Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge Papers

Scope and Content

The collection consists mainly of minutes, financial records, manuscripts of unpublished texts and correspondence.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Society was founded in 1826, largely at the instigation of Lord Brougham. The object of the new Society was "the imparting useful information to all classes of the community, particularly to such as are unable to avail themselves of experienced teachers, or may prefer learning by themselves" (SDUK 'Prospectus', 1829). It sought to achieve this object by acting as the intermediary between authors and publishers in several different and often ambitious series of publications. The Society fixed the form and selling price of treatises, frequency of publication and payments to authors; the publisher made arrangement with the printer and organised the distribution and sale of publications. In charge of the Society's affairs was a General Committee of not less than 40 and not more than 60 members. Prominent on the Committee besides Lord Brougham were James Mill, Lord John Russell, Lord Althorp, Zachary Macaulay, Joseph Hume, Robert Aglionby Slaney and Augustus De Morgan. Sub-committees were appointed and their function handed over to a reconstituted Publication Committee, though even after this date, ad hoc sub-committees persisted. The Society was responsible for many series of publications including: 'Library of Useful Knowledge'; 'British Almanac'; 'Library of Entertaining Knowledge'; 'Farmer's series; 'Maps'; 'Working Man's Companion'; 'Quarterly Journal of Education'; 'Penny Magazine'; 'Penny Cyclopedia'; 'Gallery of Portraits'; 'Library for the Young'; 'Biographical Dictionary'. In 1829 there were 515 annual subscribers to the Society but that number fell to 49 by 1842. Together with the fall in the number of subscribers went a general fall in the sale of publications. Perhaps the main reason for the fall in popularity of the publications was the fact that too many and too diverse sets of treatises ran concurrently, with an extremely cumbersome review procedure for each treatise. This led to the erratic appearance of treatises, with consequent delays in the completion of readers' sets. The publications were also felt to be of a miscellaneous and non-controversial nature and therefore aroused little interest. The Society's active life lasted until 1846 and its affairs were wound up in 1848. A very useful study on the Society is Monica C Grobel, 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826-1846 and its relation to adult education in the first half of the XIXth Century' (unpublished London University PhD thesis, 1932).

Access Information


The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material, after the completion of a Reader's Undertaking.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge when it wound up in 1848.

Other Finding Aids

The main finding aid is 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826-1848: A handlist of the Society's correspondence and papers', compiled by Janet Percival (London, 1978); and name index. This is currently being added to the online catalogue. Please contact Special Collections for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

Normal copyright restrictions apply.