John Theodore Combridge

Quick Info

28 August 1897
Brighton, England
10 December 1986
Watford, England

Theodore Combridge was an English 20th century mathematician and administrator. He published papers on general relativity and on the beginnings of the Mathematical Association and the Inititute of Mathematics and its Applications.


Theodore Combridge was the son of Daniel Thomas Combridge (1828-1915) and Rhoda Rebecca Gardner (1856-1938). The first surprise from these dates is that Daniel Combridge was 69 years old when his son was born, so we need a few details to put this into context. Daniel Thomas Combridge was baptised on 16 March 1828 in Mayfield, Sussex, England. He became a butcher, as his father had been, and married Miriam Funnell (1830-1860) on 11 July 1854 at Saint Thomas, Lewes, Sussex. They had two children but Miriam died in 1860 and Daniel married his second wife Sarah Paddison (1830-1895) in 1862 at Cuckfield, Sussex. They had two children but Sarah died in 1895 and Daniel married his third wife Rhoda Rebecca Gardner (1857-1938) in Brighton in 1896. Daniel and Rhoda Combridge had one child, John Theodore Combridge, the subject of this biography, born at 5 Leopold Road, Brighton.

At the time of the 1901 census, the family are living at 5 Leopold Road, Brighton. Theodore, who is three years old and listed as John T Combridge, is there with his father and mother, and 34-year old Samuel Combridge, a bookseller and stationer, who is one of Daniel Combridge's sons from his second marriage. The family has three servants, a cook and two housemaids. By the time of the 1911 census the family consists of John, who is at school, and his parents. They have two servants, a cook and a housemaid.

In 1912 Combridge entered Brighton College. This school, founded in 1845, was the first independent school in Sussex and had an innovative approach to education being well ahead of its time with the introduction of small group learning and science laboratories. Combridge graduated from the school when World War I was taking place and, although he was admitted to St John's College, Cambridge, before beginning his studies he served in France as a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. On 21 February 1917, he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Special Reserve of Officers. He continued his military duties but soon after the war ended in November 1918, he was able to continue his education at university. He began his studies at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1919 where he studied the mathematical tripos. He was awarded a College Prize in June 1921 and elected to a Foundation Scholarship in that year. He graduated B.A. in 1921 being a Wrangler (equivalent to first class honours) in the mathematical tripos.

Combridge continued his studies at King's College London in 1922 where his studies were supervised by George Barker Jeffery. Combridge worked on the theory of relativity and was awarded the degree of Master of Science in 1924. He published two papers in 1923, namely The gravitational field of a particle on Einstein's theory, and An Einstein Paradox. In 1925 he published On the advance of perihelion of mercury which contains the following abstract:-
Attention is called to the infinite possibilities of obtaining the Einstein equation for the orbit of a planet by using Newtonian mechanics with an extended potential function. The merits of the other two "crucial phenomena" as such are discussed from this point of view. It is implied that, observational tests being equally satisfied, Einstein's theory is to be preferred on account of its extensive unity and the spontaneity of its results.
In 1926 he published The field of a thick spherical shell on Einstein's theory of relativity.

Let us return to giving details of Combridge's career. After the award of his M.Sc., he was appointed as a demonstrator at the City and Guilds College in London. The Eagle, the Magazine for Members of St John's College, Cambridge, reported [6]:-
Mr J Combridge (B.A. 1921) has been appointed Demonstrator in Mathematics at the City and Guilds (Engineering) College, South Kensington.
In 1926 he was appointed to King's College, London. The Eagle reported [6]:-
Mr J T Combridge (B.A. 1921) has been appointed an assistant lecturer in mathematics at King's College, London.
Now he had published research papers when working at the City and Guilds College but once appointed to King's College, London, his research publications stopped. David Robinson explains in [10]:-
John Combridge (1897-1986), whom Jeffery had supervised at King's for a MSc degree, was appointed as an assistant lecturer in 1926. Before the mid thirties only the senior members of the mathematics department had much time for research and junior members like Combridge carried a heavy teaching load. After completing his MSc, and while he was at The Royal College of Science, he published three papers on relativity but after coming to King's little more. However Combridge remained interested in the subject and corresponded extensively with Eddington, an association begun when Combridge was an undergraduate at Cambridge.
On 30 December 1926, Combridge married Norah Elizabeth Charlwood (1894-1966), the daughter of the dairyman Ernest Percy Charlwood (1868-1946) and Maud Mary Cridland (1866-1939). The Eagle reported [6]:-
John Theodore Combridge (B.A. 1921), lecturer in mathematics at King's College, London, to Norah Elizabeth Charlwood, of Redhill - on December 30th, 1926, at Galeed Chapel, Brighton.
Norah had been a student at the University of London and had been awarded a B.A. with distinction in 1918. Theodore and Norah Combridge had three children.

