The teaching of mathematics in Britain in the Eighteenth Century.


The effect of the Reformation in England carried on into the 18th century with both schools and Universities being too closely associated with the Church and State, partly due to the Act of Uniformity. Since neither encouraged progressive thought and innovation this resulted in a period of stagnation and decline. When Leeds Grammar School tried to change their curriculum from the traditional subjects of the Trivium to include French and Mathematics it resulted in Lord Eldon's judgement which was very conservative (despite his own broad education), and prohibited future changes in Grammar School syllabuses. This did not change until Acts of 1812 and 1840 the first of which gave schools the possibility of limited changes to their curriculum but they had to apply to make any permanent changes, and the second which gave schools full power over what they taught.

With this restriction to the traditional syllabus many English Grammar schools forged associations with local private and dissident establishments, such as that formed between the Newcastle Grammar school and Charles Hutton's school in the same city. This meant that the Grammar students could take classes at Hutton's school in increasingly popular subjects such as Mathematics and French. This could only happen in the larger towns and cities which were well supplied with institutions supported either by philanthropists or groups of merchants wishing to provide a more practical education for their children. Mathematics and book-keeping courses were becoming more and more in demand as people began to realise that their job prospects increased with their knowledge and skills in these areas.

To provide the adult market with an equal opportunity to improve their computational skills, some of the better educated teachers and headmasters ran night classes and private lecture courses for groups of paying individuals. Many teachers went to night classes themselves in order to increase the number of topics that they could advertise for tutelage. Teaching such subjects was becoming more common because of an Act passed in 1713 (called the Act to Prevent Growth of Schism) which excluded teachers of Mathematics, Navigation and Mechanical art from swearing the oath included in the Act of Uniformity.

Other methods of improving your knowledge included attending public lectures given by the newly formed and rapidly increasing Mathematics Society, set up in 1717, which was predominantly aimed at the artisan and middle classes. These lectures were often very popular and the attendance could reach over three hundred. Lectures and private tutelage were more popular than they had been because of advances in teaching methods which made the courses more interesting.

Improvements in Mathematical education in Scotland moved along different lines. Many of the Scottish Councils were impressed with Christ's Hospital, Gresham College, and the Dissenting schools recently set up in England. Perth Council in particular ordered an enquiry into the academies and colleges appearing in England. This resulted in the Rev. James Bonar advocating a two-session programme leading to a 'modern' university course, and proposing that Perth was a suitable place for such higher education. The new academy, founded between 1760 and 1766, was the first Scottish school to teach science on a comprehensive scale. Sixteen other academies were set up (and survived) over the next seventy years in Dundee, Banff, Inverness and in other areas. Many of these were designed specifically to be mathematically and scientifically strong to compete with Grammar Schools like that in Ayr. Curriculum revision and improvement was soon forced by these new Academies and the Grammar schools (unrestricted by Lord Eldon's ruling) improved their Mathematics teaching abilities and the Academies soon introduced Latin to their already impressive range of courses. Perth Academy alone originally offered higher Arithmetic, Mathematics, Geography, Logic, Algebra, Euclid, Differential Calculus, Trigonometry, Navigation, Physics, Optics and many other subjects.

The strength of these new academies also pushed smaller schools and enterprises into copying them, introducing courses on the commercial applications of Mathematics. These smaller establishments were often sponsored by groups of philanthropists or similarly like minded individuals. Many other schools, or hospitals as they were then called, were set up using the money of successful merchants, most especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow. George Heriot's was the first, founded in the mid 17th century, and was intended to provide an education for the poor youths of Edinburgh. Two others followed in the same century, but the rate increased during the 18th century. The curriculum originally offered by these hospitals was limited, but rapidly grew through the demands of industry and the need to compete with the Academies.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson based on a University of St Andrews honours project by Elizabeth Watson submitted May 2000.


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