Astronomers: Derbyshire

Abbott, Francis (1799-1883), a Derby-born amateur astronomer and clockmaker who wrote about clocks in 1835 while living in Manchester shows he was an expert in the subject and was keen to introduce standard time, which did not happen in Britain till 1847. Abbott was transported to Tasmania for seven years in 1845 for stealing a watch valued at 14 shillings, a crime he says he never committed, though the transcript of the case from the Old Bailey shown here says there were 13 charges against him. After serving his time in Tasmania (Van Dieman’s land) for his crime, Abbott set up a clock and watch business in Hobart, which did very well. For several years he provided Hobart with a time service and developed an interest in astronomy. In 1855 he built a small private observatory at his home. He married and had several children – his wife was English and followed him out to Tasmania. Abbott’s meteorological observations and tables became a standard reference for the local climate. In 1865 Abbott achieved fame by independently discovering the Great Southern Comet (1865 I). There were several write-ups in the contemporary press about it, including one by Alexander Herschel in Astronomical Register but none acknowledges. Abbott’s observations of variations in Eta Carinae (then eta Argus) created an international controversy. He maintained, in the face of fierce opposition, that the nebula surrounding eta Argus had changed in size and shape, as well as the star itself.. Richard Proctor published a damming report of this in his book Universe of Suns and Other Gleanings, published in 1884, which damaged Abbott’s posthumous reputation, he having died the previous year

The Tasmanian Government was forced to establish a Colonial Observatory to set up its own timekeeping service when Abbott’s observatory closed in 1883, shortly before his death. His son, Francis Abbott Junior, (1799-1883) was also a keen amateur astronomer who became Superintendent of the Botanical Gardens in Hobart.

Barnett, W. H. (?) founder member of Chesterfield Astronomical Society and Director of the Society’s observatory, which bears his name.

Beadsmoore, Ernest (1874 or 95- ?),engine wright in Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire who constructed a heliochronometer of his own design with an inbuilt analemma (1924). It was built as a result of an article written by Professor W.E. Cooke, Government Astronomer of New South Wales, and published in English Mechanics and the World of Science magazine in 1924.

Bretnor, Thomas (1570/71–1618), astrologer and medical practitioner, born in Bakewell. Published almanacs, was an expert mathematician, and an early champion of Copernicus (ODNB).

Clark-Maxwell, George Selwyn (1900-1990), lived at Mackworth House, near Derby. Engineer and neurosurgeon who invented a brass-mounted system of lenses of 180 mm focal length with focusing screw, which he put to good use in a half-plate camera. He was funded by the RAS to observe a solar eclipse in Northern Australia in 1920.

Darling, David (b. 29 July 1953), born Glossop, Derbyshire, an English astronomer and full-time freelance science writer. Darling has published numerous popular science works, including Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology in 2001. His Internet Encyclopedia of Science is a popular online resource (see

Flamsteed, John (1646-1719), born at Denby, near Derby. First Astronomer Royal (from 1646 to 1719). First Director of the Greenwich Observatory. His catalogue of 3000 stars, Historia Coelestis Britannica (published in 1725) was larger than any previous star catalogue. Flamsteed’s lunar observations furnished the data that his contemporary, the astronomer and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, used to verify his theory of gravity (ODNB).

Halton, Immanuel (1628-1699), born in Cumberland but from 1660 lived at Wingfield Manor, near Chesterfield. Derbyshire. While still a law student at Gray’s Inn in 1650, Halton corresponded with the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, Samuel Foster, sending him a drawing of a reflex sundial he had invented.

He worked for the Duke of Northumberland and encouraged the young John Flamsteed’s interest in mathematics who he first met aged 20 at his home in Denby near Derby in 1666. They shared a mutual interest in solar eclipses and Halton saw that the young Flamsteed lacked access to important astronomical texts  and so lent him Riccioli’s Almagestum novum and Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables. Riccioli’s work led Flamsteed to examine solar and lunar parallax (used to determine earth/moon distance) and to work intensively on the equation of time. All these details are recorded in Flamsteed’s autobiographical ‘Self-inspections of J. F.’, finished in May 1667. Over the next 10 years Halton and Flamsteed corresponded and visited each other frequently, Halton lending Flamsteed instruments as well as books. Flamsteed later published Halton’s solar observations (see ODNB).

Heath Alan ( ? ), ran the BAA Saturn Section for many years. Opened the re-furbished Flamsteed Observatory belonging to Derby and District Astronomical Society in 1996.

McCrea, sir William Hunter (1904-1999), born in Dublin but grew up in Chesterfield (1907-1923) and attended Chesterfield Grammar School. President of the RAS 1961-63; knighted 1985; created the Astronomical Centre of the Physics Department at Sussex University. ‘an outstanding mathematical astronomer of the 20th century’ (ODNB).

Sewell, Philip Edward (1822-1906), born in London and lived most of his life in Norwich but had property interests in Buxton. A civil engineer and banker, and an amateur astronomer, became an FRAS in 1861.

Shirley, Washington, the 5th Earl Ferrers (1722–1778), naval officer who lived for much of his life at the family seat of Staunton Harold, on the Derbyshire/Leicestershire border. He became an Earl when his elder brother was hanged at Tyburn for murder – the last aristocrat to be so. He was an amateur astronomer who was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his accurate observations of the transit of Venus in June 1761 and for a transitarium he designed and had built by Benjamin Cole senior (see ‘Martin Beech’, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No.116, 2013,8-13).  We know that Ferrers owned ‘a complicated orrery’ and he bought Joseph Wright’s famous painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (see ONDB).

Stevens, Kenneth [FRAS] ( ?), of Littleover, Derby. Born Derby. Built a radio telescope in his back garden from which he produced the world’s first radio picture of the Milky Way. Was aged 80 in 1996.