Following a question at the end of my recent talk (Maxwell in Six Objects) at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, I’m thinking of writing a book series – “What Maxwell’s Mother Knew,” “What Gregory’s Mother Knew,” etc. They are just two of the many scientists who received their early education from their mothers – but we don’t know what their mothers were able to teach them. It seems likely it was more than watercolours, the piano, and the Bible. Legend has it that Gregory’s mother, whose brother (or possibly uncle – the sources are confused) was a mathematician, taught Gregory geometry. But Maxwell’s mother?
Tracing women’s education and learning is really difficult, and I’ve not come up with any answers yet. But I’ve found out more about her maternal line than appears in other Maxwell biographies, and I’ve some leads for further places to look.
Maxwell’s mother, Frances Cay (1792-1839) was the daughter of Robert Hodshon Cay, and Elizabeth Liddell, an artist. Frances’ brother, John Cay, became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – there is a catalogue of his library in the National Records of Scotland. Unfortunately, the books were dispersed by auction, so tracking them would be difficult. It might be more possible to track Maxwell’s own books, bequeathed to the Cavendish Laboratory, to see whether any might have come to him through his mother’s family.
The Cay side of Frances’ family is well covered in John Arthur’s book, Brilliant Lives, but far less is known about the Liddell side. Frances Cay may have learnt anything she knew from her own mother, Elizabeth Liddell, an artist with connections to Archibald Skirving, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Thomas Bewick. The Liddell family seem to have been reasonably well-to-do, based in the North Shields area of Northumberland. Neil Jeffares, in his Dictionary of Panellists, guesses from their address in Dockwray Square that Elizabeth’s father, John Liddell, was a ship-owner. However, John’s will shows that he also had at least a farm and coal-mining interests at Shire Moor at Murton (I haven’t read it all yet, the writing is difficult). The will also names two surviving sons (Albert and George) and four daughters (Sarah, Elizabeth, Barbara, Isabella). The family memorial in Tynemouth Parish church, gives their dates, married names, and those of further children who died young. Many of the Liddells or their husbands, including Robert Hodshon Cay, sold out of Murton Colliery in 1809.
Elizabeth Liddell’s sister, Barbara, remained unmarried. At some point she moved to Edinburgh, possibly to be near Elizabeth, and lived at 19 Great Stuart St. Her will left most of her estate to her niece Jane Cay (i.e. Frances Cay’s sister – Maxwell’s “Aunt Jane”). The inventory of her estate is in the National Records of Scotland. Again, I haven’t read either will or inventory yet, but they provide further possible leads to Frances Cay’s background.
So, it looks as though Maxwell’s mother did know how to paint. Although we still don’t know what else she knew, we might be a little nearer finding out.