Astronomers: Cornwall

Adams, John Couch (5 June 1819 Lidcot, near Launceston, Cornwall: died 21 January 1892,Cambridge), eldest of the seven children of Thomas Adams (1788–1859), tenant farmer, and his wife, Tabitha Knill Grylls (1796–1866), a farmer’s daughter who had received some education from her uncle John Couch. She inherited Couch’s library, including a few astronomy books, which engaged John in boyhood.

Remembered, most memorably, for mathematically predicting the existence of the planet, Neptune from perturbations caused by the orbit of Uranus.  Although considered a co-discoverer of Neptune today, at the time the discovery it was lost to fellow astronomer Le Verrier, who had independently also predicted the orbit.  There has been a lot of written discussion about the controversy surrounding the events which lead to the loss of the discovery and the role that G. B.Airy and  J. Chablis played in not working more closely with Adams at the time.  Adams own papers do give good insights into the methods used at the time around the discovery.  They are available to read online at ( Similarly Airy’s paper on the events…7..121A. Work undertaken surrounding the Moon enabled his to prove that the Moon undergoes tidal acceleration a discovery which would earn him a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical society in 1866.

Adams also worked on the Leonid meteor shower and analysed them mathematically to show that they followed an elliptical path through the solar system.  The discovery was used later to show the close relationship between meteors and their parent comets. Adams received the Copley medal from the Royal Society in 1848 and was elected a fellow to the society in 1849.  He became the president of the Royal Astronomical Society between the years of 1851 – 1853 and 1874- 1876.  On Airy’s retirement in 1881 Adams was offered the post of Astronomer Royal, which he declined.

Blair, Archibald (1752–1815), naval surveyor and lieutenant in the Bombay Marine. After an active career in the Far East he retired to Bayford, Hertfordshire in 1800, pursuing his interest in astronomy by designing an observatory and telescopes.  Appointed director of  works for the Porthleven Harbour in 1814, he was resident at Treleven when he died in 1815 whilst survising the building of a new habour wall at Portleven (see Wiki; SHA Bulletin, Issue 25, 46-9).

Bradley, John  (1728-94), nephew of  James Bradley, Astronomer Royal.  Observed the transit of Venus in 1769 at the Lizard Point along with an accurate measurement of its longitude as part of an expedition paid for by the Board of Longitude.  Letters about this visit are on the Cambridge Digital Library RGO 14/52.

Davy, John (1790 – 1868), born Penzance the younger brother to Humphry Davy.  Notebooks include a wide range of details but include much information on his astronomical interests (1802 – 1843).  Much of this occurred while working overseas as a navel doctor in Malta, West Indies to name a few places.  Astronomical tables and some notebooks in his hand are held at the Morrab library Penzance ( His other diaries are held by the Royal Institute of Great Britain (

Dunkin, Edwin (b. 19 Aug. – d. 1898), astronomer, born at 10 Paul’s Terrace, Truro, Cornwall, on 19 August 1821, the son of William Dunkin (d. 1838), a computer (mathematical calculator), for the Nautical Almanac and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Wise, the daughter of a Redruth surgeon. He was always deeply proud of his old Cornish ancestry, and, after receiving an elementary education in Truro, it was with great regret that he accompanied his parents on their reluctant move to London in 1832, following the reorganization of the Nautical Almanac office and the abolition of provincial computers, which made it necessary for his father to work in the almanac’s London office. Here he attended Wellington House Academy, Hampstead. In July 1837 Dunkin and his younger brother were sent to M. Liborel’s school at Guînes, near Calais, where no doubt, he acquired the spoken French which was to be so useful in his later life as an astronomer. The death of his father in the summer of 1838 caused him to be recalled to London to find employment. Although his father had warned him of lack of prospects for a mathematical computer, he abandoned the idea of following his maternal relatives into a medical career, and entered the Royal Greenwich Observatory. At Greenwich he was taken on by George Airy, Astronomer Royal, to complete the reduction of outstanding Greenwich observations. His autobiography records the arduous twelve-hour days through which the young computers were expected to stay at their desks, where they ‘might not even munch a biscuit’ (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 59, 1898–9, 222), and where his abilities quickly impressed Airy. In 1840 he was promoted into the observatory’s newly founded magnetic and meteorological department, and in 1845 he became a permanent member of the observatory staff. On 4 April 1848 he married Maria Hadlow of Peckham, the daughter of Joseph Hadlow, a stockbroker. One child of the marriage, Edwin Hadlow Wise Dunkin, survived his parents.

