A curious childhood

Quart pot in the Red Chamber

A Christmas Day baby is always special: Newton’s mother Hannah Ayscough must have regarded his survival as a near-miracle. Read about Newton's difficult start in life, with extracts taken from the new Woolsthorpe guidebook by Patricia Fara.

Her husband, also called Isaac, had died three months earlier at the age of 36. Posthumous births were traditionally seen as blessed, although the baby’s hold on life was so tenuous that Isaac was not baptised until a week later on New Year’s Day.

In his later years, Newton recounted the family legend about his birth to his niece’s husband, John Conduitt.

" He [Newton] had been told that when he was born he was so little they could put him into a quart pot and so weakly that he was forced to have a bolster all round his neck to keep it on his shoulders."
- John Conduitt

Newton was three years old when his mother, Hannah, remarried and moved away to live with her new husband, Barnabas Smith, who was rector of the church at North Witham, only a mile and a half away. Newton was left behind at Woolsthorpe to be raised by his maternal grandparents.

Newton's upbringing cannot be viewed through purely modern eyes, as such family arrangements would not have been unusual. The sense of rejection that accompanied the separation from his mother, and the juxtaposition of her raising his siblings but not himself, must have presented some difficulty for the young Newton.  We do know he resented his Stepfather as years later, as a Cambridge student, Newton compiled a list of his sins in which he recalled an incident from his childhood.

" Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them."
- Isaac Newton in his list of sins.

In his curious childhood, Isaac was inspired by the natural enviornment and landscape around him. He developed practical skills in using tools and construction techniques.  With the potent combination of his enquiring mind and ability to work with his hands, he had taken his first steps into a lifetime of observation and experimentation.

Sundial carved by Isaac at St.John the Baptist Church Colsterworth
Sundial carved by Newton as a child on the wall of St.John the Baptist Church in Colsterworth
Sundial carved by Isaac at St.John the Baptist Church Colsterworth

At ten years old, life changed again for the young Newton. His stepfather died, and his mother returned to Woolsthorpe with three young children – a boy and two girls. They resided in a house adjacent to the Manor House.

On the cusp of adolesence, a 12 year old Newton was sent to weekly board in nearby Grantham, where the Grammar School had an excellent reputation. While at school, Newton lodged with the apothecary, Mr Clark, who lived next to the George Inn on the High Street.

Isaac approached life in a manner that suited him, but his quiet contemplative personality may not have fitted in with the social norms of the time.

" a sober, silent, thinking lad who 'never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad."
- Newton's landlord's daughter

Isaac's keeness for making and testing models began to shine through. At school, Newton paid far more attention to making clever mechanical devices than to his textbooks. He watched closely while a postmill was being constructed nearby, and made a small working model operated by a mouse.

Newton had a fascination with mechanical devices
Model postmill on a window sill at Woolsthorpe
Newton had a fascination with mechanical devices
Was the postmill graffiti carved by Isaac?
Graffiti under UV light depicting a postmill on Hall wall.
Was the postmill graffiti carved by Isaac?

As a 17th century youth in Grantham and Woolsthorpe, his unconventional pastimes meant he would have stood out amongst his peers and society as a whole. He didn't shy away from the unusual;  travelling around in a small, four-wheeled cart run by turning a crank and startling his neighbours by attaching a lantern to the tail of a kite at night.

Lincolnshire supported Oliver Cromwell, who remained in power until his death on 3 September 1658, when Newton was 15. That day remained etched in Newton’s memory because it was marked by a great storm. It gave the opportunity to carry out what he recalled as his first experiment: to calculate the speed of the wind. First he measured how far he could jump against the wind or with it at his back, and then compared the results with the length of his leap in calm weather.

His wide reading stimulated him to carry out further experiments. Fascinated by the effect that our physical limitations might have on what we see, he almost blinded himself twice by exploring the effects of squeezing his eye-ball with a large blunt needle and staring directly at the sun with one eye.

Newton’s notebooks reveal the extraordinary diversity of his self-prescribed curriculum: history, mathematics, astrology, phonetics, light, astronomy.  A direct contrast to the constrained curriculum of the time.

As he approached his 17th birthday, Newton’s mother decided it was time for him to come back home and run the estate. It was a disastrous nine months. Newton proved incapable of learning how to be a gentleman farmer. Given the task of guarding sheep, he began designing ingenious waterwheels, and failed to notice his flock wandering off.

Looking through the apple tree to Isaac Newton's home.
Looking through Isaac Newton's apple tree to the house where he was born
Looking through the apple tree to Isaac Newton's home.

Clearly unsuited to this agricultural career, Newton was rescued by two older men: his uncle William (on his mother’s side), and the Grantham schoolmaster, Mr Stokes. To his great excitement, Newton was sent back to school, where he boarded with Stokes at his home. There he acquired the mathematical skills and additional knowledge he needed to enter Cambridge.

In June 1661, when he was 18 years old, and for the first time in his life, Newton left behind rural Lincolnshire for a life at University more suited to his talents.

" rejoic’d at parting with him, declaring, he was fit for nothing but the ‘Versity"
- Servants at Woolsthorpe

On the fourth day of his journey, he presented himself at Trinity College, Cambridge. His curious childhood in a Lincolnshire backwater had laid the foundations for him to question everything and go on to change the world around him.

Acknowledgement & passages taken from: Dr Patricia Fara - Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor

Tim Peake reading Isaac Newton's Principia in space


Discover more about the story of Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor in our brand new guidebook, with a special foreword by Tim Peake.