W J Greenstreet Gazette

by I F S Macaulay, E H Neville, C Pendlebury, J A Spender, W C F Anderson


My recollections of W J Greenstreet date back half a century when we were both undergraduates at Cambridge, but we did not become personally acquainted till many years later. He had a slightly stooping figure and kind protective face which dissolved any feeling of awe produced by his great strength and height, penetrating eyes, and full-grown beard. He had two inseparable friends, E F J Love and G F Stout. When in company together they drew the attention of every one who saw them. They looked more like three generations than contemporaries, Greenstreet being plainly the responsible head and Stout the cheerful but inscrutable infant, while Love appeared to be more normal and rather embarrassed by the strangeness of his companions. It was natural that such a remarkable- looking trio should receive a nickname; so they became known as the Three Graces. Too soon the inseparables were to become separated, each to make his mark in his special province; Greenstreet in Mathematics, Love in Science and Thermodynamics, and Stout in Classics and Philosophy.

It was a common interest in the Mathematical Gazette that brought Greenstreet and myself into touch with one another. At the beginning of 1896 I agreed to take charge of the Gazette until a permanent successor to its editor and founder, E M Langley, could be found. I do not remember how it came about; but very soon I was relying on Greenstreet for untiring help and advice. In July, 1897, he wrote that he would help in any way the Council thought advisable; and a year later he yielded to the pressure of myself and his friend Professor Lloyd Tanner to accept the editorship. From that time he carried on the difficult and heavy work till his death, more than thirty years later. As the circle of his contributors increased he gradually succeeded in making the Gazette the most readable and interesting of all mathematical journals. When he first undertook it, and for a further dozen years, he was Headmaster of the Marling School, Stroud; and I used to spend weekends there from time to time. It was a joyous household. His wife was one of the brilliant family of Spenders, and contributed under the name of Aunt Medina the fashion articles to the Daily News, while Greenstreet supplied the Science Notes to the Westminster Gazette so long as it remained an evening paper. The rest of the household consisted of the school and family nurse, who afterwards became his second wife, and two small children. All these pursued their individual aims and experiments independently of the rest, but formed a most harmonious whole. The Mathematical Gazette and methods of teaching were regarded as queer but harmless subjects of conversation in which they had no share. Greenstreet was specially keen on oral teaching and quickness of answering, a natural outcome of his own quickness and versatility. He was writing an Algebra in collaboration with Lloyd Tanner in which his special methods were elaborated; but, so far as I know, it never saw the light, and probably was never completed. With his wife he also made a not inappreciable addition to their joint income by solving prize competitions, acrostics and others; the same taste found an incessant and more professional but unremunerated satisfaction in the mathematical columns of the Educational Times.

A great tragedy befell him in the summer holidays of 1903, when his wife was drowned in his sight in a heroic and unavailing attempt to save her maid. She was a good swimmer but knew full well what a risk she ran from a weak heart. The remembrance of that day was written on his face for the rest of his life, and seemed to lurk in the sound of every word he spoke. It was followed by years of great despondency in which all interest in life had vanished. There were times when he was in great danger of falling into a state of melancholy; but he was saved by forcing his mind into the ordinary routine of his duties as headmaster and editor, and by a sense, whether conscious or not, that his mission in life was not yet completed. Hard work and a deep concern for others finally brought him round to a normal state once more.

Greenstreet did not fail to reach distinction; his name was well known to the whole mathematical world, and his monument was the Mathematical Gazette; but he did not reach a position to which his merit and ability entitled him. Luck was against him; his chance never came; and he was content. At the age of fifty he found that his ideals for his school were in opposition to those under whom he held his appointment, and in order not to sacrifice his freedom he resigned. He took a house on Burghfield Common in the midst of a fir-clad country, a few miles outside Reading; and there continued his literary work, lectured to pupil teachers, and applied himself with ever-increasing ardour to the editing of his favourite Gazette. His knowledge of what had been written in the range of modern elementary mathematics was probably greater than that of any other living person. He not only remembered what had been written on any topic but could lay his hands at once in his library on the volume where it was to be found. His memory and rapidity and ease of literary expression were such that he seldom had to make any alteration in the first draft of the articles and reviews he wrote. His conversation was full of humour, always with a warm and sympathetic ring in it; while everything he said was exhilarating and easy of apprehension. He was a great friend. He asked for and gained one's complete confidence. We discussed all our hopes and fears, successes and failures, and in any case of doubt or trouble his counsel was always wise and freely given. While one felt that he would himself be prepared to take risks regardless of consequences he would try to dissuade others from doing so.

