Reclusive village curate was noted mathematics pioneer

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Robert Richard Anstice is not a name that readily springs to mind when talking of notable residents of Dacorum.

But the year just gone marked the bicentenary of his birth, and he is worth remembering as a leading mathematical theorist who combined his work in the field with serving as a lowly curate in Wigginton.

He was born in Ironbridge, Shropshire, to a wealthy land-owning family which made its money by trading in wood and iron manufacture.

His older brother Joseph gained a double-first class degree at Oxford, but his promising career was cut short by his early death in 1836.

Robert followed in his brother’s footsteps, firstly going to Westminster School – a harsh experience at that time, with the boys eating, sleeping and learning in one long room with very little heating and senior boys taking all the bedclothes off the younger pupils’ spartan beds in the winter – and then on to Christ Church College in Oxford.

Robert shone at his studies and was elected a King’s Scholar in his second year, although mathematics played only a minor part in the mainly classical curriculum.

He gained the distinction of a Studentship with a small annuity at Christ Church, which generally meant a career in the church.

Robert found the challenge of higher mathematics very much to his liking.

He graduated in 1835, having been awarded the mathematical scholarship.

He went abroad for a year, for health reasons, then returned to take his MA at Oxford, where he spent the next few years.

He had the reputation of being a shy, reclusive figure who much preferred his own company.

He was ordained in 1846 in Hereford, and subsequently took up his parochial duties at St Bartholomew’s Church in Wigginton on May 1, 1847.

A very different way of life ensued. Wigginton parish had been in the gift of Christ Church College since the reign of ‘Bloody’ Mary in 1554, and it was a very profitable one.

However, the curate had only a meagre income, helped by the glebe rents and his own well-off family.

Wigginton was a quiet and more out-of-the way place than nearby Tring, its chief claim to fame then being that Jane Austen’s cousin had also served as a curate there in the 1830s.

The church was described as a “friendly little church among yew trees…an odd little place, unhappily dark, with strange low arches and with floors at all levels.”

It was dilapidated and only had a small congregation, mainly made up of old women and children.

The declining lace-making trade had been supplemented by straw-plaiting.

The only available education for local youngsters was a straw-plaiting school, where children were taught only the rudiments of literacy, mainly being charged with working at the plait to bolster family incomes.

But a new school was built in 1856, at Anstice’s request.

The locals did not approve of his preventing the church pews being taken outside for the annual fair, however.

One parishioner remarked: “Ah! He was a man and when he did call his ducks home from the common, you could hear him all over the parish!”

His sermons were said to be very philosophical but he was regarded as a good man.

Anstice lived in the village, unusually for the time, but did not partake of the social round.

He made friends with the vicar of Marsworth, Isaac Turner, who had studied at Cambridge, and with whom he shared mathematical discussions.

His theories, some of which were published during his time in Wigginton, concerned combinatronics, anticipating results in modern Combinatorial Design Theory.

The ideas need a mathematical mind to understand them, but his work, although never really acknowledged in his lifetime, has been an important element in modern mathematics.

Sadly Anstice died when he was only 40, claimed by rheumatic fever on December 17, 1853.

(Sources: Journal of the British 
Society for the History of Mathematics, November 2013, article by Ian 
Anderson and Tony Crilly).