SHA County co-ordinator was the late  Madeline Cox

email: survey co-ordinator

No of SHA members in this county:2


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 built a small private observatory at his home –shown here. 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.

Beadsmoore, Ernest (1874 or 95- ?), enginewright in Derbyshire and 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.

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, William Hunter , Sir (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.

Academics and associated professionals

(Note: This includes individuals who have made contributions in related fields, e.g. mathematics, geography, exploration)

Abney, William de Wiveleslie , Sir (1843–1920), Civil servant and photographic scientist, born at Derby. He was chosen to organize the photographic observation in Egypt of the transit of Venus in 1874. Abney developed a photographic emulsion that was sensitive in the infra-red region of the electromagnetic spectrum, and was the first (1887) to express the idea that the axial rotation of stars could be determined from the broadening of spectral lines He was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1893–5 (ODNB).

Armitage, Angus (1902-1976), born in Derbyshire .For many years the only professional historian of astronomy. Taught at University College, London. A member of the original board of the Journal for the History of Astronomy. Wrote biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, Halley and William Herschel.

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

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).

Cavendish, Henry (1731-1810), natural philosopher. Born Nice, buried All Souls Church Derby (now Derby Cathedral). After planning a treatise on Newtonian mechanics Cavendish wrote a commentary on the theory of motion using a principle of conservation of mechanical momentum, the product of mass and velocity. Cavendish also took an active role in the Royal Society’s plans for astronomical surveying. In June 1766 he sent the president a list of sites from which the imminent 1769 Venus transit could be observed to determine the solar parallax, and in November 1767 he joined the society’s committee to plan these observations and correct likely errors. The following year Cavendish discussed with the new astronomer royal, Nevil Maskelyne, the gravitational pull of nearby mountains on the vertical plumb lines used earlier in the decade in American surveys by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. After trying to reconcile measures of pendulum rates with French data on the earth’s shape published in the 1740s, Cavendish concluded that gravitational pull rather than meridional degrees would be a better guide to the earth’s shape. The project typified his view that precise estimation of central forces held the key to rational mechanics and natural philosophy (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.

Cockayne, William (1717–1798), Church of England clergyman and the son of the Revd George Cockayne, was born on 3 November 1717 at Doveridge in west Derbyshire.  From 1752 to 1795 he held the chair of astronomy in Gresham College, London, for which at that date no particular astronomical competence was required. On 20 September 1763 he was nominated rector of Kilkhampton in Cornwall, a post he occupied until his death in 1798. His only publications were religious in content (see ODNB).

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

Ferguson, James (1710-1771), the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson was an acquaintance of Joseph Whitehurst the clockmaker and lectured on astronomy in Derby in 1762, 1764 and 1771. One of his orreries is depicted in Joseph Wright’s painting A philosopher giving a lecture on the orrery (ODNB).

Parker, Benjamin (d. 1747), author, was born at Derby; further details of his parents and upbringing are unknown. He was originally a stocking maker who, having failed in business, took to manufacturing books. In 1731 he was living at Horsley, near Derby, when his first work, Parker’s Projection of the Longitude at Sea, was submitted to the ‘great Edmund Halley’ and published in Nottingham. It supported the view that the position of the Moon could be used to determine longitude at sea.Held a strong belief in the plurality of worlds and prevalence of other beings throughout the universe, including on the Moon (ODNB).

Whitehurst, John (1733-1788), clock and scientific instrument maker of Derby; founder member of the Lunar Society. Founded a philosophical society in Derby around 1770.Made many clocks movements for Matthew Bolton at Soho House. Had many interests, including geology and astronomy. Was a close friend of James Ferguson. Was made a member of the Royal Society in 1779 as a result of his geological researches in An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth published in 1778. Believed to have been the author of reports on eclipses, the appearance of the planets, constellations and meteor showers that appeared regularly in the Derby Mercury newspaper. Lived in London in later life (ODNB).

Wright, Derby,  of Joseph (1734–1797), painter and friend of Lunar Society members John Whitehurst and Erasmus Darwin. Two large candlelight paintings above all made Wright’s name in the 1760s. These were A philosopher giving a lecture on the orrery, in which a lamp is put in the place of the sun (exh. 1766; Derby Art Gallery) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (exh. 1768; National Gallery, London), see ODNB.

Megalithic Sites

Derbyshire is well-known for its pre-historic sites that may have been astronomically aligned. Arbor Low is a Neolithic henge in the White Peak area of Derbyshire. None ladies Stone Circle at Stanton Moor is a small early Bronze Age monument.


Flamsteed Observatory, owned by Derby and District Astronomical Society

The Barnett Observatory, owned by Chesterfield Astronomical Society.
Opened in 1960 by the Astronomer Royal, Dr Richard Woolley. Houses an 18” Newtonian reflector.

Societies and Organisations

Derby Philosophical Society (DPS), founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin it became the focus for meetings of natural philosophers and experimental demonstrations by visiting lecturers, for example the air pump and orrery as depicted in Joseph Wright’s paintings.  In 1858 it merged with with the Derby Town and County Museum and the Natural History Society.

Ilkeston & District Astronomical society (IDAS)

Rosliston Astronomy Group (RAG), founded by Peter Bolas in 1999 to encourage and educate the public about and viewing of the night sky.  Members (40-2016) meet and observe at the Rosliston Forestry Centre, Rosliston, Swadlincote (DE12 8JX).

Local History Centres and Societies

All Derbyshire libraries have a basic range of local history books you can borrow. Larger libraries have reference collections including local newspapers, census returns, maps and photographs for their local area. These reference collections are available, free of charge, for everybody to use.
For a list of Derbyshire libraries see:

There are also two major local studies collections at Chesterfield and County Hall, Matlock. Here specialist staff are always available to offer advice and assistance with your research.

Useful addresses

Chesterfield Local Studies library.
New Beetwell Street
S40 1QN
Tel: 01246 209292
Fax: 01246 209304

Matlock County Hall Local Studies Library
Local Studies
Cultural and Community Services
Derbyshire County Council
County Hall
Tel: 01629 536579
Fax: 01629 538049

County Record Office
Derbyshire Record Office provides the archive service for Derbyshire, Derby City and Diocese of Derby.

Record Office Guide

This is a comprehensive guide to the archives held at Derbyshire Record Office. The guide is updated every time new acquisitions are made available to the public. It gives a summary of each collection, and its collection reference number, but not the numbers needed to order individual items to view in the search room.

Family and Local History Societies

Derbyshire Family History Society

Local council guides
Genealogy Links

Belper Research Website

Derbyshire Archaeological Society

Guide to Derbyshire’s Parishes, 1811

Derby & District Local History Forum
Contact: Peter Northedge, Secretary
20 Woodbridge Close, Chellaston, Derby DE73 1QW

Derby Historical Society

Derbyshire Local Life
Derby Philosophical Society (founded 1783)
One of a number of literary and scientific associations that existed in the town during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which promoted interest in the sciences. it was founded by Erasmus Darwin.

Heanor and District Local History

Ilkeston and District Local History Society:

Langley Mill Heritage Group

Ockbrook & Borrowash Heritage Society
Contact: Terry Holbrook, Secretary
The Parish Hall, Church Street, Ockbrook, Derby DE72 3GH
Tel No: 01332 660817


One Response to Derbyshire

  1. Maxwell Craven, MBE, DLitt ,FSA says:

    Please amend Joseph Whitehurst (sic., above) to read John Whitehurst.
    – Maxwell Craven (biographer of John Whitehurst (Mayfield 1997) 2nd edn., due this year)

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