Dunkin was pre-eminently a practical astronomer and mathematical calculator, and his dependability and meticulous accuracy led to his being placed in charge of a number of painstaking physical investigations at the Greenwich Observatory. These included the adjustment and error quantification of new Greenwich instruments, such as the altazimuth (1847) and the transit circle (1850), the conveyance of chronometers, and the expedition to Norway to observe the total eclipse in 1851. He was also employed by Airy to act as his reliable man on the spot in a number of extra-Greenwich enterprises: among them were the gravitational pendulum experiments at Harton colliery, South Shields (1854), and the telegraphic longitude determinations of the Brussels (1853) and Paris (1854) observatories, where his ability to communicate on easy terms with Quetelet, Faye, and other continental astronomers stood him in good stead. Upon Airy’s retirement in 1881 Dunkin was promoted to chief assistant, or Deputy Astronomer Royal, which post he held until his own retirement in 1884.

Perhaps by way of relief from his fastidious work at the Greenwich observatory, Dunkin was a highly sociable figure. He was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in 1845, served on its council, and in 1884 was elected president. He was delighted, in 1868, to be elected to the RAS Dining Club, and in 1880 became the club president. He was elected FRS in 1876, and later served on its council. Although he resided in London for his entire adult life, he always maintained his Cornish associations, naming his Blackheath villa Kenwyn after the village near Truro, and in 1890 and 1891 he served as president of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, where he discussed astronomical matters in his two presidential addresses. Dunkin was a prolific writer and popular communicator of astronomy; in addition to his professional scientific papers he produced numerous articles for the Leisure Hour and other periodicals. Perhaps his most famous work was The Midnight Sky (1869), with its detailed charts of the sky visible from London, all of which had been computed by Dunkin himself. Dunkin died on 26 November 1898, at Brook Hospital, Kidbrook, after a short illness. For forty-six years he did much of the work that kept the Greenwich observatory running on a practical daily and nightly basis (ODNB).

Fox, Wilson Lloyd [FRMS] (fl. 1907-1922), observer at the Falmouth (meteorological) Observatory run by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. He also had an interest in astronomy observing lunar occultation using a 3-inch refractor at his home ‘Carmino’ in Falmouth (Stroobant 1907, 82).

Gilbert, Davies  [Giddy] (6 Mar. 1767 – 24 Dec. 1839), born St. Erth, Cornwall. As a child he was taught by astronomer Malachy Hitchins for a couple of years, while his father was curate of St. Erth Cornwall – became president of the Royal Society 1791.  He sat on the Board of Visitors for the Royal Observatory Greenwich and within this role fell out with Astronomer Royal Pond.  As member of Board of Longitude he was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal observatory at the Cape of Good Hope (Laurie ,1966 1966QJRAS…7…169L).  By 1830 he also sat on the committee of the Astronomical Society of London – later the Royal Astronomical Society.

Haslam, John Horsley (25 Dec. 1850 – 27 Aug. 1904), born at Baldhu Parsonage, Cornwall.  He went to college at Cambridge and was curate at Wansteed Essex followed by positions at Birmingham, Gravesend and London.  At these locations he erected an observatory as he had a passion for science and astronomy.  He often lectured on the subject and was elected to the Royal Society in 1902 (MNRAS, 65 (4) (1905, 336-7)).

Haydon, Richard [Revd] (1706 – 1788), Master of the Liskeard Grammar School Cornwall (1741 – 71).  Educated. at Pembroke College, Cambridge Haydon gained his MA in 1738.  He opened a Latin School in 1755 and it is recorded that he received 5/- from the boys who broke the glass at the school. Haydon acquired a profound knowledge of mathematics and astronomy; and in these, the most exact and noble of sciences, he was not content with theory and with the practical results of labours carried on by others. He provided himself with various instruments of a size and accuracy then rarely possessed by a private individual and made important observations of the transit of Venus in 1761 and for a long time all the longitudes of places in the west of England were deduced from Rev Haydon’s determinations at Liskeard. He retired with his family living in Oakford, Devon in 1771. He died on the 25th January 1788. No records of his parentage have been found.  The Rev Haydon took charge of the Grammar School before 1741, a position he held for 30 years. In 1741 his salary is recorded as £30 per year. His account of the transit of Venus June 6th 1761 took the form of a letter to John Bevis MD dated 9th June 1761. It was published in the Philosophical Transactions vol. LII, part 1 p. 202 – 208 for the year 1761. published 1762.  (Biography by Brian Sheen – Roseland Observatory)

