Sir William Curtis – Reading, Writing, And Arithmetic

WORLD HISTORY | September 5, 2019

A classroom. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Where did the three “R’s” come from anyway? It has always been said that we need to go to school to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, but who decided on those three subjects to be the most important ones?

The phrase “Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic,” which came to be known as the three “Rs,” supposedly originated from a toast given by Sir William Curtis at a dinner that was being held for the Board of Education in 1795. There are conflicting stories as to exactly where the phrase came from. Other claims suggest that at least the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic came from St. Augustine’s Confessions.

Sir William Curtis. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Background on Sir William Curtis

Inheriting the family business, Curtis was born in 1752 as the son of a biscuit maker (baker) in Britain. The business, owned by his father and grandfather, was a bakery that expanded upon by Curtis and his brother to make sea biscuits. The business had been passed down to him and his older brother. Besides the business, Curtis was also a successful businessman and banker as well as a politician.

Some of his accomplishments included: Office of Sheriff (1789); M.P. for the City of London (1790) which he held for 28 years; and Lord Mayor of London (1795-1796).

He was also head of the Tory Party, but he was not a very good public speaker as he did not have a good education. The Whigs party constantly made fun of him. Because of his political stand regarding the war and other issues, he was at the bottom of the poll in 1806. He became so unpopular that he lost his seat for the city in 1818.  

King George IV. Source: (youtube.com)

Despite his unpopularity and being the subject of so many jokes by the Whigs, King George IV took a liking to him. King George often sailed out from Ramsgate (Curtis’ home city) to avoid supporters of his wife, as he basically “hated” his wife. He considered Ramsgate a Royal Harbor because he was well received and praised by the people contrary to Dover where his wife was more received.

While at Ramsgate, he would stay over at Curtis’ house. Curtis loved sailing on his yacht so, at times, King George would go with Curtis on cruises in his yacht. He considered Curtis to be a faithful and loyal servant. 

Seabiscuit. Source: (wikivisually.com)

Sir Billy Biscuit

Sir William Curtis was nicknamed “Sir Billy Biscuit,” because of the sea biscuits he made for the British Navy and others. The British Navy was one of their biggest customers which helped make the business quite profitable. Not having a good education did not stop Curtis from becoming a wealthy man with a good business sense.  

Math Equations. Source: (people-equation.com)

Sir William Curtis was so illiterate that he thought Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic all started with the same letter, the letter R. It is believed the phrase “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” became one of his statements in a speech he made at a dinner that was held for the Board of Education (of all people). He possibly only meant it as a joke, but apparently it was not received that way. Later it caused him to become the target of ridicule so badly that the phrase has stuck down through history.


Despite all the jokes and ridicule, the people of Ramsgate highly respected Sir William Curtis. Here they named him the “Father of the City.” On the day of his death in January of 1829, every shop closed and a huge entourage followed behind the funeral procession to honor him.  

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