Stephen Parkinson, William Thomson and the Tripos

Charles Astor Bristed was an American who studied at Cambridge at the same time as Stephen Parkinson and William Thomson. Bristed wrote the book Five years in an English university (G P Putnam & Co., New York, 1852). While at Cambridge, Bristed sat the Mathematical Tripos examinations in the same year as Stephen Parkinson and William Thomson and, in the book, describes the surprising outcome of Parkinson being Senior Wrangler. We should note that Bristed did very poorly in the Mathematical Tripos and we have omitted those parts where he describes his own results. Bristed refers to Stephen Parkinson as the 'Johnian', a student of St John's College, and William Thomson as the 'Peterhouse man'. He uses a number of words which may not be familiar to some readers which we now list:

Gownsman: University student.
Gyp: A college servant.
Johnian: Member of St John's College.
Questionist: A Cambridge undergraduate in his last term before the final examinations.
Senior Optime: Second class student.
Senior Wrangler: Top first class student.
Wrangler: First Class student.

Stephen Parkinson, William Thomson and the Tripos

The best man from John's is a candidate for Senior Wrangler pretty much as a matter of course, that College having a patent as it were for turning out Senior Wranglers, just as Trinity has for Senior Classics. This present year, however, one of the Small College men was a real Mathematical genius, one of those men who, like E- [Samuel Earnshaw (1805-1888)] himself, are said to be "born Senior Wranglers," while the Johnians were believed to be short of good men and owned it themselves. But now their best man suddenly came up with a rush like a dark horse, and having been spoken of before the Examination only as likely to be among the first six, now appeared as a candidate for the highest honours. E- [Samuel Earnshaw] was one of the first that had a suspicion of this, from noticing on the second day that he wrote with the regularity and velocity of a machine, and seemed to clear everything before him. And on examining the work he could scarcely believe that the man could have covered so much paper with ink in the time (to say nothing of the accuracy of the performance), even though he had seen it written out under his own eyes. By-and-by it was reported that the Johnian had done an inordinate amount of problems, and then his fellow-collegians began to bet odds on him for Senior Wrangler. But the general wish as well as belief was for the Peterhouse man, who, besides the respect due to his celebrated scientific attainments (he was known to the French Mathematicians by his writings while an Undergraduate), had many friends among both reading and boating men, and was very popular in the University. His backers were not disposed to give him up. "One problem of his will be worth half a dozen of the other man's," said they; and there were grounds for this assertion, some of the problems being more difficult, and therefore marked higher than others, so that four on a paper may pay more than ten.

Saturday afternoon finishes the work of the majority of the candidates. The papers set on Monday and Tuesday of the week following contain only about one question a-piece, to amuse the mass of the Questionists during the half-hour before the expiration of which they are not allowed to leave the Senate House. At the end of this half-hour a general rush is made, and five sixths of the men take their departure. The last two days, in fact, serve chiefly to determine and arrange the places of the first twelve or fifteen men. To a low Wrangler, not to say a Senior Optime, they make no material difference. On Wednesday morning the coaches used to be crowded (it is the rail now) with Questionists going down, home, or elsewhere to amuse themselves and divert their anxiety, as they best can during the nine days that intervene.

At nine on Friday morning, just sixteen days from the hour when the examination began - an interval which will not appear too long when it is remembered that nearly one hundred and fifty men have to be placed in individual order of merit - the list, signed by the examiners, is posted up outside the Senate House. The friends of the candidates, gownsmen and gyps commingled, throng about it, the results spread in all directions, and in a very short time the book-sellers have it fairly printed in two or three forms, among others on sheets of letter paper ready prepared for mailing. I was quietly seated at breakfast, when my gyp entered to announce that I stood 112th, and also that the Johnian was Senior Wrangler.

The unexpected award of the Senior Wranglership was the great surprise of the year, and the subject of conversation for some time. It was said that the successful candidate had practised writing out against time for six months together, merely to gain pace, and had exercised himself in problems till they became a species of bookwork to him, and thus he attained the prodigious rapidity in solving them which enabled him to do nineteen on one paper of three hours, thirteen on another, and nearly as many on the third - more than two thirds of the whole number set. The Peterhouse man, who, relying on his combined learning and talent, had never practiced particularly with a view to speed, and perhaps had too much respect for his work to be in any great hurry about it, solved eight or nine problems leisurely on each paper, some of them probably better ones than the other man's, but not enough to make up the difference in quantity. Both men floored all the early bookwork, the Johnian presumably getting full marks, and Thomson perhaps some extra marks for style. In the high work of the last two days the Peterhouse man beat his opponent, but he could not have been very far ahead, as the Johnian did all but three questions out of the four papers, and came out in the result of the whole examination three hundred marks in advance.

The disappointed candidate, however, was not without a chance of partially retrieving himself the very next week in the examination for the Smith's Prizes, which is considered by the knowing ones a better test of excellence than the Tripos, as it embraces a higher class of subjects, and the element of speed does not enter into it to such an extent. T-'s [Thomson's] friends, as well as himself, awaited the result with a mixture of hope and fear. In the end he had it all his own way; and beat the Senior Wrangler in the proportion of three to two. But this was a subsequent consolation; for the present the triumph rested with the Johnian.