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Walker, George (1734?-1807) (DNB00)


WALKER, GEORGE (1734?–1807), dissenting divine and mathematician, was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne about 1734. At ten years of age he was placed in the care of an uncle at Durham, Thomas Walker (d. 10 Nov. 1763), successively minister at Cockermouth, 1732, Durham, 1736, and Leeds, 1748, where Priestley describes him as one of ‘the most heretical ministers in the neighbourhood’ (Rutt, Priestley, 1831, i. 11). He attended the Durham grammar school under Richard Dongworth. In the autumn of 1749, being then ‘near fifteen,’ he was admitted to the dissenting academy at Kendal under Caleb Rotherham [q. v.]; here, among the lay students, he met with his lifelong friend, John Manning (1730–1806). On Rotherham's retirement (1751) he was for a short time under Hugh Moises [q. v.] at Newcastle-on-Tyne. In November 1751 he entered at Edinburgh University with Manning, where he studied mathematics under Matthew Stewart [q. v.], who gave him his taste for that science. He removed to Glasgow in 1752 for the sake of the divinity lectures of William Leechman [q. v.], continued his mathematical studies under Robert Simson [q. v.], and heard the lectures of Adam Smith [q. v.], but learned more from all three in their private conversation than their public prelections. Among his classmates were Newcome Cappe [q. v.], Nicholas Clayton [q. v.], and John Millar (1735–1801) [q. v.], members with him of a college debating society. Leaving Glasgow in 1754 without graduating, he did occasional preaching at Newcastle and Leeds, and injured his health by study. At Glasgow he had allowed himself only three hours' sleep. He was recovered by a course of sea bathing. In 1766 he declined an invitation to succeed Robert Andrews [q. v.] as minister of Platt Chapel, Manchester, but later in the year accepted a call (in succession to Joseph Wilkinson) from his uncle's former flock at Durham, and was ordained there in 1757 as ‘spiritual consul’ to a ‘presbyterian tribe.’

At Durham he finished, but did not yet publish, his ‘Doctrine of the Sphere,’ begun in Edinburgh. With the signature P.M.D. (presbyterian minister, Durham) he contributed to the ‘Ladies' Diary’ [see Tipper, John], then edited by Thomas Simpson (1710–1761) [q. v.] He left Durham at the beginning of 1762 to become minister at Filby, Norfolk, and assistant to John Whiteside (d. 1784) at Great Yarmouth. Here he resumed his intimacy with Manning, now practising as a physician at Norwich. He began his treatise on conic sections, suggested to him by Sir Isaac Newton's ‘Arithmetica Universalis,’ 1707. He took pupils in mathematics and navigation. Through Richard Price (1723–1791) [q. v.] he was elected fellow of the Royal Society, and recommended to William Petty, second earl of Shelburne (afterwards first Marquis of Lansdowne) [q. v.], for the post of his librarian, afterwards filled by Joseph Priestley [q. v.], but declined it (1772) owing to his approaching marriage. He accepted in the same year the office of mathematical tutor at Warrington Academy, in succession to John Holt (d. 1772; see under Horsley). Here he prepared for the press his treatise on the sphere, himself cutting out all the illustrative figures (twenty thousand, for an edition of five hundred copies). It appeared in quarto in 1775, and was reissued in 1777. Joseph Johnson [q. v.] gave him for the copyright 40l., remitted by Walker on finding the publisher had lost money. The emoluments at Warrington did not answer his expectation. He resigned in two years, and in the autumn of 1774 became colleague to John Simpson (1746–1812) at High Pavement chapel, Nottingham.

