Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Who's your tram? Part Two

Further to the first part of this article published in the spring newsletter, four more notable citizens of Nottingham city and county, whose names appear on our trams, are commemorated here in part two.

Tram no. 213 has been named Mary Potter to commemorate the nun who overcame her own frailty and poor health to help others who were affected by poverty and sickness, and especially those who were close to death. She was born in south London in 1847, a sister to four elder brothers, but their father went to Australia in 1848 and never returned, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. When she was 19 she was briefly engaged to a friend of her brother but the liaison did not last long as Mary decided she had a vocation to enter a convent.

Mary joined the Sisters of Mercy in Brighton in 1868, hoping that the benign climate of that area would benefit her health and enable her to cope with the rigours of convent life, but two years later she left, having been advised to find an institution more suited to her spiritual needs and physical limitations. Despite the over-protective attitude of her mother, Mary was inspired to plan the foundation of her own order, which would focus upon prayers for the dying, and she conducted a long correspondence with a Monsignor John Virtue to clarify the issues and difficulties that she was experiencing; the letters still survive. Despite the Monsignor’s discouraging attitude, in 1877 Mary secured the support of the Bishop of Nottingham and opened her convent in Hyson Green, dedicated to the care of the poor, the sick and the dying, and attracted many young women to join her. They became known as the Little Company of Mary.

The bishop, however, did not agree with all the aims and procedures of the order, and limited Mary’s contact with the nuns. She now had plenty of time to write and published a considerable body of works, but in 1878 her health was compromised by breast cancer, from which she recovered after a double mastectomy. Mary herself went to Rome in 1882 to seek the Pope’s blessing for her order and in spite of continuing frailty lived there for several years and worked hard to overcome all sorts of problems to establish the Calvary Hospital, where not only were patients treated but also nurses received training. The Little Company continued to flourish in the UK, and in 1885 five sisters travelled to Sydney, Australia, and inspired the spread of the order there.

Mary Potter died in 1913 after a lifetime of struggle and hardship, and was buried in St Barnabas’ cathedral. But her contribution lives on; the Pope declared her ‘Venerable’ in 1988, and the Mary Potter Centre on Gregory Boulevard bears her name as does a conference room at Nottingham Trent University - and, of course, tram no. 213.

George Green is featured on tram no. 230, whose father built and operated the windmill in Sneinton, where George was born in 1793 and lived for much of his life. He had very little formal education, working in the mill as he grew up and taking it over when his father died in 1829 but without much enthusiasm as he found the whole business tedious. By then he had been living for six years with his common-law wife Jane Smith, the daughter of the mill manager, who presented him with seven children. Fortunately the success of the mill had brought his father considerable wealth, half of which passed to George after Green senior’s death and enabled him to support his family comfortably and to pursue his own particular passion.

He had begun to study mathematics seriously in 1828, though it is not clear how he acquired the basic knowledge to do this, and in that year actually published, at his own expense, an Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism which was sold to 51 people, including the distinguished mathematician Edward Bromhead. He was sufficiently impressed to contact George and encourage him to press on with his work, but George did not take him seriously at first and it was not until 1833 that he responded to Bromhead’s offer to secure him a place at Cambridge University.

George’s intellectual prowess was evident to his tutors and after his graduation he stayed on at Gonville and Gaius College to continue his studies and publish papers on optics, acoustics and hydrodynamics. He was also elected to the prestigious Cambridge Philosophical Society. But his academic career was cut short by illness in 1840; he returned to Nottingham and died there the following year. His works would have died with him if Lord Kelvin had not resurrected them in 1846 and brought them to the attention of contemporary scholars.

George Green was buried in a churchyard close to the family’s mill, which was restored to working condition in 1986 and contains an exhibition celebrating the life of its former, distinguished owner. The George Green Library at the University of Nottingham and a plaque in Westminster Abbey also serve to remind us of this remarkable mathematician, as does tram no. 230.

Tram no. 233 bears the name of another individual with an interest in mathematics, Ada Lovelace, who was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, born in 1815. The couple, however, separated after a very brief marriage, leaving Annabella to bring up Augusta Ada (to give her full name) without the support of a husband. Ada’s talent was recognised at an early stage by her mother; also wanting to ensure that Ada avoided her father’s lack of self-discipline, she ensured that her daughter received tuition in mathematics and science from several distinguished academics, in a strict programme that was most unusual for a girl from an aristocratic background.

At the age of 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor many years her senior, who was impressed by her ability and arranged for her to study advanced mathematics with a London professor. Babbage himself was in the process of developing a calculating machine and also another, more sophisticated one known as the ‘analytical engine’. Ada was intrigued by these innovative devices and took more than a passing interest in the latter, eventually translating from French an article that had been written about it for a Swiss publication - and adding many of her own ideas. Her translation, together with her extensive notes, were published in 1843 in an English scientific journal but it was not until much later that her ideas on coding and other concepts were fully appreciated and she came to be regarded as a pioneer programmer.

Ada had married William King, later the Earl of Lovelace, in 1835 and bore three children to him. Both loved horses and the high life and mingled with many celebrities from the worlds of science and literature, but William still encouraged Ada to press on with her academic work. In later years, she tried to invent a scheme for winning games of chance; success, however, eluded her and she became mired in debt from gambling. After a bout of cholera, from which she partially recovered, her physical health and mental state deteriorated and she died in 1852, to be buried next to the father she had never known in the church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall. Her academic legacy was not recognised until the 1950s but thereafter she received many posthumous honours and an American computer language was named ‘Ada’ to celebrate her contribution.

The name of a remarkable man who started life as a slave is to be seen on tram no. 234: George Africanus. Born in Sierra Leone in 1763, he was brought to this country at the age of three and presented as a gift to a wealthy businessman, Benjamin Molineux of Wolverhampton, who gave him the name of George John Scipio Africanus. Taught to read and write, he became an apprentice in a brass foundry owned by the Molineux family and after gaining his freedom he moved in 1784 to Nottingham, where the family had some connections, settling near the city centre. Four years later he met and married Esther Shaw, and together they established and ran the ‘Africanus’ Register of Servants’, an early employment agency, though at first George probably had to supplement the family’s income by working as a labourer or a waiter from time to time. Esther bore him seven children but only one daughter survived beyond early youth.

George was involved with the ‘Watch and Ward’, which was a local force formed to prevent civil disturbance, thus establishing his credentials as a responsible member of the community. He also owned his own home by 1829, using it as his business premises, and soon acquired other properties for rent which meant he was now qualified to vote. Thus an African slave became a successful entrepreneur and a full citizen, but his story was forgotten for many years and not brought to light until the late 1990s. His grave was eventually discovered in the grounds of St Mary’s church and a plaque commemorating his life erected in 2003.

Janet Wilson