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Two Davids: Grubb Parsons’ stellar double act


Heaton’s Grubb Parsons led the world in the design and building of high quality large astronomical telescopes for almost 60 years until the company’s untimely demise in 1985.

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescoperesized

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescope, 1967

For almost 30 years, from the late 1950s until the company closed, that success was driven by two very different men, both named David, whose skill and expertise complemented one another, driving the company’s success and world renown.

David Scatcherd Brown was an academic, with extensive mathematical insight, an expert on designing and testing telescopes, whose understanding and interpretation of test results was such that the quality and consistency of the firm’s products rapidly grew.

David Sinden on the other hand came from a working class background and learnt through doing. He became an expert in working with glass, producing the optically perfect mirrors essential to the large telescopes produced by Grubb Parsons.

Together they made a formidable team, both very different characters and backgrounds, but with a shared passion for astronomy. Although there’s no evidence that either David ever lived in Heaton, their work at Grubb Parsons certainly put it on the map.

Grubb Parsons

The firm of Sir Howard Grubb Parsons and Company was established in Heaton in 1925, although the roots of the firm in astronomy and telescope making go back to Dublin in the early 19th Century, with the establishment of a telescope manufacturing company by Thomas Grubb. The firm quickly developed a reputation for the quality of its astronomical telescopes. When Thomas retired in 1868, his son Howard took over, moving the business to St Albans in 1918. The business struggled under Howard’s leadership and some seven years later was bought out by Sir Charles Parsons and the new firm re-located to Newcastle, where C.A. Parsons and Company already had its headquarters.

Grubb Parsons Factory

Grubb Parsons, Heaton works

That Charles Algernon Parsons should have taken an interest in telescope making when he already had a well established business making power generating equipment and steam turbines may seem unusual. However, his father William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, was a famous astronomer. Charles, along with his two older brothers, was privately educated at the family seat of Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, where one of his tutors, Sir Robert Ball, was later to become Astronomer Royal for Ireland. So it’s hardly surprising that Charles had an interest in astronomy. Furthermore, the Irish connection almost certainly would have meant that he was familiar with the Thomas Grubb Company and would have wanted to continue its tradition.

Grubb Parsons was already well established and had a reputation for its large astronomical telescopes by the time the two Davids joined the company in the 1950s, but they would go on to achieve world renown over the next 20 years.

David Scatcherd Brown

David Scatcherd Brown was born in Coventry on 25 August 1927. The family were from Yorkshire, where his father was a headmaster. He attended Oldbury County School before securing a place at Queen’s College Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, specialising in physics and maths. The 2nd World War interrupted his studies while he served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, gaining valuable engineering experience and skills, before returning to complete his studies.

Grubb Parsons David S Brown - pic

David Scatcherd Brown

By that time, Brown was already interested in telescopes and astronomy, so it must have been a natural fit for him to take up post at Grubb Parsons straight from University in 1950. He was put to work with the optical team, under the leadership of George Manville, working specifically on the testing and manufacturing methods for the large mirrors and lenses needed for large telescopes. At the time the business was just picking up after the war and David was quick to adopt and adapt the latest testing technologies, making the whole process more objective and improving the quality of the finished product. It was on his advice that a testing tower was built allowing mirrors to be tested lying on their back, which greatly improved the process and perhaps explains the unusual shape of the Grubb Parsons building.

In 1950, David married Margaret Stephens, whom he’d met at Cambridge, when she was studying Natural Sciences at Girton. The couple would go on to have two children.

David Sinden

David Sinden was born on 31 July 1932 in Hartlepool and was a keen astronomer from an early age. At the age of 16 he built his first telescope, with the help of his father, Fred, causing a stir among the neighbours in Hood Street, Haverton Hill. By the age of 22, now living in a council house in Billingham, a story appeared in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer when David, already a member of the British Astronomical Association, applied for planning permission to build an observatory in his parents’ back garden. The observatory was to be made of galvanised steel sheets on a wooden frame with an 8’ diameter dome. The council, approving the plan, admitted that they didn’t have any precedents for planning applications for such buildings on a council estate! In the article, David admitted that he had to wait for the street lights to go out and that the heat from Teesside’s factories sometimes made the stars appear square, although he did say that they may just be flying snuff boxes!