Mention ought not to be omitted of the other inmates of the house on Burghfield Common. The chief of these were Sohrab and Rustum, twin pugs, who behaved with great decorum, and understood all that their master said to them. He was their benevolent ruler and protector. They formed his body-guard when he went a stroll; and came out to receive him when he returned from longer journeys. There was also an advance guard, a little black dog of incredible activity and springy lightness, the only one of its kind I have known.

His devoted wife survives him; also his son, Surgeon-Commander B de M Greenstreet R.N., and his daughter, who spent her energy and strength and impaired her health in the cause of her Country.

F. S. M.


Reprinted, by kind permission, from Nature, Aug. 2, 1930.

By the death of William John Greenstreet on June 28 the mathematical world loses not an explorer or a geographer, but, if the metaphor may be pressed, a traveller familiar with a larger variety of landscape than almost any of his contemporaries. Born in 1861 and educated at St John's College, Cambridge, he was an assistant master from 1882 until 1889, and headmaster of Marling School, Stroud, from 1891 until 1910, when he retired to Burghfield Common, near Reading, with the intention of devoting himself to literary work. For many years he had been a regular contributor to Notes and Queries and to the Westminster Gazette, and editor of the Mathematical Gazette, and he had every reason to anticipate a life congenial to his frugal tastes.

The War, however, put an end to Greenstreet's work for the Westminster Gazette, and at the same time raised the cost of living to an unforeseen level. The result was an extension of an activity which he had created, namely, the supervision of the education of pupil-teachers in village schools; the value of this work, which he had begun voluntarily in the schools nearest to his home, came to be recognised by the county educational authorities, and soon from 80 to 90 students looked to him for guidance, and he was known throughout the countryside, reaping in labours which earned him a livelihood the reward of spontaneous help given to his neighbours in happier years.

Meanwhile his editorship of the Mathematical Gazette continued, and it was this which made Greenstreet's name familiar to every mathematician in England. While the Gazette, as befits the organ of the Mathematical Association, has been concerned primarily with problems of school teaching, from elementary arithmetic to scholarship analysis, the characteristic features of the journal have revealed the editor. Greenstreet always desired to attain, and believed that all teachers benefit if they can attain, to such appreciation of current advances in mathematics as is possible without intensive study of special branches; he therefore encouraged ample notices of treatises, Continental and American as well as English, far beyond the range of school mathematics, until the review pages of his Gazette were admitted to be among the beet in the world. Also, he had an immense knowledge of the personalities of literary, scientific, and social history, the product of omnivorous and rapid reading and a retentive memory; one result was that his own reviews of historical works, now tracing cross-currents of influence, now bringing a dead name to life by an anecdote or an epigram, enriched alike the books with which they dealt and the journal in which they appeared; another result was that every spare corner of the Gazette was filled by a 'gleaning', some quaint incidental reference to mathematics or to a mathematician found perhaps in classical literature, perhaps in a daily newspaper. In short, Greenstreet gave a character and a standing to a periodical which might have become nothing but a pedagogical mouthpiece; and this was the achievement that was acknowledged when the completion, in 1929, of thirty years of his editorship was the occasion of a testimonial to which some two hundred mathematicians subscribed.

Of Greenstreet's literary and musical interests it is impossible to speak here, but mention must be made of his enthusiasm for De Morgan. Once he was addressed as the De Morgan of his time, and this compliment pleased him as no other ever did. In wealth of biographical and bibliographical knowledge each was indeed unrivalled in his day, and this was perhaps all that the comparison was intended to convey, but one may recognise also in the two men the came sense of honour and the same sense of humour. Of the multitude of correspondents and contributors who were grateful for Greenstreet's help and counsel, few could claim to know him personally. His friends hold the memory of a man who never spoke a wounding or complaining word, of one who was prodigal of his knowledge, forbearing in his judgments, and ready with his laughter.

