The Spitalfields Mathematical Society 1717 to 1846.

A fascinating example of a working men’s club was a small but influential movement founded in 1717 by Joseph Middleton. Initially called the “Mathematical Society” it later became known as the “Spitalfields Mathematical Society.” Middleton was a marine engineer who taught the mathematical elements of the skills associated with navigation for sailors. A rare portrait of Joseph Middleton is shown below.


Joseph Middleton, British mathematician

Membership was initially fixed at 64 i.e. the square of eight but initially this was revised down to the square of 7. However throughout its existence the membership fluctuated between 19 (not a squared number) in (1845) to a maximum of the square of 9 in (1804). I presume the use of the square for the number for the membership was to emphasis the mathematical nature of the Society? The membership comprised tradesmen and artisans that including bakers, braziers, brewers and bricklayers but the largest majority were weavers. The Spitalfields area was one of the centres for Huguenot craftspeople many involved in weaving and the weavers were interested and required to apply mathematics in their craft e.g. the importance of angles in thread design. The membership eventually included a number of noted mathematicians and senior individuals from industry such as Johm Canton, John Dolland, Thomas Simpson and Crossley. A portrait of John Dollard is shown below


Unfortunately at present I cannot trace the first names of the other individuals. Another emember was Benjamin Gompertz (law of mortality). There were no entry requirements except an interest and love of mathematics and the Society met weekly for three hours in local pubs in the Spitalfields area.

The three hour sessions comprised talks on mathematics, solving mathematical problems and the third hour members performed experiments on pieces of scientific equipment existing at that time including electrical devices, pneumatic pumps, reflecting microscopes and telescopes. The middle hour was conducted in silence whilst solving problems and a regime of fines was introduced if members broke the silence, used bad language, gambled or behaved riotously. The venue changed a number of times during its existence and in 1793 eventually was permanently located in a room in Crispin Street but all the venues were based in Spitalfields.

The records make fascinating reading and indicate dynamic yet at times quite turbulent meetings. At times during its existence the Society experienced problem with a gang of informers who accused the Society for charging for unlicensed lectures. As a result the Society was involved in a court case which they eventual won. The Society had to raise money in order to cover the legal costs associated with the case. The records indicate the degree of bad feeling this incident caused. The minutes record : “- – produce of lectures delivered in 1799-1800 had been materially diminished by the effect of the information lodged against several of the members by a Gang of Informers, who have occasioned so much trouble and expense to the Society during the pat year.” At other times there were arguments about the fees charged for the sessions and the fines that were imposed for a misdemeanours mentioned above. The Society created an extensive library with over 3000 volumes from which members could borrow books and pieces of equipment for a small fee. The membership grow to the square of 9 and in 1804 the Society introduced a constitution with a president, secretary, treasurer and six trustees. As more professional mathematicians joined the lecture programmes became more specialised and focussed including the following topics: 3 on astronomy 6 on chemistry 2 on electricity 1 on galvanism 2 on hydrostatics 1 on magnetism 2 on optics 1 on pneumatics. Interesting to note the high profile of chemistry. A fee of 1 shilling per lecture and 15 shillings for the complete lecture programme was charged.

(Source: The University of St. Andrews History of Mathematics Centre).

A number of the members such as John Dollond went on to establish the famous optical instruments company of that name and Thomas Simpson a famous mathematician became best known for the Simpson Rule and probability theory. One of the reasons for the increase in membership was as a result of taking over other mathematical and historical societies. But by 1845 the membership had declined to 19 due to the rise of mechanics institutes in London, the decline of handloom weaving and trade recessions of the 1840s and the Society agreed to be absorbed/amalgamated with the Royal Astronomical Society in 1846. All 19 of the remaining members were made fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. The dissolution and amalgamation was steered through by Captain Smyth who later became an Admiral in he Royal Navy – note the marine connection with the founder Joseph Middleton. The legacy of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society was significant and influenced the establishment of other Mathematical Societies e.g. the London Mathematical Society (LMS) that was created in 1865. Other similar societies existed in Lancashire and Yorkshire and again the membership largely comprised of weavers emphasising the importance placed on mathematics by this craft.

Cawthorne. H.H. ‘The Spitalfields Mathematical Society’. (1717 – 1845). Journal of Adult Education. Vol. 111. No. 2. (April 1929). Cassels. J.W.S. ‘The Spitalfield Mathematical Society’ Bulletin of LMS. 11 p. 241 – 258. 1979.

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