The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Spitalfields, the area just to the east of Liverpool Street station, is known for its thriving immigrant communities over the centuries. Jews, Huguenots, Bengalis; silk-weavers, bakers, brewers, artificers, opticians, and - would you believe it - mathematicians. In 1717, Thomas Middleton established the Spitalfields Mathematical Society, which was open to local residents, would serve to disseminate mathematical knowledge among them, and also encourage the members ('the square of 8' in number) to educate each other with questions and puzzles. Middleton himself was a teacher of navigational mathematics to sailors, and he started off the society by offering free lessons to his fellows. [1] 

The Society would meet weekly for three hours, during which questions would be posed, tutorials offered and information exchanged.  
One of the rules of the Institution, which had so humble an origin, observed for upwards of eighty years was, that one hour during the time of the meeting should be devoted to silent study. The Stewards were accustomed to put a sand-glass on the table, and no one was allowed, under penalty of a fine, to open his lips until the sand had run down. [2]
One of the cunning ways in which the society encouraged collaboration was by levying small fines on anyone who refused to attempt to solve a query raised by a colleague. Fines accumulated in a fund that was then used to buy books!

By the early 19th century, the society was offering public lectures (on topics such as 'galvanism', 'pneumatics', 'hydrostatics', and 'astronomy'). 

The members of this august association were not trained mathematicians for the most part, but some very able people did join. Simpson (of the Rule), Gompertz (of the law of mortality) and Dollond (the optician with Aitchison) were three of the famous men in the group. The others were less known but hardly slouches, and all appear to have been given to the use of mathematics in the solution of problems that they encountered in their professional lives.

An interesting example is the use of mathematics to design a special instrument  called the bent-lever balance to control the fineness of yarn. The theory of this instrument was discussed by William Ludlam in 1765, using mechanics, trigonometry and calculus. [3]

From the 1740s, the society also began to exhibit scientific instruments [4] and (no doubt inspired by the Royal Institution) conducted public experiments to much acclaim. Audiences of up to 500 people, paying sixpence per lecture, were reported. However, in the feverish period of the Napoleonic wars, the Seditious Meetings Acts passed in 1795 and 1799 began to cast a chill on societies such as this. They began to be closely monitored for discordant political views, and in 1809, experimental lectures were abandoned (ostensibly because lecturers were unavailable, but most likely for fear of prosecution). [5]

In 1846, faced with declining memberships, the society merged with the Royal Astronomical Society, and its library, archives and equipment were all handed over to the latter.

The Society occupied different premises during its lifetime - all in Spitalfields. It started at a pub, Monmouth's Head, moved to the White Horse in Wheeler Street eight years later, and then to the Ben Johnson's Head in Woodseer Street in 1735. During the 1770s and 1780s, it was based in the Black Swan, on Brown's Lane (later known as Hanbury Street). In 1793, it moved permanently to a room on Crispin Street, where it ended its life. The first pub became part of the Hanbury brewery; I can't tell what happened to the next two. Crispin Street lost much of itself when Spitalfields market expanded in the 1920s; the premises of the Society (No. 36/36A) were demolished in the same period.[6] 

For several years now, the London Mathematical Society has funded Spitalfields Days in honour of the old society: believing that it is important for recent developments in specialist topics to be made known to the general mathematical community, and, in particular, to research students ... provides funds to the organisers of these meetings so that they can provide a day of survey lectures, accessible to a general mathematical audience.[7]

  1. The Spitalfields Mathematical Society, The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive at the University of St. Andrews.
  2. James Mitchell, (Jan 20, 1828). "Mathematical Society in Spitalfields". The Gentlemen's Magazine, Vol 98, Part 1. 
  3. Norman Biggs (2009). 'Applicable Mathematics in the 18th Century: an example from the textile trade', presented at the IMA History of Mathematics Conference.
  4. Lucy Inglis, Georgian London: Into the Streets. Penguin. pp. 257-258.
  5. Margaret Jacob & Larry Stewart (2009). Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire: 1687-1851. Harvard University Press. pp. 112-113.
  6. 'Spitalfields Market area: No. 36/36A Crispin Street'. Chapter XI. Survey of London, Vol. 27. (pp. 127-147)
  7. Spitalfields Days, London Mathematical Society.


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