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The X Club

Power and Authority in Victorian Science

In 1864, amid headline-grabbing heresy trials, members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science were asked to sign a declaration affirming that science and scripture were in agreement. Many criticized the new test of orthodoxy; nine decided that collaborative action was required. The X Club tells their story.

These six ambitious professionals and three wealthy amateurs—J. D. Hooker, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, George Busk, T. A. Hirst, and Herbert Spencer—wanted to guide the development of science and public opinion on issues where science impinged on daily life, religious belief, and politics. They formed a private dining club, which they named the X Club, to discuss and further their plans. As Ruth Barton shows, they had a clear objective: they wanted to promote “scientific habits of mind,” which they sought to do through lectures, journalism, and science education. They devoted enormous effort to the expansion of science education, with real, but mixed, success. 

​For twenty years, the X Club was the most powerful network in Victorian science—the men succeeded each other in the presidency of the Royal Society for a dozen years. Barton’s group biography traces the roots of their success and the lasting effects of their championing of science against those who attempted to limit or control it, along the way shedding light on the social organization of science, the interactions of science and the state, and the places of science and scientific men in elite culture in the Victorian era.

576 pages | 33 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: British and Irish History, General History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Religion: Religion and Society


"A detailed account of one of the most influential networks in Victorian science. It is a book that no other scholar could have produced. Rarely does a historian exhibit such thorough knowledge of the historical actors under investigation. . . . This is a scholarly volume that changes a lot of what we think about the X Club, which is important. As Barton observes, this was a group that wielded social influence and institutional power throughout two crucial decades in which the role of science in society was profoundly changed. It is a subject that matters to historians of science and to a wider readership concerned with science’s relationship with society and the state. The X Club promises to be the definitive work on this influential network for a long time to come."

Isis: a Journal of the History of Science Society

"The outcome of several decades of research, Ruth Barton’s magisterial group biography of the nine men who made up the X Club was well worth waiting for. . . . Barton displays a truly impressive command of both detail and broader historical themes, combining macro- and micro-historical approaches to impressive effect. . . . Her lively sympathy with the dilemmas and challenges facing her protagonists brings them imaginatively to life. The X Club is to be warmly recommended to anyone with an interest in British science in the nineteenth century. It provides an exemplary study of the interactions between class, expertise and the institutions of Victorian science, and has important resonances for the study of other times and contexts in the history of science and for historical studies more generally."

Intellectual History Review

"Barton achieve[s] both breadth and depth in her account of mid- to late nineteenth-century scientific careers, and consistently demonstrates the role of social status in shaping the careers of her subjects. . . . Looking beyond the more outspoken X Club members, Barton gains fresh insight into well-worn topics. . . . She has set a significant benchmark in scholarship on the X Club that will no doubt remain the chief reference work on the subject for some time."

The British Journal for the History of Science

“For decades in the late 1800s, nine scientific luminaries (among them biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker) dined together as members of the ‘X Club’. This socio-economically diverse group, formed in part to promote Charles Darwin’s achievements, is a telling case study in the dynamics of Victorian class and science. Historian Ruth Barton’s magisterial chronicle traces the careers of the 'X-men' and their agile promotion of science; Huxley, in particular, emerges vividly as wily, belligerent, and obstructive to women entering science.”


"Having taught history, social-science methodology, and mathematics at universities in New Zealand and Australia, Ruth Barton is better equipped than most to tackle a group biography of the nine men with whom she has 'lived for decades'. . . . [Barton] takes a fresh approach to the hoary old question of 'science versus religion' in the 19th century . . .  As the 137 pages of end matter attest, detail is 'crucial to the argument of this book'. Serious students of Victorian Christian thought should attend to the detail, while the general reader can enjoy the view, which is panoramic."

Church Times

"[Barton's] analysis is detailed, convincing and long awaited."


"The book is more than a story of the X Club members; Barton gives deserved attention to a wide range of previously neglected collaborators, members of what she terms the wider ‘X-network’ including, crucially, nonscientific actors from the worlds of rational dissent, liberal theology and the universities. In so doing, we are able to understand, more clearly than ever before, the complex ways in which members of the X Club formed part of a wider cultural elite in mid-to-late nineteenth-century England. . . . What Ruth Barton has achieved with The X Club is no mean feat. . . . [It] will make a significant contribution to the historiography of Victorian science, not least because of the depth and intricacy of the archival research on which it is based. It is a rich, detailed and insightful microhistory of the lives, relationships and wider networks of a very significant grouping of scientific men."


