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Helmdon Historical Documents

More Thoughts On The Old Mantlepiece



Extract From The Natural History of Northamptonshire

by John Morton (written 1798-24)

Chap. 9. of NORTHAMPTONSHIR E. 497 Algebra, p.sa. 5 LO 1

Concerning the Antiquity of the Characters or Figures that are us'd in writing down Numbers, there is a remarkable Inſcription upon a Chimney-piece at Helmdon, already noted in the Learned Dr. Wallis's Treatiſe of Algebra both Hiſtorical and Practical, whereof I Thall here tranſcribe Dr. Wallis's Account and his Reaſonings upon it.* There the Dr. is diſcourſing of Numeral Figures, and ſhews that "Dr. Wallie's they were in uſe amongſt us more early than theearlieſt Date allow'd Treatiſe of of by Volus, that is, the Year of our Lord 1250. The Dr. gives ſeveral Proofs of their Antiquity, but the higheſt that he carries it is from the Authority of an Inſcription in Northamptonſhire which Thews that the Uſe of theſe Figures in Europe is at leaſt more Ancient by 117 Years than Vollius thought. His Account is as follows. At the Pariſh of Helmdon in Northamptonſhire, ( in the Houſe of Mr. William Richards now Miniſter there ) on an Ancient Wooden Mantletree of the Chimney in his Parlour ( perfectly black with Smoak and Age ) but firm and hard, there is Carved Work ( well enough for that Age ) from one end to the other ; and about the middle of it in old Carving this Date not yet defac'd , Ao Doi M. 133 . But both the Letters andFigures of an Antick Shape agreeing with the Age. So that, as Dr. Wallis adds, I do not doubt but they have been in uſe amongſt us in England, at leaſt as long ago , as 1133. Nor, ſayshe, need it appear ſtrange to any, that of this Number 1133 the Thouſand is expreſs’d by M.or the Word Millefimo, and only the latter part in Figures 133. For that was and ſtill is very uſual, as he ſhews by ſeveral Examples. Upon the whole he judges that about the middle of the uth Century theſe Numeral Figures came in uſe amongſt us in Europe together with other Arabic Learn ing, firſt in Aſtronomic Tables and other Mathematic Books ; and then by little into common Practice. In Page 7. he obſerves, that whentheſe Figures came firſt into uſe : they were more liketo the Arabic Figures than thoſe we now uſe ; that they, asother Things, were varied in proceſs of Time: and that as to the Ancienter Way of Notation it was by a few Numeral Letters, wherewith they were often perplex'd in Computation , theyhavingonly oneValue or De nomination. In Pbil. Tranf. N.154. Pag. 401,402. Dr. Wallis has given a yet more particular Account of this Mantletree , and has cauſed it to be exactly delineated there, that upon the whole Mat ter we may ſee how little Reaſon there is to ſuſpect any thing of Forgery or Impofture in it. 64.Mr. Gilbert Clerk's Spot-Dyal as he call'd it,which in many Re gards is preferable unto other Dyals,was invented by him at his Houſe at Lodington in this County, and is therefore to bemention'd here : But there being a Deſcription of it already publiſh'd by him ſelf, there needs not any particular Account of it here. 



Extract from John Bridges History & Antiquities of Northamptonshire - Helmdon (final format 1791 by Peter Whaley) 

In the chimney-piece of a parlour in the rectory house is a date, which Dr. Willis makes out to be † Ao.Doi..Mo.133. and concludes from it that the use of numeral figures was much earlier here than hath been generally supposed; and that J. Gerard Voffius in particular is mistaken in assigning no older date to their introduction than the year 1253, at farthest.


Extract from George Baker’s 

The History & Antiquities of Northamptonshshire, 1822-30 

Entry on Helmdon 

The rectory house adjoins the north side of the church yard, and is an indifferent building, presenting no particular indication of antiquity; but the inscription on the mantelpiece in the parlour has long held a conspicuous place in the annuls of numerical controversy. Dr Walis, the celebrated mathematician, first brought it into notice, and his attention was probably directed to it when visiting his son-in-law, judge Blencoe, at the neighbouring village of Marston St Lawrence. The doctor, in a learned paper in the Philosophical Translations, and in his Algebra, contends that the true reading of the date is “A.Do.M 133”, and adduces it in proof of Arabic numerals being known in England much earlier than was previously imagined. A facsimile of the inscription appeared in the Philosophical Translations, a second in the Archaeologia, and a third more accurate on in the Gentleman’s Magazine, from a tracing by archdeacon Curton, who in an accompanying communication adopts Dr Wallis’s hypothesis. Much disputation and ingenious conjecture have been exercised in deciphering this famous date, and 1133, 1233, 1533, and 1555 have been severally suggested. Some writers have referred the initials W.r* following the date to William Renalde or Reynolde, the rector from 1523 to 1560, and in the general style of the mantle-piece, its very depressed arch, and the elongated leaves in the spandrils, certainly correspond with that period, and corroborate the supposition; whilst, on the other hand, it must be admitted that the form of the M and connecting figures strongly favor the interpretation given by Dr Wallis. From a careful examination of the original I am inclined to attribute this singular curiosity to the rector, though it must be confessed his motive for intruding a fictitious date in rude or arbitrary characters, unless to puzzle future antiquaries, seems inexplicable. 

*the r looks slightly like an h – you would need to see the original. This could be the fault of the faded photostat the typist is working from.


Extract from Helmdon in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 

by W.P Ellis (1902) 

In the Rectory porch is an old carved chimney piece which has fairly puzzled antiquaries for a couple of centuries and is likely to continue to do so as long as it lasts. The inscription runs thus: An Do M155 W.K. or RDr Wallis, the celebrated mathematician, contended that the date was 1133, others state it to be 1233, 1533, and 1535, whilst the initials are said to be W.R and refer to William Reynolde who was rector from 1523 to 1560. I do not think that any of the dates given are correct as the two final figures are certainly fives not threes as in all old manuscripts you will find the 5 expressed by a wavy line, whilst 3 is more like the figure still in use, and the initials are to my reading W.K and not W.R. If the date be 1155 we have no record of any name whose initials correspond but the name of the second rector of Helmdon was Walter de Kancia who lived about the middle of the (13, which might coincide with those who are in favour of the 1255 reading.

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