Grubb Parsons D Sindon L with George Oliver and 72 in Helwan mirror

David Sinden (extreme right) with George Oliver and the 72 inch Helwan mirror

Having been apprenticed as a fitter at ICI, the young David found that the work wasn’t to his liking and moved to work for a local optician, becoming an expert in optical instruments. It was while working there that he made a mirror, which he sent to Grubb Parsons on spec. So impressed were they that they offered him a job. So it was that David Sinden joined the firm in 1957, working for David Brown.


David subsequently married Helen, although we’ve been unable to confirm the date, and the couple were recorded in the 1980s as living at the Poplars, Coley Hill Farm, North Walbottle, far enough out of town to avoid the worst of the light pollution.

Polar opposites

In 1961, David Brown was appointed Optical Manager focusing exclusively on telescopes and a year later he appointed David Sinden as Glass Shops’ Manager, with control over scientific instruments as well as telescopes. As David Brown’s obituary notes ‘There could not have been two more different types working together, the one with a deep mathematical insight and ability to interpret obscure testing problems, the other with the instinctive feel for working glass, the hardness of the pitch, the construction of the polisher and methods of working.’

It seems that the two men were also polar opposites in terms of personality. David Brown was described as a quiet, good natured and unassuming man, whereas David Sinden was much more outgoing. Many of his friends and former colleagues posted tributes after his death, all speaking warmly of a friendly, generous, passionate man with an improbable number of outside interests which included, but were not limited to, photography, sculpture, motorbikes, steam engines, archaeology, marathon running and pistol shooting. An exceptional public speaker with a passion and enthusiasm for science, astronomy and anything even vaguely telescope-shaped, who could hold an audience entranced for hours and hours.

Their time working together at Grubb Parsons saw the company produce some of its finest work and arguably some of the best large optical telescopes ever produced. The list is extensive and includes:

  • 48-inch reflector, Victoria, Canada, 1961
  • 40-inch reflector, Pic du Midi, France. Optics only, 1962
  • The 40 inch Elizabeth telescope, South Africa,1963
  • 74-inch reflector, Helwan (Kottamia), Egypt, 1963
  • 30-inch reflector, Jungfraujoch, Switzerland, 1966
  • 16/24-inch Schmidt, Castel Gandolfo, 1967
  • The 98 inch Issac Newton Telescope, Hestmonceaux, England, 1967
  • 72 inch (182cm) Mirror for Padua, Italy, 1973
  • 48/72-inch Schmidt, Siding Spring, Australia, 1973
  • 154 inch Reflector, Siding Spring, Australia, 1974
  • 48-inch reflector, Athens University, Greece, 1975
  • 150-in mirror, UKIRT, Hawaii, 1976
  • 60 inch Reflector, La Silla, Chile, 1976.

Many of them are still in situ.

Grubb Parsons 98 in mirror - Ds 1965

Magazine cover featuring Grubb Parsons

Grubb Parsons, during their time there, was a curious mixture of the latest techniques and processes that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the dark satanic mills of old. In one room David Brown might be working on the very latest in computerised testing and design processes, while in another a vast cauldron of pitch was being boiled. David Sinden always spoke of his work as dirty, grubby, grimy, filthy and gritty, although the results were world renowned.

Decline of Grubb Parsons

By the late 1970s, despite the obvious success of a series of large scale telescopes, Grubb Parsons was in difficulty. The scientific instrument side of the business, which had always supported the more impressive work on large telescopes, started to decline and being part of a much larger group of companies with different priorities saw a lack of new investment.

David Sinden was the first to leave, in 1976, to set up his own business, the Sinden Optical Company. David Brown, having been promoted to Technical Director in 1975, stayed on with the company, taking control of all of the optics work and completing a number of major projects, including the 4.2m Herschel telescope even as the works were pulled down around the glass shops.

