Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Clifford, William Kingdon

William Kingdon Clifford, 1845-1879, Mathematician and philosopher

The lozenge-shaped plaque is attached to the front of 82 Longbrook Street, Exeter, EX4 6AP.

The inscription reads:

9 Park Place, childhood home of William Kingdon Clifford, born May 1845, died March 1879, mathematician and philosopher. Exeter Civic Society

Beneath the plaque is another indicating that the house, “Fairpark”, was also the home from 1855 – 1916 of Harry Hems, the ecclesiastical sculptor.

WILLIAM KINGDON CLIFFORD, eldest son of an Exeter JP, was born on 4 May 1845 and soon showed that he was one of the brightest young men of his generation. From Mr Templeton’s school in Exeter, he proceeded to King’s College, London, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. At the age of 26 he became professor of applied mathematics at University College, London. His wife, Lucy, whom he married in 1875, later became a well-known novelist. They had two daughters. Overwork brought about Clifford’s early death in 1879, aged 33, from pulmonary disease in Madeira where he had gone because of his health. He is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

Clifford’s legacy includes contributions to geometry and algebra (the “Clifford algebra” is named after him) that were to be developed in the work of Albert Einstein and in quantum physics. Clifford was a renowned lecturer and progressive philosopher, laying down in a forthright essay, “The Ethics of Belief”, the view that there is a “universal duty of questioning all that we believe”. There was another, childlike side to his character: he liked to fly kites, and wrote children’s stories, notably two dark and rather frightening contributions, “The New Crown” and “The Giant’s Shoes”, to The Little People and Other Tales, published in 1874. JM

There is a great deal about W K Clifford online.