John Hymers' Eagle obituary

The Eagle is a publication by St John's College, Cambridge which began publication in 1859. John Hymers entered St John's College in 1821 so details of his student days are not available through The Eagle but following his death in 1887, his obituary by Robert Forsyth Scott appears in The Eagle. The exact reference is

R F S, The Rev John Hymers, D.D., F.R.S., The Eagle 14 (1887), 398-402.

We present below a version of this obituary.

The Rev John Hymers, D.D., F.R.S.

The recent death of Dr John Hymers calls for some words of remembrance of one of the oldest members of the College, whose influence during his residence on the success of the College and on the mathematical studies of the University was not small or transient.

Dr Hymers was born in July 1803 in the village of Ormesby, Cleveland. His father occupied a farm under Sir W Pennyman. His mother was a daughter of the Rev John Parrington, Rector of Skelton in Cleveland. His first school was Witton-le-Wear, in the County of Durham, Mr Newby being then Master. He told the writer of this notice that he well recollected Mr Newby going down the street waving his hat and the newspaper containing the news of Waterloo. From Witton he went to Sedbergh, to the famous old school from which so many Johnian worthies have come, and which includes among its scholars the late Professor Sedgwick. At that time Dr Wilkinson was Master.

Mr Hymers gained a Sizarship at St John's in 1822, was Second Wrangler in 1826, and was elected Fellow in 1827. In the University he was Moderator in the years 1833 and 1834 and Lady Margaret's Preacher in 1841. He was appointed Assistant Tutor of the College in 1829, Tutor in 1832, and President in 1848.

He was well known as one of the ablest and most successful 'coaches' at Cambridge, for some time running neck and neck with the late Mr Hopkins. In the year 1832, for example, the second and third Wranglers were pupils of Dr Hymers, the first and fourth pupils of Mr Hopkins. Amongst other pupils we may mention the present Duke of Devonshire, our Chancellor, and the late Bishop Colenso. One of his former pupils writes as follows:
My recollection of him is of a remarkably handsome man, very cool and clear-headed, very patient and painstaking with his pupils, perhaps a little cold and reserved in manner, so that although all his pupils liked and respected him, they were never very intimate. He was a man of varied attainments, and I can recollect, after an hour's hard work at mathematics, having discussions with him on Wordsworth's poetry and characters in Shakespeare's plays.
Dr Hymers was the author of several mathematical works, In 1830 he published his Treatise on the Analytical Geometry of Three Dimensions, a subject which up to that time had been but briefly taught in any English work. In 1837 he published his Treatise on Conic Sections and the Theory of Plane Curves, introducing what was then the new method of abridged notation. In the second edition of his Integral Calculus there is a short account of the theory of Elliptic Functions, then newly discovered by Jacobi. It is well to note that the subject was introduced to the studies of the University at this date, though it afterwards dropped out of the course till some fourteen years ago. Dr Hymers also published works on Trigonometry, Theory of Equations, Differential Equations and Finite Differences; and he re-cast the Treatise on Astronomy written by the Rev W Maddy. The value of these works lay not so much in their presenting the result of Dr Hymers' own researches as in their bringing into the reading of the University the methods and discoveries of continental mathematicians. His books have in the last thirty years given place to others, their disuse being partly hastened by his adopting, in conjunction with the late Professor Hallows Miller, a peculiar notation in the Differential and Integral Calculus.

Dr Hymers was, as we have seen, no narrow specialist, but a man of scholarly and cultivated habits, and he was widely read in classical authors. In his earlier vacations he travelled much on the continent, when travelling was not so easy or expeditious as at present. In those days a Fellow of the College required permission from the Master and Senior Fellows to travel abroad. The earliest permission of this kind relating to Dr Hymers seems to be one made 11th June 1830, when the following Order appears in the College 'Conclusion Book': "Agreed that Mr Palmer, Mr Hughes, Mr Taylor, Mr Hymers and Mr Pooley have leave to go abroad." Similar permissions were granted from time to time during his residence.

Dr Hymers was instrumental in getting the portrait of the Poet Wordsworth painted for the College. Last year he presented to the Library some papers relating to Wordsworth, among which is an autograph copy of the well-known sonnet addressed by the Poet to his portrait. This is now framed and hangs in the Library. He was connected by marriage with Wordsworth, his mother being a cousin of the poet's wife, and he was an occasional visitor at Rydal.

The College elected him to the Rectory of Brandesburton in Holderness in the year 1852, and there Dr Hymers spent the remainder of his days. When he took the living he had no experience of parochial work, and as it had been sadly neglected he felt keenly the difficulty of his position and wished the College to allow him to resign the living and go back. Technical difficulties lay in the way and the conditions imposed by the College were such as he could not accept. He was for many years chairman of the Leven Bench of Magistrates, and well known in an the country round.

The writer of this notice spent a couple of days at Brandesburton Rectory last autumn. The Rector's conversation ran principally on Johnians and Johniana. He had kept up a constant correspondence with his old College friends, and his memory of College affairs reached back over a period of sixty years. It is greatly to be regretted that he made no record of his College life.

He enjoyed excellent health to the last, and was simple and regular in his habits. The following letter to Dr Churchhill Babington, dated 14th February 1887 is of interest:
Dear Dr Babington,

I am extremely obliged to you for your Catalogue of the Birds of Suffolk. I take great interest in your fine County, as I am well acquainted with many parts of it, I constantly visited Layham during the many years that Mr Hughes was Rector there. I am pleased to infer that you enjoy good health as you are so active both in literary and scientific pursuits. I am sure you will be glad to hear that I am not much "galled by the Yoke of Time," and take exercise when the weather suits. both riding and driving.

Believe me yours very truly,

J Hymers.
Dr Hymers died on the 7th April last, at the age of 84. His will contained the following bequest: "I give and bequeath all the residue of my real and personal estate and effects whatsoever and wheresoever to the Mayor and Corporation of the Borough of Kingstort-upon-Hull in the County of York, wherewith to found and endow a Grammar School in their town on the models of the Grammar Schools at Birmingham and Dulwich for the training of intelligence in whatever social rank of life it may be found amongst the vast and varied population of the town and port of Hull." It is said that this bequest would amount to a sum approaching £ 170,000. Unfortunately for Hull the will appears to have been unskilfully drawn, its provisions being apparently contrary to the Statute of Mortmain. It is said that the question of the validity of the bequest turns upon the words "found and endow." Had they been "found or endow" the Corporation might have endowed an existing school with the personalty, and so far as this went pleaded that they had brought no new land into Mortmain. It is however understood that Mr Robert Hymers, the heir-at-law, has spontaneously offered the Corporation a sum of £40,000 for the purpose of carrying out Dr Hymers' wishes.

R. F. S.

Last Updated June 2021