John Merrifield, Ph.D,. F.R.A.S. [Obituary]

Trans. Devon Assoc., 1891, Vol XXIII, pp. 106-108.


Rev. W. Harpley, M.A.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The obituary was read at the Association’s July 1891 Tiverton meeting. The 1872 Census shows: (RG 10/2115/23/39), for 13 ½ Gascoyne Place, Plymouth:


John MERRIFIELD Head Mar   36 LLD PHD Teacher of Mathematics   Devon, Peter Tavy
Mary A MERRIFIELD Wife Mar 41   Devon, Tavistock
Willie MERRIFIELD Son   11 Scholar Devon, MaryTavy
Sydney MERRIFIELD Son   9 Scholar Devon, MaryTavy
Minnie MERRIFIELD Daur   7 Scholar Devon, Plymouth
Mary MERRIFIELD Daur   6 Scholar Devon, Plymouth
Eliza J EASTON Ser Un 18 Cook Devon, Plymouth
Elizabeth FRIEND Serv Un 21 House Maid Devon, Mary Tavy
Grace CROSS Serv Un 19 Nurse Maid Devon, Mary Tavy

The Jubilee News edition (No 25, April & May 2018) of the Mary Tavy Jubilee Group provides interesting information on the Merrifield family with a particular focus on John Merrifield the polymath. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

John Merrifield, Ph.D., F.R.A.S., was born at Peter Tavy, near Tavistock, on August 24th, 1834 In his early years he attended the National Schools at Tavistock, where he ultimately became a pupil teacher. In due course he proceeded to the Exeter Training College for schoolmasters, and remained there the usual period of two years. At the completion of that time he became schoolmaster at Mary Tavy, where he devoted much of his leisure to the study of navigation, with the result that in 1861 he founded the Navigation School, which for many years be carried on with great success in Gascoyne Place, Plymouth. Literary work then claimed a great deal of his attention. He realized the unsatisfactory condition of many of the text-books which he had to use; and, in conjunction with Mr. Evers, he published, through Messrs. Longman, in 1868, an important work on Navigation and Nautical Astronomy, His industry, however, did not end there, although his school was then rapidly growing in numbers and influence. Messrs. Longmans were again entrusted with a book by him, on Magnetism and the Deviation of the Compass, which was soon translated into several languages; and then he wrote a treatise on Navigation (Longmans), and a treatise on Nautical Astronomy, for which Messrs. Sampson, Low, and Co. became responsible. The rapid production of these works, the immense amount of thought and skill they evidenced, and their value as trustworthy text-books of science, naturally attracted much attention, and about 1870 the degree of Ph.D. was conferred upon their author.

Dr. Merrifield was on several occasions elected a member of the Plymouth School Board, of which he was one of the most active and useful members. Time after time he was also pressed to stand as a candidate for the Town Council, ''but he always refused to do so, on the ground that his work lay in the direction of education."

Dr. Merrifield was a lecturing member of the Plymouth, Institution. In 1884 he read a paper there that explained "a new method to clear the lunar distance in order to find the longitude at sea." This was a subject in which he was greatly interested. He had worked out a method for himself which he had submitted to Dr. Woolley, the late director of studies at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, as well as to Sir George Airy, and to the Royal Astronomical Society. Dr. Woolley wrote to him congratulating him upon "the very ingenious way in which you have solved the problem," adding that the method ought to be used at sea. The Royal Astronomical Society submitted the plan to their council, and, after discussing it, ordered it to be printed in their Transactions. In 1877 Dr. Merrifield was appointed, by the British Association, a member of a committee consisting of Sir William Thompson, Mr. W. Froude, Professor Osborne Reynolds, Captain Douglas Galton, and Mr. James K Shoolbred, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the phenomena of the stationary tides in the English Channel and in the North Sea, and of representing to the Government of Portugal, and the Governor of Madeira, that, in the opinion of the British Association, tidal observations at Madeira or other islands in the North Atlantic Ocean would be very valuable, with a view to the advancement of our knowledge of the tides in the Atlantic Ocean. This committee was on several occasions re-appointed, and in 1880 it presented its final report, on what were admittedly subjects of very great importance. In 1881 Dr. Merrifield delivered a lecture at the Plymouth Institution on the " Meteorology and Climate of Plymouth," in which he embodied the results of careful observations extending over sixteen years, and which have since proved of considerable value. In 1886 he was nominated by the officers to be one of the stewards at the anniversary meeting of the Royal Literary Fund, and, as a consequence, some additional contributions towards that Corporation (which dates back as far as 1790) were obtained from the literary men of the Three Towns. He was also one of those invited to proceed to India to watch the transit of Venus; and on another occasion he was named as one of the delegates of the British Government at the Vienna Exhibition. A short time before his death he obtained the bronze medal of the Polytechnic Society at Falmouth, for an artificial horizon for sea use. The American Government have since interested themselves in this invention, and they sent to its author for an account, and also for a photograph of it, both of which were promptly forwarded.

Dr. Merrifield joined this Association in 186? as an Annual Member, and in 1877 he became a Life Member.

For some time previous to his decease Dr. Merrifield had been in indifferent health; but it was not till twelve days before that event that his illness took a serious form. He was then seized with paralysis, and did not again recover consciousness, but passed away on Saturday morning early. During his long connection with the Plymouth School Board he won the regard of all classes, no less by the exercise of a sound discretion than by the force of a character intensely in earnest. However much his opponents differed from his principles, nobody questioned the unvarying sincerity with which he held them.