The Enigma of Miss Nancy Mason of Clapham, Eighteenth Century Mathematician Extraordinaire

Sylvia Harrop
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

At the very end of the eighteenth century a new ‘star’ appeared on the pages of The Ladies’ Diary, a magazine whose readers had their brains teased and tested regularly by Enigmas and Rebuses sent in by readers, both male and female. She was the 19 year-old Miss Nancy Mason of Clapham, Yorkshire. Who was she, and how did she become so proficient in mathematics? And what was The Ladies’ Diary?

The Ladies’ Diary was no lightweight magazine for frivolous eighteenth-century ladies. Its full title was The Ladies’ Diary: or Woman’s Almanack, For the Year of our Lord .... Containing New Improvements in Arts and Sciences, And many Entertaining Particulars: Designed for the Use and Diversion of the FAIR-SEX. Founded in 1704, and published annually, The Diary played a leading role in the early development of British mathematical periodicals. There were few science journals in England until the 1830s, so technical and scientific articles appeared in general periodicals like The Ladies’ Diary. This was ‘the first scientific diary expressly designed for the use of women whose contents were almost entirely mathematical and scientific’ (Phillips, 98) - though, as we shall see, men also both read it and corresponded with it. It included an almanac, and sections devoted to enigmas (riddles), rebuses (puzzles in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and letters), charades, scientific and other queries and mathematical questions. The last were usually in a separate supplement. It was the most popular of the mathematical periodicals, and attracted serious amateurs of both sexes. Importantly for women, it was a respectable place to pose mathematical problems and sustain debate. The magazine was what we would now call inter-active: readers both set puzzles of various kinds, and sent in their answers to those which had been printed the previous year. It was small and light (to fit into a lady’s reticule) (Phillips, 98), and cost 9d. at the end of the 1780s, rising to 10d in 1791. (Chapbooks, sold in their thousands to the common people, cost 1d. and 10d. in 1791 is calculated as being worth approximately 3.90 today). Nancy would presumably have received her annual copies by post, brought by the coach from London to Kendal.

Such magazines as The Ladies’ Diary played a very important role in giving serious amateur scholars in the provinces a chance to develop their mathematical skills. One of the most regular and prolific participants from 1786 to 1794 was John Dalton (1766-1844), who from humble beginnings became one of the country’s most eminent and distinguished scientists and physicists. Born into a poor Quaker family near Cockermouth, he took every opportunity to educate himself - including copying out a copy of The Ladies’ Diary that somehow came his way: ‘possibly his first acquaintance with any sort of literature of science’(Greenaway, 1). By 1785 he was the joint manager of a school in Kendal. While there, encouraged by a friend, John Gough, he became a contributor to both The Gentleman’s and Ladies’ Diaries, with solutions to problems and questions on various subjects. Then, in 1793, he left Kendal for Manchester, where he lived for the rest of his life, and where he developed his theories and experiments, especially those concerned with Atomic Theory. Nearer home, a Mr. Terry of Settle had his answer to a question in the journal printed in 1796 - as did Miss Nancy Mason. This Mr. Matt(hew) Terry was a Land Surveyor who proposed and answered questions from 1787, usually from Askrigg. Since Terry does not appear to be a local name it must be assumed that he was in Settle following his profession in 1796. More to the point, how was it that a woman would have the opportunity and the knowledge to read and understand mathematical problems, especially a woman living in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales?

