Elizabeth Tollett

Scientific poet

A colour portrait of a young woman with a gold frame

18th-century portrait of Elizabeth Tollet (Image by permission of History Today)

  • BORN 11th March 1694, Unknown
  • DIED 1st February 1754, Westham (now West Ham), Essex
  • WORKED Tower of London; Betley Hall, Staffordshire; Stratford, Essex; Westham (West Ham), Essex
  • HONOURS No honours: not relevant
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Echoes from Essex 2020

Entry by Dr Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College Cambridge and member of the British Society for the History of Science.

Artistic Connections

Elizabeth Tollet was a skilled musician and renowned poet. Her work included a ‘musical drama’ called ‘Susanna, or Innocence Preserv’d’, for which she presumably composed music, although any score is now lost. After her death, her poetry was, unusually, published under her own name, and it includes several elegies to the delights of music. In a poem mourning the loss of a close friend, she wrote ‘sorrow has untun’d my voice to sing.’

Music

Title: Minerva Mathematica
Music by: FRANCES M LYNCH
Words: Winton Mathematics Gallery exhibition, Science Museum, London – curator David Rooney; Sofia Kovalevskaya, Dr Patricia Fara, Geoffrey Chaucer
Written in: 2017
For: solo voice with a chorus of recorded voices
Performed by: Frances M Lynch (solo & chorus) and Chorus – Pippa J Redfern, Danielle Barry, Kathryn Holland, Miranda Melville, Colette Milward, Eloise Ward, Fiona McAlister
First Performance: Science Museum, London on 22nd Feb February 2017
First Broadcast: BBC Radio 3, Proms, June 5th 2018

………………………………………………………………………………

Title: Set me as a seal upon thine heart
Composer: IMOGEN HOLST
Words: extracts from Song of Songs 8: 6&7, Old Testament Bible
Written in: August 1946
For: Female Voices (3 treble, 2 alto)
Performed by: Frances M Lynch, Alice Privett (Sops); Simone Ibbett-Brown, Margaret Cameron (Mezzos); David Sheppard (Counter-Tenor)
Published by: unpublished
First Performed by: Students at Dartington Hall, Devon 1946

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death;
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it:”

Education

From a young age, her enlightened father gave her an excellent education not only in traditional girls’ subjects, such as singing, dancing and drawing, but also in mathematics and Latin, which were normally reserved for boys.

Occupations

Housekeeper
Her mother died when she was very young, and she became responsible for running the household and caring for her two younger brothers.

Scholar
An exceptionally well-educated woman, Tollet composed her own original poetry as well as translating to and from Latin and other languages.

Scientific Achievement

Tollet contributed to the dissemination of scientific ideas. Throughout the eighteenth century, poetry was an important didactic medium, and her work includes lucid accounts of Isaac Newton’s theories and other current topics in natural philosophy. Writing in the voice of Hypatia, the ancient Greek mathematician, she argued that women should be allowed to pursue scientific careers. Her poetry repeatedly stressed that men suppressed women by excluding them from education:

That haughty Man, unrival’d and alone,
May boast the World of Science all his own:
As barb’rous Tyrants, to secure their Sway,
Conclude that Ignorance will best obey.

Did You Know?

For many years, Tollet lived inside the Tower of London, where her father was a naval administrator. She described herself walking alone along the ramparts with only her Latin books for company, and wrote a long poem imagining how Anne Boleyn must have felt when imprisoned there.

She knew Isaac Newton, who professed himself very impressed by her educational achievements.

She wrote a poem to her brother at Cambridge University lamenting how much she envied him.

A sepia coloured 18th-century engraving of the Tower of London

“The South View of the Tower of London” engraving, published in 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. (Image courtesy of the British Museum on Wikimedia Commons)

An Inspiring Woman

During her lifetime, she participated in female correspondence networks and was greatly admired for her keen mind and intellectual poetry, but later was essentially forgotten until the end of the twentieth century. For modern readers, she provides powerful reminders that women were oppressed for many centuries.

What cruel laws depress the female Kind,
To humble Cares and servile tasks confin’d?

Links