Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

100 years since the death of Silvanus P. Thompson

Leavers Photograph 1867 (Silvanus P. Thompson is on the back row on the left hand end)

Leavers Photograph 1867 (Silvanus P. Thompson is on the back row on the left hand end)

12th June marks 100 years since the death of Silvanus P. Thompson, who was born in York in 1851 and went on to become an eminent physicist. His father taught at Bootham School, and the family lived in Union Terrace. Silvanus attended Bootham School between 1858 and 1867, and returned as a teacher between 1870 and 1875. During his career he was appointed Professor of Physics at University College Bristol, then Finsbury College in London, and was made Fellow of the Royal Society, President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, President of the Physical Society of London and President of the Röntgen Society.

Silvanus P. Thompson greets Arthur Rowntree (Headmaster) in 1914

Silvanus P. Thompson greets Arthur Rowntree (Headmaster) in 1914

Silvanus P. Thompson would have benefitted from the science teaching and activities at Bootham School. The school was equipped with laboratories, regular lectures were given by teachers or visiting scientists on everything from Anatomy, Mechanics, Fossil Zoology, Physics and the Menai Bridge. The school had a flourishing Natural History Society and natural curiosity was encouraged. During a speech at the school 1902 he talked about the “many memories some of us have of the mysterious operations, the photography, the bird-stuffing, and the chemical explosions which went on.” He approved of how students were taught “not to be afraid to try, to put forward their strength, to make experiments. This character, this sturdy independence, this originality of effort, which the school has fostered, may we not hope that it will long flourish?” He argued that the pressure of examinations should not be allowed “to spoil in the future those features of originality, those sources of independent life, those influences which have developed the School along its own lines? Are we to have a school of which the primary consideration is that it shall score in taking off prizes at outside examinations? I sincerely hope that will not be so.” That thread of encouraging curiosity, looking for the best in each individual and enabling them to make the best use of their talents has continued throughout the history of the school.

Memories from the Archives – Part 5

In January I did a talk as part of the Thursday lunchtime recital room series. It was entitled ‘Memories from the Archives’ and I talked about a number of memories from Old Scholars. I’ll share the photographs and text from the talk in several parts on the blog. Read Part 1 herePart 2 herePart 3 here and Part 4 here.

James Edmund Clark lr

James Edmund Clark (1850-1944; Bootham 1862-67; Master at Bootham 1869-72 and 1875-97)

James Edmund Clark was at Bootham in the 1860s and returned as a Science Master. According to Natural History at Bootham – the Early Years, he was the first graduate to be appointed to the staff and the first person to be appointed specifically to teach science at the school. In an article for ‘Bootham’ magazine in 1903, he talks about the language used, the classroom arrangements, town leave, columns and top-hats.

“Quaker-boys ways were plainer then. ‘Thee’ and ‘thou’ was the universal language, and, except John Ford, masters had to be satisfied with their Christian names. It was ‘Silvanus’ and ‘Alfred’ and ‘Theodore’ and even ‘Fielden’. Well do I remember the light which dawned upon certain untutored minds, when it was suggested that, at public places, like the baths, ‘Thomas please’ would sound politer with the surname sandwiched in.”

Talking about the schoolroom, “One row of desks was under the playground windows, from the ‘altar’ to Silvanus Thompson’s desk. The central desks were in pairs of four or five each, back to back. On the other side was Mr Fryer’s desk, Silvanus Thompson’s serviceable ‘shop’, contained in the drawers of a table, while the junior master’s desk stood under the central window. Near him dwelt his little flock, their lessons frequently going on here with another class at either end. Their only retreat was the ‘junior class-room’ next to the old ‘senior’, and this was not always habitable. For it served, also, as natural history room, without possessing all the conveniences of the latter for the bestowal of refuse matter. The only receptacle, indeed, for such articles was an ominous looking black-ware vessel in the darkest corner, which only too fitly merited its suggestive title of ‘stink-pot’. Moved by that strange but apparently resistless attraction for doing the thing which should not be done, some small boy almost invariably ventured to give it a stir.”

Moving on to town-leave, he says “How altered is ‘town leave’ now! Six keys, later eight, used to hang up inside the library, and twice a day that number of boys might go out. ‘Mrs Gray’s, please’. ‘Thou mayst; not more that twopence’ was the usual formula. Little hope for a juvenile to be one of the six or eight, the eldest coming first.”

James also remembers columns (including the first half a dozen words on the list), and remembers that “My unluckiest day … was the equivalent of fifteen columns. Two of these were for whistling in the passage; three for leaping the railings of the boys’ gardens; ten for aspiring to the Observatory roof.” This would have been the old observatory, rather than the current one in the science block.

He also remembers that “The Half of my arrival witnessed also that of the first top-hat known in Bootham School. As the wearer measured 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings the effect was that of a city set on a hill. The infection caught on, until, before I left, half the school were victims of the unfortunate fashion.”


Parents’ Day, handwriting and the school in 1919

Last Saturday was Parents’ Day, a lovely day with lots going on and good weather!

