Question 290, Point D: Footbridge over the River Anker, looking towards Witherley, 07.05.2001



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Behind the church 1 of 4: the ‘John Thompson Collection’

On the death of John Thompson in March 1783, the Leicester Journal commented that “Witherley Bridge will long be noted as the residence of a Thompson.” That may be so, but some 220 years later, Dana A. Freiberger (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA) and I still failed to locate the great mathematician’s final resting place at St Peter’s Church.

Now, of course, we understand that John Thompson is in St Peter’s churchyard, ‘behind’ the church. Apparently he is in the large, badly weathered chest tomb with the elegant wrought iron railings with fleur-de-lis and urn railheads that are in need of urgent, serious repair.

In his 1816 ‘History & Antiquities of Hinckley’, John Nichols said of John Thompson that “by the strength of his own genius, having no master to instruct him, he soon made extraordinary advances in algebra, geometry, plain and spherical trigonometry, land surveying, etc, etc.. He had also made great proficiency in Music…and was an excellent performer on the violin, and other instruments: and used to say that a true genius surmounted all difficulties.”

The ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ of 1783 tells that “having in his youth given up profession of a grazier”, John Thompson “let his paternal estate, with the sole view of being at liberty to follow favourite studies, which he continued to do with unwearied application to the last period of his life.”

The article concludes that, “He made many improvements in the plain-table, and many other mathematical and philosophical instruments; and left behind him several manuscripts which it is hoped his family will give to the public.”

In the early 1930s, John Thompson’s “ancient set of Surveying Instruments” and surviving notebooks were purchased by the Museum of the History of Science, in Oxford. Included in the sale were two telescopes, a plane table and associated drawing board, a pair of levels, a surveyor’s cross, a pantograph, a set of Napier’s bones and two Gunter’s chain.

Over time, what became known as the ‘John Thompson Collection’ has been included in different exhibition formats and combinations at the Museum, most recently as part of its ‘Geek is Good’ exhibition.

As the publicity for that 2014 exhibition says, “Social misfit or 21st-century icon of cool? The geek is sometimes ridiculed, sometimes celebrated, but often behind the latest developments in science and technology.”

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Link: Dana A. Freiberger | ‘The John Thompson Collection’, 1999


Behind the church 2 of 4: Question 290

Known as a “mathematical sportsman” in his lifetime, John Thompson was a frequent contributor of mathematical queries and answers to the popular magazines of his day. Needless to say, it was rheumatism from inactivity that put John Thompson in the large family tomb behind the church at the age of 63.

In 1766, the ‘Gentleman’s Diary’ published Thompson’s mathematical conundrum based on the Atherstone Land Enclosure of the previous year. Constructed to embarrass the “unmathematical bunglers” responsible for an error in the setting out of the Cottagers Piece, Question 290, as it became known, requires expertise in astronomy and land surveying as well as spherical geometry. Instead of measuring out the agreed 100 acres, these unknown surveyors had ended up giving 103 acres in compensation for the loss of traditional cottager rights.

For sporting purposes, Question 290 replaced the uneven edges of the real world with straight line boundaries expressed as two trapezoidal areas, ABDE and CFGH. ABDE can be solved using the length and angle data given in the question, but solving CFGH requires the calculation of a angle determined by a pair of sunrise/sunset shadow lines at a given latitude. According to Dana A. Freiburger (University of Wisconsin-Madison), to get to the correct answer requires making slight adjustments to both real world latitude and shadow lines.

More interestingly, perhaps, even as a real world abstraction, Question 290 can still be seen in the contemporary landscape. Its two trapezoidal areas, ABDE and CFGH, sit either side of the footpath that goes from Witherley to Atherstone, and the whole thing pivots on the little footbridge over the River Anker. This is point D.

For the upper trapezium, ABDE, line D to B is the old Witherley Mill Road, line C to H is the early Iron Age ‘Salter Street’ trackway, and line H to G is the ancient St George’s Baulk – a ridge left unploughed and used as a path in the pre-Enclosure open field system. The lower trapezium, CFGH, is more difficult to understand, but relates to “the foot bridge at the corner of Mancetter Lordship near the Arbour Houses” near the Blue Boar Inn.

For today’s mathematical sporting types, the original Question 290 and the four answers published in the ‘Gentleman’s Diary’ the following year can be viewed online for a short period at: https://witherley.wordpress.com

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q290 Thomson Getii

John Thompson’s ‘Question 290’ (left) and Mr G. Cetii’s answer (right)

PDF: Gentleman’s Diary Scans

q290_Aerial Small


Behind the church 3 of 4: The Thompson Family

The Thompson chest tomb is a pitched moulded slab on low relief panelled sides and ends. These six panels, two each side and one each end, were intended to record the lives of family members. Unfortunately, the inscriptions are now so badly eroded that it is impossible to know who is there, behind the church.

