The discovery of the magazines produced by mutual improvement and literary societies from 1800 to 1914 (and beyond) in the archives across Scotland and England substantially contributes to the evidence for nineteenth-century mutual improvement societies, and for working- and lower-middle class Scottish and English readers and writers during this period, social groups that are under-represented in the history of reading and of the book, and in Victorian studies more broadly.

To date, these societies are understudied, perhaps as the current consensus in the scholarship is that their records are scarce and the evidence for them is thus limited. Authorities in the history of the book and of reading have found minimal primary evidence for these groups. However, work in the last forty years has begun to uncover their records and address this gap in the research. A number of studies have looked at English nineteenth-century mutual improvement societies (for a full a list, see Weiss (2017) below), and a handful have been done on societies in Scotland, but none of them have focused on literary societies after the 1830s per se, and none of them talk about the magazines these groups produced.

As of 2018, there are still only two books that have been published about literary societies in the nineteenth century, and these focus on groups in Ontario, Canada, and African-American societies in the eastern United States (McHenry (2002), and Murray (2002), see below for full reference). Weiss’s work builds upon this scholarship. From her discoveries in the archives, far from materials on nineteenth-century mutual improvement and literary societies being scarce, the evidence is particularly substantial.

From her research, she interprets scholars’ unsuccessful attempts in locating materials as being due to the fact that, when compared to the large number of ‘improving’ societies founded after 1850, there were simply not as many of these societies extant during the first half of the nineteenth century, the period in which most scholars assume that these societies were largely confined to. If we consider that only a fraction of any societies’ records in any period have survived and have managed to make their way somehow to an accessible archive (in every sense), the problem becomes clearer.

Further, it was not always the case that societies used ‘mutual improvement’ in their self-designation, which makes searching for them in the records more difficult. Groups could style themselves as young men’s societies, literary societies, debating societies, or a combination thereof. It was often the case that a group’s ‘object’, or purpose, could be discovered in their formal constitutions and rules, and if these haven’t survived, in their manuscript minute books. This was usually stated as being the moral, religious, intellectual and/or social improvement of its members through various means (e.g. essays, debates, readings) and often included the production of a magazine by and for the society members.

Tracking down society magazines was assisted, in part, by The Waterloo Directory of Scottish Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900 (1989), John North’s indispensable two-volume resource for Scottish materials. The list of magazines under ‘Manuscripts’ in the Subject Index was an excellent starting point, but it was found that there were even more society magazines in the local libraries and archives than were given, Glasgow being a particular case in point. However, The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900 (2003) does not have a separate listing for manuscripts, and it was necessary to comb through the listings given under the subject headings, ‘Associations’, and ‘Societies, Clubs’. Series three of The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers & Periodicals: 1800-1900 (available online, see link below), has only 12 listings under manuscript periodicals, and two of them are actually Scottish (Kirkwall, Orkney and Wellpark, Glasgow).

Searching for these magazines in the libraries, archives and special collections across Scotland and England is further complicated by the different cataloguing systems that are used to document manuscript (and other) materials held in repositories across both countries. For example, some catalogues are available online, while in some cases, card catalogues are used, which are only searchable in person. Alternatively, libraries may use a combination of these. To add to the difficulty, librarians and archivists over the years have used different terms to describe these materials. They may be called manuscript or handwritten materials, and they may be referred to as magazines, journals or periodicals. It was necessary to search the catalogues under a variety of terms and combinations thereof. Further, there may only be a general description in the listing (e.g. church magazine), or just the basic details (e.g. the title of the magazine and the group that produced it). Finally, whilst compiling information on society magazines for this project, it was not uncommon to discover that there were sometimes more issues produced by a society than was recorded in the library and archival catalogues.

Thank you!

This project would not have been possible without the assistance and information provided by the many archivists, librarians and library staff across Scotland and England. We wish to extend a huge thank you to all the professionals based at the libraries, archives, and special collections listed below where these materials were viewed.

