Cockle, Sir James

(1819-1895), lawyer in Australia and mathematician

by T. A. B. Corley and A. J. Crilly

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Cockle, Sir James (1819-1895), lawyer in Australia and mathematician, was born on 14 January 1819, the second son of James Cockle (1782-1854), doctor and manufacturer of patent medicines, and his wife, Elizabeth. The elder James Cockle was born on 17 July 1782 at Woodbridge, Suffolk, the son (there was a younger daughter) of Andrew Cockle, a vintner, and his wife, Anne. Having matriculated at the University of Edinburgh in 1801, about four years later he began practising as a doctor. He became the parochial surgeon at Great Oakley, Essex, and about 1814 married Elizabeth (probably Moss); they had five sons and a daughter.

After inventing his 'family antibilious pills', in the early 1820s Cockle moved to the capital and worked as an apothecary in Hackney. By 1829 he had moved to New Ormond Street, which was fashionable enough for him to begin cultivating custom on a heroic scale, both as an apothecary and as a vendor of pills. By 1837 a list of 200 of the 'nobility, MPs and families of high distinction' who had 'experienced the most beneficial effects from the use of his medicine' was enclosed in each of the pillboxes. More startlingly, in 1838 Cockle revealed that among the seven dukes, fifty-six lesser peers, one archbishop, and fourteen bishops in the list of his patrons were five current cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, and the foreign secretary, Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. In an era of excessive guzzling by the affluent classes, he proclaimed the merits of his vegetable and mercury-free nostrums for relieving derangements of the stomach's functions and 'a torpid state of the liver and bowels'. He publicized the recommendation of the surgeon John Abernethy (1764-1831). Charles Dickens occasionally took the pills, which were mentioned several times in his letters.

Cockle was able to educate his sons well, and sent at least four to university. His eldest son, John (1814-1900), also became a doctor and took over the business; another son, Charles Moss-Cockle (d. 1904), made a fortune as a solicitor. James Cockle died at 18 New Ormond Street, Queen Square, London, on 8 December 1854, leaving £37,085. By 1917, when the business became a limited company, its customers were principally elderly and expatriate, and it closed about 1960.

The younger James Cockle was educated at Stormond House, Kensington, from 1825 to 1829, as a day pupil at Charterhouse from 1829 until 1831, then privately at Ramsgate by Christian Lenny, a 'ten-year man' of St John's College, Cambridge, who discovered his mathematical talent. After a year's sojourn in the West Indies, Cuba, and America, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on 18 October 1837 as a pensioner with Thomas Thorp as his tutor. He enrolled at the Middle Temple on 12 April 1838. In the mathematical tripos of 1841 Cockle was placed thirty-third in the order of merit, though he published a paper in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal in the same year. He proceeded BA in 1842 and MA in 1845. In 1845 he began practice as a special pleader and was called to the bar on 6 November 1846. In 1848 he joined the midland circuit, but maintained his enthusiasm for mathematics.

As a young barrister Cockle gained a solid reputation for hard work, yet his manner was that of a retiring scholar. On a suggestion he stand for a parliament, he replied: 'My address to the electors shall run thus--Gentlemen, I am in favour of making things agreeable all round--all round!' (Harley, 1895, 225). He joined the Royal Astronomical Society (1854), the Cambridge Philosophical Society (1856), and the London Mathematical Society (1870), and was a corresponding member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 1 June 1865.

Cockle possessed wide intellectual interests. He was well versed in classical philosophy, wrote on Indian astronomical literature (on the Indian cycles and lunar calendar, on the date of the Vedas and Jyotish Sastra, and on the ages of Garga and Parasara), and valued the study of the history of science generally. He published four elaborate memoirs on the motion of fluids and some notes on light under the action of magnetism. It was in pure mathematics, however, that he was held in especially high regard. In the flood of work following the discovery of quaternions by Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Cockle investigated 'tessarines'. A more constant field of enquiry was the theory of equations. In later years his research was confined almost entirely to algebra and differential equations and their interconnection. He pioneered differential invariants (his 'criticoids'), thus contributing to invariant theory, the modern algebra of the day. Initially he distrusted Abel's proof (1824) of the insolubility of the quintic equation, though he came to appreciate it. He determined the explicit form of the sextic 'resolvent' equation on which a specialized quintic depended, and his result was confirmed by the Congregationalist minister and his close collaborator Robert Harley. This work attracted the attention of Arthur Cayley, who was able to place it in a broader context, complete the work for the general quintic equation, and discover its historical antecedents.

