Musings from the Museum 30

The Unknown Celebrity: the Rev. John Rowning

by M. and D. Honeybone.


Today, many of us gain our understanding of science from the fascinating documentaries that we watch on TV; their presenters, such as Brian Cox on astronomy and David Attenborough on the natural world, are well-known to almost everyone.  In the eighteenth century, the communication of science, or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was known, was through printed books, some of them written by SGS members.  There were, of course, the specialised academic books such as Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Optics. There was also a wide range of books explaining science to the public. Some of these sold well, running into several editions.


One of the most successful, first published in 1735, was by the Rev. John Rowning.  Although he is unknown today, except as a footnote in histories of mathematics, his name was as well-known in the mid-eighteenth century as those today of Cox, Attenborough and other famous television presenters, and his book was bought by a wide range of the public.  If you had attended Oxford, Cambridge or  one of the Scottish universities, Rowning’s book would have been the textbook that you used; it was even studied in Paris and at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. A poem written in the 1780s by a Norfolk clergyman, the Rev. Jermyn Pratt, looks back to his student days at Cambridge, especially when he and his friend could put aside their serious standard textbooks on law and science for lighter pursuits:

‘And that Sweet College Hour of One

When Rohout, Puffendorf and Rowning

Gave way to Love and Nancy Downing.’1


Rowning’s book, A Compendious System of Natural Philosophy, was written in four parts.  Part I, Mechanics, was published in Cambridge in 1735; Part II, Hydrostatics and Pneumatics, came out in 1736, published in London, as were the remaining parts.  In 1737 he added Part III, Optics.  The final part, Part IV, Astronomy, was added in 1742-3. There were eight editions in total; the final, revised complete editions appeared in 1767, 1772 and 1779.  


So what has this unknown celebrity to do with Spalding and the SGS?  From 1759 to 1771 he was a well-known figure in the town and the Society, another of the eighteenth-century celebrities who were connected with the SGS.  Unlike some of them, however, he was a regular and constant attender at the weekly meetings.  He was born in 1701 at Ashby-with Fenby, north Lincolnshire, as the son of a watchmaker; this profession would have given him an interest in science as it was connected at the time with the creation of instruments for making accurate measurements for scientific observations.   After helping his father for a time in his business in Lincolnshire, Rowning went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1724 and MA in 1728, with a special interest in mathematics.  He was ordained in the Church of England in 1726 and became a college tutor in experimental science, also working and lecturing with a well-known instrument-maker, William Deane. In 1734 he took up a College living in Westley Waterless, Cambridgeshire, moving in 1738 to another College living, Anderby, near the Lincolnshire coast.  He managed to combine this with the study of mathematics, specialising in the calculus which Newton had made famous, and with giving popular scientific lectures in London, while his curate coped with the church at Anderby.  


Unfortunately, the situation in the coastal marshes of Lincolnshire, where malaria and other fevers were common, did not prove healthy for his family.  Four of his children died, as did also his first wife in 1743.  By 1759 Rowning, his second wife and his surviving daughter, Frances, were living in Spalding, where he took the post of headmaster of Spalding Grammar School.  It was a frequent practice in the eighteenth century for a clergyman to become a schoolmaster; the head of Spalding Grammar School, as in many other local grammar schools, was in Anglican orders until a much later date.  This seems to have been a successful move for Rowning and his daughter who eventually married Thomas Brown, one of the Brown family of Horbling, in Spalding.


The Spalding move brought Rowning into contact with the Gentlemen’s Society.  Under the provisions of Maurice Johnson’s will, the headmaster of the Grammar School was automatically the Librarian of the SGS, receiving income from the chaplaincy of Wykeham nearby; this was a wise move which helped to ensure the Society’s survival when other local clubs were falling by the  wayside. Rowning’s passion for science and mathematics would have drawn him to a society where there was a possibility of discussing these areas of knowledge; it may have been an awareness of the SGS’s existence that encouraged him to look to Spalding as a suitable place to live. He had already visited the Society on 2 January 1734, introduced by Mr Weyman and described as ‘ an eminent mathematician of Cambridge’.2


He attended an SGS meeting in October 1759.  From April 1760 he is recorded in the Treasurer’s Accounts as a weekly attender and was elected a regular member on 1 June 1760.  Interestingly, the Accounts show that he always paid one shilling per weekly meeting, while the other members paid only sixpence.  The Accounts also indicate some gaps in attendance at times; during his years in Spalding he also gave popular lectures in London on the new discoveries in science.


On 1 April 1762 the Treasurer’s book (no minutes survive for these years) records, ‘The Revd Mr Rowning was  this Day elected second Secretary of this Society on the Decease of Dr Samuel Dinham’ (p.63v.). Maurice Johnson had arranged that the Second Secretary dealt with matters relating to science and mathematics. It is interesting that during his membership the Society flourished and had steady recruitment. The presence of a successful scientific author seems to have re-ignited the early interest in experimental science which had been a feature of the Society’s meetings in the 1730s. A note in the Treasurer’s book on 5 February 1761 states: ‘It was agreed by the Four Officers present that what Moneys were in the Treasurers hands should be laid out on a Telescope an Air Pump a Compound Microscope and a Solar Microscope’ (p.57v.).  Walter Johnson, the son of Maurice Johnson who had succeeded him in his legal business and who was SGS Treasurer at that period, wrote to Dr William Stukeley in 1764 that they had cost ‘Twenty Eight Pounds Eighteen Shillings & we entertain ourselves with Experiments’.3


At the time, Rowning was a better-known figure than Maurice Johnson, whose connection with the Society was passing into history after his death in 1755.  There was even a claim that the SGS, known still to be in existence as a learned society, had been founded by Rowning! A letter to Gough the antiquary states that the writer, Robert Uvedale, had ‘not heard of an Antiquarian Society at Spalding, but only of a Society there instituted by Mr Rowning for Experimental Philosophy [science] and that he, Rowning, had always been reckoned the Founder of it’.4


We know something about his appearance, though no portrait has survived: he was an ‘ingenious but not well-looking man, tall, stooping in the shoulders, and of a sallow down-looking countenance’,  though a verse written after his death by fellow-member the Rev. Joseph Mills is more positive:

‘Underneath this stone is laid

Rowning’s philosophic head,

Who in life did ever please

By friendly mirth and social ease’.5  

He died in November 1771, at his lodgings in London; this must have been on one of his lecturing visits.  Rowning seems then to have disappeared from history.  His book was no longer reprinted after 1779 and he was replaced at Spalding Grammar School by the Rev. George Maclellan; the SGS Treasurer’s accounts show Maclellan as a regular attender at meetings from 1771 onwards.  


Nonetheless, Rowning made his mark during his lifetime, gaining an international reputation as a popular communicator of science.  His influence on the SGS during his membership seems also to have been notable, injecting new life and interest after the death of Maurice Johnson and the declining influence of the Johnson sons, and encouraging anew an interest in science as well as antiquarian studies. Perhaps the Society should remember him among its early benefactors.



1 ‘To N.S. Esq’ reprinted in E.Vyroubalova and R.Woods (eds) The Literary Papers of the Reverend Jermyn Pratt 1723-1791 Norfolk Record Society vol.LXXXVI (2022) p.248.


2 SGS Minute Book 2 p.103.


3 In Honeybone, D. and Honeybone, M. The Correspondence of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society 1710-1761 LRS (2010) p.257.


4 William Bowyer Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century  (1812) vol.6 part 1, p.124.


5 Ibid, p.109



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