Charles Hughes Terrot

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19 September 1790
Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, India
2 April 1872
Stockbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland

Charles Terrot was an amateur mathematician who became Bishop of Edinburgh. He wrote an early paper on complex numbers.


Charles Hughes Terrot was the son of Elias Terrot, a Captain of the 52nd Regiment in the Indian Army. His great grandfather, Monsieur de Terotte -- a protestant (Huguenot) exile from France -- had fled from La Rochelle and sought refuge in England on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Upon Elias's death at the siege of Bangalore in 1790, Terrot's mother, Mary Fonteneau left India with her infant son and settled in Berwick. Young Terrot was placed under the care of the Revd John Fawcett of Carlisle and was educated at Carlisle Grammar School.

It was at Cambridge that Terrot earned a reputation for scholarship, particularly in mathematics. He entered Trinity College in 1808, gaining his B.A. in 1812, graduating with mathematical honours, despite disappointing Tripos examination results.

The problem had not been a lack of intellect, rather an unwillingness to apply it in tedious activity. From the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Proceedings, with information provided by Kelland [1]:-
The fact is that Terrot's mind revolted at the drudgery of acquiring branches of the science [mathematics] towards which he felt no inclination. It was characteristic of him to tread a small circle, but to tread it well; and he was constitutionally unfitted for stowing away in his memory, for temporary purposes, facts and figures in which he took no interest.
Fortunately for Terrot, he had had ample opportunity outwith the Tripos examinations to prove his abilities and on this basis he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1813. The same year he was ordained a deacon, with ordination to the priesthood following in 1814. In 1815 he settled in Haddington, taking up a position held previously by his uncle, the Revd William Terrot, as Minister of the Episcopal congregation.

Terrot's move to Edinburgh took place in 1817: he was to assist the Revd James Walker at St Peter's in Roxburgh Place. In 1833 Terrot joined two other clergy at St Paul's in York Place. During the next twenty years, his appointments grew in prestige: he was appointed Dean of Edinburgh and Fife in 1837; Rector of St Paul's in 1839; Pantonian Professor at the theological college, and Bishop of Edinburgh, in 1841 and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1857. He remained as Primus until 1862, when a paralytic stroke forced his resignation. He married twice: his first wife, with whom he had fourteen children, left him a widower. According to [1] Terrot's eldest daughter accompanied Florence Nightingale to the Crimea and for her service there she was awarded a Royal Red Cross.

Understandably, Terrot sought relief from the heavy burden of his responsibilities. As Kelland recalled [1], Terrot turned to mathematics for refuge: "To mathematics, when harassed by the cares and vexations incident to his position, he had recourse as a retreat from irritating thoughts. His passion for the science was strong enough to take possession of his mind, and soothing enough to settle it down to repose." The extent of Terrot's reliance on mathematics and its implications, both beneficial and otherwise, were discussed by the Revd Walker -- whom Terrot had assisted at St Peter's -- in his biographical work, Three Churchmen (1893). Walker writes [3]:-
Absorbed in the depths of original research, the bishop found that which can, it is said, be always found in the depths of the ocean, viz., calm, in the midst of storm.

Readers will probably take very different views of Bishop Terrot's occasionally ardent devotion to mathematical study. Some will think that whenever he had any spare time for investigation and research it ought to have been devoted exclusively to professional subjects, such as the theological and biblical problems of the day. Others will hold that the one study was a help rather than a hindrance to the other; the occasional sub jection of the mind to the vigorous mathematical discipline being the best corrective of loose thinking and illogical reasoning. Those who take this view will believe that the bishop's addiction to mathematical research was an advantage to the Church as well as to himself; not only assuring him an occasional refuge from worry, but also maintaining in him that judicial frame of mind which never deserted him in the hottest controversies, and which extorted the admiration of his opponents.

