Booth, James (1806–78), mathematician and educationist, was born 25 August 1806, the eldest of the three children of John and Ellen Booth. John Booth was a landowner at Lavagh, Co. Leitrim; his son was to inherit about 100 acres. James was educated by a local clergyman, and entered TCD on 17 October 1825. He was awarded a scholarship in 1829, and graduated BA in 1832, with the gold medal in Greek. He was never elected to a fellowship, though he sat the fellowship examinations four times and was placed high in the results. Without prospects in Ireland, he left Dublin in 1840 to become principal of Bristol College. Unfortunately for Booth, the college's secular approach to education was opposed by local clergy, and it closed a few months after Booth arrived. He went to Liverpool as vice-principal of the Collegiate Institution from 1843; by then he had himself been ordained (in 1842), and had been granted the degrees of LLB and LLD by TCD in the same year. In 1849 he moved to Wandsworth, London, as vicar of St Anne's parish, and with others founded a pioneering technical school there. It lasted only three years, but the experience probably strengthened Booth's convictions about the importance of educating artisans as well as the middle class. Booth moved in 1859 to the rural parish of Stone in Buckinghamshire; he was nominated to this living by the Royal Astronomical Society, in whose gift it was, thanks to the eccentric landowner and amateur astronomer John Lee. He became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in the same year. Lee and Booth established in Stone a short-lived elementary school, with classes in agriculture for the local farmers and labourers.
The rest of his life Booth spent in reworking some fifty papers on mathematics which had first been published by the RIA and elsewhere; he published a Treatise on some new geometrical methods in two volumes in 1873 and 1878. In his time at TCD he had developed a new and potentially important system of tangential coordinates, which he published in 1842. He was sufficiently well thought of as a mathematician to be elected to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1846. Unfortunately for Booth, though he had worked independently, his ideas had been pre-empted by the work of a German mathematician, and his other papers, on topics in plane and conic geometry and on integrals, were not of great importance. Booth is thus not remembered as a mathematician, despite a lifetime's interest in the subject. Although his efforts on behalf of popular education provide a stronger claim for fame, his posthumous reputation depends chiefly on his work with the Royal Society of Arts from 1852, when he joined, until 1857, when he resigned.
His first contribution was to suggest, immediately after he was elected to fellowship in June 1852, that the society should publish a journal. After further efforts on Booth's part, the first number of the journal appeared in November 1852. It was immediately and lastingly successful. Booth was elected to the society's council, and was chairman of a committee set up to report on technical education in Britain, the first public body to do so. He was author of the important resulting report, published in 1853. In this he set out the view that centralised examinations would greatly help the development of technical instruction, by creating a demand for qualifications that would in turn produce a supply of courses, institutions and practitioners. A pamphlet he had written in 1847 had first explored this idea. He was able to persuade the Society of Arts to undertake examinations, and though the first attempt, organised in June 1855 by Booth's colleague and adversary Harry Chester, was a failure, examinations were successfully organised by Booth (who had become chairman of council in July 1855) the next year. In 1857 two centres examined 220 candidates. Public examinations quickly became the norm for the secondary and tertiary levels of British education, and were established also in the colonies. Booth's initiatives would in time affect the lives of millions, and his biographer, Frank Foden, claims that many aspects of British examinations derive from the Trinity College system with which Booth had been familiar. However, in November 1857 his apparent dominance of the Society of Arts came to a sudden end when he was ousted from his position as chairman by a carefully orchestrated attack by Harry Chester and others. A few members supported Booth's proposals on further developing the examination system, but his enemies were too numerous, and Booth indignantly resigned from the society in November 1857.
Booth married Mary Watney on 28 September 1854 in St Anne's, Wandsworth. She was the second daughter of Daniel Watney, of the famous family of brewers. They had two sons and a daughter. Booth died four years after his wife, in his vicarage at Stone, on 15 April 1878.