Living in early nineteenth-century Lincoln, the young George Boole was acutely aware of the various social evils present within his local community.
When he had reached a certain foothold in life through self-education and hard work, he hoped to improve the social and educational conditions for those less fortunate than himself.
The Lincoln Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1833. Its stated object was ‘the cultivation of Experimental, Natural and Moral Philosophy; and of useful knowledge in all departments – avoiding Politics and controversial Divinity.’
This organisation – close to the present-day equivalent of a trade union or adult education centre – provided a means for working people to further their knowledge and education. As well as attending classes, members also benefited through lectures, a museum and a lending library.
George Boole – whose father John was also involved as ‘curator’ for some time – devoted much of his spare time to teaching members of the Mechanics’ Institute. As a young teacher who had recently opened his own school to teach children, the Mechanics’ Institute must have provided Boole with the considerable challenge of teaching an older age group with diverse educational needs.
But by all accounts Boole made an enormous impact on the members of the Institute, and on 5 February 1835, at the tender age of 19 years, he delivered his first public lecture entitled ‘Genius and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton’, in which he demonstrated a remarkable insight into Newton’s work. His address was printed and distributed as far away as London.
Later, in the late 1840s, his sense of social responsibility and compassion for those in need prompted him to become a founder and trustee of a female penitents’ home in Lincoln. The purpose of this institution was:
‘To provide a temporary home in which, by moral and religious instruction and the formation of industrious habits, females, who have deviated from the paths of virtue, may be restored to a reputable position in society.’
The Lincoln Early Closing Association was another body for social reform with which Boole chose to be connected. Its stated aim was ‘for obtaining an abridgement of the hours of business in all trades, with a view to the physical, mental and moral improvement of all those engaged therein.’
This organisation functioned in a similar way to the Mechanics’ Institute – being a combination of those of a trade union and a centre of adult education.
In early 1847 the Lincoln Early Closing Association achieved the introduction of the ten-hour working day for all shop assistants, apprentices and other workers in the city of Lincoln. After celebrating this breakthrough, George Boole was asked to give an address, which he titled ‘The Right Use of Leisure’.
This speech revealed much of his personal philosophy and high moral standards, seeking truth in nature and, through a ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ approach to life, to seek better health and ‘a vigorous and manly character of mind and the encouragement of a free, generous and open disposition.’
Boole also recommended suitable books for members to read during their extra leisure time, including those on physical science (with certain religious undertones), history, moral philosophy, geography and the lives of great men.
Following Boole’s appointment as Professor of Mathematics in Queen’s College Cork in 1849, he found himself in a very different environment to that of Lincoln, in a country of intense poverty for most people following several years of famine, and within a college that, as yet, had limited connections with the neighbouring city of Cork and the wider world.
The Cuvierian Society for the Cultivation of the Sciences had been founded in Cork in 1835 with the aim of providing popular education in the sciences, fine arts and literature. It met monthly from October to June and annual membership was ten shillings, a considerable sum at the time.
Boole was elected a member in 1850 and delivered his first paper the following year. This consisted of a biographical account of John Walsh, a mathematical eccentric who died in Cork in 1847. Boole’s skilfully written account displayed great kindness and humour and the paper was later published in the Philosophical Magazine.
In 1854 Boole became President of the society and the following year the society celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Boole delivered the main address to a crowd of 1,400 people of ‘the educated classes of the city’, in which he again revealed his own code of high moral standards and his depth of knowledge on a wide range of scientific and cultural topics.
It appears that George Boole also made casual friendly contact in other ways with those less fortunate than himself. Following the birth of his first daughter Mary Ellen in 1856, he was delighted at becoming a father. A lady who had previously known him later spoke of the following incident:
‘One day in June 1856, I went into a slum alley behind the College to engage a chimney sweep to clean my flues. As I was walking down the alley, I saw Boole ahead of me, knocking at one door after another. I came past him in time to see him passionately shaking hands with a ragged and barefoot man, and saying “I had come to tell you dear friends; I’ve got a baby and she is such a beauty.’”