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Milner, Isaaclocked

  • Kevin C. Knox

Milner, Isaac (1750–1820), natural philosopher and dean of Carlisle, was born on 11 January 1750 in Mabgate, Leeds, the third son of a pious mother (c.1715–1796) and an unlucky businessman (c.1715–1760) who had suffered greatly after the Jacobite rising of 1745. He began his education at a grammar school in Leeds in 1756 and enjoyed his studies, but these were terminated in 1760 with the death of his father. He was apprenticed as a weaver and toiled at the loom for a number of years, reading the classics when time permitted, until his elder brother Joseph Milner provided him with the opportunity to escape his 'mechanick' life. Joseph was offered the mastership at Hull's grammar school and invited Isaac to become the institution's usher. Here the latter became 'a tolerably good classic, and acquainted with the first six books of Euclid' (Milner, 523).

Cambridge work from 1770

Through the patronage of his brother, Milner was subsequently freed from his duties in Hull and entered Queens' College, Cambridge, as a sizar in 1770. Although he knew fortune had smiled upon him, he was not always happy as an undergraduate: he detested the menial duties that were foisted upon him as a sizar, and he was teased for his broad northern accent. In addition, he received abuse for his refusal to sign the Feathers tavern petition of 1772. Nevertheless, he was a particularly hard reader and excelled on the university's Senate House examination; he became the year's senior wrangler with the further distinctions of being designated incomparabilis and taking the Smith's first prize. As his biographer and niece recalled, it was at this moment that he was 'tempted to commit his first act of extravagance. In the pride of his heart, he ordered from a jeweller a rather splendid seal, bearing a finely-executed head of Sir Isaac Newton' (Milner, 12).

With the combination of his credentials, sagacity, and imperious demeanour, Milner was able to advance his career rapidly. Shortly after he took his bachelor's degree in 1774 he was ordained as deacon; in 1776 Queens' offered him a fellowship; in the following year he became a priest and college tutor; and in 1778 he was presented with the rectory of St Botolph. During these years his career as a natural philosopher began to take off. In 1776 Nevil Maskelyne hired him as a computer for the board of longitude, and two of his mathematical papers were presented to the Royal Society, of which he was elected fellow in 1780. In these papers Milner displayed three things—proficiency in mathematics, suspicion of French philosophy, and adherence to English Newtonian mechanics.

It was precisely these philosophical sentiments that Milner emphasized throughout his life, and in doing so he helped to define the role of the University of Cambridge in late Georgian times. In the opinion of Milner and other Cantabrigians, such as Samuel Vince, George Atwood, Edward Waring, and James Wood, Newton's rational mechanics, fluxions, and experimental philosophy were an excellent antidote against materialism and atheism. In Milner's mind the Anglican and Newtonian philosophy of Cambridge protected the interests of the ancient institution, true religion, and the country, since it gave Britons reason to believe in the central doctrines of the church, such as the immateriality of the soul. In particular Milner stressed that the 'established principles of Experimental Philosophy' showed that an incorporeal and free mind was needed to govern inert matter (Essay on Human Liberty, 1824, 5–6). Moreover, he contended that a strict regime of mathematics forced undergraduates to think soundly:

I have often contended, the best answer that we could give to persons who sometimes accuse resident members of the University of Cambridge of employing their time too much in mathematics and natural philosophy was to inform them, that our lectures on these subjects were subservient to the cause of religion; for that we endeavoured, not only to fix in the minds of young students the most important truths, but also to habituate them to reason.

Milner, Strictures on some of the Publications of the Reverend Herbert Marsh, D.D., 1813, 230

He placed great emphasis on Cambridge's mathematical tripos, expertly examining students through the course of five decades.

Throughout his life Milner devoted much attention to chemistry and was remembered as 'a great dabbler in air-pumps' (Milner, 70). As a chemical philosopher he worked hard to ensure that the discipline remained within the Newtonian framework and that chemical speculation would not infringe upon politico-theology. His interest in chemistry was sparked in the early 1770s by Richard Watson, who was then the incumbent professor of that discipline at Cambridge. From Watson he received tuition, and by the end of the decade he was acting as deputy to Isaac Pennington, Watson's successor. During these years he also received permission to set up a laboratory in the stable yard at Queens'.

In 1782 the Jacksonian professorship of natural philosophy was established and the syndicate selected Milner as the inaugural professor, a position he retained until 1792. Richard Jackson stipulated that the holder of his eponymous professorship should make 'further discoveries' in natural philosophy that would 'tend to set forth the Glory of the Almighty God, and promote the welfare of mankind'. To fulfil these requests Milner presented lectures each year, alternating between mechanics and chemistry. As a lecturer he was remembered as a 'first-rate showman' (Milner, 29) who always held his audience in 'a high state of interest and excitement' (ibid., 31). He considered his lectures in these subjects to be important pedagogical tools that helped teach undergraduates to reason effectively in other modes of life, but he also warned that chemical phenomena should not be exploited to convey simple moral lessons, and he admonished fellow chemists for committing this blunder. Thus he wrote: 'the Subject is intricate & mysterious & … whenever we meddle in it without the utmost care and circumspection, we are likely to involve ourselves in Error & Absurdity' (Essay, 14). He had a strong distaste for comprehensive theories, and remained noncommittal to either the ‘phlogistonists’ or ‘anti-phlogistonists’.

