Pit to Pi: the life of Charles Hutton

How many Cragside or Heaton Manor pupils, struggling with their homework, realise that, in High Heaton, they’re following in the footsteps of one of the greatest mathematicians who has ever lived? The remarkable story of the one time Geordie miner, who became one of the most famous and esteemed men of his time, deserves to be better known.

Detail from painting of Charles Hutton by Andrew Morton now in the Lit and Phil

Detail from painting of Charles Hutton by Andrew Morton in the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne

Charles, the youngest son of Henry and Eleanor Hutton, was born in what was then called Side-Gate at the corner of what we now know as Percy Street and Gallowgate on 14 August 1737. He was expected to be employed in mining like his father who, by the time of Charles’ birth, seems to have been an under-viewer, which was in effect the deputy manager of a coal mine. But Henry died when Charles was just four years old and his mother married another colliery manager, Francis Fraim, an overman (the third person in the hierarchy of a coal mine). The older boys duly followed their father and stepfather underground but what Charles later viewed as a happy accident, at the age of about seven, changed the direction of the youngest brother’s life.

Street fighter

In a quarrel with some other children in the street, Charles’ right elbow was hurt. Being afraid to tell his parents, he apparently concealed the injury for several days by which time surgeons were unable to put the damage right. Charles’ mother, in particular, was said to have worried that her son wouldn’t be able to earn a living in mining as expected and to have ensured that he received a first-class education.

The first school Charles attended was in Percy Street, close to the family’s home. It was ‘kept by an old Scottish woman’. According to Hutton, she taught him to read but was no great scholar. Whenever she came to a word which she couldn’t read herself, she directed the children to skip it: ‘for it was Latin’!

To High Heaton

The family then moved to Benwell and soon after, according to contemporary and friend, John Bruce, to High Heaton. We don’t know exactly where they lived but Charles was able to go to a school across the Ouseburn valley in Jesmond. The school was run by Rev Mr Ivison and was an establishment at which Charles seems to have flourished.

Nevertheless, writing at the time of Hutton’s death in 1823, Bruce said that he had recently been shown paperwork which showed that in 1755-6, Charles did work in a pit albeit only briefly – as a hewer (a coalminer who worked underground cutting coal from the seam), at Long Benton colliery, where his step-father was an overman.

At around this time, however, Mr Ivison left the Jesmond school and young Charles, by now 18 years old, began teaching there in his place. The school relocated to Stotes Hall which, some older readers may remember, stood on Jesmond Park Road until its demolition in 1953. He then relocated in turn to the Flesh Market, St Nicholas’ Churchyard and Westgate Street in the city centre. There he taught John Scott, famous locally for eloping with Betty Surtees and nationally, after being elevated to the House of Lords with the title Lord Eldon, for his tenure as Lord Chancellor. Lord Eldon spoke glowingly of his old teacher as did many of his pupils.

‘As a preceptor, Dr Hutton was characterised by mildness, kindness, promptness in discovering the difficulties which his pupils experienced, patience in removing these difficulties, unwearied perseverance, a never-failing lover of the act of communicating knowledge by oral instruction’ Dr Olinthus Gregory

Charles Hutton by Benjamin Wyon, 1823 (Thank you to the National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Hutton by Benjamin Wyon (Reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

Hutton was often described as ‘indefatigable’. One advert he placed offers:

‘Any schoolmasters, in town and country, who are desirous of improvement in any branches of the mathematics, by applying to Mr Hutton, may be instructed during the Christmas holidays.’

Bobby Shafto

Another interesting pupil was Robert Shafto of Benwell Towers, who originally hired Hutton to teach his children. He gave Charles the use of his extensive library and directed him towards helpful text books. In return Charles gave his mentor refresher classes. (There is considerable disagreement about whether this Robert was the ‘Bonnie Bobby Shafto’ of the well-known song. Robert was a traditional family name of more than one branch of the Shafto family so it’s difficult to be sure. One theory is that the song was originally written earlier about a previous Robert but that further verses were added over the years as it continued to be sung about a succession of members of the family who were in public life. This Robert was certainly Sherriff of Northumberland and may also have been the Robert Shafto painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.)

On 3 March 1764, Charles published his first book ‘The Schoolmaster’s Guide or a Complete System of Practical Arithmetic’ . The book was praised for its clarity and precision and the second edition, published two years later, became a standard school textbook for at least 60 years.

Bewick Engravings

But it was in Charles Hutton’s next book on measurement, ‘A Treatise on Mensuration both in Theory and Practice’ that he ‘first eminently distinguished himself as a mathematician’. The book, published in 1770, is also notable for the diagrams, which were engraved by a 16 year old Thomas Bewick, at this time an apprentice wood engraver.

