Elger, Thomas Gwyn Empy  (1836-97), 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″ (21cm) reflector, and published an 18-inch chart in 1895 (see: Leatherbarrow 2013).

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 (1788-1865), born in Westminster, Middlesex. After a naval career which included surveying in the Mediterranean, and befriending Giuseppe Piazzi, director of the Royal Observatory at Palermo with whom he undertook some observing, Smyth retired as a Captain on half-pay and gradually rose up the retired list to the rank of Admiral.

After 1830, with his powerful Tully, Smyth observed double stars and nebulae which became the Bedford Catalogue of 1844, forming volume 2 of his book Cycle of Celestial Objects. His book described how to economically build an observatory for a good 4″ to 6″ refractor, good observing practice, and how to do useful work. Given the difficult and very high cost of larger glass blanks, in the 1840s to 1850s, those were good size telescopes. Since John Herschel’s and James South’s RAS Gold Medal in 1826, interested gentlemen saw work on double stars and searching for minor planets yield international recognition and awards. However, because South stopped his early work, then fell out with Troughton, Smyth’s Observatory was in 1830 the second most important after John Herschel’s at Slough, but, unlike John Herschel, Smyth adapted Herschel’s objectives and method by applying precision micrometer measurements, and repeated observations. In this way Smyth brought a new precision to the new English speciality of observing double stars, and this was the basis of his astronomical reputation.

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’ (Cycle I, p. 326); he encouraged ‘the Uranian aspirant’ with a 5-foot [i.e. 3¾-inch object glass] that he had ’11 [square] inches of [light collecting] area’ (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. It was the inspiration for at least half a dozen observatories, including Bidston, and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Smyth’s son-in-law was Professor Baden Powell of Oxford. His son Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a brilliant but eccentric and somewhat controversial Astronomer Royal for Scotland 1844-1900 (See Smyth’s Observatory below; Chapman 1997, ODNB)


Smyth’s Bedford Observatory, 1827-39
Between July 1827 and 1830 Smyth established a private observatory in the garden of his house, No. 4 [or 6?] The Crescent, Bedford. It was a meridian building 17 x 12 feet, brick and ‘lathed and plastered over stout oak battens’ with a lead roof. He borrowed Colonel Mark Beaufoy’s 3-inch aperture 4-foot transit by Carey, and a small Carey altazimuth, replaced later with the Lee Circle of 1793 by Troughton, and he had a Dollond 3¾-inch aperture, 10-foot refractor, and a clock by Henry Baker. In an attached equatorial room 15 feet in diameter, in 1830 he mounted the principal instrument, a 5.9-inch Tully refractor of 8½-feet focal length, on a massive Old English mount by Sisson. It bore magnification of 1200, and with the micrometer 850. It was fitted with a clock drive by Sheepshanks (probably his first).  When his Observatory was dismantled in November 1839, the dome went to the Rev. J.B. Reade’s Stone Vicarage Observatory (see Howse 1986).

Maclear’s Observatory (1828-33), Biggleswade, established by Thomas Maclear (1794-1879), born in County Tyrone, became a house surgeon at the Bedford Infirmary. Befriended by Smyth and observing with him, he became an assiduous amateur. In about 1828 he set up an observatory in a garden behind Shortmead Street. The Transit Room was 8-feet square, and the Equatorial Room was octagonal with a rotating roof, all of wood. They housed a 2½-inch aperture Jones transit, and a 3¾-inch aperture Dollond of 45-inches focal length, the ‘Wollaston triple achromat’ of 1771 which Smyth arranged for him to borrow from the RAS. The total cost was £50. (Ken Page, ‘Shortmead Street’ He described his observatory, with a plan and cost, to the RAS (MNRAS, 2 (1833), p.90) and this surely influenced others. In 1833 he became the third Astronomer at the Cape, and from 1835 to 1845 employed Smyth’s son Charles Piazzi Smyth as his assistant (see Howse 1986).

Whitbread Observatory (1851), Cardington, established by Samuel Whitbread (1796-1879), a member of the Hartwell Synod (see Buckinghamshire, John Lee of Hartwell)  and a founder of the Meteorological Society. Within the walled kitchen garden he built an observatory equipped with a 4⅛-inch Troughton & Simms refractor with clock drive on a German mount, a 1½-inch transit on a brick pier, and Troughton’s first ever Altazimuth instrument. The brick built building has an office and transit room. At the east end is a circular drum about 10-feet across, upon which a truncated cone turns upon wooden balls. It is made from tongue and groove mahogany board, copper sheathed outside. Whitbread also had a beautiful Troughton & Simms eyepiece micrometer. He engaged John McLarin as observer in order to render the observatory useful. The French astronomer Charles Andre reported that observations had been made of lunar occultations of stars and planets, the longitude of the observatory determined, and observations made for minor planets and comets, but by 1874 the observatory was ‘abandonné’ (see Andre, I, 1874, pp. 171-2; Chapman 1998, 84-5. This account draws on Allan’s report of his visit in November 1992, which found the Observatory like a time-capsule; Howse 1986).

Societies and Organisations

Cranfield Astronomical Society (CranAS), astromony group associated with Cranfield University.

Luton Astronomical Society (LuAS), founded 1969, orginally as the Luton and District Astronomical Society, following lectures by Jim Hysom at the Luton College of Higher Education.

Bedford Astronomical Society (BedAS), founded 1987 by a small group of people with a common interest in astronomy. Member (100-2016) meet at Bedford School with access to the Piazzi Smyth observatory on the same site.

Sandy Astronomical Society (SanAS), 2014 by residents of Sandy (Bedfordshire) and surrounding areas.

Authors, Lecturers and Broadcasters

Academics and Associated Professionals

L.J.Guise Head of Astronomy, Bedford School

Useful addresses

Local History Centres
County Record Office
County Hall
Cauldwell Street
Bedford MK42 9AP
Tel: 01234 228833/228777

One Response to Bedfordshire

  1. Anthony Kinder says:

    The mss notebook “Observations on the Heavenly bodies from July 1819” by James Pettit (d. 1850.11.25, FRAS 1825.04.08, obituary MN v11, p.90) are in County Record Office, Shire Hall, Bedford. [This was discovered by Anthony Kinder while computerising the card records of Fellows of the RAS.]

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