Who was James Monckman?

Vict science

Citizens of late Victorian Bradford were fortunate enough to have a large number of learned societies which they could join, depending on their interests and professional qualifications. Among these were a Scientific Association, Philosophical Society, Natural History & Microscopical Society, Medico-Chirurgical Society, Field Naturalists Society, Orchestral Society, Antiquarian Society, and an Athenaeum Club. The Bradford Scientific Association (BSA) had been founded in October 1875 by Dr James Monckman, who became its secretary, leading spirit, and first president. The society he brought into being survived until 1981. The BSA seems to have grown out of the Bradford Philosophical Society, itself then about ten years old.

In 1874-75 the Philosophical Society had arranged a series of science demonstrations called Gilchrist Lectures, admission one penny. This was the first time that talks of this type had been given in the city. Early demonstrations were of magnetic lines of force, the air-pump, microscopy, and spectroscopy. I assume that the success of these events indicated the need for a purely scientific society. For a century subsequent BSA meetings were held in the Science Room at the Bradford Mechanics Institute. The BSA was closely related to the Bradford Natural History & Microscopical Society, and some members joined both organisations. There were also friendly relationships with Keighley & Halifax Naturalists and, in early days, the Leeds Naturalists Field Club & Scientific Association.

A good deal of material relating to the BSA survives. The records for the period 1877-1981 are held by the West Yorkshire Archives. These include the minutes of the Association, an album of excursions to local sites of geological and scientific interest in 1890-1906, and a collection of glass slides mainly on geological and botanical topics. The Bradford Industrial Museum curates another collection of lantern & microscope slides and the Bradford Scientific Journal Vols 1-3. In 1975 the BSA published a pamphlet called One Hundred Years Old which contained, among other material, a list of Presidents of the Association up to Griff Hollingshead in 1975. Griff was very important in the foundation of the Bradford Industrial Museum.

I imagine most of the early members of the BSA are long forgotten although some were no doubt giants in their day. But I thought that it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could learn anything about the first president. The basics are fairly simple. James Monckman or Monkman (both spellings were used) was born in 1842. He was the youngest child of Thomas Moyser Monckman and Naomi Woodhead. His family were non-conformists and James was only baptised at the age of 14. He had sisters called Annie and Sarah together with brothers Joseph and John. Both his brothers also joined the BSA although their careers were spent in the commercial world. The father of this family evidently died young since by the time of the 1851 census Naomi Monckman was a widow, and young Jimmy Monckman is an eight year old scholar. I assume he was educated at the nearby Hallfield School since this is given as his academic institution much later when he matriculated at the University of London.

In the Bradford Observer of March 1860 I can trace James publicly for the first time as an assistant master at Manor Row Academy. This is not surprising in view of his family history. The census of 1861 describes his mother as a retired schoolmistress, and I know that both his sisters were teachers. James himself is recorded as an eighteen year old tutor in a private school. In 1871 James, schoolteacher, was still living with his mother at their home 13 Chapel Street, Bradford. In fact it doesn’t appear that he or his four sisters and brothers ever married; when their mother Naomi died in 1875 big sister Annie replaced her as head of the family.

If you tried to follow James Monckman’s career exclusively from the census returns between 1861-1901 you would reach the conclusion that he stayed at home (at various addresses) with his siblings, and that he had a career devoted to science teaching in local schools. In this you would be completely mistaken. For one thing in 1868 he passed an exam for matriculation at the University of London. The following year he passed second in inorganic chemistry in another national exam held by the ‘Science & Art Department’, South Kensington. The Science & Art Department was a government funded body whose role was to promote education in art, technology and science especially for trainee teachers. By 1874 James was a member of the Bradford Chemists Association to whom, rather remarkably, he lectured on botany. When did that become an interest? In May 1874 he is first described as the Secretary of the BSA (at 37 Manor Row) when organising an expedition to Malham Cove in the Dales.