After his appointment to King's College, London, his career progressed in two different paths. One of these was a move towards mathematical education, becoming an important figure in the Mathematical Association, and the other path was into university administration. His activity in the Mathematical Association is described in [7]:-
A member of the Mathematical Association since 1930, he was Chairman of the Teaching Committee from 1950 to 1956, President 1961-62, and for some years afterwards Chairman of the Standing Committee of Council. But also he was instrumental in the formation of the Joint Mathematical Council, and from 1964 until a professional team was appointed he undertook a major part of the administration of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. To cite only a few other activities, there was the work of the Schools and Industry Committee of the Association, forward-looking and seminal, and led so effectively by J T Combridge. A splendid conspectus 'Count me in' edited by him, grasped the problems of numeracy, or the lack of it, and a history of the Mathematical Association owes much to his spade.
For his description of the early history of the Mathematical Association, see THIS LINK.

For his Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association, see THIS LINK.

During his time as President of the Mathematical Association, Combridge was much involved in the setting up of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. He wrote an article on the Origins of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications which you can read at THIS LINK.

Alan Broadbent reviews Count me in. Numeracy in Education in [1]:-
In his introductory survey, Mr Combridge displays that happy knack of his, so familiar to members of the Association, of picking out the right nails and hitting them hard; his team drives the points home. Here we have ten authoritative essays which take the theme from the primary school to the Sixth form, to the problems of teacher training and adult education, and out into the fields of commerce and industry. I admire the insight and wisdom of the contributors, which, if space allowed, could be exemplified by quotation of penetrating and informative remarks from every page of the book. The case for numeracy, the ends envisaged, the means whereby those ends may be attained, all these are described in good, simple English by people who know what they are talking about; if occasionally an axe is ground, sincere enthusiasm rather than fanaticism is responsible. Mr Combridge would like the book to be read by four classes of people: parents who want to know what this "new mathematics" is doing for their children; teachers, particularly those who may be called upon to teach mathematics on a somewhat slender qualification; managers in commerce and industry who have a vague feeling that modern mathematics may have something to offer them; the ordinary citizen who, as Sir John Newsom says in his foreword, has to live "in a world whose situations and problems cannot even be described (not to say understood and tackled) without both numeracy and literacy". In other words, it is a book for all of us.
During his involvement with the Mathematical Association, Combridge wrote a number of papers of teaching mathematics. These included: Differentials (1934), The Solution of Triangles Given Three Sides (1936) and The "ambiguous case" in the solution of triangles (1937). He was also involved in the Mathematical Association's reports on trigonometry (1950), calculus (1951), higher geometry (1953),and the teaching of mechanics (1965).