Life after Grubb Parsons

In 1981, David Brown was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Durham University and when Grubb Parsons finally closed in 1985 joined the Physics Department as the Grubb Parsons Research Fellow. As well as working on a number of major projects, he travelled extensively around the world to advise on the construction of large telescopes. He also lectured at both Durham and Edinburgh Universities, where his lectures were said to be stimulating, with many practical demonstrations. He maintained his lifelong interest in Astronomy, with his own observatory and active membership of the Newcastle Astronomical Society.

He died at the young age of 59 on 17 July 1987 after what is described as a short illness. Probate records show his address at that time as 17, Douglas Avenue, Gosforth and that he left an estate of £97,063.

In 1979, David Sinden established his own optical company in Raby Cross, Byker, although the firm eventually moved to Ryton after being plagued by repeated problems with vandalism. The company dealt with all types of optical work, including building quite a reputation for Camera Obscuras. Loved by the Victorians, the Camera Obscura projects images of the locality onto a large circular table in a darkened room. SOC’s first commission was to build one for the Gateshead Garden Festival, where it was set up in a large tent. They then went on to build others for places as far flung as Portugal, Spain and Cuba. After the garden festival the Camera Obscura was moved to the Foredown Tower in a Country Park in Hove, where it remains the only example of SOC’s work in the UK.

In addition to Camera Obscuras, the company began to specialise in restoring historic telescopes and even in building new large mirrors, the largest being 48”, using equipment bought from Grubb Parsons when it closed down.

In 1993, David Sinden was awarded an Honorary masters Degree from Newcastle University. Perhaps the greatest accolade for his lifetime’s work though was the naming of a minor planet in his honour. In June 2005, Asteroid 10369 Sinden was named in his honour, with a team from Armagh University visiting his workshop to present him with documentation about his own star.

Grubb Parsons Presentation from Armagh Uni re asteroid 10369 Sinden June 2005 (1)

Sadly, he died just two months later on 29 August 2005, at the age of 73 after being diagnosed with lung cancer some 18 months earlier.


The Sinden Optical Company closed in 2005 after David’s death. Although Grubb Parsons has been closed for almost 40 years, the old telescope testing tower can still be seen behind Siemens on land owned by a company called Houghton International;. But the real legacy of Grubb Parsons and their two optical geniuses, David Brown and David Sinden lives on in the great optical telescopes they built, many of which are still in regular use in all five continents of the world.

Can you help?

If you know more about Grubb Parsons, including the work of Davids Brown and Sinden, we’d love to hear from you.  Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org


Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Sir Ove Arup: engineer and philosopher

You could be forgiven for never having spotted the black commemorative plaque high on the wall between the upstairs and downstairs bay windows of 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace, Heaton. The house is in the row of almost white brick terraced houses on the east side of Heaton Road, opposite the park. They have front gardens and, in the case of number 16, a high hedge so you really have to be looking for the plaque.

If you can catch sight of it from the road, you’ll see that it intriguingly reads ‘Ove Arup; 1895-1988; Engineer and Philosopher; Born here on 16 April.’


Commemorative plaque at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace

Arup is rarely mentioned among Newcastle’s great engineers. Even those who have heard of him usually assume he is Danish. (More of that later.) But almost everyone will be familiar with at least one example of his work.

Sir Ove Arup (for, although not mentioned on the plaque, he was awarded a knighthood in 1970) was one of the great structural engineers of the 20th century and he was instrumental in the construction of one of the world’s most recognisable buildings: the Sydney Opera House. But we can also see and admire examples of his work much closer to home. First, back to his local roots.


Ove’s father, Jens, was Danish and a qualified veterinary surgeon who, in 1889, came to Newcastle to work for the Danish consulate, supervising the health of imported beef cattle. He found a house for the family in Jesmond but, sadly, the following year, before she could come to the UK to live with her husband and three daughters, Jen’s first wife, Johanne, died.

Following her death, Jens appointed a governess, Mathilde Nyquist, to educate his daughters and three years later he married her. Soon, with a child on the way, a larger house was required and so the Arups moved to Heaton, to the substantial 3-storey terraced house at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace. And here on 16 April 1895, Ove Nyquist Arup was born.