In general terms, girls’ and women’s education was very restricted at the end of the eighteenth century. Girls’ education was regarded as important, but only to their vital role as future wives and mothers. In the 1780s ‘comparative anatomical studies had suggested ... that women were ‘formed’ to bear & suckle children’, and the natural order required a maternal role for women - on which their education must be based (Uglow, 313). Thus, girls’ schools that did exist taught either sewing or reading (to the working classes) or the accomplishments required by a lady, especially to attract a suitable husband (to the middle classes). For most of these schools, mathematics were definitely not on the curriculum. There was a small number of upmarket ladies’ academies, like that of the well-known Evangelical reformer and writer Hannah More, which taught ‘French, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Needlework’ (Byrne, 11), but this would be just enough arithmetic to be able to keep and check the accounts of the households of which the girls were destined to be mistress. It would certainly not be mathematics to the level which Nancy had reached. On the whole, only girls fortunate to have a father interested in their extended education, or brothers with tutors at home would have the opportunity to learn subjects normally denied them. Daughters of clergymen often received a good education at home. It was quite normal for clergymen, university educated, to supplement their incomes by running small schools for boys, and so teaching materials were readily available. Jane Austen’s father, for example, took in sons of the local gentry, and though Jane and her sister ‘were later sent away to school briefly in Oxford, Reading and Southampton, they spent most of their childhood in the more challenging intellectual atmosphere of their own home’, with a well-stocked library (Harman, 11-12). ‘Josiah Wedgwood believed in equality of opportunity in education, and his sons and daughters were taught together at home.’ (Phillips, 164). Despite the small number of women involved it is undeniable that there was a growing interest and demand for scientific and mathematical learning among women in the eighteenth century, met by a number of such journals aimed at ladies, of which The Ladies’ Diary was one of the most popular. For the intellectual woman, such journals were a godsend, both as readers and contributors - though it is interesting that the percentage of women contributors declined towards the end of the eighteenth century. Nancy Mason was definitely one of a very select group of women.

’Miss Mason’ first appears in The Diary in 1792 (No. 89), answering a question; and from then on she is listed every year until 1798, after which she disappears. She becomes more prolific as the years go by. From being called ‘Miss Nancy Mason’ she moves to ‘Nancy Mason’ and then by 1796 is noted merely as ‘Mason’ under a list of ‘Messieurs’! In 1796 she is listed as answering seven puzzles, and she set a question. The following year, she is again listed seven times, and on several occasions her name is among respondents giving ‘ingenious answers’. In 1793 she won a prize for answers to rebuses and queries, along with the Reverend Mr. Ewbank (of whom more later). They were given six diaries each. There is no doubt that she had a love of and aptitude for mathematics. Here is an example of one of her puzzles proposed in 1796:

V. QUESTION 1003, by Miss Nancy Mason, of Clapham.

A father dying left a square field to be divided among his four sons,
the field containing just 30 acres, and to be divided in such a manner
that the oldest son may have 8 acres, the second son 7, the third son 6,
the fourth son 5,and the fifth, or youngest son, 4 acres. Now the
fences are to be so made that the oldest son’s share shall be a narrow
piece of equal breadth all round the field, leaving the remaining four
shares in the form of a square; and in like manner for each of the other
shares, leaving always the remainders in the form of squares, one within
another, till the share of the youngest be the innermost square of all,
equal to 4 acres. It is required to divide the field geometrically, and
to calculate the sizes of all the fences ?
Here is an example of one of her puzzles proposed in 1796

Note that Nancy’s mathematical understanding was comparable to that of the men who answered questions, and had been privately tutored and educated at Oxford and Cambridge: clergymen, schoolmasters and gentry. Very few other women set and answered mathematical questions in The Diary. These were the most difficult part of the journal. When a woman answered a question in 1790 she was the first to do so for more than a decade. The next woman to set a question or answer one was Nancy in 1792, and there were only two other women featured in the 1790s, one in 1797, the other in 1799. Nancy’s mathematical work there has been judged of current A or near A level standard.

