Astronomers :Yorkshire – West Riding

Barbour, William Donald (1832-1902), born in Glasgow, Scotland 1832. Barbour was fascinated by the potential of life on other planets, and was a key member of Leeds Astronomical Society until his death in Leeds (see Obit., JBAA, 13 (1903) 286-7).

Bartrum, Clement Osborn (1867-1939), born in Bradford, Yorkshire.  A prominent member of the BAA which he joined in 1912; he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1920 (see Obit., MNRAS, 100 (1940), 232-3).

Bolton, Thomas Simeon Scriven (1883-1929) born in Yeadon, Leeds where his father was a cloth merchant, later an oil merchant, which Scriven became involved with. However much of his adult life was devoted to astronomy, both as an observer and as an artist and illustrator. He worked for many publications including the Illustrated London News, writing articles for Nature and other journals in Britain, France and America. He joined the BAA at an early age and was a FRAS from 1905.  He subsequently established his own observatory – see below. Bolton He suffered from ill health and died at the early age of 46 (Obit., MNRAS, 90 (1930), p.359); Obit., JBAA, 40 (1930), 224; Armitage 2009; Davenhall 2009) .

Booth, David  (1860-1937), born Hunslet, Leeds who was a self-employed Grocer through his life.  A founder member of the British Astronomical Association, he was the initial director (1890-2) of the BAA meteor section – membership lapses after 1894.

Brook, Charles Lewis (1855-1939), of Meltham near Huddesfield. The third director of the BAA Variable Star Section, serving from 1910-1921. He had a broad interest in astronomy, and observed Nova Persei 1901. He started submitting variable star observations in 1902, and 7,648 observations are presently recorded to his credit, most made with the 9-inch refractor at his Harewood Lodge home in Meltham until 1924. He edited for publication the variable star observations of Norman Pogson (1829-1891). In this he was encouraged by Professor Herbert Hall Turner (1861-1930) of Oxford University Observatory, who made a consistent effort to see that good variable star observations should be published and thereby become useful in extending the database. Brook made a crucial contribution to the development of the BAA’s reputation for first-rate observations, and being properly published (Shears, 2012a).

Burrell, Ben (1903-1983) of 93 Woodhouse Road, Doncaster, South Yorks. A railway porter who became a railway fitter, then photographer. He made his own glass slides, and coloured them skillfully for astronomical talks. He made parts for the others. He started with a 7.5cm refractor, and by the early 1930s used a 22cm reflector with mirror by With. At one time he owned a 16cm Calver reflector which had once been used by Arthur P. Norton to compile his famous star atlas. Later Burrell built a 25cm reflector. In November 1938 he took the first successful colour photos of a total lunar eclipse. He made wonderful drawings of Saturn. He served as President of the Leeds A.S. (1903-1983) of 93 Woodhouse Road, Doncaster, South Yorks. A railway porter who became a railway fitter, then photographer. He made his own glass slides, and coloured them skillfully for astronomical talks. He made parts for the others. He started with a 7.5cm refractor, and by the early 1930s used a 22cm reflector with mirror by With. At one time he owned a 16cm Calver reflector which had once been used by Arthur P. Norton to compile his famous star atlas. Later Burrell built a 25cm reflector. In November 1938 he took the first successful colour photos of a total lunar eclipse. He made wonderful drawings of Saturn. He served as President of the Leeds A.S. (see McKim 2013).

Crossley, Edward (1841-1905), educated at Owens College, Manchester, an industrialist and amateur astronomer – see Bermerside Observatory below (see Obit., MNRAS, 65 (1905), 335-6).