The best guess is that the tomb contains John Thompson, the “eminent mathematician and philosopher”, 1720-1783, and his Elizabeth nee King 1722-1799, plus their three sons John (1752-1776), Ralph (1759-1838) and Samuel (1763-1831), and Ralph’s wife, Ann nee Lole (1771-1873).

From his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine, we know that Ralph Thompson, the second son of John Thompson, was “interred in the family vault at Witherley” in 1839. He was the first surveyor of the Roman fortified town of Manduessedum (Mancetter), and his survey shows that in 1812 there was a toll-gate at the junction of what is now Kennel Lane (then called Back Lane) and the A5. Clearly this has always been a difficult junction to negotiate.

There were cottages along both sides of Watling Street at this point, on what was ‘Ou(t)fort Bank’ to the north where the Bull Inn is today, and on the south side of the road on what was then called ‘Castle Bank’.

Ralph Thompson’s obituary also tells us that he was also “an upright man, and an entertaining companion.” There is also a mention of his younger unmarried brother, Samuel, who had died in 1831, aged 68. As teenagers, both Ralph and Samuel learnt mathematics and surveying from their father, and their exercise books are now part of the ‘John Thompson Collection’ in the Museum of the History of Science, in Oxford.

Ralph Thompson’s eldest grandson, Ralph Lucan Spencer, was christened in 1842 at Saint Malo, Ille-et-Vilaine, in France. He died of cholera in 1863 while working as an apprentice sailor on the full-rigged ‘Raj Mahal’ which then operated in the Calcutta trade for T & J Brocklebank & Co., the famous merchant shippers.

Although Ralph Lucan Spencer’s name is still just about legible on the top of the Thompson family tomb at St Peter’s Church, behind the church, it is possible that he was buried at sea, in the Bay of Bengal.

A summary family tree is available at: https://witherley.wordpress.com

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PDF: Thompson-SpencerTREE

Thompson Tomb 28.02.2018

Thompson Family Tomb, St Peter’s Church, Witherley


Behind the church 4 of 4: the last Kiss in Witherley?

Just a few metres from the Thompson family tomb, walking towards the river, is the gravestone for the delightfully named Patience Kiss, who died in 1855 aged 82. Standing next to Patience is the gravestone of John and Mary Cliff. The 1841 census tells us that after being widowed in 1839, Mary Cliff lived with Patience Kiss.

These two gravestones tell a story. Due to the slight differences in the quality of the letter-cutting, it is clear that Mary’s name was added later to her husband’s stone, some 11 years after his death. When Patience died a further five years later, it was decided (or she directed) that her stone should stand next to that of her friend. Shoulder to shoulder. Of course, given their ages they could have been cousins, but it is more likely that by living together in their old age, Patience and Mary were simply proving that two can live as cheaply as one.

Patience Kiss was baptised in Witherley in July 1773, the only child of Richard and Hannah Kiss who had married at Mancetter in 1769 and later buried at Witherley. Their small gravestone is to the left of the path leading to the main church door.

The Kiss family were mercers and resident land owners in Witherley from at least the very early 1600s. The family name had been originally Kisse, from the Scandinavian for kitty or pussycat.

The epitaph on Patience’s gravestone reads:

“In all the changing scenes of life,

Still for thy death prepare:

O give thine earliest you to God;

Thine age shall be his care.”

This is epitaph 452, in the section on ‘Old Age’ in ‘A general volume of epitaphs, original and selected, and an historical and moral essay on the subject, by a clergyman’, published by the then vicar of Mancetter, Benjamin Richings, in London in 1840. Page 122.

The word ‘patience’ appears only three time in this collection of 506 epitaphs and miscellaneous scriptural texts covering every possible eventuality:

“Patience and Consolation,

To the bereaved and afflicted.” [page 96]

“His faith and patience long were tried…” [page 124]

“Patience, which nothing could subdue…” [page 127].

Patience Kiss died in late April 1855, at the Almshouses on Gungate Street in Tamworth, and seems to have been the last Kiss in Witherley.

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Patience Kiss 28.02.2018

Shoulder to Shoulder, St Peter’s Church, Witherley


Useful Jobs

During the 1860s, when the local Post Office operated out of the Blue Lion Inn, the village of Witherley was home to some very useful people. These included a schoolmistress, a tailor, a wheelwright, two baker/shopkeepers, a carpenter, a shoemaker, a millwright and a corn miller, plus, of course, a couple of victuallers, those involved with the hunt, seven farmers, and the rector.

In terms of charity, the 1863 Leicester and Rutland History, Gazetteer and Directory tells us that, “The Sandhills are charged with proving yearly four pairs of shoes and four grey coats for poor men of Witherley, pursuant to the bequest of Henry Walford, in 1696.”

Henry Walford was a ‘tanner’ who lived in Mancetter. The funding for the shoes and grey coats came from payment for a “yard-land in the open field of Witherley” called the Sand Hills.