Nancy answered every type of question and puzzle in the magazine, not only the mathematical ones. She set and answered charades and rebuses. There was also a section labelled ‘Queries’. These questions covered a tremendous range of subjects, including science and personal matters, rather like a modern agony column. It is in these personal sections that we hear the voice of young Nancy, and can feel that we begin to get to know her. She was certainly a woman of pronounced views on a number of subjects, including, interestingly, suitors and husbands. In 1793 she answered a query thus:

‘I am of the opinion that it is not a good way, for a young woman to entertain many lovers at once, if she could wish to be soon married. I would therefore advise a young woman to entertain and keep company only with him she esteems the most, and abandon all the rest; as I cannot imagine that any sensible man will ever think of marrying a woman that keeps company with another man’.

She also gave a very long answer to a query whether a virtuous old maid or a young widow would bestow more agreeable charms on a husband. The following year she gave another long answer to a question on the origin of Valentines; and answered a query about a young lady encouraging the addresses of a suitor the first time. In 1795 in a long reply to the Query ‘Whether is ill-nature or bodily deformity the greatest bar to connubial happiness?’, she concluded that ‘nothing is a greater bar ... than ill-nature’. She also set a charade (in verse) whose answer was ‘Bridegroom’. One could certainly argue that marriage, husbands (and romance?) were very much on her mind when she lived in Clapham.

Nancy undoubtedly made an impact on her fellow male readers and respondents - especially the Reverend Mr. Ewbank, the vicar of Thornton Steward, near Bedale, who in the 1796 Diary penned the following address to Nancy:

What you, Ma’am, have performed, I’ve with wonder read o’er,
And am still more surpriz’d, when your age I explore, -
O’er the mountain call’d Cam, I have yet never been,
Although cloud-capt, and snow-capt, the same I have seen,
But if e’er I should cross it, and Clapham come nigh,
To find your abode, Ma’am, I purpose to try;
For I like to converse with such ladies as you,
And of such a description I can but find few. -
On the verge of your wedding, should fate throw the lot,
When I call, let me stay, and for you tie the knot.
(Both puzzles and their answers were often in verse. Verse-writing and poetry were very popular and, indeed, ‘an accomplishment every young person was meant to try their hand at’. (Harman, 106))

Who was Nancy Mason? In 1795 she set a mathematical question whose answer was her age on 1 January of that year (21 years, 11 months and 7 days). We know, therefore, when, but not where she was born; that she was well-educated, and in Clapham from 1791 to 1798, when she disappears from the pages of The Ladies’ Diary. My search for her began, as might be expected, in the local parish registers. There were very few Masons in Clapham parish in the second half of the eighteenth century; and no sign of a Nancy Mason. Indeed, Nancy was a very uncommon name in Clapham parish: there was only one listed in the relevant registers. In the Giggleswick registers the surname was rare in the first half of the century. There were a number of Mason families in the second half, but no sign of Nancy, although the name became more popular in the late eighteenth century. The Bentham registers are no more forthcoming. Nor is there any evidence that she was a Quaker, which could explain her absence in the Anglican registers.

Everything so far suggests that she was not from the locality. So why did she come? She was obviously from a well-to-do and/or clerical family, and was around 18 years of age when she came to Clapham. It is most unlikely that she would come from that background as a governess, and her contributions to The Diary do not suggest that she was in such a problematic position. Did she come to live with a local family or as a companion? The most likely situation was that she came to stay with relatives or friends of the family. There was a Mason family in Newby at the time, where the children were her contemporaries. The head of the family, Anthony Mason, was listed as a tailor in the parish records, and was obviously a man of some substance. In the Window Tax returns for 1803/4 he was listed as a yeoman with six windows. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that a Mr. James Mason of Clapham answered a mathematical question in The Diary in 1800. This was the only entry for him. Anthony Mason had a son, James, who was almost exactly the same age as Nancy. He could be the James Mason, shopkeeper, who married under-age with his parents’ consent in 1793 (and whose wife died in 1799); or the James Mason who was a shepherd in 1800 when he made a good marriage, and both he and his bride signed the register; or the two could be the same person. It is perfectly feasible that Nancy was related to the Clapham Masons, and that her non-mathematical puzzles and answers from 1793 onwards were prompted by James’ marriage to Agnes Nicholson in 1793. What prompted James to solve the one problem in 1800 is impossible to say.

