Astronomers: Bedfordshire

Dall, Horace Edward Stafford (1901-1986), born Chelmsford, but raised by relatives due death of mother in 1903. Having received a basic education he left school aged 14, taking various technical jobs and continuing his tution at his local technical college in Luton.  It was through his tutor’s recommentations that he was recruited by George Kent Ltd., with whom he stayed until retirement. He is best remembered for his technical and optical skill in the manufacture of telescopes and the camera obscura.  The latter was featured in the later editions of Amateur Telescope Maker, vol.2. He installed an obscura at his home along with an observatory (Obit., JBAA, 97 (1987), 76-80).

Elger, Thomas Gwyn Empy (1836-1897), an engineer born in Bedford and continuing to live there. Member Liverpool A.s. First Director of the BAA Lunar Section 1892-97. A cartographer and draughtsman of the highest order. He observed with a 8.5-inch reflector (possibly a 9.5-inch With/Browning acquired from E.N. Nevill) and had published an 18-inch lunar chart in 1895 (Leatherbarrow 2013, 146-7; Garfinkle 2001).

Hawkins, Hester Periam [nee Lewis](1846-1928), born Wantage, Berkshire where she lived until marrying the Rev. Joshua Hawkins. In 1879 he gave up his ministry and the family moved to Bedford. Amongst Hester’s various religious, social and political interests, she was fond of astronomy.  She was the author of a series of small texts on the subject (1905-29) and became a fellow of the RAS in 1921 (Obit. MNRAS, 89 (1928), 308-9).

Pettit, James (c.1774-1850) [FRAS], born Bedford, who initially followed a career in music before coming a clerk at the bank of England. An experimenter with optics he made observations from  Bedford (MSS notebook ‘Observations on the Heavenly bodies from July 1819’ – Bedford Record Office). Pettit made a number of achromatic telescopes, some of which were of adequate quality (Obid., MNRAS, 11 (1851), 90).

Simmons, Hugh (1891-1962), of ‘Solaris’, Edlesborough, Dunstable, Beds. He worked at Whipsnade Zoo. He used a 10cm refractor for solar work, mostly drawing sunspots and prominences. A member of ‘Mr Barker’s Circle’, an observing group of eight men active from April 1934 to December 1938 and May 1946 to May 1948. See: Hertfordshire, Robert Barker, and for an excellent article (McKim 2013).

Smyth, William Henry [Capt.](1788-1865), born in Westminster, Middlesex. Through his naval career, he met Giuseppe Piazzi, director of the Royal Palermo Observatory with whom he observed before returning retiring to Bedford in England on half-pay. Here he established his Bedford Observatory equipped with a 5.9-inch Tully refractor to compile his Bedford Catalogue (1844). In his book Smyth drew a plan and described his observatory as being ‘a plan on as small and economical a scale as was consistent with the required efficiency’,  he encouraged ‘the Uranian aspirant’ with a 5-foot [i.e. 3¾-inch object glass] (p. 370); the English climate required ‘moral courage’, so he addressed not ‘a dabbler’ but ‘the amateur’, ‘the true Uranian’ (pp. 378 and 383); similarly he differentiated ‘mechanicians like Troughton’ (p.380) from ‘indifferent workmen’ (p. 384). This was powerful persuasion. Hence the book, combined with Smyth’s activity and influence within the RAS, was very influential (ODNB; Chapman 1997; Peeling 2020).

Whitbread, Samuel Charles (1796-1879), born Bedfordshire (?), later for Middlesex before inheriting a large family estate of Southill Park,Cardington. With an interest in astronomy, here he erected a small but well-equipped observatory – survives as a time-capsule.  He was a founder of the Royal meteorological Society along with John Lee and James Glaisher (Obit. MNRAS, 40 (1880), 207).