Here he remained for twenty-four years, developing unsuspected powers of public work. He made his mark as a pulpit orator, reconciled a division in his congregation, founded a charity school (1788), and published a hymn-book. His colleagues after Simpson's retirement were (1778) Nathaniel Philipps (d. 20 Oct. 1842), the last dissenting minister who preached in a clerical wig (1785), Nicholas Clayton (1794), William Walters (d. 11 April 1806). In conjunction with Gilbert Wakefield [q. v.], who was in Nottingham 1784–90, he formed a literary club, meeting weekly at the members' houses. Wakefield considered him as possessing ‘the greatest variety of knowledge, with the most masculine understanding’ of any man he ever knew (Memoirs of Wakefield, 1804, i. 227). Nottingham was a focus of political opinion, which Walker led both by special sermons and by drafting petitions and addresses sent forward by the town in favour of the independence of the United States and the advocacy of parliamentary and other reforms. His ability and his constitutional spirit won the high commendation of Edmund Burke [q. v.] His reform speech at the county meeting at Mansfield, 28 Oct. 1782, was his greatest effort. William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, third duke of Portland [q. v.], compared him with Cicero, to the disadvantage of the latter. From 1787 he was chairman of the associated dissenters of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and part of Yorkshire, whose object was to achieve the repeal of the Test Acts. His ‘Dissenters' Plea,’ Birmingham [1790], 8vo, was reckoned by Charles James Fox [q. v.] the best publication on the subject. He was an early advocate of the abolition of the slave trade. The variety of his interests is shown by his publication (1794, 4to) of his treatise on conic sections, while he was agitating against measures for the suppression of public opinion, which culminated in the ‘gagging act’ of 1795.

Towards the close of 1797, after a fruitless application to Thomas Belsham [q. v.], Walker was invited to succeed Thomas Barnes [q. v.] as professor of theology in Manchester College. He felt it a duty to comply, and resigned his Nottingham charge on 5 May 1798. There was one other tutor, but the funds were low, and Walker's appeal (19 April 1799) for increased subscriptions met with scant response. From 1800 the entire burden of teaching, including classics and mathematics, fell on him, nor was his remuneration proportionally increased. In addition he took charge (1801–3) of the congregation at Dob Lane Chapel, Failsworth. He resigned in 1803, and the college was removed to York [see Wellbeloved, Charles].

Walker remained for two years in the neighbourhood of Manchester, and continued to take an active part in its Literary and Philosophical Society, of which he was elected president on the death of Thomas Percival (1740–1804) [q. v.] In 1805 he removed to Wavertree, near Liverpool, still keeping up a connection with Manchester. In the spring of 1807 he went to London on a publishing errand. His powers suddenly failed. He died at Draper Hall, London, on 21 April 1807, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. His portrait is in the possession of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and has been twice engraved. He married in 1772, and left a widow. His only son, George Walker, his father's biographer and author of ‘Letters to a Friend’ (1843) on his reasons for nonconformity, became a resident in France. His only daughter, Sarah (d. 8 Dec. 1854), married, on 9 July 1795, Sir George Cayley, bart., of Brompton, near Scarborough. William Manning Walker (1784–1833), minister at Preston and Manchester, was his nephew.

Walker's theology, a ‘tempered Arianism,’ plays no part in his own compositions, but shows itself in omissions and alterations in his ‘Collection of Psalms and Hymns,’ Warrington, 1788, 8vo. He wrote a few hymns. Many of his speeches and political addresses will be found in his ‘Life’ and collected ‘Essays.’ Besides the mathematical works already mentioned, he published: 1. ‘Sermons,’ 1790, 2 vols. 8vo. Posthumous were: 2. ‘Sermons,’ 1808, 4 vols. 8vo (including reprint of No. 1). 3. ‘Essays … prefixed … Life of the Author,’ 1809, 2 vols. 8vo.

[Obituary by Aikin, in Athenæum, June 1807 p. 638; Life, by his Son, prefixed to Essays, also separately, 1809; Monthly Repository, 1807 p. 217, 1810 pp. 264, 352, 475, 500, 504, 1811 p. 18, 1813 p. 577; Wicksteed's Memory of the Just, 1849, p. 127; Bright's Historical Sketch of Warrington Academy, 1859, p. 16; Munk's Coll. of Phys. 1861, ii. 183; Carpenter's Presbyterianism in Nottingham [1862], p. 161; Halley's Lancashire, 1869, ii. 395, 409, 468; Roll of Students, Manchester Coll. 1868; Browne's Hist. of Congregationalism in Norfolk and Suffolk, 1877, p. 251; Nightingale's Lancashire Nonconformity, 1891 i. 17, 1893 v. 47; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology, 1892, pp. 12, 30.]

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