[From Manx Quarterly #8 April 1910]



(From the " Isle of Man Times," January, 1910.)

The Douglas Progressive Debating Society, which held its annual social function the other evening, is the oldest and most successful institution of its kind in the Isle of Man. It stands for intellectual improvement and the cultivation of the art of speaking. It has numbered in its ranks members of the House of Keys, Town Councillors, and members of the various professions. It has been a sort of intellectual asylum far young men of all creeds and opinions, and it has upheld its banner of free and untrammelled discussion on every topic under the sun for nearly twenty years past. This is a record of no ordinary kind m a place like Douglas, where the seeds of dissension are sown broadcast in the soil, and where schism and apathy have alike proved fatal to many a promising organisation of the same kind. The success of the Progressives is attributable to the fact that it has always possessed a nucleus of faithful members whose aim it was to inculcate and enforce absolute liberty in thought and discussion. Members of the most extreme tendencies had no motive to secede from a Society which welcomed every honest opinion on every conceivable topic of human interest-social, political or literary. The most exciting debates have taken place on Imperial and Insular politics, on Socialism, on the Temperance Question, on Tariff Reform, and so on; but at the close the debaters who have been argued in the wordy warfare have never failed to part as friends. The most interesting and enjoy-able seances have been those which have been devoted to the study of questions of literary or scientific interest. Many of the members are of a studious turn of mind well versed in the history of their own and other countries. Some have a keen relish for poetry or for the great prose writings of historian and philosopher; and in the thoughtful intercourse with their fellows which the Society has afforded, they have gained new inspiration and keen intellectual enjoyment.

Such a Society as this possesses a great fond of vitality and permanence within it- self, and when the signs of decadence made themselves apparent at any time, it was always easy to resuscitate and reawaken the flickering flame of interest and recruit the depleted ranks of members. The Progressives leaned not on the patronage of the socially great, nor yet upon any church or party; but continued on their way as the champions of free undenominational thought and discussion, pledged to no propaganda and wedded to no dogma. Religious topics as such were eschewed, and whatever references to religion have been necessary in the discussion of general ques-tions have always been frame in the language of moderation and consideration for the susceptibilities of religious people. This tradition abided with the Society from its very inception, and it has never lost the inspiration of its founders. Yet, curious to say, the Progressive Debating Society had its origin as a handmaid to a religious organisation-albeit an organisation of the broadest and most tolerant kind. The actual founder of the Society was the Rev. John Farnsworth, the minister of the Unitarian Church in Circular-road. He was a gentleman who had a great sympathy with young men, and had a wonderful faculty of making friends with them of guiding them on the lines of independent thought and self-culture. On November 4th, 1890, the provisional committee of the new Society was formed, and the first meeting was held in the Unitarian Church six days later. Mr Farnsworth was the chairman; Mr Thomas Corkill vice-chairman - and others present were Messrs John Barron (now deceased), his son, Mr George Barron, Messrs William Holloway, David Gray F, B. Fleming, T. G. Craine, J. Corkill, Geo. J. Matey, James Garrett, E. Killip, S. K. Broadbent, and C. F. Maley. Mr George Alfred Ring accepted the presidency, and Mr Fleming in the following year became chairman. The Society soon removed from the church, and took up its quarters in rooms at 29, Athol-street. In December, 1891, it was called on to take leave of its founder, Mr Farnsworth, and it presented him with a handsome time piece and ornaments in token of its esteem. Mr Farnsworth's affecting speech in acknowledging that gift still lingers in the memory of old "Progressives".

