Leonard Horner (1785-1864)

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Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Leonard Horner, one of six children, was born in George Square, Edinburgh, 17 January 1785, and was educated at the Edinburgh High School. In 1802, he studied Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh under Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844), having already shown a strong bias towards scientific pursuits, and about the same time began to collect mineralogical specimens. Becoming partner in his father's linen factory, he went to London in 1804. From his brother's influence, and his own acquirements as mineralogist and geologist, Horner was soon well known among scientific and literary men of the day.

Horner's business duties recalled him to Edinburgh in 1817, where he settled, after accompanying his brother Francis to Italy, and became prominent as a whig politician and educational reformer. His years in London, steeped in the society of the educated, enlightened literati, had instilled in him an interest in the social conditions of the working classes, and particularly in their education.

In 1821, Horner founded the School of Arts in Edinburgh, for the teaching of mechanics. He had been inspired by a conversation with Robert Bryson, a respected Edinburgh businessman, and owner of a watchmakers shop. The two men fell into conversation, and, prompted by a question from Horner, Bryson expressed some frustration that young men entering his trade hardly ever received any mathematical education, and that this had a negative effect on their daily lives.

Horner had an idea that a means might be devised of providing such education for the working classes. His outline of a proposed school was circulated to selected master mechanics, in order that they could gauge interest amongst their workmen. Only a month after the conversation in Bryson's shop, a committee had formed with the purpose of bringing the plan into fruition. The first institution specifically designed to provide practical technical education for the working classes, the: School of Arts of Edinburgh for the Education of Mechanics in Such Branches of Physical Science as are of Practical Application in their several trades opened, in October 1821, in Niddry Street, Edinburgh. It was an immediate success. Probably the first institution founded specifically for the technical education of the artisan classes, the School of Arts heralded a new era in the history of education in Britain. As a result Lord Cockburn described Horner as 'indirectly the founder of all such institutions'. Horner was also one of the founders of the Edinburgh Academy.

From 1821 to 1826, a series of annual political meetings, were organised chiefly by Horner, and in 1825, he was corresponding with Peel, then home secretary, respecting workmen's combinations. In 1827, Horner was invited to London to assist in organising the London Institution, and in the following year became Warden of London University, effectively its first Principal.

In 1831, he resigned the latter office, partly on account of ill-health, and went with his family to live at Bonn on the Rhine. While there Horner occupied himself in studying mineralogy. In 1833, he was appointed one of the commissioners to inquire into the employment of children in factories, and was until 1856, one of the chief inspectors under the Factories Act, performing his duties with remarkable energy.

After 1856, Horner mainly devoted his attention to geology, and drew up catalogues of the Geological Society's collections. After a trip to Florence, in 1861, in search of better health, Horner died on 5 March 1864, at Montagu Square, London.


Horner's brother was Francis Horner, the noted Whig politician.

Notable publications

On the Occurrence of the Megalichthys, ( 1836)

On the Employment of Children in Factories in the United Kingdom and in some Foreign Countries, ( 1840)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1808: Fellow of the Geological Society

1810: Secretary of the Geological Society

1813: Fellow of the Royal Society.

1828: Warden of London University

1828: Vice-President of the Geological Society

1846: President of the Geological Society


Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 1995)