The only evil effect of the bishop's mathematics was probably a little intolerance of the loose talk and inconsequential reasoning which often prevail in general society.
Apart from mathematics, Terrot spent time writing poetry and much of his leisure time while at Haddington was devoted to it. His poem Hezekiah and Sennacherib, Or the Destruction of Sennacherib's Host -- about the destruction of Sennacherib's army before Jerusalem -- won him the Seatonian Prize in 1816. He also had a love of architecture and enjoyed membership of the Architectural Society of Scotland.

Terrot was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840, proposed for fellowship by J D Forbes. Terrot's role in the Society was described by Kelland thus [1]:-
For many years of his life he was one of the regular attendants at our meetings; and when not actively engaged in the work going on, he was an active listener, and, when occasion called for it, and unsparing critic. He had a real love for the Society. As he left the building for the last time, he expressed himself to the effect, that henceforth his heart would be with us, but that the work of his hands was done. The only part of the proceedings which he did not relish was the tea-drinking after the meeting.
Terrot served as a Councillor for the Society (1841-1844) and as their Vice-President between 1844 and 1860. Looking through the Proceedings, there are numerous instances of the 'Right Rev. Bishop Terrot, Vice-President, in the Chair'.

Terrot delighted in good conversation and, according to the Revd Walker, in Edinburgh he had developed a 'very high reputation as a talker of the Johnsonian type'. By this, Walker meant [3]:-
... precision of thought and language, ready wit, repartee and love of argument -- all set off to advantage by a distinct voice and deliberate utterance. He [Terrot] was also almost as impatient as Johnson himself was of twaddle and of pretence -- "humdrum and humbug" -- and thus to weak reasoners and pretentious talkers he appeared to be, and doubtless sometimes was, severe and sarcastic. But to men of like mind with himself -- deep and just thinkers and earnest talkers -- his conversation was very highly prized, and his society much courted.
Terrot's contributions to the Royal Society of Edinburgh comprise the following papers (ordered by date of communication to the Society):
1845 On the Sums of the Digits of Numbers
1847 An Attempt to Elucidate and Apply Mr Warren's Doctrine Respecting the Square Root of Negative Quantities
1848 On Algebraical Symbolism
1849 An Attempt to Compare the Exact and Popular Estimates of Probability
1850 On Probable Inference
1853 On the Summation of a Compound Series, and its Application to a Problem in Probabilities
1856 On the Possibility of Combining Two or More Independent Probabilities of the Same Event, so as to Form One Definite Probability
1858 On the Average Value of Human Testimony
According to Kelland in [1], Terrot's 1856 paper was his 'best contribution to mathematical science': it had inspired Boole's paper, On the Application of the Theory of Probabilities to the Question of the Combination of Testimonies or Judgements, for which Boole was awarded the RSE's Keith Prize in 1858.

The 1847 paper, in which Terrot gives an early account of the theory of complex numbers, attracted the attention of P G Tait while still a schoolboy at the Edinburgh Academy. Tait copied out the paper into a manuscript book which he and Maxwell exchanged as schoolboys on mathematical topics. The paper was based on earlier work by the Revd John Warren (1796-1852), a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, who published his treatise in 1828. While Warren should be credited with having established the fundamentals, Terrot surely deserves some recognition: he seems to have had a sound grasp of the mathematics involved, which he was able to apply in valid and novel ways, and it is through his paper that Tait had his first introduction to a relatively new mathematical discovery of huge import.