Besides lecturing, Milner also developed an important process to fabricate nitrous acid, a key ingredient in the production of gunpowder. His paper describing this process was published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions in 1789 alongside an article of Joseph Priestley's, and the two corresponded on the subject. Ironically, however, it was the Jacobins who first availed themselves of his ingenuity on a grand scale. In later years Milner transferred his elaborate collection of chemical apparatus into the president's lodge at Queens' and performed experiments with E. D. Clarke, William Whewell, and the Wollaston brothers; he also collaborated with Humphrey Davy and Joseph Banks in the quest to cure gout.

Evangelical commitments

Over the span of his forty-five-year career, Milner's scientific sentiments came to reflect his religious sentiments strongly. Although he never parted from the Anglican fold, he came to embrace the central evangelical doctrines of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, near the end of his life he could proclaim: 'I may safely defy anyone to produce an instance where I have failed to stand forward with every grain of weight with which I could load the scale of evangelical religion' (Milner, 469). In particular, Milner placed great emphasis upon the personal search for redemption and justification through faith alone, while de-emphasizing the church's Thirty-Nine Articles and Paleyite natural theology; none the less, he remained great friends with many high-churchmen. This amalgam of beliefs and actions led Gilbert Wakefield to state

I ever esteemed this gentleman to be endowed with one of the most vigorous and penetrating minds I know, but his theological conceptions were always, I confess, one of the inscrutabilities of mystery; a heterogeneous composition of deistical levity and methodistical superstition: disparaging the ceremonies of religion, and performing them with slovenly precipitation.

Wakefield, 130

Despite Wakefield's comments, Milner, with Charles Simeon, was largely responsible for the evangelical revival at Cambridge. Indeed, through the years of his tenure at Queens' he dramatically changed the entire complexion of the college. He was also responsible for the conversion of William Wilberforce, which occurred during their long continental tour of 1784–5. While the parliamentary act of 1807 to abolish slavery owed much to their partnership, Milner's co-authorship of the seven-volume Ecclesiastical History of the Church of Christ (1818) with his brother Joseph also earned him nationwide renown.

Although his evangelical sentiments probably prevented Milner from being presented with a profitable see, he was nevertheless rewarded with several lucrative posts throughout his career. In 1788 no one contested his bid for the presidency of Queens', a post he retained until his death. In 1791, through his connections with Bishop Pretyman-Tomline and William Pitt, he was able to secure the deanship of Carlisle. In 1793 and again in 1810 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the university, and in 1798 he finally managed to secure for himself the Lucasian professorship of mathematics, a chair he had coveted for decades. As holder of that post he sat on the committee that oversaw Telford's project to span the Thames with an iron bridge. From 1787 he also served on the board of longitude and was involved in settling the fierce disputes concerning accurate chronometers.

Disputes and controversies, 1793 and 1813

Not everyone agreed with Milner's convictions, policies, and practices, and he was frequently embroiled in disputes. Of these controversies the trial of William Frend and the furore surrounding the formation of the Cambridge branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society are the best remembered. Milner put an end to the university career of Frend, a fellow of Jesus College and disciple of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley. In the late 1780s and early 1790s Frend had vexed the conservative element of Cambridge with his radical pamphlets, which urged wholesale religious, legal, and philosophical changes in Britain. In a series of increasingly inflammatory publications, he mocked the established theology and its exponents in Cambridge. Frend's derision of state and university policy culminated with his publication of Peace and Union (1793), in which he condemned the dualistic ontology adhered to by the Church of England and labelled the church a political outfit. After reading this pamphlet, twenty-seven senior members of the university approached Milner at the president's lodge at Queens'. As vice-chancellor, Milner decided to try Frend in the Cambridge Senate House for breaking the statute De concionibus. According to Henry Gunning, Milner hoped to make it evident to the government that he detested Jacobinical principles. However, his scheme nearly backfired, for Frend came to the courtroom prepared for battle. He denounced the 'immaterialist' natural philosophy of the university and derided Milner as a 'mechanick' and disadvantaged plebeian. Yet, as Gunning noted, 'it was apparent from the first that the vice-chancellor was determined to convict' (Gunning, 1.272). Milner rusticated the Jesus fellow, claiming that Frend had destroyed many 'unsuspecting minds' (Beverley, 77), and in later life proudly proclaimed that the trial 'was the ruin of the Jacobinal party as a university thing' (BL, MS 35657).