E. H. N.

The Editor's reviews were not confined to historical works. They were not signed, but they are easily identified; moreover, initials are attached in the Indexes to the volumes. From first to last, Greenstreet wrote just over five hundred reviews for the Gazette, as well as many reviews for other journals, and it can safely be said that not one of this multitude was perfunctory.

One of his finest reviews was never printed. Commissioned to deal with D E Smith's edition of the Budget of Paradoxes for the Monist, Greenstreet threw into a masterly essay the accumulation of a lifetime's absorption of De Morgan. The contrast between the reviewer and the editor of the book was too glaring, and the editor of the Monist declined to publish the criticism. Yet it need hardly be said that there was not an ill-natured word in the rejected notice: "The greater part of my remarks are not intended as a serious disparagement of what he has done ..., but are rather a jeremiad at what he has left undone. ... Discontent arises rather from the feeling that a great opportunity has been lost; it is in its essence of the nature of a subtle compliment."

It falls to me, as one who knew more than any other, to pay a tribute to one side of the work during the last twenty years of his life, of William John Greenstreet. It was after the great catastrophe of his life that he came to live at "The Woodlands" as a near neighbour. The first one heard of him was that he had undertaken to help the monitors and supplementary teachers of the parish schools to attain some qualifications which would benefit them in their career. He had himself been a victim of the new regime and, although he never spoke of it, was considered by others to have been very badly treated. As far as one can gather, the Governors of the Marling School would not agree to the demands of either the Board of Education or the L.E.A., and he had to suffer.

When he began life again in Berkshire, he was chiefly busied with the Mathematical Gazette and reviews for the Westminster Gazette, and he worked from early morning without any break until night.

Yet he found time to do innumerable acts of kindness and was at the service of anyone in trouble, Young or old, to say nothing of dogs and other animals. He and his wife would give up their time to nurse and help the sick, and they nursed P E B. Jourdain in his last illness.

Since 1912 Greenstreet's work was, in the main, examination for County Scholarships, Bursarships and Pupil Teacherships, and the supervision and tuition of rural pupil teachers. He had from seventy to one hundred pupils in forty to fifty remote schools, and the devotion he displayed was amazing. He not only advised, but set weekly papers and corrected them, and saw each pupil at any convenient centre once a month. The results were remarkable, for the standard of Arithmetic and Essay-writing attained by these youngsters was easily in advance of that of a good secondary school. Their English Literature was also excellent, for they had learnt the great secret of working and thinking for themselves. Greenstreet had the gift of winning the confidence of the Head Masters and Head Mistresses, and they co-operated willingly and were glad to have opportunity of showing that they could rise above the routine of the antiquated Seven Standards.

The best proof of their success was not the mere examination results but the fact that the rural teachers, who went to College somewhat diffidently, came out at the top or near the top of their year. When they came back to the schools they were welcomed, and their early training showed itself at once. They knew all about the atmosphere of the country school and could start work without stage fright or nervousness. Nothing cave Greenstreet more satisfaction than the letters from his old pupils now well settled and some in very good posts.

For the last three years, since the Board of Education decided to give up the old Preliminary Certificate examination, there has been much re-organisation necessary, but Greenstreet did not live to see the results of the new Oxford Senior Locals (Rural Teachers), when twenty succeeded in getting their qualifications under the new rules. This was what he had been working for.

The teachers so far have not had opportunity of testifying their appreciation of Greenstreet's work and their love for him, but every one that I have met since his death wished me to find some way of expressing it. It is hard to do, for an epicedium is beyond my powers and my sense of loss is great. "Quis desiderio?"

W C F Anderson.

Greenstreet And The Westminster Gazette.