Shortly after the founding of the BSA, at the age of 34 in 1876, James became a University of London BSc in geology & palaeontology. This was based on study undertaken at the Yorkshire College of Science, which was to evolve into Victoria College and then into the University of Leeds. The only work of his I can trace from this time is on the subject of geology. In a much later notification concerning his death a Burnley learned society described him as the science master at Burnley Grammar School for seven years until 1884. This would represent 1877-84, and so James must have taken up his post at Burnley almost immediately upon graduation. But the University of London went on to award him the higher degree of DSc, which must indicate that his scientific work continued. Remarkably this work appears to have been as an assistant to JJ Thompson FRS in Cambridge. Thompson was to be a Nobel laureate and also the discoverer of the electron.

There are some puzzles here. Firstly, how did a school master with a second class degree in geology & palaeontology come to act as an assistant to the most famous atomic physicist of the age, who was a much younger man. The second puzzle is the date at which the doctorate (which I assume was the equivalent of the modern PhD) was awarded. Sources suggest 1879 or 1881, but in both these years James was teaching at Burnley. There is no doubt however that the degree was awarded and thereafter James was always referred to as Dr Monckman.

To my great surprise a database of Cambridge alumni indicated that three years after leaving Burnley James Monckman became a fellow of Downing College at the age of 45. For another three years, that is 1887-90, he worked in the world famous Cavendish Laboratory again under the direction of JJ Thompson FRS. Surprisingly perhaps his published research was on the electrical properties of sulphur, which doesn’t sound all that glamorous. While a fellow at Downing he published a book entitled Cambridge Science. Under what circumstances he returned to Bradford from the fens I am quite ignorant. Could it have been illness, or did James simply prefer to be the ‘first man in the village rather than second man in Rome’? At all events he was back in the city for the 1891 census. The period 1890-1900 is totally blank to me except for his being president of the BSA in 1894. A brief obituary eventually published in Nature described him as a consulting analytical chemist who undertook researches in chemistry, botany and geology. Possibly that’s what he did in the 1890s.

But in the early years of the new century I can trace his last lecture which was given on the topic of spectroscopy; this was an area in which JJ Thompson was very interested. At the same time James was involved in the discussions which led to the establishment of Cartwright Hall Museum in Bradford. In 1901 he published the work by which he is best known, The Glacial Geology of Bradford. In the census of that year the whole family were together at 1, Pemberton Drive, but sadly four years later, in 1905 that is, James died of a ‘painful illness’ at this house. Probate of £1745 was granted to Annie & John Monckman. Annie herself died in 1910 in Westfield House, Wrose at the age of eighty years passing on a somewhat augmented sum to her brother John. Both were living with Samuel Cheetham whose wife Jessie Emmeline Cheetham was described as their niece. Establishing how the pair came to have a niece revealed that James had had another brother, Thomas Matthew Monckman, who had left home and married. Jessie Emmeline Sarah Monckman was his daughter, born in 1865, who married Samuel Cheetham in 1897. She is the last relative I can trace and died herself in 1946 at Knaresborough.

When trying to establish when James Monckman was in Bradford it is useful to see the years when he was BSA president. He was foundation president in 1875 and was succeeded in this office for five years by William McGowen (1814-1896), town clerk of Bradford until his death. I assume that during this period James was in Burnley and in fact the presidency was suspended in 1882-83. James is back and in office in 1884 and in 1890, between which dates he must have fitted in his Cambridge interval. By this stage an annual presidency of the BSA was established and James occupied this position in 1894 and, for the last time, in 1903. During this period James would have known other BSA members including Dr Samuel Lodge (1824-1909) the police surgeon for Bradford, pathologist, and artist. There was also Jacob Moser (1839-1922) the well-known Bradford philanthropist. After his death his friends in Burnley recalled that James was never afraid to say ‘I don’t know’. I cannot think of a better obituary for a man of science.


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