“In Victorian Britain, no one worked more tirelessly or creatively to make science part of public culture than the nine members of the X Club.  Ruth Barton's magisterial group biography gives us the men and their world in the richly rewarding detail we have long needed.  From their diverse backgrounds and beginnings, to the complex challenges they faced, to the importance of friendship in meeting those challenges, we see close up how Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, John Tyndall, and the others exercised power and influence in the service of a new, still influential vision of science and society.”

Gregory Radick, author of The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate About Animal Language

"In her much anticipated book on the X Club, Ruth Barton sets out to draw a colorful and detailed picture of the scientific scene in London in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Barton does not disappoint.  Based on meticulous research, this is the definitive study of the small, exclusive dining club that tried to control British science in a quest for power and scientific authority.  By writing a collective biography of the X Club that does not focus too much on Huxley or any other member, Barton provides a lively, balanced examination of the successes and failures of this fascinating collection of individuals bent on changing the face of modern science."

Bernard Lightman, author of Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences

"As the author says, she has ‘lived with these men for decades.’  With meticulous and insightful research, she brings to life the complex lives and campaigning of the nine famous X more fully than ever before, revealing them with extraordinary clarity. The roles played by their wives are shown to be significant. Barton’s scholarship maintains a delicate balance between group and individual biography and probes the intellectual and social contexts of 19th century science, challenging previous interpretations. It is a tremendous achievement." 

Sophie Forgan, coauthor of Urban Modernity: Cultural Innovation in the Second Industrial Revolution

"The X Club is Barton’s long-awaited “big book”—a culmination of immense amounts of research and writing into the subject of these characters, of 'living with these men for decades'.  As always, her scholarship is superlatively precise. . ."

Journal of British Studies

"Ruth Barton’s magnificent book. . . . is the product of years of labor in the archives and is destined to become the most authoritative source on the X Club and its meaning for science. It is written by an author at the top of her game. Much more than this, it deserves to be read by any Victorianist interested in how science as a profession emerged from more general natural philosophy in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and how scientists became significant members of the new intellectual and cultural communities emerging in Victorian London. It is a highly accessible account of genuinely momentous movements in Victorian culture that are often overlooked by scholars who may not be inclined to steep themselves in the scholarship of the history of science."

Victorian Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: The X Club 1864–92
            I.1 Nine Men Who Wanted to Change the World
            I.2 Historians of the X Club
            I.3 Introducing This Book

Part 1  Origins and Ambitions

Chapter 1   Cultures of Science in Early Victorian England
            1.1 Gentlemanly London Science
            1.2 Science for Self-Improvement: Frankland, Tyndall, and Hirst
            1.3 Spencer and Huxley: The Science and Politics of Rational Dissent
            1.4 Spottiswoode at Oxford: A Liberal Education for a Christian Gentleman
            1.5 Scientific Aspirations, Social Status, and Religious Beliefs

Chapter 2   Making Careers
            2.1 Finding Employment: Patronage and Pluralism
            2.2 Scientific Expertise and Gentlemanly Status
            2.3 A Taste for Campaigning
            2.4 Friends

Chapter 3  Speaking for Nature
            3.1 Defending Darwin and Expanding the Domain of Nature
            3.2 Alliances: Naturalistic Science and Liberal Theology
            3.3 The Science of Man: Ethnologists against Anthropologists
            3.4 The Reader: A Liberal Alliance and Its Collapse
            3.5 Friends and Conspirators

Part 2  The X Club Established

Chapter 4   Organizing Science
            4.1 Specialist Societies
            4.2 The British Association: Representing Science to the Nation
            4.3 The Royal Society: Power and Its Symbolic Uses
            4.4 Men of Weight, of Craft, and of Party

Chapter 5   Public Money and the Public Good
            5.1 Science in the Curriculum I: Examination Successes
            5.2 Science in the Curriculum II: Lobbying Failures
            5.3 Money and Advice: The Reciprocal Relations of Science and Government
            5.4 Hirst’s Career: Higher Education and London Life
            5.5 Good and Influential Men

Chapter 6   Claiming Cultural Authority
            6.1 Self-Images
            6.2 Science Militant
            6.3 Insiders: Scientific Men at Home among the Social Elite
            6.4 Pulpits for Science
            6.5 The Rhetoric of Scientific Authority
            6.6 Sunday Lecture Societies: The Politics of Lay Sermons
            6.7 Cultural Leaders

Retrospective  The Life, Work, and Times of the X Club
            R.1 Phases of Power and Friendship, 1860–1900
            R.2 The X Club Program: The Authority and Independence of Science and Scientific Men
            R.3 Victorian Science and Victorian Culture


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