John was born in Broxholme in 17772 and was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Saxilby in 1791; both of these places are within a few miles of Lincoln. In 1800 John went to London to finalise his training to become a cordwainer3. During this time he learned bookkeeping and taught himself French and some degree of applied mathematics beyond the calculations and geometry required for his trade. After fifteen years of training, he was ready to strike out on his own.
Whilst in London he met a ladies maid, Mary. She was in service to a cleric at Westminster Abbey. They courted for some time and in 1806 John and Mary married, though it was another seven months before they could afford to set up home together in 1807. They did this in Lindum Road (then New Road) in Lincoln.4 Later, they moved to 34 Silver Street where they opened a shop.5 After eight long years, John and Mary were finally blessed with George, their first son. In the following six years a further three children expanded the family. When the youngest, Charles was born, Mary was 35 and John 38.
With the birth of George, it was realised that the shop at 34 Silver Street was not big enough to both raise a family and carry on John’s business. So in 1816 the Booles moved to 49 Silver Street. It’s not known if this was whilst still keeping on the shop at number 34 (which might imply John’s success and a concern to ‘live well’) or simply moving to larger premises (which says less about their success and attitude to it).
What we do know is that John carried on his business for another fifteen years after George’s birth. He was 54 when he hung up his boots for good. Master Shoemakers were not cobblers, they were highly skilled craftsmen at the forefront of the trades which worked largely for the gentry and the well-to-do (well-heeled!). As such, they were small manufacturers, usually with apprentices and journeymen employed in the shop to make bespoke boots and shoes from patterns made by the master. Traditionally, this trade had been known by the ancient term ‘cordwainer’ and the Guild of Cordwainers was one of the most long-lived. Indeed the College of Cordwainers still exists in London, Jimmy Choo is a famous graduate.6
In Lincoln, the Cordwainers’ guild was one of the last to wield power in the city. Successfully completing an apprenticeship had traditionally been rewarded by becoming a freeman of the city7, with the attendant rights and responsibilities this brought (for instance, a freeman could vote, and stand for city office). John was just a generation too late (the privilege had been withdrawn around the time of his original indentures in the late 18th century). So it can be seen that, although the Booles were not of the social strata which produced most intellectuals scientists and writers, they were not of the lower-strata either. Rather they were typical proto-bourgeois. John’s self-taught French whilst in London could be seen as a sign of intellectual vigour and social betterment, but it could also have been in response to the radical traditions of shoemaking and the revolutionary ideas being discussed in France.8 The year John Boole took up shoemaking, John Paine published “The Rights of Man” and Thomas Hardy, the radical shoemaker was still at the centre of his “Corresponding Societies” in London.9 So, John Boole almost certainly had as much opportunity to be radicalised by his shoemaking as to sign up for a genteel model to life.
Given later events, it seems he opted for getting along with his well-to-do clients. Firstly, he worked with local philanthropic gentry and citizens to set up a savings bank in 1828. His bookkeeping was obviously respected at this time. E.F. Bromhead, was a trained mathematician and local Lord of Thurlby Hall10. He consulted John Boole on the Bank’s financial structure which Bromhead had drawn up himself and then he trusted Boole with the bank’s auditing for twenty years until Boole died, despite the shopkeeper’s change in fortunes just a few years later.11
In 1831, aged 54, after forty years in the shoe trade, Boole declared himself bankrupt. He was able to do this because his position as a trader allowed it. Non-traders at this time were declared insolvent and often languished in debtors’ prison.12 People in Boole’s position could, with their creditors’ agreement, declare themselves bankrupt, pay all they could, and then start again.13 However, without his creditors’ agreement he could not make the declaration. It’s a testament to the sort of contacts Boole had made that he was able to go bankrupt and avoid debtors’ prison. It seems his family believed the root cause of his ‘ruin’ to be that he’d become too side-tracked from business by amateur science and experimentation.14 However, shoemaking was a notoriously difficult ‘juggling act’ because the trade relied upon successfully being the buffer between raw material suppliers’ need of payment for quite expensive materials and wealthy clients’ traditional reluctance to pay their accounts. Added to this was the price of semi-skilled labour from journeymen and the cost of keeping apprentices. It would seem that, distracted by his experiments in science which he shared with his son George and anyone else interested,15 he allowed his outgoings to outstrip his ability to successfully bear upon his clients for payment. Wherever the fault fully lies, it should also be mentioned that this period was one of many bankruptcies -occasioned by new finance and banking practices and the announcement of those ‘going to the wall’ was a frequent column in the newspapers of the time.16
Two years later, he is working again with similar worthies, Radical and Conservative; setting up the Mechanics’ Institute and becoming its first curator. This was a position of some responsibility and standing in the intellectual life of the city.17 Some equipment of his own manufacture is displayed in the Institute’s museum and he is entrusted with the job of keeping the exhibits in working order and assisting in public lectures etc.
In the census of 1841 he describes himself as an “Accountant”.18 On the face of it, this is an extraordinary claim for a bankrupt; a state which is usually seen as publicly indicating either a lack of ability with finance, or a lack of care (or both). It seems odd that Boole Snr could practice the newly minted ‘profession’ in the small city without the understanding and support of his peers.19
Indeed in 1847, he is again given a position of public trust when he joins several city worthies (including his son) in setting up a “Female Penitents’ Home” near Drury Lane.20 It would be remarkable for a man held in some contempt for his bankruptcy to be publicly associated with such an upright project as a benign house of correction for fallen women.
Finally, John was buried outside the family home (also George’s school) in the grounds of St Margaret’s, adjacent to the Cathedral, a very public spot for someone in disrepute. Although these are all circumstantial aspects of John’s bankruptcy and his life afterwards, they do seem to point to a less traumatic fall from grace than popular literature might lead us to expect. Of course, being the father of George must have helped with his social standing, especially in the last few years of his life after George had won such high acclaim from the Royal Society. Even so, having to start again in his mid 50s must have been an upset to him and his family, it certainly propelled George into work rather than further study and made his later acceptance into university Professorship even more remarkable.