For more than twenty years W J Greenstreet was scientific correspondent of the evening Westminster Gazette, and he was one of the first to bring scientific developments regularly under the purview of a newspaper. His work consisted in writing articles on any discovery or research of special importance, contributing a regular fortnightly article on current science, and reviewing scientific books and periodicals. He read widely, English, American and foreign books and scientific records of all sorts, to equip himself for this work, and, whenever possible, gave it a practical application. Though his approach to science was mathematical, he was keenly alive to its human and philosophical aspects, and wrote in such a way as to interest the ordinary reader, while catching the eye of the expert and the industrialist on the look out for new processes. Long before such advice became general, he was early in the field advising British manufacturers to employ more chemists and research workers and predicting that they would suffer, if they let their competitors in Germany or elsewhere run ahead of them in this respect. I had much evidence in these years of the interest which his articles excited, and though he covered a great deal of ground which was necessarily outside his own sphere, I cannot remember any occasion in which he was caught tripping by an expert. His scientific habit of mind saved him from the rash statements and presumptions which sometimes deface popular scientific journalism; and there were occasions when he firmly resisted the editor's call for pronouncements on new theories or discoveries on which he did not see his way. It has been a great advantage to science that it should kindle public interest and be competently handled in the modern newspapers, and Greenstreet deserves to be remembered as one of the pioneers of this kind of journalism.

J A Spender.

Greenstreet And The Library.

Nobody who has paid attention to the acknowledgments of gifts to the Library during the past seven years will have failed to observe that Mr Greenstreet was the most lavish and the most persistent of benefactors. The records of the books of which he, as he put it, unloaded his own shelves as soon as the Library was removed to Reading, occupy several pages of vols. xi and xii of the Gazette; his name is in many of the volumes which were in the Library before that time, and few months have passed since without evidence of his goodwill.

The books which he gave away were not as a rule spare copies: he had very few duplicates. But I remember one occasion on which he had found that he had two copies of the same work, one perfect, the other complete but shabby. The next time I called, he said, "The Library must have one of these," and then without a moment's hesitation, "And of course one can not give away one's second-best."

Only a few months before his death he gave the Association a few rare books, not mathematical, to be sold, as a contribution to the heavy expenses of binding the pamphlets and papers catalogued in the List which he a been helping to prepare.

Under his will the Association comes into possession of his runs of periodicals, of his early mathematical books, and of his historical, biographical, and bibliographical works of mathematical interest, and also of some other volumes and of a collection of offprints and papers. Members will not need the details, of which the preparation is necessarily slow, to know that from this bequest the Association derives a memorial which is valuable as well as appropriate.

E. H. N.

The Greenstreet Testimonial.

The total of the fund which was opened on the occasion of the 200th number of the Gazette was £270. Of this amount, £200 was given to Mr Greenstreet in June of last year, and the balance, with a list of subscribers, in May of this year, when it became all but certain that the last contribution had been made. From the first it was impressed on Mr Greenstreet that the desire of his friends. was to add to his personal comforts. He arranged at once to take a much needed and much enjoyed holiday in the West country, a holiday of which he had previously been afraid to incur the expense.

We are glad to be able to assure subscribers that throughout the last year of his life Mr Greenstreet was continually utilising their gift in little ways. We are able to say also that when he read the list of subscribers, which included names of men and women in all ranks of mathematics, even the most distinguished, it gave him intense pleasure to feel that the work to which he had given so much of his later years was so generally appreciated.

That no acknowledgment of the testimonial was made in the Gazette was not due to any lack of gratitude or gratification. Mr Greenstreet's first impulse was to write a paragraph for the October number last year, but he decided to wait until the fund was closed. Immediately on receipt of the closing cheque he sent to the printers a letter to appear in the July Gazette, but he grew dissatisfied with this general expression of thanks, and decided in place of it to send a modified letter to each of the 197 subscribers. A letter from the printers, dated 16th June, contains the paragraph:

"We thank you for your instructions that the, letter referring to your testimonial is not to appear in the Correspondence and that a separate letter will be issued later. We have cancelled this matter accordingly."

This was within a few days of his last illness. We have not come across any draft of a modified letter.

E. H. N.
C. P

William John Greenstreet's obituary appeared in The Mathematical Gazette in 1930. The full reference is I F S Macaulay, E H Neville, C Pendlebury, J A Spender, W C F Anderson, Obituary: W J Greenstreet, The Mathematical Gazette 15 (209) (1930), 181-186. Part of the obituary had appeared in Nature earlier in the same year.