On 22 August 1855 Cockle married Adelaide Catharine Wilkin (d. 1916), the eldest surviving daughter of Henry Wilkin of Walton, Suffolk. In his legal career, Cockle's chance came in 1863. He was instrumental in drafting the Jurisdiction in Homicides Act (1862), and his ability attracted the attention of Sir William Erle, then chief justice of the court of common pleas. Erle named Cockle as chief justice for Queensland. It was a critical time for Queensland, which had separated from New South Wales only in 1859.

On arrival in the colony, Cockle defused an awkward situation with the outspoken maverick judge A. J. P. Lutwyche, who had hoped to be appointed to the senior position. As senior commissioner (1866-7), Cockle consolidated no fewer than 130 colonial statutes and prepared thirty draft bills. Erle remarked: 'I have had much knowledge of judicial men, and I am sure the Queen has never had a servant who more thoroughly earned every farthing of the wages he hoped to receive' (Harley, 1985, 217). Cockle was knighted on 29 July 1869.

Cockle was every inch the colonial administrator. He was above local politics yet willing to fulfil civic duty. He was chairman of the trustees of Brisbane grammar school (1874-7)--which he endowed with a mathematics prize--and his wife gave an annual picnic for local schoolchildren. He was president of the Queensland Philosophical Society (1863-77), to which he initially gave leadership, though he rarely attended meetings in later years. His administration of the law was scrupulous and in court only two of his judgments were reversed on appeal. His impartiality and tolerance were influenced by his strong Christian principles.

Cockle left Brisbane on 26 June 1878 on a year's paid leave. The colonists regarded their chief justice 'in every way fitted to this high position' and wished him a speedy return (Brisbane Courier 26 June 1878). But from England, one year later, Cockle tendered his resignation. He began an active retirement within the social and scientific life of London, though the transition from an equatorial climate impaired his health. He was a member of the Garrick and Savile clubs, though his favourite was the Savage, for which he was treasurer from 1884 to 1889. He was commissioner for the Queensland section of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition held in London in 1886. His ambition to serve as president of the London Mathematical Society was fulfilled (1886-8) and he was a member of the council of the Royal Astronomical Society (1888-92). He became a freemason and was inducted as worshipful master of the Nine Muses lodge on 12 February 1889.

In early 1895 Cockle caught a chill, and two days later, on 27 January 1895, he died at his residence, 12 St Stephen's Road, Bayswater. He was survived by his wife and eight of his nine children. He was buried at Paddington cemetery on 2 February 1895.

Cockle contributed to English and Australian scientific journals more than one hundred papers, many in the form of notes with suggestions for future work, but his reputation has not survived. In the second half of the nineteenth century it was not possible to make an indelible mark in both law and mathematics.


R. Harley, 'James Cockle', Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, 9 (1895), 215-28
R. Harley, 'James Cockle', PRS, 59 (1895-6), xxx-xxxix
A. R. Forsyth, 'James Cockle', Proc. London Mathematical Society, 26 (1895), 551-4
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 55 (1894-5), 192
A. Cayley, 'On the invariants of a linear differential equation', Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics, 21 (1886), 257-61
A. R. Forsyth, 'Invariants, covariants, and quotient-derivatives associated with linear differential equations', PTRS, 179A (1888), 377-489
E. N. Marks, 'Cockle, Sir James', AusDB, vol. 3
E. N. Marks, 'A history of the Queensland Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Queensland from 1859-1911', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, 71 (1959), 17-42
Brisbane Courier (26 June 1878)
E. B. Elliott, 'Robert Harley', Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 2nd ser., 9 (1911), xii-xv
'Lutwyche, Alfred James Peter (1810-1880)', AusDB, vol. 5
'Lilley, Sir Charles (1827-1897)', AusDB, vol. 5
Charterhouse Register, 1769-1872, Middle Temple Records
The Times (19 Nov 1900)
m. cert.
d. cert.
The Satirist (7 Jan 1838)
The Satirist (21 April 1839)
The Times (22 Dec 1837)
London Medical Directory (1847)
The letters of Charles Dickens, ed. M. House, G. Storey, and others, 7-8 (1988-93)
V. G. Plarr, Plarr's Lives of the fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, rev. D'A. Power, 2 vols. (1930)
d. cert. [James Cockle (1782-1854)]

CUL, letters to Robert Harley

photograph, repro. in Harley, 'James Cockle', PRS, facing p. xxxii

Wealth at death  
£32,169 11s. 7d.: resworn probate, Feb 1896, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1895)

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