2nd June 1891. Wrangling.
Today saw the death of Hensleigh Wedgwood, cousin of Charles Darwin and grandson of the famous potter
Barrister, etymologist and Magistrate he famously produced the classic text the Dictionary of Etymology, and on a lower level was noted whilst at Cambridge, after taking the first written exam in the Classics Tripos, for receiving, unofficially from the students, instead of the wooden spoon, the ‘Wooden Wedge’, a pun on his name, for coming last.
This was the time when exams were changing from the medieval oral tradition to being written. However he did better in maths, being 8th Wrangler’ (8th in order of marks).
The word Wrangler stemmed back to the middle ages when exams involved disputation, (wrangling) in the oral tradition. It was in the 18thc that some kind of exam in Maths took place at Cambridge, though questions were given orally and also involved philosophy.
The wooden spoons gradually became larger, measuring 5ft and dangled in a teasing way, by students, from the balcony of the Senate House until the practice was stopped in 1875.
Those known as mathematical wranglers were ‘senior optime’ and those lower were ‘junior optime’, in terms of marks, which ranged from 7,000 to 300, in an exam which lasted 5 ½ hours a day, for 8 days.
However it should be noted that out of 400 in 1860 3/4 never gained honours and known as Pollmen, so the receiver of the wooden-spoon (an honours man), had about 100 above him, but 300 Pollmen below.
In 1911 the system was changed to degrees in classes. However women no matter how brilliant could take the exams, but unable to receive a degree until 1948.
So brilliant mathematicians such as Philippa Fawcett of Newnham College in the 19th century couldn’t receive her degree, as she was a woman. Then later Joan Clarke, in WWII involved at Bletchley in breaking Enigma Codes, couldn’t receive a degree.(1)
Born in 1803 Wedgwood lived at a time of change of practices which had survived from medieval times, apart from university life.
This was seen in 1835, when as a Magistrate, he was responsible for sending James Pratt and John Smith for trial at the Central Criminal Court for sodomy.
Both were convicted and had the dubious honour of being the last in England to be executed for the then crime, despite Wedgwood’s plea for clemency to the Home Secretary.
Times have changed indeed, for the better.
(1) Her mother founded Newnham College, Cambridge.