Field, John [or ‘Feild’] (c.1520-1587), was the first person to publish an ephemeris in England based on the Copernican theory. He later acquired the epithet ‘the Proto-Copernican of England’. In his will, Field described himself as ‘John Feild of Ardslow, fermor, sometymes studente in the mathematicall sciences’(sic). It is thought that he was buried, in accordance with his wishes, under the porch of the Parish Church of St Michael in East Ardsley, near Leeds. There is a wooden plaque inside the church commemorating him.  At the suggestion of his friend, John Dee (1527-c.1608), who had learned of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory during his travels around Europe, Field published his Ephemeris Anni 1557, Currentis Iuxta Copernici et Reinhaldi Canones Supputata. In the introduction, Field criticised the errors of his predecessors, who had relied on the ptolemaic Alphonsine Tables for their almanacs. This new almanac, he declared in early 1556, followed “the authority of N.Copernicus and Erasmus Reinhold, whose writings are founded and firmly built on true, sure, clear proof”. The magnum opus of Copernicus, On the Revolutions, had only come off the press in Nuremberg thirteen years earlier (1543); the Prutenic Tables of Reinhold, based on Copernicus, had been published in Germany a mere five years before (1551).  It is possible that Field, in common with most other astronomers of the time, regarded the Copernican approach as a superior calculating method, whilst not accepting the literal truth of the Earth’s diurnal rotation or annual revolution about the Sun.

Field and Dee were briefly imprisoned in 1555 for ‘conjuring’. It seems that their chief offence was the drawing up of astrological ‘nativities’ – or horoscopes – for Queen Mary, her husband Philip, and Princess Elizabeth (ODNB; Hunter, Rev.Joseph, ‘Some particulars of the life of John Field, the ‘proto-Copernican of England”, GentMag (1834), 491-497; Field, Osgood, ‘A few hitherto unpublished facts relating to John Field’ GentMag (1862), 604-8; Kelly, Howard L., ‘John Field’, JBAA, (May 1945), 82-4).

Fowler, Alfred (1868-1940), born Wilsden, Yorkshire. Educated at the Normal School of Science (later Imperial College). He was assistant and later professor there. An expert spectroscopist, he proved that sunspots are cooler than the surrounding gas (see County of LondonODNB).

Gascoigne, William (c.1612-1644) the inventor of the telescopic sight and the telescope micrometer. He was the eldest son of Henry Gascoigne of Thorp on the Hill (between Rothwell & Middleton near Leeds) and Jane Cartwright and lived at New Hall (no longer extant).  He engaged in a lengthy correspondence with William Crabtree (of Salford, near Manchester) and thereby became known also to Jeremiah Horrocks (of Liverpool). For a brief period, all three were pioneers of precision astronomy. Gascoigne was adept at carrying out optical investigations, making his own lenses and building telescopes. He verified the sine law of refraction not long after its first publication and was one of the first to apply this law to the design and analysis of lens systems. Whilst experimenting with a keplerian telescope, he made the accidental discovery (thanks to a spider that had woven its web at the common focal point of the objective and eyepiece lenses) that a distant object and a marker within this design of telescope could be simultaneously in focus. He used this principal to make a telescopic sight with cross-hairs, which he fitted to measuring instruments, such as quadrants. He then developed the principle further, replacing the cross-hairs with a tiny scale in order to measure angular diameters of solar system bodies. This scale was then replaced by ingeniously designed moveable pointers – mounted on a screw – to create the first telescope micrometer. Using his micrometer, Gascoigne made numerous measurements of solar and lunar diameters, with the aim of testing the solar theory of Kepler and the lunar theory of Horrocks. His measurements formed the basis for the opening pages of Flamsteed’s monumental Historiae Coelestis Britannicae (1725).  During the English Civil War William Gascoigne joined the ranks of the royalist army of Charles I in whose service he lost his life, probably at the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644. Following his death, most of his instruments and papers disappeared.  Although there is a possibility that his inventions had already come to the notice of a number of English astronomers (such as Christopher Wren), publication of an account of his ground-breaking work only took place after the micrometer had been reinvented by the French astronomer, Adrien Auzout, Huyghens, and others. Auzout’s letter to the Royal Society in 1667 – announcing ‘his’ invention – prompted Richard Towneley to reveal that he had several micrometers that were made by Gascoigne more than two decades earlier (see ODNB; Sellers, 2012).