The other great controversy in which Milner was immersed concerned the formation of an auxiliary branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Cambridge. Several junior members of the university, mostly of evangelical bent, attempted to establish the society in 1811, considering it their Christian duty to disperse cheap Bibles. Despite the robust misgivings of the high church, the undergraduates enlisted the aid of Charles Simeon, E. D. Clarke, and William Farish in order to set their scheme into motion. Although at first ambivalent towards the fledgeling society, Milner was finally persuaded to enter the fray after a number of eminent and influential aristocrats pledged their allegiance. However, he needed to contend with the vehement denunciations of the society by Herbert Marsh—Lady Margaret professor of divinity and cousin of William Frend—who published a series of vituperative sermons that claimed that such societies would be the ruin of the state. Milner counter-attacked with his Strictures on some of the Publications of … Marsh (1813). This curious work marshalled the might of Newton and rational philosophy against his fellow professor. He equated his own arguments for the establishment of the society with the 'sound principles of the Newtonian philosophy' and the reasoning of Marsh with the 'dangerous and fanciful levities of Des Cartes' (Strictures, 212). Although he remained intellectually and socially active until his death, his controversy with Herbert Marsh in 1813 was Milner's last great battle. He died on 1 April 1820 and was buried in Queens' College chapel.


After his death Milner was remembered for his astonishing intellect, his peculiar lifestyle, his tremendous physical bulk and his part in the rise in evangelicalism. Even Henry Gunning, a devoted whig, admitted that 'the University, perhaps, never produced a man of more eminent ability'. Gunning also remembered Milner's social skills: 'the public dinners were very merry, but the private ones were quite uproarious' (Gunning, 1.234–5). Thomas De Quincey, in his preface to the Confessions, deemed Milner an 'eloquent and benevolent' opium user. Others recalled Milner's nude romps through the president's garden at Queens' and his love for feats of legerdemain. James Stephen acknowledged Milner's tremendous acumen but ultimately ridiculed his lifestyle:

He had looked into innumerable books, had dipped into most subjects, and talked with shrewdness, animation, and intrepidity on them all. Whatever the company or whatever the theme, his sonorous voice predominated over other voices, even as his lofty stature, vast girth, and superincumbent wig, defied all competitors. … The keen sarcasm, that science [was] his forte—omniscience his foible, could never have been aimed at any of the giants of Cambridge than at the former president of Queens'.

Stephen, 233

Augustus De Morgan, son-in-law of William Frend, simply designated Milner a 'rational paradoxer', relating the anecdote of Milner's attempt to create a comfortable chair for his hulking frame by making a plaster copy of his posterior to enable a craftsman to imitate it in wood. However, it was with his working friendships with people such as William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and his brother Joseph that his historical impact was greatest.


  • M. Milner, Life of Isaac Milner (1842)
  • J. Stephen, Ecclesiastical studies (1849)
  • H. Gunning, Reminiscences of the university, town, and county of Cambridge, from the year 1780, 2 vols. (1854)
  • D. A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge (1940)
  • J. Gascoigne, Cambridge in the age of the Enlightenment (1989)
  • J. Beverley, The trial of William Frend (1793)
  • R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols. (1838)
  • L. J. M. Coleby, ‘Isaac Milner and the Jacksonian chair of natural philosophy’, Annals of Science, 10 (1954), 234–57
  • G. Wakefield, Memoirs of the life of Gilbert Wakefield (1792)
  • W. W. R. Ball, A history of the study of mathematics at Cambridge (1889)
  • F. K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians: the age of Wilberforce (1961)
  • J. W. Clark, Endowments of the University of Cambridge (1904)
  • A. De Morgan, Budget of paradoxes, 2 vols. (1885)
  • T. De Quincey, Confessions of an English opium eater
  • R. H. Martin, Evangelicals united: ecumenical stirrings in pre-Victorian Britain, 1795–1830 (1983)
  • Queens' College conclusion book, Queens' College, Cambridge, 1784–1820
  • BL, MS 35657


  • BL, Add. MSS 35657–35658
  • CUL, lectures
  • Queens' College, Cambridge
  • RS, papers
  • Trinity Cam.
  • BL, letters to A. Young and Lord Hardwicke, Add. MSS 35126, 35129, 35132, 35658, 35686–35687
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Wilberforce
  • CUL, Pitt corresp.
  • Hunt. L., Z. Macaulay corresp.


  • J. Opie, oils, 1790, Queens' College, Cambridge
  • oils, 1805, Queens' College, Cambridge
  • T. Kerrich, chalk drawing, 1810
  • Facius, stipple, pubd 1811 (after T. Kerrich), BM, NPG
  • H. Meyer, stipple, 1815 (after J. Jackson), BM, NPG; repro. in Contemporary portraits (1815)
  • T. Uwins, pencil drawing, BM
  • engraving (after portrait by J. Opie, 1790), repro. in Milner, Life
  • engraving, RS

Wealth at Death