Each year, the coats given to the four “most deserving” old men of Witherley, and were “to be ever worn with a beam-knife on red cloth upon the left arm.” A beam-knife being the curved two-handled blade used to shave stretched hides at the tanner’s ‘fleshing-beam’.

About forty years before setting up his own charity, Henry Walford had been appointed one of the two overseers to the 1664 Will of Richard Martin, of Atherstone. This earlier Will “bestowed” coats and hats on poor men of Atherstone, Mancetter, and Hartshill. These coats were decorated “with a spade upon the arm” to record Richard Martin’s occupation – he was a gardener.

The some of the land at the Causeway Closes that financed Richard Martin’s coats and hats, was sold in 1935 and produced an annual income of £130 until the charity ceased to exist in 2008.

Henry Walford’s charity was removed from the Charity Commission register in 1995, but had hopefully provided shoes and coats to “four old men of Witherley” on every 5th November for almost 300 years.

As useful jobs go, history suggests that it was the local trades like gardening and tanning that provided the “most deserving” men with shoes, coats and hats. Unfortunately, that same history has nothing to say about women.

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Monkey Puzzle 2018


The Slack’s Monkey Puzzle tree, Part 1

Logically, the magnificent Chilean pine Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) was planted after Ann Slack was interred in her husband John’s grave in early 1861. On this basis, the tree in the graveyard is no more than about 160 years old, give or take a couple of years either way.

Of course, in their South American natural habitat, these trees can live for over 1,300 years and reach a height of 150 feet, so there is still some way to go.

Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a Scottish surgeon, botanist and naturalist, introduced the Araucaria araucana to Europe in 1795. While dining in Santiago with the then Governor of Chile, Menzies pocketed some of the edible seeds served for dessert, and once back aboard the Discovery (Captain Cook’s old ship), he planted the seeds and managed to keep them alive during the long voyage home.

It was not until the early 1850s that the Chilean pine got its ‘Monkey Puzzle’ name. During dinner with guests at Pencarrow House, near Bodmin in Cornwall, Sir William Molesworth was showing off the Araucaria araucana specimen he had recently purchased for 20 guineas (about £2,600 in today’s money). One guest, the barrister Charles Austin, commented “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that.”

This does beg an obvious question, doesn’t it. How could the family of John Slack, an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Ann, a silk ribbon weaver, afford to plant a tree costing, say, £2,600 in the grave at St. Peter’s Church? The average wage for a labourer in 1861 was about 11 shillings a week (equivalent to 55 pence today). John and Ann’s children weren’t rich. Their son, Thomas (born 1843), was a bricklayer, and their daughter, Sarah (born 1845), became a general servant in Winterbourne, Gloucestershire, after her mother’s death.

Even if the tree wasn’t planted until 1865, when the weekly wage had increased to 11s 3d a week, and the 22 year old Thomas Slack and his new wife, Caroline, buried their baby son, John, in the same grave, we are still talking about a tree costing the average labourer the equivalent of about ten years pay.

To be continued.

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The Slack’s Monkey Puzzle tree, Part 2

The tree is positioned deliberately, four-square and centred. Given the cost of these things in the mid-19th century, it is more likely that the Slack’s Monkey Puzzle tree was planted as a seed. The seeds take well in most soil types and conditions, and perhaps it was planted by John and Ann Slack’s daughter, Sarah, on a later visit to her parents’ grave. After her mother’s death in 1861, Sarah found work as a general servant in Gloucestershire, and later married William Seneca Bennett, a local miller’s stone dresser, in Blakeney.

But why a Monkey Puzzle tree, what does it symbolise? In present day south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina, this Chilean pine (Araucaria araucana) is sacred to the Mapuche indigenous peoples of the Andean foothills, where it symbolises strength and resilience.

The ‘machi’ or spiritual leader of the Mapuche is usually female. Her role is to distribute herbal remedies to the needy during the annual Thanksgiving festival, and to communicate with the gods to ensure that the village and its Monkey Puzzle tree forests are protected for another year. During the winter, these ‘araucaria tree people’ take refuge under the ‘umbrella’ of the Monkey Puzzle tree, eat the fruit, and use fallen branches as fuel for their fires.

In the UK, folk wisdom tells us that to talk while walking underneath a Monkey Puzzle tree invites bad luck, even to the extent that you could grow a monkey’s tail. Additionally, these trees are often associated with graveyards, where it is thought they prevent the devil from entering during a burial.

According to the ‘Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland’ (2006), “children who lagged in learning or played hookey” from Sunday School in Essex “had but to climb this tree and the Devil, if not parsons and parents, would never catch them.” 

By the way, the stone edging to the Slack’s grave (which needs reinstating) displays five letter-cut names without further details. Of these, ‘T. WHITE’ and ‘M. WHITE’ are probably Ann Slack’s parents, Thomas and Mary. Nothing much is known about Thomas, but Mary was a ‘silk ribbon weaver’, just like her daughter.

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Postscript 30 August 2019


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