On this day … 27 March 1785

William Helme was born in Warrington, his family moving shortly after to Preston,, where he began work as a warper in a cotton mill, probably Thomas German’s. He achieved local fame as a naturalist and was in regular correspondence with some of the most prominent naturalists of his day. He was a member of a natural history society that held its meetings at the Green Man inn in Lord Street, and was frequently joined on his nature rambles in the neighbourhood by his friend, a Mr Tomlinson, a surgeon, who lived at Albin Bank in Avenham.

He died on 11 April 1834 at his home in Pleasant Street in Avenham, leaving a large collection of insects. After his death, a subscription was raised to buy the collection, which was deposited at the town’s Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in Cannon Street.

William Helme was one of those self-taught members of the working classes, who despite a lack of any formal education and having to spend long hours at work from a very early age, still made themselves masters of their chosen subject by dint of their own endeavours.

Source: Charles Hardwick’s History of Preston

Joseph Livesey
Joseph Livesey

Nineteenth-century Preston had a number of such self-taught prodigies, of whom probably the best known is the teetotal champion and prolific writer, Joseph Livesey. But their number also included the astronomer Moses Holden, John Tyndall, the father of climate science, and the mathematician Septimus Tebay.

Moses Holden
Moses Holden

Joseph Livesey’s story has been told many times and Moses Holden featured in the 2 March post, but the other two autodidacts are less well known.

Portrait of John Tyndall in Vanity Fair
Credit: John Tyndall. Colour lithograph by A. Cecioni, 1872. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

John Tyndall, a native of Ireland, came to Preston in the 1840s as a young man as a member of the Ordnance Survey team mapping the district. While staying in the town, he embarked on an exhaustive, and to lesser mortals exhausting study of science in his spare time, even mastering French so that he could read scientific publications that were only available in that language.

Later in life, he became one of Victorian Britain’s most famous scientists and was the second person to demonstrate the greenhouse gas effect. The first was an American woman, Eunice Foote, but her work has received much less attention.

In an address delivered at the Birbeck Institution in London in 1884, he recalled with gratitude his time spent at the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in Cannon Street, which he names as the Preston Mechanics Institution. He singled out the Preston prison chaplain John Clay and Moses Holden, who were lecturers there:

‘In 1842, and thereabouts, it was my privilege to be a member of the Preston Mechanics’ Institution — to attend its lectures and make use of its library. A learned and accomplished clergyman, named, if I remember aright, John Clay, chaplain of the House of Correction, lectured from time to time on mechanics. A fine earnest old man, named, I think, Moses Holden, lectured on astronomy, while other lecturers took up the subjects of general physics, chemistry, botany, and physiology.’

Septimus Tebay - Rivington Grammar School headmaster
Septimus Tebay

Hardly anyone in Preston will have heard of the final autodidact, Septimus Tebay, who was born in 1820, the son of a publican in Ellel, near Lancaster, and moved with his family to Preston as a teenager where he became recognised as a mathematical prodigy. So remarkable were his abilities that a group of local gentlemen in the town funded his studies at Cambridge where he gained a first-class degree and was a serious contender to become senior wrangler, the title given to the graduate gaining the highest marks in the final exams.

After graduation, he took holy orders and shortly afterwards was appointed headmaster of Rivington Grammar School where he served for nearly 20 years, leaving to run private schools in Bolton and Farnworth. He does not appear to have prospered, for by the last decades of his life he was living in terraced houses in the back streets of Farnworth. He died in the Farnworth workhouse, where he had been admitted by reason of ‘old age and destitution’.

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