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The Royal Mathematical School

Sir Robert Clayton, an Alderman and later Lord Mayor in the City of London, had been reading a book about the work of the king of France, Louis XIV, and his Government. The French king had keenly supported the foundation of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1666, one of the goals of which was to improve the art of navigation and to make France a great maritime power. His Government had decided that children living in towns on the coast of France should have lessons in navigation, free of charge, and several schools were established for the purpose of increasing the number of seamen, to benefit ships of the merchant trade as well as those of the French navy. The first school of navigation was set up at Dieppe in 1666, by the French minister, Colbert.

Sir Robert Clayton then had the idea of introducing a similar education for some of the boys at Christ’s Hospital, having learned much about Christ’s Hospital from his business associate John Morris who was a Governor of the school. Sir Robert began to frame a project for the setting up of such a school which he communicated first to another Alderman, Sir Patience Ward and together they resolved to take in a third person; each to contribute one thousand pounds to pay for a mathematics teacher.

Meanwhile, in 1646 Richard Aldworth had left £7000 in his will to Christ’s Hospital for the education and maintenance of forty boys, but the government held the legacy and the school had had no success in persuading the Treasury to release the funds. In June 1673, however, Sir Robert heard about the problem from the school’s Clerk, William Parrey, and visiting the Treasury on his own business he used the opportunity to put forward the idea that King Charles II might like to support Christ’s Hospital by releasing the Aldworth legacy specifically to fund teaching boys the mathematics needed for navigation. The King agreed without hesitation and the Royal Mathematical School was founded in August. Sir Robert was rewarded by being elected as a Governor of Christ’s Hospital alongside John Morris.

Matters moved swiftly and by November of 1673 a master had been appointed and about forty 14 year old Christ’s Hospital boys were chosen as the first pupils to take up places in the new Royal Mathematical School. Robert Hooke designed a silver plated badge for the pupils to wear on the left shoulder of the uniform bluecoat. The badge is still worn today by Christ’s Hospital pupils who have a parent with a background of service in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Navy Reserve.

Two years after the foundation of the Royal Mathematical School, the first boys left to begin seven year apprenticeships with ships’ masters, with much support from Samuel Pepys who persuaded the government to contribute £370-10-0 a year to pay the masters for the extra work. Samuel Pepys in the Admiralty continued to be closely associated with the Royal Mathematical School throughout the rest of the century, alongside key figures such as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Jonas Moore at the Tower of London, and John Flamsteed, astronomer at the newly built Royal Greenwich Observatory, who gave lessons in astronomy to some of the boys. Even Isaac Newton became involved, when in 1694 he suggested a revised syllabus which was used for a short time. In 1698 two qualified boys were selected by Peter the Great to assist with the teaching in a new school of Mathematics and Navigation in Moscow. Meanwhile, a very large framed commemorative painting by Antonio Verrio had been completed and installed in the main hall of the school which was then in Newgate Street in the City of London. This painting was transferred to the Dining Hall of the new school at Horsham which was opened in 1902 and it is one of the features of the current Verrio tours for the public.

It was not until 1775 that the first teacher with considerable practical experience at sea was employed in the Royal Mathematical School. This was William Wales who had just retired after serving as navigator on the ship Resolution for Captain James Cook on his second voyage. William Wales had kept a log book of this voyage and his adventures at sea influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a pupil from the Grammar School of Christ’s Hospital who needed some mathematics for his university entrance. There are significant parallels in the descriptions of the journey south in the above log book and in the famous poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.

 

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