A scientific canon

William Derham, a chaplain to George Prince of Wales (later King George II), was appointed a Canon of Windsor in August 1716 and installed a month later. He held the canonry until his death in 1735 and divided his time between St George’s and his parish of Upminster, Essex, where he lived in a house 100 yards from the church with his wife and five children.

Alongside his work in the church, Derham was a keen theologian, philosopher and amateur scientist. He was elected to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (commonly known simply as the Royal Society) in 1703 and contributed thirty-eight articles to the society’s journal Philosophical Transactions.

His first major publication was The Artificial Clockmaker in 1696. This was the first comprehensive treatise on clock and watch making, “wherein the Art of Calculating Numbers for most sorts of Movements is explained to the capacity of the Unlearned.” He describes the construction and working of clock and watch movements and provides also a history of clock-work. Derham’s fascination with horology had a practical outlet as well and a relic of this survives at St George’s Chapel. The sundial attached to the south wall of the Lincoln Chapel was calculated and directed by Canon Derham in 1723. Another sundial of his construction survives on the church tower at St Laurence, Upminster.

Derham also experimented practically with the calculation of the speed of sound and is considered the first person to produce a reasonably accurate estimate of this. From the tower of St Laurence, Upminster, he observed through a telescope as a shotgun was fired from a number of local landmarks. Having calculated each distance by triangulation and timed to the half-second the space between seeing the gun fire and hearing the shot, Derham estimated the speed of sound as 1072 Parisian feet per second.

In Derham’s life-time advancement of scientific knowledge was beginning to cause people to challenge traditional perceptions of God and to question the possibility that such a being could exist. As a clergyman, theologian and avid scientist, Derham worked hard to demonstrate that the theories of natural science were compatible with those of religion. In the early eighteenth-century he published three works challenging anti-Christian philosophies: Physico-theology (1713), Astro-theology (1714) and Christo-theology (1730). These in turn weighed the evidence provided by the natural world, the heavens and religion for the being and attributes of God. Two editions of Astro-theology are held in St George’s Chapel’s Chapter Library [SGC RBK D.78; SGC RBK D.278].

In addition to his extensive academic work, documentary evidence in St George’s Chapel Archives suggests that Canon Derham was a useful and active member of the College. He undertook an extensive survey of the details of the tenants, fines and renewals in each of the lands belonging to the Dean and Canons which survives in three volumes described as Dr Derham’s Books [SGC IV.B.7-9]. A note added to the list of profits from Great Haseley explains that all the tenants must pay heriots (a form of death-duty) and in his opinion “It is a cut throat manor.” He was also responsible for copying out a number of the handwritten books of music for the organist to play from.

A further book of his work, entitled “Observables relating to Windsor College”, contains Canon Derham’s take on the history and administration of the College of St George and the Order of the Garter [SGC IV.B.18]. Yet more evidence of his appetite for knowledge and the pursuit of truth.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.