The Spitalfields Mathematical Society
Until the Education Act of 1870 brought in compulsory education, at least for children aged between five and ten, the availability of formalised education was somewhat hit and miss and was decided by the wealth (or otherwise) of the parents, the cost of learning compared with the earning potential of the child and the child’s sex. For those who had missed such rudimentary schooling as there was or came to realise that in order to progress in their chosen career they needed some mathematical skills, there were a number of clubs or societies around which could assist.
One such was the Spitalfields Mathematical Society which was founded by Joseph Middleton in 1717 to teach sailors the mathematical skills needed to assist navigation. Its initial meeting place was a pub called the Monmouth’s Head, but over the years it moved around – perhaps a test of its students’ navigational skills – but always staying in Spitalfields.
Membership was restricted to the square of eight but by 1735 numbers were clearly declining as the maximum number of members was reduced to the square of seven. As was to be expected, members were from the working classes,, a contemporary report of 1744 noting that “about half were weavers, ,and the rest were typically brewers, braziers, bakers, bricklayers”. Meetings were held on Saturday evenings between 7 and 10 o’clock and members paid a fee of four pennies a session. The middle of the three hours at the club was to be spent in silence solving mathematical problems.
The society was no barrel of laughs and instituted a fine system ranging from a penny if they failed to do the mathematical exercise to two pennies if they failed to answer a mathematical problem posed by another member to a shilling “if any member break silence … or curse, swear, game, or lay wager, during the hours of the meeting”. A whopping fine of two shillings and sixpence would be levied for “behaving riotously or using abusive language”.
By 1793 the Society had moved into permanent rooms in Crispin Street where it was able to build up a library consisting of some 3,000 volumes. In 1798 it launched a series of public lectures, a publicly spirited move which, surprisingly, led the club into some difficulties. Informers snitched on them for taking money for an unlicensed entertainment, namely a philosophy lecture. The Society had its day in court, raised money to pay for its legal expenses and won its case. But the impact was detrimental to the Society’s financial health as a minute laments, “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”.
In 1804 the maximum membership was raised to the square of nine and a president, secretary, treasurer and six trustees were elected. The heights that the Society were to reach in the first two decades of the 19th century were its acme of achievement. By 1825, though, the Society reported in its minutes, “great difficulty was found in procuring members to give lectures” and the first trading loss was reported.
By 1845 there were just 19 members and the Society’s committee wrote to the Royal Astronomical Society informing them of their intention to dissolve the club. Magnanimously the Astronomers offered life membership to the remaining members if the Society transferred the mathematical, astronomical and philosophical portions of their library to them.
The Society agreed and closed down in the early summer of 1845.