I created a display in the John Bright library, with a small sample of what we hold in the archives. A few highlights included:

Specimen of writing Joseph Rowntree 1848 - Copy

An example of handwriting from Joseph Rowntree, 1848

P1050113 - Copy

A photograph of the John Bright Library from the 1919 prospectus

P1050120 - Copy

A photograph of the metal workshop, again from the 1919 prospectus

19th Century Education

Thanks to Claire Hicklin for researching and writing this post, based on a box of 19th century teaching materials and exercise books.

It made very interesting reading… Opening the archive box and finding Differential Calculus as the first topic to explore.

In 1857 – Senior Class Room a variety of working models and examples were available to explore along with detailed calculations relating to “Further Workings on Mechanical Illustrations”.

Differential Calculus

Beautifully written, these workbooks detail the thoughtful and intelligent application of a theory learned. It was interesting and insightful to read about working examples of Differential along with Integral mathematics methodologies.

Integral Differentiation

August 1838 – F.C Clayton wrote an “Expression of Taylor’s Theorem” In calculus, Taylor’s theorem gives an approximation of a k times differentiable function around a given point by ak-th order Taylor polynomial.

Taylors Theory

Another excerpt from F.C Clayton’s work asks the question “a person being in a boat 3 miles from the nearest point of the beach wishes to reach in the shortest time place 6 miles from that point along the shore. He can walk 5 miles an hour, but pull only 4. Where must he land?”

F C Clayton

8th September 1854 – looking at Mr Clayton’s book below was fascinating, I confess, it took a while to work out exactly what was being detailed! A unique way of learning our Times Tables.

Times Tables

Mr Clayton (b1843, d 1928) went on to become a Manufacturing Chemist, Mayor of Birmingham 1889-1891), Pro. Vice Chancellor and Treasurer at Birmingham University, Governor of King Edwards Grammar School and awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of Birmingham in 1912.

In 1855 Fielden Thorp wrote “generally any equation involving differential co-efficients is a differential equation, but in practice, we restrict the term to equations in which, as compared with the un-differential equations a constant has disappeared”.

FT Equation

It was with interest I also came across the wonderful Hebrew workbook of Fielden Thorp dated 1833 – an excerpt reads:“But not withstanding all this, many of these Jews were found in exceeding trouble on account of the oppression with which the rich has oppressed the poor in the days of famine. There was agreed famine in the land a few years before Nehemiah came into the city and the poor who cultivated their grounds and their vineyards had not the means to buy seed for the year which came after the famine. And in this strait they came to the rich to ask loans from them. It was incumbent upon the rich according to the term of the law of Moses to loan money to their brethren without interest. They disobeyed this command and they oppressed the poor with interest and with usury.”

Two Page Hebrew

Hebrew and text

Fielden Thorp (b 1832 d 1921) was born in Halifax, received BA (Hons) Classics in 1855 and was a Fellow of the University College of London in 1856. Probably best known as Bootham School Headmaster 1865-1875.

A small undated green covered book produced some very interesting notes and education regarding land surveying.  It appears to be instructions about how to survey and measure land accurately with detailed mathematical calculations. “To measure a mere or wood. Position cross at Station A and let your assistant fix the marks B and D so that the angle at A mat be a right angle, and measure the line AB taking insets to the fence as you proceed.”

land survey

I somewhat fell in love with a little book entitled “A treatise on pneumatics” written and illustrated by Henry Seebohm who was around 10 years of age at the time of writing this fascinating account (in1842). He later became a steel manufacturer at Seebohm and Dieckstahl Crucible Steel Makers. He travelled widely and loved to study birds, doing so in Lower Petchora, Russia in 1875 and the Valley of Yenesei, Siberia in 1877.

“Treats of the nature, weight, pressure and spring of the air which we breathe, and of the several effects dependent upon these properties – figure 1 air pump”.


seebohm 2

There were a great many beautifully written “Specimens of Writing” from June 1848. It was difficult to determine just a few to publish, however, the messages written in these handwriting practice sessions should hold true now as much as they did then…

Imitate virtuous characters, imitate good actions, gaming is dishonest, keep your promise, keep from vicious company, knowledge promotes and improves virtue, censure no person hastily, cancel animosities, honour the humane, fear accompanies deceit, envy is tormenting, do nothing rashly, civility is an indispensable qualification.

joseph rowntree

Joseph Rowntree June 1848

In 1826 Robert Foster worked on Greek Grammar and it was a delight to see his hard work in writing throughout this comprehensive workbook.

greek grammar

A useful book for use in schools – Chief Dates of History

chief dates in history

Throughout such solid examples of academia it was enlightening to see religious documents and textbooks, nature studies and musical performances/theoretical studies.


This publication demonstrates the nature of sound and the manner in which they are magnified, or rather multiplied by the Tuba Stentoro-Phonica.

A wonderful note to end on was the discovery of this little gem – Observations De Salsedine Maris by Robert Boyle – Geneva 1686