Williams [nŽe Larby], Elizabeth [formerly Emily May]

(1895-1986), mathematician and educationist

by Geoffrey Howson

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Williams [née Larby], Elizabeth [formerly Emily May] (1895-1986), mathematician and educationist, was born at 255 Wellington Buildings, Pimlico, London, on 29 January 1895, the second of four children of Ben Larby, a police constable, and his wife, Emily Elizabeth (née Burton). Her childhood was divided between the south Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire countryside where her family had farmed for generations, and the London suburbs where the family lived during term-time while the children were still at school. She attended infant and primary schools in Chelsea and Forest Gate, before taking the first step on the newly established 'scholarship ladder' to East Ham Girls' Grammar School, where, aged sixteen, she passed the London matriculation examination. An application to enter the Pupil Teachers' Centre to train for elementary school teaching was unsuccessful, for, surprisingly in view of her longevity, she failed the medical examination. A chance suggestion led to her seeking entrance to London University to study mathematics and, despite being under age, she entered Bedford College in 1911. At college her appearance and erect posture gained her the nickname Elizabeth (she was thought to resemble one of the portraits of Elizabeth I) which she adopted and used throughout her life, both socially and in her publications. However her family continued to call her May, the name by which she had been known in her schooldays. An attempt to extend her county major scholarship to compensate for her youth was unsuccessful and as a result she graduated in 1914 with an upper second, rather than the wished-for first.

Before beginning study for a teacher's diploma at London University, Elizabeth obtained her first experience of teaching, deputizing on the staff of the Nottingham High School for Boys for a teacher who had joined the army, a daunting task for a nineteen-year-old; she was the only woman on the staff, but she 'received the utmost courtesy, kindness and even respect' (Howson, 181). Back in London she came under the influence of John Adams (1857-1934) and Percy Nunn (1870-1944), both leading educationists. In 1916, now twenty-one, she was appointed senior mathematics mistress at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Girls' School, New Cross. Her time there ended abruptly following her marriage, on 23 December 1922, to Richard Williams (1877-1960), a Dorset grammar school teacher whom she had met the previous year on a Bible teaching course. In those days there was no place in state or endowed schools for a married woman. Accordingly the two opened their own private school in East Finchley with Elizabeth as headmistress. This 'little school' attracted the attention of Nunn which, in turn, led to her appointment in 1931 as lecturer in education at King's College, London. There she completed an MA thesis, 'The geometrical concepts of children from 5-8 years of age', an indication of the direction in which her interests were moving. Her work exemplified the growing belief that teacher-trainers should be involved in continuing investigation and experiment. In 1935 she moved to Goldsmiths' College, 'a great institution [which] led the way [in] so many teacher training developments' (Howson, 191). When the war came, Elizabeth, now with a family of three teenagers, was evacuated with Goldsmiths' to Nottingham. Following the war's end and the ensuing rapid expansion of teacher training, she became, in 1946, principal of the new City of Leicester College, and in 1951 of the old-established Whitelands College.

By this time, Elizabeth Williams was nationally known and respected as a mathematics educator and a teacher-trainer. She was a secretary of the Mathematical Association and a member or chair of several important committees which published influential reports, for example, Primary Mathematics (1955), Mathematics in Secondary Modern Schools (1949-59), and The Supply and Training of Teachers of Mathematics (1963). In 1965 she became the first married woman to be president of the association. Meanwhile, on the National Advisory Council for the Training and Supply of Teachers, she fought for the extension of the teacher-training course. Indeed, the then minister of education referred to her as 'the tigress', for her sweet face concealed a strong will. Her work was rewarded both by the establishment of the three-year course and, in 1958, appointment as CBE. That year also saw her official retirement from teacher-training, although her work continued and took on an international aspect. In 1956 she had spent three months in Kenya drawing up a national plan for teacher training, and in 1963-5 she became deputy director of the School of Education in Ghana. From then until her late eighties she visited many countries in Africa, south-east Asia, the Americas, and Australasia, organizing workshops, giving lectures, and advising ministries. Her writings included textbooks for Africa, guides for parents and teachers, and what became the standard reference book for teacher training, Primary Mathematics Today. (This book, written with Hilary Shuard, first appeared in 1970. A third edition containing new work by Elizabeth Williams, written in her mid-eighties, appeared in 1982, and a fourth edition in 1994 after the death of both authors.) She died at the Lister Hospital, Stevenage, on 29 March 1986; her remains were cremated at Cambridge on 7 April.

Elizabeth Williams made notable contributions to teacher training, in England and abroad, both in its methods and in defining its major aims and purposes. She also had a major worldwide influence on primary school mathematics and the way this was taught. Her career is of considerable interest since it belonged to the transition from the Victorian era to modern practice; she was, for example, the first married woman to hold a number of important educational posts.


G. Howson, A history of mathematics education in England (1982)
Mathematical Gazette, 70 (1986), 307-9
M. H. Price, Mathematics for the multitude? A history of the Mathematical Association (1994)
personal knowledge (2004)
private information (2004)
b. cert.
d. cert.
m. cert.

W. Dring, portrait, probably Whitelands College, Putney, London

Wealth at death  
£141,154: probate, 25 June 1986, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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