Hitchins, Malachy  (b. 1741, Gwennap –  d. 1809), astronomer and mathematician, born at Little Trevince Gwennap, Cornwall, son of Thomas Hitchins.  and mother was the sister of Thomas Martyn, cartographer.  He is reputed to first have worked as a miner and then to have assisted Benjamen Donn on surveying a map of Devon. During this time he started to contribute mathematical replies to problems posted in The Ladies Diary.  Matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford in 1763, where he met his wife Joanna Hawkin whom he married in 1764.  He did not graduate until 27th Feb 1781.  In 1785 he was incorporated into St John College Cambridge where he graduated with his MA in the same year.

In 1767 Hitchins was recommended to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne for the position of computer on the Nautical Almanac by Thomas Hornsby, Savillian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford. In 1769, he became a comparer, a role he retained until his death in 1809.  During the production of the Nautical Almanac he employed local people including William Dunkin who worked as his assistant from 1809.  Other assistants are listed at the end of this biography.

From April – August 1769 Hitchins replaced William Bayley as assistant to the Astronomer Royal Maskelyne -Bayley was travelling to Norway to observe the transit of Venus.  Hitchins successfully observed the Transit of Venus (3 Jun. 1769) in the eastern summer house with Rev’d William Hurst. He made numerous other observations at Greenwich along with his other roles as Assistant Astronomer.  Here he entered holy orders and after a short period at Exeter he returned to Cornwall.  In 1775 he becomes vicar of St. Hilary and resided at the vicarage in that village.  In 1785 he also took the parish of Gwinear, he retained both livings until his death.

Hitchins had four sons, his third child William Malachy Hitchins worked briefly as an assistant to Maskelyne at Greenwich in 1787. He will be remembered for his continuous work to compile the Nautical Almanac to a high standard.  He should also be acknowledged for his wide influence on a number of local people introducing them into the field of science and astronomy.  Most famously these include Edwin Dunkin and son of his assistant William Dunkin.  Also, it should be noted he knew Davis Gilbert (Giddy) the future president of the Royal Society for whom he gave private lessons and remained a close lifelong friend.  He also introduced John Hellins (FRS) to Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal and used his influence to obtain him a paid astronomical role worth £86 a year at the Greenwich Observatory.

Computers working for Malachy Hitichens

Nicholas James, schoolmaster at St Hilary, he worked on the Almanac calculations (1799-1816).  On the 1841 census listed with wife and family still in the St Hilary area with a son named Malachi born the year of Malachy’s death in 1809.

William Dunkin, worked as a computer (1809 –38) primarily in Truro, but later was moved to London in 1832 to the central calculating office.  He had been introduced to Malachy by Davis Gilbert in 1804.  He was originally a computer, but took over as Comparer on Malachy’s death.  More of this story is available in the book called ‘Autobiographic notes’ of Edwin Dunkin .

Richard Martyn, a Goldsithney computer between (1808-28), nephew of Malachy.  Martyn was young when he took on the role and struggled initially with the calculations due to Malachy’s death.

John Pascoe , lived in Devon, but were patrons of the parish of St Hilary – resigned his position in 1808, a role that Martyn took over.

Astronomers contd.

Lindley, William Maximilian (1891-1972) [FRAS], born Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, educated at Sherborne School, Dorset graduating in engineering from Trinity College, Cambridge. While pursuing a career in engineering. Following service in the Royal Engineers during WWI, he worked at Derby before moving to Trevone, Cornwall in 1924.  Joining both the RAS and BAA he took up variable star observation using a 5 1/2-inch Cooke refractor. He became the director of the BAA observing section (Obit., JBAA, 83 (1973), 201-3; Shears 2012b; Stroobant 1931).