Certainly, the Royal Society of Edinburgh held Terrot's mathematical researches in this area in the highest regard [1]:-
The subject ... had been floating somewhat dimly before the eyes of mathematicians for half a century, and was just then beginning to assume a living form in the mind, and a living exponent, though a somewhat obscure one, in the writings of Sir W R Hamilton. It was not until six years later that the doctrine of Quaternions of the great master, as developed in his "Lectures", swallowed up in its vast amplitude all that had preceded it. Terrot accordingly must be considered as one of the pioneers of the science.
The Revd Walker believed that Terrot might have had a remarkable career in mathematics had he chosen to commit himself to it exclusively [3]:-
... had he [Terrot] cared to devote himself to "research," living chiefly on his fellowship, he might have made important discoveries in some branches of the higher mathematics, probably anticipating Sir William Rowan Hamilton in his discovery of Quaternions. But he had other views; and doubtless he took the wiser course.
An obituary [5] in the British Medical Journal suggests that Terrot, at some stage, taught at the Edinburgh Academy:-
Spencer Thomson, MD., Torquay ... Educated at the Edinburgh Academy, under the late Rev. Dr. Terrot, afterwards Bishop of Edinburgh.
Yet there is no evidence in the Academy's Register to support such a theory: the three references to 'Terrot' in the Register reveal only that Terrot had educated his children at the Academy between 1825 and 1842. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Terrot was ever a member of staff at the Academy. Perhaps the obituarist had misinterpreted Terrot's influence on young Thomson. Terrot may have acted as a mentor or tutor to the boy since Thomson was in the same class at the Academy as one of Terrot's sons, Elias Charles, and he resided in the same street as the Terrot family, Northumberland Street. In Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh, [2] a description is given of Northumberland Street and Bishop Terrot, as one of its residents:-
In the narrow and somewhat sombre thoroughfare named Northumberland Street have dwelt some people who were of note in their time. ... No. 19 in the same street was for some years the residence of the Right Rev. Charles Hughes Terrot, D.D., elected in 1857 'Primus' of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and whose quaint little figure, with shovel-hat and knee-breeches, was long familiar in the streets of Edinburgh. ... few men were more esteemed and respected by others than Dr. Terrot of the Episcopal Church.
It is possible that Terrot provided Thomson with private tuition in mathematics. From the time of his fellowship at Trinity, Terrot had supplemented his income by taking on pupils for private tuition. Indeed, a substantial increase in salary had to be arranged so that Terrot no longer needed to tutor and could devote himself to his ecclesiastical duties [3]:-
The minute of the vestry states that ... so large an advance has been at once made to Mr. Terrot's salary, making it higher than any clergyman of the chapel ever received before with the view of securing his undivided attention to his duties of minister of the chapel.
Terrot was known to have had a close association with Archdeacon William's successor as Rector of the Edinburgh Academy, Dr John Hannah (1818-1888) who was a former Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. The Revd Walker describes Dr. Hannah as one of the Bishop's 'most intimate friends'. The two men lived near to each other and Dr. Hannah took great pleasure in familiarizing Terrot with 'Oxford forms of thought' at a time when the philosopher, Sir William Hamilton was promoting communication between Edinburgh and Oxford. The two were also connected through the RSE: Hannah was elected a Fellow in March 1848, having been proposed by Terrot in the January.

Terrot died at Stockbridge in Edinburgh on 2 April 1872, aged eighty-two.

References (show)

  1. Biography by G Stronach, in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004). See THIS LINK.
  2. J Grant, Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places, IV (London, 1881).
  3. W Walker, Three Churchmen: Sketches & Reminiscences of: The Right Revd. Michael Russell, Bishop of Glasgow; The Right Rev. Charles Hughes Terrot, Bishop of Edinburgh; and George Grub, Professor of Law in the University of Aberdeen (Edinburgh, 1893).
  4. Robert Christison, Opening Address, Session 1872-73, Proc. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh, VIII (85) (1872-1873), 9-14.
  5. 'Spencer Thomson, M.D., Torquay', Br. Med. J., II (1339) 28 August 1886, 442.
  6. E F Lewis, Peter Guthrie Tait: New insights into aspects of his life and work, (St Andrews PhD Thesis) 2014.

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Charles Hughes Terrot:

  1. P G Tait's notes on Terrot's complex numbers lectures

Other websites about Charles Hughes Terrot:

  1. Dictionary of National Biography

Honours (show)

Honours awarded to Charles Hughes Terrot

  1. Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1840

Cross-references (show)

Written by Elizabeth Lewis, St Andrews University
Last Update February 2015