Glenhill, Joseph (1845-1906), born in Bradford, worked as a schoolmaster then observer to Edward Crossley at his Bermerside Observatory (1869-1905) at his home in Halifax (see Obit., MNRAS, 67 (1907), 232-3).

Green, Charles (1735-1771), born Swinton. In 1761 appointed assistant to Bradley at the ROG (see County of LondonODNB).

Hargreaves, Frederick James [FRAS] (b.10 Feb.1871 – d.4 Sept. 1970), born in Bradford (Obit., QJRAS, 12 (1971), 336-7; see Surrey).

Hoyle, Sir Fred (1915-2001), born Gilstead, West Yorkshire. He spent most of his life at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge. He made a fundamental contribution to the theory of nucleosynthesis in stars, and was an architect of the Steady State theory of the Universe (see CambridgeshireODNB).

Michell, John (1724-1793), held the Woodwardian Chair of Geology at Cambridge between 1762 and 1764, but it was in astronomy that he achieved lasting fame. In 1767 he took up the post of rector at the parish church of St Michael in Thornhill, near Dewsbury. In the same year that he took up his post at Thornhill, a paper by him appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which suggested for the first time the existence of true physical binary stars. He pointed out that the frequency distribution of the angular separations of known double stars deviated radically from what might be expected if double stars were simply chance ‘line of sight’ effects amongst stars uniformly distributed in space. In Thornhill, Michell devised and constructed a torsion balance (independently of Coulomb) and with it attempted to measure the density of the Earth. It was with the same equipment, purchased from Michell’s estate, after his death, that Cavendish refined and repeated the experiment and gained renown for ‘weighing’ the Earth. In 1783 Michell sent a paper to the Royal Society in which he postulated the existence of black holes – stars so massive that even light would not achieve the escape velocity needed to leave the surface.  Michell, is also credited with the first ever realistic estimate of a stellar distance. Observing from Thornhill in 1784, he noted that Saturn, at opposition, appeared as bright as the star Vega. Saturn appeared from the Earth to be 20” diameter and consequently, from the Sun, would appear to be 17” in diameter. Consequently, reasoned Michell, Saturn – shining by the reflected light of the Sun – would intercept 4.245×10-10 of the light of the Sun. Saturn was known (from Kepler’s Third Law) to be 9.548 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun (the ‘astronomical unit’). Therefore, based on the inverse-square law for the attenuation of light with distance, and assuming that Vega had the same intrinsic brightness as the Sun, he calculated that Vega was 463,000 astronomical units from the Earth – i.e. 7.32 light years. To be sure, parallax measurements by Struve eventually found Vega to be four times this distance, but Michell’s splendid effort has rightly entered into the annals of science! (see NottinghamshireCambridgeshireODNB).

Reade, Joseph Bancroft (1801-1870), born Leeds, educated Leeds Grammar School, then Trinity Cambridge and Gonville and Caius Cambridge. In 1839 appointed to the living at Stone, Bucks (until 1859), he became a member of the Hartwell Synod, and built an Observatory there 1843. Best known as a pioneer photographer, a microscopist and natural scientist of note (see BuckinghamshireODNB).

Richardson, William (1804-1878), of High Field, Southowram, near Halifax, gave lectures on astronomy, geology, electricity and other scientific topics. He had an observatory built at High Field (which was demolished in the 1950s/60s) – see below. The Bronte family attended some of his public lectures at Howarth. He was a friend of William Cobbett, the radical journalist. Richardson is buried at St Anne’s-in-the-Grove Church at Southowram (Comfort 1914-5).

Shackleton, William (1871-1921), born Keighley, 1891 an assistant at the Solar Physics Observatory, London (see County of LondonObit., MNRAS, 82 (1922), 255-6).

