The Houghton teacher who led a life of Pi

BYGONE ERA:  Nesham Place, Houghton, in around 1900. This was where William Shanks lived and worked.
BYGONE ERA: Nesham Place, Houghton, in around 1900. This was where William Shanks lived and worked.
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Today we recall a Wearside teacher who made his name after discovering a very large slice of Pi

THE chance of scooping millions with six lucky numbers has Wearsiders by the thousands snapping up lottery tickets each week.

But the number 3.14159265359 – plus a few dozen digits more – really did prove lucky for Houghton teacher William Shanks.

“This number was to bring him fame and notoriety,” said local historian and author Paul Lanagan.

Shanks was 35 when he moved to Houghton from Corsenside, a Northumbrian village, with his new bride Jane Elizabeth in 1847.

“This was about the same time that Houghton got its new rector, the Reverend John Grey,” said Paul.

“William, meanwhile, became the master of a private boarding school in the affluent Nesham Place, known locally as Quality Hill.

“He would spend hours on a morning calculating and expanding the value of Pi, before checking his calculations on an afternoon.”

Pi – a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter – held a great fascination for William.

“Many of us will only ever have used this during maths lessons when at school, as in the area of a circle is Pi r squared,” said Paul.

“But William continued with his calculations and managed to expand the calculation of the decimal of Pi up to 607 places.”

William even published a book of his findings in 1853, with the catchy title of Contributions to mathematics, comprising chiefly the rectification of the circle to 607 decimals etc.

The book contained a list of many subscribers, three of whom were local: Rector John Grey, M.A.C of Houghton and Nathaniel Ellison Esq of Morton House.

“William’s true fame arose several years later, though, in 1873, when he calculated Pi to 707 places,” said Paul.

“This was to be the longest expansion of Pi for over a hundred years, and was only bettered by a computer in the 1970s.

“Although his calculation was later discovered to be only correct up to the first 527 places, this did not come to light until half a century after his death.”

Shanks died on June 13, 1882, at the age of 70, and was buried at Houghton’s Hillside Cemetery just four days later. He was joined by his wife in 1904.

“Their headstone went missing for many years following the levelling of memorials at Hillside Cemetery in around 1973,” said Paul.

“However I, along with others, identified it in 2010, following an excavation of the bulldozed headstones by volunteers from a local youth group.

“The damaged memorial has since been placed in a random location in the cemetery.

“Now all that remains to be found is a photo of William Shanks.

“He was one of Houghton’s most remarkable residents.”

•Can you help Paul track down a photo of William? He can be contacted via email at:

Calculation ran to 707 decimal places

1812: William Shanks was born at Corsenside, Northumberland, on January 25.

1846: Shanks married Westminster-born Jane Elizabeth Pringle in London.

1847: Shanks moved to Houghton.

1851: The census shows Shanks – a classical and mathematical teacher – living at Quality Hill, Houghton.

1853: Shanks published a book expanding the calculation of the decimal of Pi up to 607 places.

1861: Shanks was living at Nesham Place and employed as a master at a private boarding school.

1862: Shanks’s mother-in-law Sarah Pringle, 79, was buried at Houghton Hillside Cemetery on December 3.

1871: William and Elizabeth Shanks were still living at Nesham Place.

1873: Shanks calculated Pi to 707 places – later identified as being only correct to 527 places.

1881: Shanks was still at Neasham Place. His neighbour was George Wheatley, the Houghton confectioner.

1882: Shanks died aged 70 on June 13, and was buried at Hillside Cemetery.

1904: Jane Elizabeth Shanks died, aged 89, on October 23.