Extract from Hutton's book with Thomas Bewick engravings

Extract from Hutton’s book with Thomas Bewick engravings

This volume is evidence of Hutton’s growing reputation: the names of some 600 subscribers who supported its publication, are listed at the front: many are from the North East and include the Duke of Northumberland but others are from as far afield as Aberdeen and Cornwall, many of them schoolteachers.

Further evidence of the esteem in which Hutton was held came when the Mayor and Corporation of Newcastle asked him to carry out a survey of the town. A commission to produce an engraved map, based on the survey, followed and, after the terrible floods of 1771 in which Newcastle’s Medieval bridge was washed away, Hutton was approached to produce calculations to inform the design of its replacement. It included a brief to examine ‘properties of arches, thickness of piers, the force of water against them’. A copy of the original map can still be seen in the Lit and Phil.

And soon an opportunity arose to cement his reputation in London and beyond. A vacancy was advertised for the post of Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. It appears that, at first, Hutton, who was at this time by all accounts a modest, shy young man, was reluctant to apply but his mentor, Robert Shafto, persuaded him. He was up against competition of the highest order but was appointed and moved to London. His wife, Isabella, and his four children, remained in Newcastle. Isabella, who died in 1785, is buried in Jesmond Cemetery.

Good company

A string of important works followed including ‘The force of Fired Gunpowder, and the initial velocity of Cannon Balls, determined by Experiments’ for which he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, still awarded annually for ‘outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science’ anywhere in the world. The list of winners reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sciences and includes Benjamin Franklin, William Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, another adopted Heatonian, Charles Algernon Parsons and, more recently, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking. Charles Hutton, our former pit hewer, is in good company!

Bust of Charles Hutton by Sebastian Gahagan now in the Lit and Phil

Bust of Charles Hutton by Sebastian Gahagan now in the Lit and Phil

But he didn’t stop there. Hutton’s discoveries, publications and positions of importance are too numerous to mention here but perhaps his greatest achievement was his series of calculations to ascertain the density of the earth.

‘The calculations… were more laborious and, at the same time, called for more ingenuity than has probably been brought into action by a single person since the preparation of logarithmic tables’.

Hutton made the calculations based on measurements taken at Mount Schiehallion in Perthshire by the Astronomer Royal, The Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne and his team. Although the result has since been refined, the methodology was a significant scientific breakthrough. A bi-product was Hutton’s pioneering use of contour lines: geographers, cartographers and walkers, as well as mathematicians, have reason to toast the name of Charles Hutton.

Legacy

Our knowledge of Hutton’s personal life is limited, but we do know that he married for a second time and fathered another daughter. Tragedy struck in 1793 when two of his four daughters died. One of them, Camilla, had married a soldier, who was posted to the West Indies. Camilla and her two year old son, Charles, accompanied him but her husband firstly was injured and then contacted yellow fever, a disease to which his wife also succumbed. Young Charles was both orphaned and a prisoner of war until he was rescued by an uncle and taken to his grandfather in London. Hutton, who was, by this time, 58 years old and his second wife, Margaret, brought up the boy as their own and ensured that he received a good education. Although Hutton did not live to see his success, Charles Blacker Vignoles became a bridge and railway engineer of world renown. He pioneered the use of the flat-bottomed rail, which bears his name. Neatly, one of the first lines in Britain to use the Vignoles Rail was the Newcastle – North Shields line through the area in which the grandfather, who was such an influence upon him, grew up.

Geordie to the Last

Charles Hutton himself never came back to Tyneside: although he often said he wanted to return, he suffered persistent ill health in his later years and, according to his letters, he was ultimately deterred by the extreme discomfort he had endured on the journeys of his youth. But he took a great interest in Newcastle’s affairs, regularly corresponding with friends here, remaining a member of the Lit and Phil and regularly supporting a number of local causes financially, among them the Jubilee School in Newcastle and a school teachers’ welfare society. The education of young people in the city of his birth was close to Charles Hutton’s heart right until his death on 27 January 1823 at the age of 85. He deserves to be remembered, especially by Heaton, where he spent some of his formative years.

Sources

Sources consulted include:

A memoir of Charles Hutton by John Bruce, read at the meeting of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, May 6 1823

Brief Memoir of Charles Hutton LLD FRS from the Imperial Magazine for March 1823

(both held by the ‘Lit and Phil’.)

Charles Blacker Vignoles: romantic engineer by K H Vignoles; Cambridge University Press, 2010 9780521135399

Many thanks to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne for permission to publish the photographs of the Andrew Morton painting and Sebastian Gahagan bust, and to the National Portrait Gallery, for permission to reproduce the Benjamin Wyon medal.

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