RSA History: What was it like to be a member of the Society in the 1760s?

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Before the Society moved into the current premises in 1774, it was based a little down the road on the Strand. But these premises were far too small.

Members were crowded onto uncomfortable benches, and the sweat and heat of so many bodies meant that condensation collected on the ceiling and dripped onto their heads. They were constantly searching for ways to better ventilate the room. Fortunately for them, the inventor of the mechanical ventilator, Dr Stephen Hales, was one of the Society's founders (although there were still limits to what such a machine could do). 

Meetings took place in the evenings, sometimes late into the night, and they were illuminated by whale-oil lamps, giving off a strong fishy odour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Society gave a massive prize of £100 (just under £20,000 in today's money) to one of its members, Robert Dossie, for finding a method of processing the oil to reduce the smell and stave off its putrefaction. 

In 1760, a sub-committee was even formed to deal with "the stench arising from the Necessary" (then, as now, people seem to have searched for euphemisms for toilets). Bear in mind that this was before the invention of the S-bend and even the U-bend, so any such smell would have arisen directly from a cesspit, which would have been regularly emptied by professionals who were since made redundant by indoor plumbing, the "gong farmers" or "night soil men", who carted the waste off during the night for use on farms. 

So the 1760s was crowded and smelly, but the Society's members played their part in making life that little bit more pleasant. 

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