His role in university administration began in 1937 when he accepted the position of assistant secretary at King's College, London [9]:-
He played a leading part in managing the college's wartime precautions, including the evacuation to Bristol (1939-43). In 1947 he was appointed registrar - a new position - alongside a new secretary. This division of labour, and his administrative skill, helped him also to pursue with vigour and growing influence his wider interests in the post-war development of mathematics education.
Exactly why Combridge moved into administration is unclear. He had corresponded with Arthur Eddington since his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Eddington wanted to communicate his results to the Royal Astronomical Society on using general relativity to determine the effect of the sun's rotation on the orbits of the planets. Combridge never wrote this paper because of his move into administration. Clive Kilmister speculates why Combridge moved into administration [8]:-
It is certain that he felt confident that he would succeed Shovelton as Secretary, a post which the divided constitution of the King's of the time made particularly important, since the Principal had no jurisdiction over the Theological Faculty and the Dean none outside it, leaving the Secretary as the critical link. Financial considerations were perhaps not wholly absent but much more important was undoubtedly his loyalty to the college and the feeling that he could do the job well. And he entertained hopes 'of being able to keep up my mathematical reading'. No sooner had he begun, with characteristic thoroughness, to learn his new job than he had to prepare plans for the college departments to be evacuated to Bristol and Birmingham in the event of war, and then to implement these plans. ... In the event Combridge was disappointed (twice) over the Secretary's post but this was never allowed to affect for a moment his loyalty to the college or his energetic service.
There is a publication by Combridge which we have not mentioned yet, but clearly deserves a place particularly in an archive on the history of mathematics [8]:-
Combridge determined from the beginning to pursue a scholarly course of action and read deeply in the literature of general relativity. This reading had two outcomes. Firstly, there are three bound volumes, entitled 'Notes on Relativity' which he presented to the college archives. They contain his very careful notes, abstracts and reviews, usually about two quarto pages, of one hundred published papers on relativity and supporting parts of pure mathematics. Ninety of these constitute an extensive survey of the important literature with papers each year from 1921 to 1936, with a peak in numbers between 1930 and 1933. Secondly, he compiled a more extensive bibliography of some 1,700 titles of papers in general relativity over the same period in the form of a card index, with pithy comments.
In fact this card index was published by King's College, London, in 1965 as Bibliography of relativity and gravitation theory 1921 to 1937.

Combridge retired from his position at King's College in 1962 and his wife Norah died on 28 December 1966. At this time the family were living at 36 Lemsford Road, St Albans. Combridge married Winifred Adelaide Cooke (1905-1986) on 22 April 1972 at Eton, Buckinghamshire. He had met Winifred, the daughter of the upholsterer Ernest Alfred Cooke and Lucy Adeland, through the Mathematical Association. They had announced their engagement at the 1972 Annual General Meeting of the Mathematical Association in Edinburgh. Winifred graduated with a B.Sc. from the University of Birmingham in 1926 and was awarded a Diploma in Education in 1928 [7]:-
... a teacher of great distinction, [she] had joined the Association in 1934. From 1952 to 1962 she was Honorary Secretary and only those most closely involved with the administration of the Mathematical Association could realise how much time, effort and expertise she gave to that post. Later, however, her zeal and energy had another outlet when she served as Secretary of the Centenary Appeal.
Both Combridge and his wife were elected honorary members of the Mathematical Association, Theodore at the 1967 AGM, Winifred at the 1971 AGM. The year 1986 saw Winifred's and Theodore's deaths, hers on 23 October and his on 10 December. He died at 18 Alexandra Road, Watford, and was buried on 17 December at St Peter's Church, St Albans. Michael Price writes [9]:-
Combridge was widely respected both at King's College and in the Mathematical Association, not only for his administrative skill but also for his unswerving loyalty, integrity, inspiring leadership, and sympathetic support for all sectors of the teaching profession. His very sharp but kind sense of humour helped to enliven many committee meetings and social gatherings.

References (show)

  1. T A A Broadbent, Review: Count Me in. Numeracy in Education, by J T Combridge (ed.), The Mathematical Gazette 53 (383) (1969), 73.
  2. J T Combridge, Presidential Address: Mathematics: Slave, Servant or Sovereign?, The Mathematical Gazette 46 (357) (1962), 179-196.
  3. J T Combridge, The Rise of the Mathematical Association 1871-1897, Mathematics in School 1 (1) (1971), 3-5.
  4. J T Combridge, The Mathematical Association Reaches Its First Century, Mathematics in School 1 (2) (1972), 6-8.
  5. Combridge, John Theodore (1897-1986), College Archives, King's College London.
  6. Combridge, John Theodore, College Notes 1920s, The Eagle, St John's College, Cambridge.
  7. F Kellaway, Winifred and Theodore Combridge, The Mathematical Gazette 71 (458) (1987), 307-309.
  8. C W Kilmister, J T Combridge, Bull. London Math. Soc. 20 (2) (1988), 156-158.
  9. M H Price, Combridge, John Theodore (1897-1986), mathematician and administrator, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004).
  10. D C Robinson, Gravitation and general relativity at King's College London, The European Physical Journal H 44 (2019), 181-270.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2021