The Spitalfields Mathematical Society

Founded in 1717

The Spitalfields Mathematical Society was founded in 1717 by Joseph Middleton who taught mathematics to sailors who required mathematical skills for navigating. It met in a public house, the Monmouth's Head, in Spitalfields which is a district just outside the east side of the city of London. The 'Mathematical Society', as it called itself, moved its meeting place a number of time over the following years but remaining in Spitalfields. In 1725 it moved to the White Horse in Wheeler Street, then in 1735 to the Ben Johnson's Head in Woodseer Street.

The original rules of the Society limited the number of members to "the square of eight" but clearly this proved hard to maintain for by 1735 it had been reduced to "the square of seven". Basically it operated as a working men's club and we know that the members of 1744 [1]:-
... about half were weavers, and the rest were typically brewers, braziers, bakers, bricklayers.
Records of the Society written in 1784 give some information about its history (see for example [1]):-
In the year 1772, another Mathematical Society, then held at the Black Swan, Brown's Lane, Spitalfields was, at the request of its members (who brought with them their books and instruments, etc.) incorporated into the Society: and in the year 1782 the Society removed to the aforesaid Black Swan ...
The Mathematical Society flourished to the extent that in 1783 it increased its membership back to the square of eight. The statutes of the Society drawn up at that time make interesting and amusing reading. It met on Saturday evenings between seven o'clock and ten o'clock and within those three hours the middle one was a silent hour during which all members had to solve some mathematical problems. Members were charged four pence for the evening, but:-
... if any member break silence ... or curse, swear, game, or lay wager, during the hours of the meeting, he shall forfeit one shilling for each offence.
Members were fined two shillings and six pence for:-
... behaving riotously, or using abusive language.
In 1793 the Society moved into a permanent room in Crispin Street. The Society produced a notebook in 1804 which gives the following information about public lecture the Society started to give [1]:-
... in the year 1798, a few respectable members of the Society, generously stepped forward, and gave the public at large an opportunity of increasing their knowledge, on terms so easy, as to be within the reach of every individual, who has a taste to cultivate, or curiosity to gratify.
However problems arose, since a gang of informers charged the Society with taking money for an unlicensed entertainment, namely giving a philosophy lecture. The Society collected money do pay for their legal expenses in the case and won. However the case had a large effect since (according to the Minutes of the Society) the [3]:-
... produce of the lectures delivered in 1799 - 1800 had been very materially diminished by the effect of the information lodged against several of the members by the Gang of Informers, who have occasioned so much trouble and expense to the Society during the past year.
By 1804 the number of members was changed to the square of nine and now it started to look more like other mathematical societies in that it elected a president, secretary, treasurer, and six trustees. More ambitious lecture programmes were started and, for example, in 1821 a course was put on [3]:-
... 5 different lecturers delivered between them 22 lectures in all - 3 on mechanics, 2 on hydrostatics, 2 on pneumatics, 2 on optics, 3 on astronomy, 6 on chemistry, 1 on magnetism, 2 on electricity, and 1 on galvanism. The charge for admission to a single lecture was 1 shilling, and for the course 15 shillings.
From this high point the Society began to decline. In 1825 the Minutes record that:-
... great difficulty was found in procuring members to give lectures ...
and that year is marked by the first annual loss made by the Society. Membership dropped, being 54 in 1839, 30 in 1841 and 19 by 1845. The Society wrote to the Royal Astronomical Society who responded on 10 May 1845:-
A meeting of the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society took place yesterday, and I brought forward the suggestions contained in your recent letters to me relating to the venerable Mathematical Society of London, and the Council were unanimous in regretting that this ancient Society of 130 years standing should be on the eve of dissolution and decline. The members of the Council were also, I believe, unanimous that if the nineteen surviving members of the Mathematical Society should in their liberality and public spirit wish to keep the mathematical and astronomical and philosophical portions of their library together, and should kindly and considerately offer to present it to the Royal Astronomical Society, that the Council of the latter would not only be grateful to them for this act of judicious benevolence, but would be willing to elect all the members of the Mathematical Society members for life of the Royal Astronomical Society.
This went ahead as planned and the Spitalfields Mathematical Society closed down.

References (show)

  1. J W S Cassels, The Spitalfields Mathematical Society, Bull. London Math. Soc. 11 (1979), 241-258.
  2. J W S Cassels, Addendum: "The Spitalfields Mathematical Society", Bull. London Math. Soc. 12 (5) (1980), 343.
  3. R A Sampson, The decade 1840-1850, in J L E Dreyer and H H Turner (eds.), History of the Royal Astronomical Society (London, 1923), 83-109.
  4. L Stewart and P Weindling, Philosophical threads : natural philosophy and public experiment among the weavers of Spitalfields, British J. Hist. Sci. 28 (1)(96) (1995), 37-62.

Last Updated August 2004