Members of the Arup family pictured at his birthplace in 1967

Very soon after, however, with the British government increasingly concerned about the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth, an Act of Parliament was passed which banned the import of live cattle from areas in which listed diseases were found. Jen’s job became redundant and so, with Ove just a few months old, the family relocated to Germany. Ove was educated there and then in Denmark, where he went on to university to study philosophy and engineering, specialising in reinforced concrete.

So Ove’s initial stay in the country of his birth was brief. But he was to return. And the north east was to become especially important to him.

Back to Britain

On completion of his studies Ove took a job with a Danish company, Christiani and Nielsen. But in December 1923, when he was 28 years old,  the company transferred him to their UK office as Chief Designer. He went on to join J L Kier and Co (reinforced concrete specialists) and to meet and work with the famous architect, Berthold Lubetkin, most famously on the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. In 1938, Ove and his cousin, Arne, set up their own company Arup & Arup Ltd.

It was shortly after this, in the early years of WW2, that Ove faced an example of the sort of resistance that was to plague him for much of his life. And it was a formidable north east woman who stood in his way: Ove had designed a bomb shelter in ‘new-fangled concrete’, which he firmly believed would protect London citizens during enemy air raids. Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, was the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Home Security and entered into correspondence and talks with Arup about his proposals. While his designs would certainly save lives, Ellen Wilkinson and the government were concerned that the public would lose confidence in the existing brick and trench shelters and that those not able to shelter in the new concrete, underground shelters would be disadvantaged. In the end politics won the day, much to Arup’s disappointment, although his shelters were commissioned privately  by a number of wealthy clients.

After the war, Ove opened his own practice in London, Ove Arup, Consulting Engineers, which in 1949 became Ove Arup and Partners.


In 1957, Ove began work on the project which would make his reputation. But little did he know then, how much heartache it would bring nor that it would be seventeen years before it was complete.

Throughout his working life Arup made a point of congratulating architects, who won prestigious prizes for their designs, in the hope that his company would win the contract to help realise their dreams. This is exactly what happened when the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, won a competition to design an opera house in Sydney. The design was controversial and the engineering challenges immense. Ove had difficulty persuading Utzon to modify his original shell design to make it buildable and to take account of the acoustic requirements of a world class opera house.  Costs spiralled and there were constant personality clashes between client (Australian government), architect (Utzon) and chief engineer (Arup). Utzon eventually resigned in 1966 and the Australian government architect, Ted Farmer, appointed a team to oversee the completion of the building.

Sydney Opera House under construction - 5 shells erected

Sydney Opera House under construction (made possible by Heaton-born Ove Arup)

Nevertheless this protracted project and its eventual success cemented (sorry!) the reputations of Ove and his companies. In October 1973, Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. Ove and his wife, Li, were at the ceremony. Utzon, the architect, was not invited and was not mentioned at all during the proceedings.

Bridge Over the River Wear

In 1961, Ove was approached to construct a concrete, pedestrian bridge across the River Wear from Dunelm House to Bow Lane, linking the university with the historic centre of Durham. There was a seemingly paltry budget of £35,000.

It was assumed that the financial constraints would mean the bridge would have to be a low one requiring most pedestrians to climb and descend steep banks on either side. But Ove was always ready for a challenge and decided to design and oversee the construction of a high re-enforced concrete bridge himself. To minimize costs, he ingeniously designed it to be constructed on conical pivots, in two halves parallel to the river. When finished in 1964, the two halves were swung manually, through 90 degrees to meet and be connected centrally by a bronze expansion joint.  Kingsgate Bridge is now a Grade 1 listed building.


Ove Arup inspecting Kingsgate Bridge


Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, a favourite project of Ove Arup

Of all the projects that Ove worked on this was to give him the greatest satisfaction, so much so that it was his wish that his ashes be scattered from Kingsgate Bridge into the River Wear. And so he was both born in the north east and returned to the region in death.


