Booth, James

(1806-1878), mathematician and educationist

by C. W. Sutton, rev. Frank Foden

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Booth, James (1806-1878), mathematician and educationist, was born on 25 August 1806, the first of the three children of John and Ellen Booth of Lavagh, co. Leitrim. The Booths owned a small property and belonged to the Church of Ireland community of Annaduff parish. James obtained his early education in the small school of 'Parson Kane' at Drumsna, and was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1825. He graduated BA in 1833, and was awarded the Berkeley medal for Greek in 1834. He took fellowship examinations four times but though highly placed was not awarded a fellowship.

Booth left Ireland in 1840 and became principal of Bristol College. The college failed chiefly on account of clerical opposition to its secular curriculum. In 1843 he became vice principal of the newly founded Liverpool Collegiate Institution, under the principalship of Dr W. J. Conybeare. There he joined the Liverpool Philosophical Society, becoming its president in 1846. Elected FRS that year on the strength of published papers mainly on the geometry of conics and curved surfaces, Booth was regarded as inventor of the tangential co-ordinates (the 'Boothian co-ordinates'); however, he later discovered that Professor J. Plücker of Halle University had already published on the subject. Throughout his life Booth continued mathematical work, republishing his papers with some new material in A Treatise on some New Geometrical Methods in two volumes, one in 1873 and the other in 1878.

Booth was ordained in the Church of England in 1842, served as curate for a time in Bristol, and was then appointed vicar of St Anne's, Wandsworth, in 1854. On 28 September of the same year he married Mary Watney, daughter of Daniel Watney the brewer. The couple had three children, John William Watney, Elinor, and another son. Booth established on the site of the present South Thames College the Wandsworth Trade School, first of its kind in the country, where among others Professor Henry Moseley and J. C. Buckmaster taught classes. The school failed through lack of funds, but Moseley took the idea to Bristol when he became residentiary canon of the cathedral, and founded the Bristol Trade and Mining School, eventually part of Merchant Venturers' College. Booth also assisted in founding St Anne's elementary school. In 1859 he was presented to the living of St John, Stone, Buckinghamshire, by the Royal Astronomical Society (to which the advowsons had been transferred by Dr John Lee, ecclesiastical lawyer, landowner, and amateur astronomer), and was also admitted fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He persuaded Lee to found in Bishopstone a small school for the teaching of agricultural subjects, but it failed.

Booth was noted as a preacher and had several of his sermons published. His chief object as theologian was to reconcile the Bible with new scientific knowledge, arguing that science reveals physical truths, the Bible axiomatic moral truths. His most important work, however, was the promotion of scientific and technical education, mainly through the agency of the Society of Arts, of which he became a fellow in 1852. It was on his suggestion that the society (today the Royal Society of Arts) founded its journal. He quickly rose to become its treasurer and in 1855-6 he was chairman of council. He was again chairman in 1857, but resigned his office late in the year, owing to serious disagreements with other members of council.

The cause of the disagreement has been misunderstood and misreported in the society's histories. Most of Booth's energies at this time were absorbed into the society's examination project. Harry Chester, an official from the education committee of the privy council and chairman of the society in 1853, moved the original resolution in favour of an examination scheme. Accordingly, society historians allocated to him the credit of creating it. It was not so. Booth had in 1846 and 1847 published two influential pamphlets, the first in favour of industrial education and the other, Education the Province of the State, advocating state-run examination for all candidates for public, industrial, and commercial service. In 1853 he chaired and wrote the report of a committee of the society proposing examinations, and urging the government to spend money on industrial education. However Chester and Booth disliked one another. Booth therefore had no hand in the design of the first examination scheme, launched in 1855. Only one candidate appeared and the scheme was a failure. From then on Booth was put completely in charge, becoming chairman of the examination committee and an active promoter of a workable scheme. His first examination, in thirteen subjects, was held in June 1856 and attracted fifty-six candidates. Its success encouraged the society to extend its efforts and in 1857 examinations were held in London and Huddersfield, attracting 220 candidates who worked 546 papers.

Booth was then re-elected chairman of council. He wished to have more centres, and called for the examinations to be placed on an independent, professional footing, with their own office, funds, and paid examiners. However in this he over-reached the intentions of the society and met with opposition, led by Chester, who also objected to inclusion in the examinations of a viva voce element. The examination committee and the council failed to support Booth: an impatient and irascible man, he forthwith resigned.

Nevertheless, a national pattern of common examining now existed. In 1857 Oxford University imitated the society by setting up 'locals' for schools. Two years later the Department of Science and Art launched its 'payment-on-results' examination scheme, taking over most of the society's science examinations. Booth left London and did not return to the society, to some of whose members he had become persona non grata. His wife, Mary, died in 1874 and he died at St John's vicarage, Stone, on 15 April 1878. He was buried at Stone.


Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 39 (1878-9), 219-25
F. Foden, The examiner: James Booth and the origin of common examinations (1989)
m. cert.
d. cert.
parish register (burials), Buckinghamshire, Stone, St John's, April 1878

photograph, c.1868, RS; repro. in Foden, The examiner
sepia photograph, repro. in J. Booth, A treatise on some new geometrical methods (1873), frontispiece

Wealth at death  
under £800: probate, 6 May 1878, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)