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Mathematical Society Spitalfields.

Like many of the ‘societies’ of its time the Mathematical Society of Spitalfields, founded in 1717, was run as a club where people of like minded interests could meet, discuss and debate the latest news, views and ideas of their chosen interest, in this case mathematics with a bit of physics thrown in for good measure. The Mathematical Society found itself a home in and around the local taverns of Spitalfields, where a group of men from working and middle class backgrounds, many of them weavers, met to discuss the new science of mathematics. They also had a shared interest in the latest developments in physics, particularly electricity. They met first at Monmouth Head Tavern in Monmouth St Spitalfields, chiefly among the middle and working classes; they met at small taverns in that locality. They then shifted their meeting place to the White Horse Tavern, in Wheeler-street and then in 1735, to Ben Jonson’s Head in Pelham-street.

Streets of present day Spitalfields

Who attended the meetings?

The members were chiefly tradesmen and artisans; among those of higher rank were Canton, Dollond, Thomas Simpson,

Simpson was the most distinguished of a group of itinerant lecturers who taught in the London coffee houses. This may seems strange but in fact at this time coffee houses were sometimes called the Penny Universities because of the cheap education they provided. They would charge an entrance fee of one penny, which was affordable to most of the middling working classes. In the coffee houses people sat with their refreshments and there discussed the things with like minded people and drank coffee listening to lectures. Different coffee houses catered to specific interests such as art, business, law and mathematics.

In 1743 Thomas Simpson who was part of the group who met at the Mathematical Society Spitalfields was appointed as the head of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. This appointment spells out the importance of Simpson’s contribution to mathematics. In fact this Academy was founded only two years before Simpson took up the post and his appointment there had an impact on the mathematical topics he investigated. His mathematical bent was more towards applied mathematics and he began research on engineering problems and problems relating to fortifications. Two years after his appointment, Simpson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The streets of Spitalfields

Just like a present day library they lent books but they also lent so much more besides, the Society also lent their instruments air-pumps, telescopes, microscopes, experimental electrical machines and surveying-instruments. The borrowers giving a note of hand for the value thereof and just like today were expected to return the goods in a certain time. The number of members was not to exceed the square of seven, so 49 people. This had to be increased to the squares of eight and nine, how completely bonkers was that? The members met on Saturday evenings, just like the Lunar Society and each member present had to employ himself in some mathematical exercise or forfeit one penny. It went deeper than that though each wanting to prove himself the better mathematician, any refusing to answer a question asked by another in mathematics was to forfeit twopence. In this enclave that was Spitalfields, home to silk and textile weavers, the most unlikely place for a group of mathematicians and scientists to meet but here indeed they did meet and accumulated a library of nearly 3000 volumes of books and pamphlets. The Mathematical Society Spitalfields continued to meet for 130 years but in 1845 the society had run its course and the remaining members made over their books, records, and memorials to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Mathematical Society Spitalfields
Mathematical Society Spitalfields – did they walk past this doorway?
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