The adjacent Students Union building, Dunelm House, was also an Arup building. Ove acted as structural engineer and architectural adviser and his bust is mounted on the wall, which faces this bridge. It is built in the so-called ‘Brutalist’ style and excites conflicting emotions: In 1968 it won a Civic Trust Award but has also been called ‘the ugliest building in Durham’ by the university’s students. Although, in 1995, English Heritage said it had once been described as ‘the greatest contribution modern architecture has made to the enjoyment of an English medieval city’. In 2017, Durham University declared that no longer fit for purpose and announced plans for demolition so that it could redevelop the site but there is a well-supported campaign to save and list the building.  A decision is yet to be made.


Bust of Sir Ove Arup on Dunelm House


Sir Ove’s Park?

In 1967 Ove Arup drew up radical proposals in which Newcastle United Football Club would share sporting facilities with the nearby Newcastle University. The ground capacity of the £32.6m complex would have been around 63,000 with 31,000 seated and 32,000 standing.


Arup proposal to redevelop St James Park

Included in the plans were two gyms, four multi-purpose halls, five-a-side football and rugby fives courts, 13 squash courts, swimming, diving and learner pools plus a supporters’ club and restaurant. The plan for a state of the art stadium to replace the old ground fell through when the club was reluctant to share the facilities with the university.

Byker Viaduct

A local Arup structure which was built, albeit one constructed after Sir Ove’s retirement, and one which is still very much standing, is the elegant Byker Metro bridge.


Arup-designed Byker Metro Bridge

Again, the design was challenging because it had to be squeezed in between an existing road bridge and a main line rail viaduct; it crossed a steep-sided valley with old mine workings beneath; the valley is crossed by a geographical fault as well as the Ouseburn. The solution, a tall 800m S-shaped viaduct, won the Concrete Society Award for Civil Engineering in 1980 and makes a striking addition to the bridges which cross the valley. It is an appropriate local memorial for the Heaton-born company founder.


Ove Arup, besides being a talented structural engineer had many interests. He was an art collector, pianist and the accordianist as well as writer and artist: After his death, his daughter Anja published a book, ‘Doodles and Doggerel,’ of his drawings and verse. He was also a keen and successful chess player, going so far as to set up a company to manufacture chess sets, made to his own innovative designs.

He was often considered eccentric and many stories still circulate among those who knew him. He is, for example, said to have almost always carried a pair of chopsticks in his jacket breast pocket, so that he could sample other peoples’ food while dining with them.


But what of the ‘philosopher’ as mentioned on the plaque on the house of his birth? As already mentioned, Ove studied philosophy, along with engineering, at university and it remained an important influence on his work throughout his life.

His ‘Total Design’ vision was intended to encourage creative collaboration across all disciplines: not only engineering, building and architecture but other less obvious ones too, including computing, ethics and philosophy. He was a creative and critical thinker, who loved to debate and apply both original thought and what he learnt from other disciplines to his work and to the way his firm was run. Ultimately he wanted to make the world a better place.


Ove was much-honoured during his lifetime. including:

CBE (1953); RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture (1966) – unusual for a Structural Engineer to receive;Knighthood (1970); The Gold medal of the Institution of Structural Engineers (1973); Queens Award for Export Achievement (1984); Elected Honorary Royal Academician (1986).


When Sir Ove Arup died on 5 February 1988, he was the figurehead of one of the largest structural engineering companies in the world. Today his company employs over 14,000 staff in 92 offices across 42 countries and is responsible for many prestigious engineering projects worldwide. The firm is owned by trusts, the beneficiaries of which are past and present employees, each of which receive a share of the firm’s operating profit each year. There is still an Arup office in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Ove Arup Foundation, a charitable educational trust, was set up in his memory for the advancement of education directed towards the promotion, furtherance and dissemination of knowledge of matters associated with the built environment’.

Can you help?

If you know more about Ove Arup and his work, especially his connections with the north east, we’d love to hear from you.  Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org


Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group, with additional research by Chris Jackson.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Key Sources

‘Ove Arup Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century’; Peter Jones, 2006

‘The Arup Journal 50th Anniversary Issue’







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.


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 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.


This article, researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group,  is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of mathematics, science and engineering in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Sir James Knott Trust and Heaton History Group.

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.