Tag Archives: English working class

Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

Further information: 



E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

This post was contributed by Dr Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. A previous version was published in The Future of History from Below Online Symposium.

Half a century ago, E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class. Words like ‘pioneering’ and ‘pivotal’ are overused today, but this was truly a book with no equal in its field. In it, we see the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and struggle for political rights that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Of course these stories had already been told many times before, but Thompson cut a new path by reconstructing these events from the perspective of the working people who experienced them first-hand.

He set out his agenda very clearly in the preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

This phrase, and the 900-page ‘biography of the English working class’ that followed it, inspired an exuberant outpouring of historical research and writing that has made us all richer. Hundreds of historians, both professional and amateur, have followed Thompson in seeking to tell the stories of the innumerable men and women who had long been ignored by traditional histories of kings and battles.

However, the anniversary of this publication also calls for reflection. Thompson’s book may have launched ‘history from below’, but is it still relevant today? And does it have future?

A group of almost fifty historians – both young scholars and eminent professions – gathered at a recent pair of workshops that Mark Hailwood and I organised to answer these questions. We published some of the contributions as an online public symposium and I think it is fair to say that level of interests that it sparked suggests that ‘history from below’ does indeed have a potentially bright future.

I will be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities on January 24th, alongside two very esteemed scholars: Prof. Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory). However, here I’d like to briefly highlight the issues that I think are most important to those who aren’t professional historians.

If we want the practice of history from below to have a meaningful future, we need to continue to push for more a democratic history. For example, access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. We must face this challenge head-on.

We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them.

One promising route forward is local history.  The field of local history is huge and healthy. Practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.

Family history is another rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it. After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even ‘poor stockingers’. So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.

Finally, we need accessible education. The pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching students who would have otherwise missed out on a traditional university education: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. Happily, these institutions are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering evening classes to students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Moreover, open-access publishing and the explosion in history blogging is dramatically expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority.

This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.