born to be asses,
And not to be aping their betters
(Morning Chronicle, 19 July 1825)

Critics particularly enjoyed attacking the prime mover of both, Henry Brougham, who was already a controversial public figure, a famous Whig orator in Parliament and a flamboyant lawyer celebrated for his successful defence of Queen Caroline at her ‘trial’ in the House of Lords in 1820, for which he earned the undying animosity of George IV, who had instigated the trial in order to stop his estranged wife from attending his Coronation

Thomas Love Peacock’s comic novel Crotchet Castle satirised the aims of the SDUK; Chapter 2, entitled ‘The March of Mind’, opens with the Reverend Doctor Follett exclaiming that he is “out of all patience with this march of mind”; his house has been nearly burnt down by his cook “taking it into her head to study hydrostatics, in a sixpenny tract, published by the Steam Intellect Society”, falling asleep over it and knocking over a candle, setting the curtains alight (Thomas Love Peacock, Crotchet Castle, 1831)

There was indeed a sixpenny tract on hydrostatics, published by the SDUK’s Library of Useful Knowledge in 1827; its author was Brougham

Peacock’s nickname for the Society, the Steam Intellect Society, wittily connected the project to spread knowledge among all classes of the population with the newly planned network of railways which would stretch across Britain in the course of the next decade

Caricaturists seized on the opportunity to ridicule new-fangled inventions and the education of the working man all in one; George Cruikshank and William Heath produced several ‘March of Intellect’ cartoons depicting flying machines and other contraptions alongside a ragged working man reading a book (M. Dorothy George, Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire, 1967)

Undeterred, the SDUK published its pamphlets, and with far-reaching success

The sixpenny treatises, mostly of 32 pages, gave up-to-date accounts of various scientific subjects and were written in some cases by established experts (David Brewster on optics, for example), but mostly by rising stars who were taking up the first professorships at the University of London, men like the botanist John Lindley, and the brilliant mathematician Augustus De Morgan, appointed to his Chair at the age of 21

The Library of Useful Knowledge had a flying start with its introductory treatise, A Discourse of the Objects, Advantages, and Pleasures of Science, published in 1827 and reaching a sale of 42,000 by 1833 (Monica Grobel, ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826–1846’, unpub. MA thesis, University of London, 1933)

Written by Brougham, it offers a brisk survey of mathematics, natural philosophy, the solar system, electricity, and the workings of the steam engine

The early treatises sold between 20,000 and 25,000 copies each

In response to requests from workmen in branches of the SDUK throughout the country, A Library of Entertaining Knowledge was started in 1828 to offer information on practical subjects in an anecdotal style

Those on brewing, insects, and birds were popular, as was George Lillie Craik’s two-volume work, The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties (1830–1831), an account of the successful overcoming of educational disadvantages or disabilities such as blindness by a number of ordinary people which was reprinted several times over the next few decades (Monica Grobel, ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826–1846’, unpub. MA thesis, University of London, 1933)

In chapter 33 of Pickwick Papers, Dickens has Sam Weller’s father, on seeing his son struggling to compose a valentine in a pub in Leadenhall Market, ask “But wot’s that you’re a doin’ of? Pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, Sammy?” (Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837)

In March 1832, in order to spread both useful and entertaining knowledge even further than the treatises could, the SDUK started the Penny Magazine, a weekly paper of miscellaneous information making innovative use of woodcut illustrations of high quality for such a cheap publication

It sold over 200,000 in its first year

By the mid-1830s the Society was in a precarious financial position, having overstretched itself in starting new publications; subscribers had fallen off from 500 in 1828 to fewer than 40 in 1843

When the SDUK came to a natural end in 1846, it could claim to have succeeded in its aims; it was no longer needed as it had been 20 years previously, when major political and social reforms had not yet been won

The SDUK had associated itself with progress and, despite the sneers of those opposed to reform and the susceptibility of the Society to parody, it played its part in nineteenth-century educational history

The Society was clearly a benefit to the poor man; its surviving papers contain many letters from grateful readers, communications from regional organisers of Mechanics’ Institutes, and sales figures indicating that the treatises and magazines were widely read (SDUK Papers, UCL Special Collections)

It also influenced the history of Bloomsbury: one man who educated himself by reading the SDUK’s publications was John Passmore Edwards, born in Cornwall in 1823 to poor parents, who rose to become a wealthy newspaper proprietor in London, where he lived in comfort in Bedford Square

In Chapter 2 of his autobiography, A Few Footprints, entitled ‘Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties’, Passmore Edwards described how his schooling in rural Cornwall ended when he was about ten; soon after this, in 1835, his father began taking the Penny Magazine, the only London periodical that came into the village, and with the aid of a dictionary he read an article in the magazine on the great anatomist John Hunter, which aroused in him “boyish flutterings of ambition to become known and useful in some way myself” (John Passmore Edwards, A Few Footprints, 1905)

In the 1880s and 1890s Passmore Edwards put some of his enormous wealth into educational projects, particularly public libraries all over London and his native Cornwall

And in Bloomsbury he established with Mary Ward the Passmore Edwards Settlement for the education of working people and the safe play of poor children

The Society ceased to exist in 1846

What was reforming about it?

It was a pioneer of cheap educational publishing in the 1820s

Its treatises discussed new scientific and technological subjects

Where in Bloomsbury

It shared a large number of its founders and supporters with the new University of London (later University College London) on Gower Street

Among the authors of its treatises were several Professors at the University of London, including Augustus De Morgan, John Lindley, Anthony Todd Thomson, and Dionysius Lardner

George Long, first Professor of Greek at the University, edited the SDUK’s Quarterly Journal of Education (1831–1835) and its Penny Cyclopaedia in 29 volumes (1833–1846)

William Tooke, solicitor in Bedford Row, who lived in Russell Square, was Treasurer of the SDUK and a member of the Council of the University of London

Thomas Coates, a solicitor who had trained in Tooke’s office, was at first Clerk, and from 1832 to 1835 Secretary, of the University of London, and simultaneously Secretary of the SDUK

The SDUK shared its office with the University, first at 7 Furnival’s Inn, then at 29 Percy Street from 1827 until 1830, when the University’s offices moved into its main building on Gower Street and the SDUK moved to 4 South Square, Gray’s Inn (Monica Grobel, ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826–1846’, unpub. MA thesis, University of London, 1933)

In 1842, at Coates’s suggestion, the Society’s offices moved to 42 Bedford Square, his own address until 1855 (Monica Grobel, ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826–1846’, unpub. MA thesis, University of London, 1933)

Website of current institution

It no longer exists

Books about it

Monica Grobel, ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826–1846’, unpub. MA thesis, University of London, 1933 (sometimes incorrectly indexed as PhD thesis, 1932)

‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


The SDUK Papers are held in UCL Special Collections, ref. SDUK; details are available online via UCL Archives (opens in new window)

There is a handlist: Janet Percival, The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1848: A Handlist of the Society’s Correspondence and Papers (1978)

Some miscellaneous committee notes, the Charter of the Society from 16 May 1832, extracts from the Quarterly Journal of Education, and notes on its history by Augustus De Morgan, are held as part of the Library of Augustus De Morgan in Senate House Library, University of London, ref. [De M] Z (B.P. 327–328); details are available online via Senate House Library Special Collections (opens in new window)

Two marked copies of the Penny Cyclopaedia exist, one in the British Library with identifications of authors by Alexander Ramsay, and the other being the editor George Long’s marked copy, held in Brighton Public Library

This page last modified 13 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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