Sheepshanks, Richard (1794-1855), born at Leeds, educated at Richmond School, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Graduating tenth wrangler in 1819, he was called to the bar, and took holy orders. A gentleman of leisure, he undertook a number of laborious government services. He joined the Astronomical Society in 1825 and was its Secretary from 1829 onwards, becoming increasingly influential in the RAS. He lavished time and money on astronomical instruments, but was not himself a keen observer, although at his home in Woburn Place, London from 1824-41, then at Reading, berks, from 1841 until his death, he had small observatories attached to the house. To the great benefit of astronomy, his sister Anne Sheepshanks (1789-1876) in 1858 presented £10,000 to the University of Cambridge as the Sheepshanks Fund for the promotion of research in astronomy. Applied by Airy, this relieved the great distress of James Challis, Director of the Cambridge Observatory, enabling him to bring meridian observations up to date and published. This enabled him to retire in 1860 to be succeeded by John Couch Adams. Adams only took the directorship on condition that he was not required to observe. The Fund made it possible to engage the experienced observer Andrew Graham, and Anne Sheepshanks provided a further £2,000 to purchase a powerful new transit circle. These benefactions transformed the situation of the Cambridge Observatory (see CambridgeshireODNB; Obit., MNRAS, 16, 4 (1856), 90-7.

Smeaton, John [FRS] (1724-1792), born Austhorpe, Leeds, a famous civil engineer with an avid interest in astronomy. Prior to practising civil engineering he had developed his skills as an engineer building philosophical instruments such as a marine compass and his own telescope that is preserved at the Science Museum, London (In. No. 1931-347).  Smeaton observed from a tower at his home Austhorpe Lodge, the dome of which was later incorporated into the observatory of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in York (ODNB , Skempton 1981).

Teasdale, Washington (b. 8 Aug. 1830-1903), born Leeds, a civil engineer, he worked in India for many years, becoming fluent in Hindustani. On early retirement back in England he pursued his scientific interests. He was associated with and often lectured to ….  The Leeds Astronomical Society, The Leeds Naturalist Club, The Scientific Association, The Philosophical & Literary Society and The Institute of Science, Art & Literature.  An early worker in the field of photography his lectures to these societies were frequently illustrated by lantern slides of his own production.  He was elected into the fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1886 and an original member of the British Astronomical Association in 1890. He was also instrumental in the re-forming of the, already mentioned, Leeds Astronomical Society and was its President between 1893 and 1897. He amassed a large collection of scientific instruments, works of art and other curios at his home in Hyde Park Road, Leeds which were of great interest to his many visitors.  He travelled to the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Southport in 1903 where he suffered a seizure and second attack on the following day proved fatal. He died on Saturday,  September 19 1903 at the age of 72 ( see ‘Obit., MNRAS, 64 (1904), p.293)

Turner, Herbert Hall (1861-1930), born and elementary education at Leeds, thence Clifton College and Trinity Cambridge, graduating second wrangler 1882. As Chief Assistant, ROG, 1884-93, he worked on the Carte du Ciel photographic survey and catalogue. He devised two essential means of enabling the 18 participating observatories to progress with the enormous task. He proposed a rectilinear coordinate system to convert any stars apparent to true position, combining laborious corrections in one simple linear equation. He also invented an eyepiece scale for plate measurements, which enabled observatories to employ semi-skilled labour for reduction and publication. These innovations made it possible for photography to replace much meridian work. After moving as Savilian professor at Oxford 1893-1930, he never flagged in helping failing observatories to bring their part of the great scheme to completion. He brought nearly a quarter of the entire catalogue to completion at Oxford. He subjected the data from different catalogue zones to statistical analyses, and in the 1920s was the first to suggest star streaming. He devised a new method of deducing stellar magnitudes from measured dimensions of their images, and thereby made a new data base available to stellar statisticians.