There are some people who think that the Progressives might more appropriately be called the "Retrogresives," but their character is not to be judged in this hasty fashion. The one constant feature of the debates and proceed-ings has been a loyalty to truth and sincerity; everything else had to stand its chance in the turmoil of discussion. The Society has discussed many of the burning topics that are agitating the community to-day, and has arrived at decisions which seem to have forestalled events in a marvellous manner. Thus on March 21st, 1892, it was resolved, "That, in the opinion "of this Society it is exceedingly desirable that a compulsory scheme for the provision of pensions be instituted without delay." Though sixteen years elapsed before the resolution was realised, the debate fairly reflected the opinion of the time, and especially it laid stress on the desirability of introducing the contributory principle, so as to maintain the independence of the recipients and avoid the danger and injustice of pauperising. Political bias and electoral motives have resulted in a non-contributory system being adopted in England, but that is no fault of the Progressive Debating Society. The head of the Society and its moving spirit has always been the chairman. It wee the onerous task of this official to guide the debate in its legitimate channel, to check the rising temper of members by kindly and judicious reproof, and generally to promote the intelligence -or usefulness of the debate. In 1892, Mr R. J. Grindley, who had been a member of the Society from the first, was voted to this important post, and held it by unanimous re-election again and again until the close of 1895, when he insisted on resigning. Mr J. A. Mylrea was a genial and sympathetic President throughout this long period. On October 16th, 1894, on the occasion of his marriage, Mr Grindley was the recipient of a handsome presentation from the members. It is interesting to observe that in November, 1894, the Society passed a resolution by a majority, "That Free Trade, so-called, is not conducive to the best interests of the nation, and fair trade is more conducive to such interests." At that time the phrase "Tariff Reform" had not been current, and the idea had only dawned on the most reflective minds. In March, 1895, the peculiarly extreme and offensive form of Land-lords' Preference which exists in the Isle of Man was condemned by the Society. February 4th, 1896, was a red letter day inthe annals of the Progressives. They had the pleasure of welcoming the Rev. Tom Brown, whom they had all loved from afar. and it was their delight to meet him face to face and listen to his homely, kindly eloquence on topics Manx. In the years 1896 and 1897, Mr John A. Brown was president of the Society, and Mr W. J. Montgomery chairman. In 1898 and 1899 Mr James Garrett was chairman. In 1900 and 1901 the late Speaker (Mr A. W. Moore) took the presidency, and Mr G. B. Wright (of the Douglas Customs) was chairman. Mr E. B. Gawne, H.K., Mr C. W. Hughes-Games (the Vicar-General), Mr J. T. Cowell (Receiver-General), Mr Jos. S'haru, and Mr Marsden (Mayor of Douglas) were successively president; and the chairmanship over debates of late years has been worthily filled in succession by Mr J. H. Kelly, Councillor Hough, Mr R. J. Grindley, Mr R. D. Farrant, and Mr W. A. Fyffe (Public Analyst). This brings us up to date; and the Progressive Debating Society was never more vigorous and hopeful than it is to-day. It stands, as ever, for culture, and thou ght, and freedom of speech; and so long as that is its watchword, it can hardly die. The Progressive Debating Society has frequently been asked to lend a helping hand to kindred societies elsewhere in the Island, and has never failed to respond. It has had a great part in moulding opinion in the capital of the Island on many controversial subjects, and it has always maintained a high tone of fairness and good taste in all its proceedings, with the result that the most eminent and influential of Manx citizens have been proud to attend its sessions and join in its discussions.

On the suggestion of the Rev J. M. Spicer, who was then chaplain at Laxey, a " Manx Union of Debating Societies" was formed, and for about ten years did excellent work. Mr S. K. Broadbent was by turns secretary and treasurer of the movement, and debates were held in various centres attended by representatives and members of as many debating and kindred societies as cared to join. These aggregate meetings at Laxey, Ramsey, Peel, Castletown, Ballasalla, and Douglas, will be remembered with great pleasure, and led to many friendships. The custom was to get the biggest and most influential local magnate to take the chair, have an essay on a burning question, and discussion. Refreshments and music were provided by the local committees at each place. When Dumbell's Bank broke it was found almost impossible to perpetuate the annual meetings of the Union. and so they fell into desuetude.



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see also vol 11 p985

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