For further details about the materials in their respective collections, please click on the links below to view their websites, catalogues, details regarding their opening times, and to contact them for further information.

Libraries, Archives and Special Collections across Scotland and England where materials on literary and mutual improvement societies and their magazines from this project are housed:

Aberdeen City Library and Information Service

Live Argyll (Argyll and Bute Archives) (Lochgilphead)

Bristol Archives

Caithness Archive Centre, now Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives (Wick Airport, Wick)

Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service (Halifax Central Library)

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, held at Cheshire Record Office (Chester)

City of Westminster Archives Centre (London)

Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council Library Service (Ewart Library, Dumfries)

Dundee District Central Library, The Wellgate

Edinburgh Central Library

Elgin Public Library

Glasgow City Archives (Mitchell Library)

  • Glasgow City Archives serves to collect, preserve and provide access to the historical records for the city. Glasgow’s first archivist was appointed just over 50 years ago, in 1964. Since then, as well as the official records from Glasgow City Council, the collections have expanded to include records from private individuals, families and organisations based in or around Glasgow.

Hackney Archives Department

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (Hertford)

Lancashire Archives (Preston)

London Metropolitan Archives

Manchester Archives and Local Studies

Mitchell Library  (Glasgow)

Mitchell Library Special Collections

National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh)

National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh)

North Lanarkshire Archives (Motherwell)

Oldham Local Studies & Archives

Orkney Library & Archive (Kirkwall)

Paisley Heritage Centre (Central Library)

Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

Scottish Borders Archive and Local History Centre, Heritage Hub (Hawick)

Sheffield Archives

Shetland Archives (Lerwick)

Shropshire Archives (Shrewsbury)

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Tyne & Wear Archives (Newcastle)

University of Glasgow Archives

University of Glasgow Library

University of Glasgow Special Collections

University of Strathclyde Archives (Glasgow)


Secondary sources providing further contextual information on the materials listed on this website:

Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland, ed. by Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (Gent and London: Academia Press and The British Library, 2009)

Donaldson, William, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland: Language, Fiction and the Press (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986)

A History of British Working-Class Literature, ed. by John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

McHenry, Elizabeth, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African-American Literary Societies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn, Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

Murray, Heather, Come, Bright Improvement! The Literary Societies of Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

Nineteenth-Century English Labouring Class Poets: 1800-1900, general editor John Goodridge, 3 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006)

Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)

Salmi-Niklander, Kirsti, ‘Manuscripts and broadsheets: narrative genres and the communication circuit among working class youth in early 20th-century Finland’, Folklore. Electronic Journal of Folklore, 33 (2007),  109-126

Vincent, David, Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900, ed. by John S. North, Series 2, 20 vols., (Waterloo, Ontario: North Waterloo Academic Press, 2003).

The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers & Periodicals: 1800-1900. Series 3:

The Waterloo Directory of Scottish Newspapers & Periodicals: 1800-1900, ed. by John S. North, 2 vols. (Waterloo: North Waterloo Academic, 1989)

Weiss, Lauren, ‘The Literary Clubs and Societies of Glasgow during the Long Nineteenth Century: A City’s History of Reading through its Communal Reading Practices and Productions’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Stirling, 2017): The Literary Clubs and Societies of Glasgow during the Long Nineteenth Century

Weiss, Lauren, ‘The Manuscript Magazines of the Wellpark Free Church Young Men’s Literary Society’, in Media and Print Culture Consumption in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Victorian Reading Experience, ed. by Paul Raphael Rooney and Anna Gasperini (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 53-73.

The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900:


Other useful websites:

Archive of Working-Class Writing Online

Glasgow’s Literary Bonds

The Glasgow Story

The Handwritten Newspapers Project. An Annotated Bibliography & Historical Research Guide to Handwritten Newspapers from Around the World

Laboring-Class Poets Online:

Places of Worship Database

Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP)

The UK Reading Experience Database:

Virtual Mitchell