John Theophilus Desaguliers

John Theophilus Desaguliers MA LLD FRS John Theophilus Desaguliers MA LLD FRS

An Illustriuos Old Veseyan

John Theosphilus Desaguliers was born near La Rochelle and smuggled out to England with the support of the Huguenots and thence to Guernsey. Difficulty in finding a living in the Channel Islands brought the family back to London where Desaguliers’ father set up a school in Islington. After his death, his widow continued to run the school but young John became a pupil at BVGS.

Jonathan Powers develops a hypothesis as to how John became a pupil at BVGS. The theory is that through the good offices of Bishop Compton, the son of Earl Spencer Compton who was born in the Warwickshire village of Compton Whinyates, would have known Sir William Dugdale who found himself the sole surviving trustee of BVGS. Dugdale appointed a new board of 15 distinguished trustees and the link with Bishop Compton probably led to arrangement with John Dugdale (son of Sir William) and John Wilkins one of the richer trustees. 

The Dugdale descendants still live in Blythe Hall set back from what was the A47 between Coleshill and Shustoke and now the B4114.

John Theophilus Desaguliers formed a close association with the son of John Wilkins and the two of them went up to Christ Church College in Oxford in 1705.

John graduated with a BA in 1708 and was ordained as a Deacon in 1709 and as a priest in 1717, at Ely Palace in London

 Whilst at Oxford he attended lectures by John Keill, who used innovative demonstrations to illustrate difficult concepts of Newtonian natural philosophy. When Keill left Oxford in 1709 Desaguliers continued giving the lectures at Hart Hall, the forerunner of Hertford College, Oxford. He obtained a master's degree there in 1712. In 1719 Oxford granted him the honorary degree of Doctor in Civil Laws, after which he was often referred to as Dr Desaguliers. His doctorate was incorporated by Cambridge University in 1726.

In 1712 Desaguliers moved back to London and advertised courses of public lectures in Experimental Philosophy. He was not the first to do this, but became the most successful, offering to speak in English, French or Latin. By the time of his death he had given over 140 courses of some 20 lectures each on mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics and astronomy. He kept his lectures up to date, published notes for his auditors, and designed his own apparatus, including a renowned planetarium to demonstrate the solar system, and a machine to explain tidal motion. In 1717 Desaguliers lodged at Hampton Court and lectured in French to King George I and his family.


In 1714 Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, invited Desaguliers to act as demonstrator at the Society’s weekly meetings; he was soon thereafter made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Desaguliers promoted Newton’s ideas and maintained the scientific nature of the meetings after Newton died in 1727. Desaguliers contributed over 60 articles to the Royal Society. He received the Society’s prestigious Copley Medal in 1734, 1736 and 1741. The last award was for his summary of knowledge to date on the phenomenon of electricity.

James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos appointed Desaguliers as his chaplain in 1716, as much for his scientific expertise as his ecclesiastic duties. He was also gifted the living of St Lawrence Church, Little Stanmore, which was close to the Duke’s mansion called Cannons, The Cannons estate benefited from Desaguliers' scientific expertise which was applied to the elaborate water garden there. He was also technical adviser to an enterprise in which Chandos had invested, the York Buildings Company, which used steam-power to extract water from the Thames. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the summer of 1718 Handel, also under the patronage of the Duke, composed his opera Acis and Galatea for performance at Cannons. In this work the hero Acis is turned into a fountain, and since, by tradition, the work was first performed outside on the terraces overlooking the garden, a connection with Desaguliers' new water works seems probable.Desaguliers advised the Duke of Chandos on many projects and appears to have been distracted from his parochial duties by his other interests. The Duke once complained that there were unreasonable delays in burying the dead but this was attributed to the curate who was left in charge of the church.!

Desaguliers was a parliamentary adviser to the board concerned with the first Westminster Bridge.[13] This much-needed second crossing of the Thames was not completed until 1750, after his death, but construction work resulted in the demolition of Desaguliers’s home in Channel Row.

Desaguliers was a member of Masonic Lodge No. 4 which met at the Rummer and Grapes tavern,[14] close to his home in Westminster. This lodge joined with three others lodges on 24 June 1717 to form what would become the Premier Grand Lodge of England. He became the third Grand Master in 1719 and was later three times Deputy Grand Master. He helped James Anderson draw up the rules in the "Constitutions of the Freemasons", published in 1723, and he was active in the establishment of masonic charity. During a lecture trip to the Netherlands in 1731 Desaguliers initiated into Freemasonry Francis, Duke of Lorraine (1708 – 65) who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Desaguliers also presided when Frederick, Prince of Wales, became a Freemason in 1731, and he additionally became a chaplain to the Prince.

John Theophilus Desaguliers had long suffered from gout. He died at his lodgings in the Bedford Coffee House on 29 February 1744 and was buried on 6 March 1744 in a prestigious location within the Savoy Chapel in London. The chapel was probably chosen for its Huguenot associations and in memory of Desaguliers’s origins

Not bad for a man born in France and smuggled to England who became a Veseyan where he received his introduction to education!.

With thanks and acknowledgement to Jonathan Powers and Wikipedia. NWH.