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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

History: Francis Maseres

The Edict of Nantes was proclaimed by Henry IV of France in 1598 in an attempt to promote civil unity and put an end to religious wars. It granted freedom of religion and worship to Protestants (Huguenots). In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the edict causing an exodus of some 500,000 Huguenots, the majority to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. Abraham de Moivre, whose 1725 Annuities upon Lives is the first book wholly devoted to life contingencies, was among those who fled to Britain.

The family of Francis Maseres were also amongst those who came to Britain. Maseres, who was born in 1731, was fluent in both French and English. In 1752, at Clare Hall, Cambridge, he graduated as Fourth Wrangler (fourth best in the mathematical tripos) and won the Chancellor’s Medal for Classics.

After being called to the bar, he practiced law but did not distinguish himself in this field. In 1766, despite his antipathy to Catholicism, he was appointed attorney-general of Quebec, where his fluent French was an advantage. Again, he was unsuccessful. Part of the problem was that the majority of the population in Quebec were Catholics and Catholicism was to be tolerated as far as the laws of England allowed.

In England, Catholics had limited freedoms. It was not until 1778 that Catholics in England were granted certain property rights and absolved from the requirement to swear a Protestant oath when joining the military. Full political rights were not granted until 1829.

The Governor of Quebec rejected Maseres’ 1769 attempt to reconcile French and English law and he was sent home. During the period 1771-1773, Maseres put forward a number of proposals to provide annuities for the poor. These ultimately lead to the state old age pension. It was also in 1773 that Maseres was appointed Cursitor Baron of the Exchequer, a post with little work. What little there was consisted of dealing with routine matters. This gave an income of £300 to £400 a year. It did not, however, give him a place in the House of Lords.

Maseres dealt elegantly with Weyman Lee, a Barrister at Law and a Bencher of the Inner Temple. Lee wrote an essay on annuities in 1737 - however, this work and its second edition in 1751 were unsound. Lee responded to criticism with all the longwinded eloquence and confidence a barrister can command. One of his comments was that ‘...de Moivre’s methods were a contradiction to commonsense and reason and he (Lee) barred all proofs from mathematical schemes.’

Maseres’ response in 1783 was to say of Lee’s book, “It is exceedingly erroneous.... Yet the principle, upon which Mr Lee grounds this method, has something in it that is plausible at first sight, and is apt to mislead the understanding with an appearance of truth and simplicity, unless it be examined with a great degree of attention.”

Maseres published over thirty books and pamphlets on subjects mathematical, religious and historical, including papers to the Royal Society, where he became a fellow in 1771. Volume five of his Scriptores Logarithmici, which consisted of reprints of rare mathematical texts, contains half a dozen items of actuarial interest, including Halley’s Discourse on Compound Interest. Maseres was a chess player, a fellow of the Society of Antiquities and filled his life with intellectual activities.

Maseres received generous legacies from his family and became rich. He inherited his father’s house in Rathbone Place, Oxford Street, where he dined. He also owned a fine red brick Queen Anne house in Reigate. At his ground floor residence at 5 King’s Bench Walk, he kept three footmen and a maid.

William Cobbett, in Rural Rides (1830), reports that whenever Maseres visited Cobbett in Newgate Prison, Maseres always wore his wig and gown. Cobbett had been imprisoned for two years for, as Cobbett related it, “expressing my indignation.” Cobbett says that Maseres spoke “against those crafty priests, who thus plundered families by means of influence which they had over people in their dotage, or who were naturally weak-minded.” Yet when Maseres died at age 92, he left members of his family just £30,000, but Robert Fellows, a young Anglican clergyman, received around £200,000.

Curiously, the two main sources for this article, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Sir F D MacKinnon’s edited 1927 edition of Charles Lamb’s essay The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple make no mention whatsoever of Maseres’ interest in actuarial matters.

Maseres’ contemporaries remembered him for wearing the three-cornered hat, tye-wig and ruffles from the age of George II. He was a notable sight.

Trevor Sibbett is an actuary with an interest in the history of actuarial science


See also ’Aged, deserving, infirm and poor’ - Trevor Sibbett’s report on Francis Maseres’ early proposals for old-age pensions - at www.the-actuary.org.uk/853727