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Interesting Roytonians

John Butterworth

The noted mathematician, JOHN BUTTERWORTH,  also known as Owd Jack o'  Ben's,  was born at Haggate, Royton on the 16th February 1774  to very humble parents. His father was a handloom  weaver and John followed the same occupation. He was sent to work at the tender age of six years, and put to work on a Dutch wheel for the princely sum of 1 shilling and 4 pence per week.  He had very little schooling and was in his late teens before he could write tolerably.

A stray copy of a mathematical journal is said to have first turned his attention to maths, although another account says it was an almanac. It doesn't really matter which it was, but it aroused his interest and started his journey into his chosen profession. Having associated himself with other like-minded people in the neighbourhood who were fond of geometry, Butterworth soon began to give evidence of his rapid progress in his favourite subject. He joined a Mathematical Club in Oldham, of which Wolfenden (featured in the next edition of The Bugle) was a member, and he became so proficient at his chosen subject that he was competent to answer most of the geometrical questions asked of him. His first written contribution appeared in the "Gentleman's Mathematical Companion" in 1801, other contributions were made to the "Enquirer", "The Leeds Correspondent", the "Northumbrian Mirror", the "Ladies Diary", the "Gentleman's Diary" and "Modern Geometry".  One wonders how much he received for these contributions - probably very little or even nothing at all.

So what do we know of his talents? To his credit, his most important job was being entrusted with the calculations of the strains of the Menai Suspension Bridge, which is carried by vertical  wrought iron rods hanging from chains. A mechanical engineer of the day explained that  "the strains produced by the catenary* would be difficult to calculate, but the final strength would be determined by actual experiment". Telford,  who was responsible for the design of the bridge, was found on his hands and knees praying  when the testing time came!  However, it proved to be a success and the bridge has stood the test of time. The building work started in 1819 and was completed in 1826. It was 521 metres long and connected Wales to Anglesey.

*Catenary, the dictionary tells us, is a curve formed by a uniform chain hanging freely from two points not in the same vertical line. Or - Catenary Bridge - a suspension bridge hung from such chains.

Not being married, John continued to live with his parents until his mother died in 1837. In his later years he started a small day school in his house, and taught a few factory children at nights. He managed to live for a number of years on his scanty income of around 15 shillings a week. He sometimes made an extra 6d or a shilling by solving mathematical questions for people who then claimed the credit and, being an honest man, he found this regrettable but necessary to survive.  A  Mr  W. Binney said of him "He is a fine stout old man, having an extraordinary massive head covered with snow  white hair, and a countenance beaming with intelligence and good nature".  He was known to boast that he had never slept a night away from Royton Lane, 55 years having been spent in the same house.  

During 1842-3 his health rapidly declined so a subscription fund was set up for him by his friends, and for the last few years of his life he received 5 shillings a week from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. It was stated at the time "that this, with frugality and care, enabled him to live comfortably".

He died in 1845 at the age of 71 and was interred in St, Paul's Churchyard, Royton. A memorial tablet was placed on his grave as a tribute of respect by his friends of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, in the hope that future scholars would be encouraged to follow his blameless way of life in their chosen field. A memorial tablet was also fixed inside the church, which bore the following inscription:-

"His abilities, upright conduct, meekness of disposition, and unassuming manners, gained for him that esteem so justly due to modest worth."

Doug Ashmore

Sources :- Rev C E Shaw, Varley's Royton Annual, J W Kershaw, Bruce Langridge - Oldham Interest Centre.