Lower, Sir William (1570 – 1615), resided St. Willow, Cornwall and MP for Bodmin.  Pupil of astronomer Thomas Harriot, he made observations of comets, sunspots and the moon. See Biography online  and survey page for Carmarthenshire,Wales page

Robartes [Roberts], Francis [FRS] (1649/50-3 Feb. 1718), MP for Lanhydrock  MP.  He had an interest in astronomy, although his main scientific interests lay elsewhere.  Robartus wrote a paper (dated on 8 Nov. 1693) for Phil. Trans titled ‘Concerning the distances of fixed stars’. He also acted as one of the referees  for Flamsteed’s Star catalogue and readying it for publication and monetary remuneration.

Skinner, Frederick (1860 – Feb 1927), born Famouth, Cornwall. Skinner was an astronomer employed by the Mersey Dock & Harbour Board at the Bidston Observatory at Birkenhead on the Wirral, Cheshire.  Prior to moving to Bidston he had worked at the Falmouth Observatory in Cornwall, aged 25 he remained here for the next 42 years. The observatory’s role at this time was to check chronometer running rates, while his main observing tasks involved observing faint planets during the daytime as they crossed the meridian.  Skinner used a 4-inch Troughton and Simms transit instrument and a 8 1/2-inch equatorial refracting telescope with a Merz lens, fitted with 4-foot circles by Simms.  He worked briefly under the well respected director, John Hartnup and then his son John Hartnup Jnr.  He was present when the younger director met a terrible death, falling from the roof of the observatory.   At this point he became acting director of Bidston Observatory.  There is no record though of him applying for the senior role and by mid 1892, the next director, Mr William E. Plummer, had been appointed.  Along with his regular observing tasks, which included sleeping at the observatory at weekends and during the director’s vacations, he was in charge of meteorological forecasts for mariners at nearby Liverpool and was even involved in administration, such as payment of staff wages.  He worked the rest of his life at the observatory and was found unconscious one morning outside the observatory having collapsed after night work aged 67 – he died later that day in hospital (see Scoffield, Joyce, Bidston Observatory the place and the people (Birkenhead, 2006) for sources and further details; obituary published in the Western Morning News published 23rd Feb 1927).

Somer, John (d. after 1409), Franciscan friar and astronomer.  Before 1384 he was warden of the priory at Bodmin in Cornwall, from at least and was attached to the Oxford convent (1380-95).  It was at the request of Thomas Kingsbury, the provincial minister of the Franciscans in England, that in 1380 he composed his Kalendarium for Joan of Kent (d. 1385), the mother of Richard II.  A calendar with astronomical tables attached, covering the four Metonic (nineteen-year) cycles for the period (1387 – 1462).  The work survives in thirty-two complete and eight fragmentary copies. A manuscript at Cambridge Peterhouse, MS 75.I, fol. 63V show Astronomical calculations headed by his name.  Somer was still living on 10 October 1409 when he last collected his royal grant, but he would have died soon after. The Kalendarium is cited in Chaucer within Treatise on the Astrolabe.  A star catalogue cited by John Bale and attributed to Somer called ‘Castigation of former Calendars collected from many sources’ (Bale, Cat., 7.viii) is now lost (Source – Oxford DNB)

Tolson, Jospeh (d. 31st May 1798), teacher of astronomy and lunar navigation within Falmouth. In May 1785 he petitioned the Board of Longitude describing how he has taught within Falmouth many pupils the lunar methods and condensed the methodology.  He fears that these pupils will take issue with the Board and try and pass off his reduced methodology as their own.  RGO 12/14

Vyvyan, Sir Richard  (6th Jun. 1800 – 15 Aug 1879), born at Trelowarren Cornwall. He was primarily an MP, educated at Harrow and Christ Church Oxford.  In 1826 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society with regards to his natural history and geological interests, but he was also known to have an interest in astronomy.   He was patron of Charles Thomas Pearce, whom he initially employed as his secretary in 1843.  They undertook research into light, heat and magnetism of the moons rays.  A journal of astronomy musings are held at the records office, Truro (Ref . V/FC/13).  Also held at the records office in Truro are letters between himself and Annarella the wife of William Henry Smyth and mother of Charles Piazzi Smyth the future astronomer royal for Scotland.  In them is a description of the 1858 comet, Halley’s comet (1835) and a poem written by W.H. Smyth called ‘Double Star’ which is mostly regarding astronomy.

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