There were two other avenues of research relating to Nancy’s sojourn in Clapham, for neither of which there was any supporting evidence. The first was the possibility that there was some link to the Reverend William Currer, vicar of Clapham from 1755-1803. Rev. Currer was well-educated, popular and a good pastoral leader for the people. He founded a Sunday-school , where the children spent long hours learning reading, writing, sewing (girls), singing and religious instruction, when they were not in church services (Winstone, 48, 53-54). Did Nancy assist with the teaching? The other line of enquiry concerned a possible link with the long-established statesman Mason family of Dent. This family, of a high enough social level to have educated daughters, was forced to move out of its property in 1791, when Nancy first appeared in Clapham. Hopes rose, but there was absolutely no evidence of a Nancy at the right time. A couple of people have suggested that Nancy Mason might be a nom de plume, but I am not convinced that this was likely. In the early days of The Diary modesty caused some female contributors to wish to remain anonymous (Phillips, 101), but by the 1790s the position of women was changing. In particular, the members of the Bluestocking Circle had made their mark in a number of spheres, and gave a lead to other intellectual women. (Eger and Peltz). Those subscribing to The Diary and other journals had no need to hide their identities under a pseudonym. Moreover, the fact that there was a James Mason from Clapham who did exist and wrote to The Diary strengthens the evidence for Nancy to be what she certainly seemed.

While in Clapham, Nancy clearly was a subscriber to The Diary herself or in the household of someone who subscribed to it. We know that ‘the Parish of Giggleswick produced a number of mathematicians of notable ability during Newton’s lifetime (1642-1727) and after’, and that Langcliffe has a strong claim to be - or have been - ‘a hotbed of mathematics’ (Slater, 60-3). They are not far from Clapham. It is also possible that Nancy attended public lectures, like those of John Dalton. Kendal was some distance away, but people travelled about more than we normally realise, and Clapham was on the turnpike to Kendal.

What happened to her after 1798? The likeliest explanation is that she was married - she was 25 years when she disappeared from The Diary - and that, once married, she had no time - and possibly no encouragement from her husband - to spend on the teasers of The Diary. There is an interesting precedent for this interpretation of events: in the 1792 number there is a comment about three ‘fair and ingenious sisters’ who have ‘shone’ in the periodical. As each of the first two were married in turn they stopped contributing, and the third sister was answering questions in this edition. Even in households with the most liberal views on girls’ education, the vital future role for their daughters was seen to be as wives and mothers (Uglow, 313-4). It is also, of course, possible that she died - but searches have failed to find her burial at this time.

So at the moment, I can only hypothesise about Nancy’s background and what she was doing in Clapham and afterwards. She has intrigued all the people with whom I have discussed my quest for her history, and they have tried to help me to find her - to no avail. In keeping with the practice of The Ladies’ Diary, therefore, I hope that there may be a reader of this article who can answer some of the problems and puzzles posed here, and then these answers can be printed in next year’s Journal. Any help will be gladly received.


  1. For ‘the mountain call’d Cam’, see John Speed’s map printed on the back of the Index to the Journal, 2009.
  2. The answer to the Question 1003 supplied by two contemporary correspondents can be found with the website version of this article; it is interesting that they both use geometrical proofs rather than algebraic. Beware the length units used by these correspondents, but not specified. One has to remember that a chain of 66 feet had 100 links.


I wish to thank Mike Slater for working through a couple of the mathematical problems posed by Nancy and judging their standard today. I am also indebted to Hilary Ambrose, Jean Asher, Barbara Gent, Stan Lawrence, Ken Pearce, Mary Slater, Shirley Tebay and the staff of Special Collections in the Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool for their help in putting together this article.


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Title page of The Ladies’ Diary 1792

Title page of The Ladies’ Diary 1792