A large, convivial and extrovert individual with a gift for friendship, during his time at Oxford he was a key figure in the RAS, Foreign Secretary 1919-30, was internationally influential. Partly of financial necessity, he encouraged volunteers to work at the Oxford Observatory. Imbued with the ethos that no good research should be lost, he took in his friend John Milne’s seismology, turned it in to a unique resource, and wrung two discoveries from it – the deep focus of earthquakes and inference of the Earth having a liquid core, and mapping the ‘ring of fire’, the volcanoes around the Pacific. Meanwhile he brought the work of four British variable star observers to publication.

No observer for the sake of it, his skills were as a mathematician, manager and analyst. By example and leading his small staff to enormous effort he kept his obsolescent Observatory relevant during a period of change. In 1929 when a large sum was offered for the Radcliffe Observatory site, his support of their move to South Africa and its benefit to British astronomy brought him under vituperative and clandestine attacks by Professor Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell). He died of a stroke in 1930, almost certainly caused by stress. Lindemann’s case failed in 1935, the Radcliffe moved, and Turner’s successor Harry Plaskett was enabled to found a school of astrophysics in Oxford (
see OxfordshireODNB).

Whitmell, Charles Thomas (10 Jul. 1849-10 Dec. 1919), an English astronomer, mathematician and educationalist. He was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, where his father was an official of the Bank of England. At the age of 14 he was already corresponding with Michael Faraday and Professor John Tyndall. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and carried out postgraduate experiments on highly refractive fluids at the Cavendish Laboratory under James Clerk Maxwell. In July 1879 he was appointed as one of Her Majesty’s Assistant Inspectors of Schools, at first working in the area around Sheffield and in September 1883 was promoted to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools (HMI) for the South Wales region, centred on Cardiff. He took part in campaigns for free, mixed education, recreative night-classes, and changes of the law to allow libraries, museums and other cultural facilities to open on Sundays. He also appeared on the platform at rallies demanding votes for women. In 1897 he was transferred to the post of HMI in Leeds.  In both Cardiff and Leeds Charles Whitmell played a leading role in scientific societies. He became President of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society and before leaving Wales was nominated as the President of the Astronomical Society of Wales. On moving to Leeds he was elected President of the Leeds Geological Society and within a year was chosen unanimously as the President of Leeds Astronomical Society. At a national level, he was elected to the Council (and later vice-Presidency) of the British Astronomical Association (BAA), fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and membership of the Astronomical Society of France.

Whitmell loved the mathematical analysis of unusual scientific problems. This trait dominated his published work. Such titles as ‘the Maximum Possible Duration for a Total Solar Eclipse’, the ‘transit of the Moon across the Earth’s disc as seen from Mars’, ‘Saturn visible through the Cassini Division’, and ‘a Martian Sundial’ were typical. He also relished the observation and analysis of optical phenomena such as the Green Flash, halos, rainbows and mock suns. Through the popular journal, the English Mechanic, he provided detailed answers to a wide variety of queries on physics, astronomy and mathematics, posed by its readers. He also wrote hundreds of papers on astronomy for journals such as the Journal of the BAA, the Observatory, the Monthly Notices of the RAS, and the journals of the local scientific societies of which he was a member. For a time he was the editor of the Journal & Transactions of Leeds Astronomical Society and ensured that copies of the Journal were seen by amateur and professional astronomers around the world. Whitmell died unexpectedly, after a very brief bout of pneumonia, on 10th December 1919. Whitmell is buried with his wife, Lucy, at Lawnswood Cemetry in north Leeds. His epitaph reads simply: Chas. Thos. Whitmell, Astronomer (Obit., MNRAS, 80 (1920), 359-60).

Whitelow, Edward Turner (1854-1932) born in Elland, became a civil engineer in Manchester, and by about 1910 had established his Birkdale Observatory, Southport, which was active until c.1932 (see Lancashire; Obit., MNRAS, 93 (1933), 232-3).