Working class mathematicians and 19th century letters: Reflections on an undergraduate research project

Working class mathematicians and 19th century letters: Reflections on an undergraduate research project

Written by Abigail Bourne

As an undergraduate student at the Open University, I'm no stranger to learning mathematics at a distance. It is an ongoing balancing act fitting my studies around working and caring for my young children. I was surprised to find through a summer project on the History of Mathematics, that the experiences of 19th century working-class mathematicians in Britain had some striking parallels with my own. The project, funded by an LMS undergraduate student bursary, was titled: ‘Working class mathematicians and 19th century letters’. I really wanted to get some experience in independent research as I’m hoping to pursue postgraduate studies. I’m from a working-class background and I already have experience in digitising historical records so this felt like the perfect project for me.

I have been transcribing letters from 1848-1850 written to Thomas Turner Wilkinson (TTW) from Thomas Stephens Davies (TSD). TTW and TSD were mathematicians who were regular contributors to several periodicals of the day which printed questions and answer sections for different mathematical problems. Not only were they mathematicians by profession, but they were also historians. The main purpose of their letters was so they could together create a historical record of the periodicals and of the different contributors to the solutions, along with their own thoughts on the solutions given. Often solutions were submitted under pen-names and in their letters they would discuss who they believed were behind the different pseudonyms, almost like solving a puzzle in itself. They would offer to share copies of different periodicals with each other where one was unable to find one for themselves.  

Although their correspondence was primarily about record keeping, the letters almost always turned into gossip of the other mathematicians they knew. Sometimes mentioning perceived slights such as the time TSD recounted that he told one mathematician that he thought a question to be easy and was met with the reply “oh it’s quite difficult enough for you as it stands”.[i] More often than not, they were discussing the mathematicians who had fallen on hard times. There were several mentioned who were struggling including a Professor Young from Belfast who “with six children (one a cripple[ii] & the eldest dying of consumption) [was] deprived of all his resources; & the paltry pay, even that coming irregularly, of 6 or 12 months after it was due”.[iii] There are many pages regarding one particular friend of theirs, John Whitley, who was the editor of the Leeds Correspondent. He had become destitute and TSD recounts all the different people he had asked for help in providing for his friend, most of whom declined. He was finally able to secure some money from The Literary Fund - a charity dedicated to helping authors still running today - and also from the Society of School Masters, though he was never a member. And on April 25th 1849 TSD wrote a “hasty note” to tell TTW that he had finally heard back from the prime minister Lord John Russell and he had granted John Whitley £100 from the Royal Benevolent Fund and ends his note with the words “His fate will be better than that of Butterworth & Woolfenden.”[iv] 

It is obvious that for the 19th century mathematicians, as is the case now, the pursuit of knowledge is often not one of great financial gain, or even viability. The men they were writing about published important works in mathematics but were still left in poverty, requiring outside assistance. I think TSD said it best in one of his letters:  

“Shame on the Country which allows her minds to starve, while knavery gets fed to repletion.”[v] 

As I have been reading and transcribing the letters, some parallels have become apparent to me between their lives and mine as a mature student, studying part-time via distance learning with the Open University. Personally, the actual learning is the easy part of being a student but juggling all the other parts of life can get in the way like finances, illness, moving house, even the weather. All these things were given in the letters as excuses for slow responses and they are all things that have affected my ability to study effectively too. TSD also mentions in passing how he has more friends from the “academic class of mathematicians than from [his] non-academic brethren”,[vi] and how he has tried to befriend other people but has received “little friendship or even cordiality in return” which reminded me of how for me studying with the OU can be a lonely pursuit as I have no one in my physical circle of people who are studying or even interested in maths.  

 It was interesting to me that the academics of their time didn’t limit themselves to one particular area of study. TTW was a mathematician and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, but he was also a historian and a poet, he wrote hymns for his local congregation, he was a news correspondent, he was a member of the Manchester Geological Society and could read, write and translate French.[vii] I think often these days once we’re old enough to have some control over the subjects we learn we tend to separate ourselves in arts/humanities people and science people, and I have realised I don’t have to keep myself in a STEM box. This research project has definitely surfaced a love of history that has been stuffed down inside me and a love for learning for the sake of learning rather than for some specific end goal. 

Notes and references

[i] Chetham’s Library, Manchester. MSS A.3.92, T. S. Davies to T. T. Wilkinson, October 15 1848.

[ii] This was common language at the time, for further reading see: Stoddard Holmes, M. (2004) Fictions of affliction: Physical disability in Victorian culture. University of Michigan Press. Available at:

[iii] Chetham’s Library, Manchester. MSS A.3.93, T. S. Davies to T. T. Wilkinson, August 9 1849.

[iv] Chetham’s Library, Manchester. MSS A.3.93, T. S. Davies to T. T. Wilkinson, April 25 1849. 

[v] Chetham’s Library, Manchester. MSS A.3.92, T. S. Davies to T. T. Wilkinson, March 28 1848.

[vi] Chetham’s Library, Manchester. MSS A.3.93, T. S. Davies to T. T. Wilkinson, February 20 1849.

[vii] The Historic Society of Lancashire and Chesire journal, vol 28 (1875-1876) – Memorial of the late T. T. Wilkinson, F.R.A.S., of Burnley