Backhouse, Thomas William (1842-1920), born in Sunderland on August 14, 1842 and educated at London University, retired from business in early life to devote himself to astronomy. In 1911 he published a catalogue of 9842 stars visible to the naked eye, constructed in collaboration with Pack. Thomas Backhouse’s accurate meteorological observations were uninterrupted from 1857-1919, and his work was recognised by the Royal Meteorological Society, who appointed him as Vice-President in 1918 and 1919. He died March 13, 1920.

Bird, John (1709–1776), the great mathematical instrument maker, was born at Bishop Auckland. He worked in London for Jeremiah Sisson, and by 1745 he had his own business in the Strand. Bird was commissioned to make a brass quadrant 8 feet across for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, where it is still preserved. Soon after, duplicates were ordered for France, Spain and Russia .  He supplied James Bradley with further instruments – to Bradley’s specification – of such quality that the commissioners of longitude paid him £500 (a huge sum) on condition that he take on a 7-year apprentice and produce in writing upon oath, a full account of his working methods. (Wikipedia). Thomas Hornsby founded the Radcliffe Observatory in 1772 and immediately commissioned Bird for what would clearly be his last major suite of instruments. He persuaded Bird to fit them with achromatic telescopes, thereby ensuring that the Radcliffe was the finest European observatory for nearly half a century (ODNB).

Emley, Edward Frederick (1917-1980), of 18 Alderley Road, Low Fell, Gateshead, County Durham. A research and development metallurgist, he served as Librarian for the Circle. He used a 16cm With reflector. 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: Robert Barker in Hertfordshire, and for an excellent article see: McKim 2013.

Espin, Revd. Thomas H.E.C. (1858-1934), in 1876 he met Revd. Thomas Webb, and helped him compile his Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, and he later edited the 5th and 6th editions. He discovered many nebulae, variables, and more than 2,500 double stars. After graduating at Oxford University he was appointed curate in West Kirby on the Wirral. In 1888 he became vicar of Tow Law, a few miles south of Conset, County Durham, and built his observatory there (ODNB).

Farrar, Adam Storey (1826-1905), born in London. Educated at the Liverpool Institute and St Mary Hall, Oxford.  After academic posts at Oxford he took religious orders in 1853 with posts as tutor at Wadham College (1855) and then a professorship at Durham University and canon at Durham cathedral.  A naked eye observer and historian of astronomical works, he was elected fellow of the royal astronomical society in 1858 (see obit., MNRAS, 66, 174; ODNB).

Goldney, Gabriel Alphonsus (w.1874-85), astronomer who worked at the Durham University Observatory (see entry below and Wikipedia).

Hornsby, Thomas (1733-1810) – was born in the parish of St Nicholas, Durham. He became Bradley’s pupil and successor, and was founder of the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford (ODNB; see Oxfordshire).

Newall, Hugh Frank (1857-1944), born at ‘Ferndene’, Gateshead, where his father had already established his observatory, so that Hugh grew up with the great 25-inch refractor. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1886 he became assistant to J.J. Thompson and demonstrator in the Cavendish Laboratory. His interests was in physics. When his father bequeathed the 25-inch Cooke Telescope of 1871 to Cambridge University on condition that it be used, the University could not afford it. Hugh stepped in, contributed to the move and to building the new tower on the existing observatory site, then worked the telescope for years without stipend. His work, subsidies, and his example attracted several key benefactions to the Cambridge Observatory, and enabled it to gain leadership in British astrophysics (ODNB; see Cambridgeshire).

Newall, Robert Stirling (1812-1889), born in Dundee. In the early 1840s at Gateshead on the north bank of the River Tyne opposite Newcastle, established his wire-drawing and cable making business from which he made a fortune. Half of the first trans-Atlantic cable was made there. In 1871 at his residence ‘Ferndene’ in Gateshead he set up a 25-inch Cooke refractor (ODNB).

Pattinson, Hugh L. (1796-1858), born at Alston, Cumberland. He perfected a process for extracting silver from lead, and in 1844 started his own chemical works near Gateshead. In 1858 he retired from business , and in order to master astronomy devoted himself to studying mathematics and physics. At his home Scott’s House he erected an observatory to house a 7½-inch equatorial refractor, but he died at the end of that year.

Peacock, George (1791-1858) – was born at Denton, in Gainford, near Darlington. Educated at trinity college, Cambridge, he graduated second wrangler and second Smith’s Prize man in 1813 – in both he was second to John Herschel. With Robert Woodhouse, Charles Babbage, and Herschel, a member of the Analytical Society in 1812, they made the founding of the Cambridge Observatory a means to introduce reform to the University. He was also a founder of the Astronomical Society of London. Dean of Ely, he retained much influence upon his friends in the RAS, and was a mentor of George Biddell Airy, who seems to have resorted to him for advice during the Neptune debacle of 1846 (Hutchins 2008).

Wolfendale, Sir Arnold W. [FRS] (1927- ) born Rugby, astronomer who graduated from manchester University.   After a career at Durham University and he became Astronomer Royal (1991-5), then professor Emeritus at Durham University (see Warwickshire; LancashireWiki; ‘Profile: Prof. Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS’, A& G, 49 [4] (2008), p.4.11).


Durham University Observatory (1842- ), established by subscription at the initiative of Temple Chevalier, professor of mathematics. Equipped with the 6½-inch Fraunhofer refractor of 1825 (in 1842 said to be the finest refractor in the country, but a wooden tube), and 3¼-inch transit all from Rev. T. J. Hussey’s observatory in Kent. By 1883 only observations from 1846-52 had been published, and the refractor was obsolete. In 1900 the observatory was re-equipped with a more or less experimental almucantar, with 6-inch object glass by Cooke and 9-inch flat by A. A. Common, but the instrument was not a success.

Always short of funds, latterly compromised by light pollution, observing was ended in 1939, but the meteorological observations have continued uninterrupted (see Howse 1986; Hutchins 2008; Hills, Edmond Herbert Grove, Cumberland;  Carrington, Richard, Surrey).

Ferndene Observatory, Gateshead (1871-91), established by Robert Newall who ordered a 25-inch refractor from Cooke in 1863, plus a 7-inch meridian circle. When finally delivered in 1870 it was the largest in the world, 6½-inch larger than the Dearborne, Chicago refractor. Newall intended it to be “of the greatest importance to the advancement of science, … where the instrument is properly fixed, in a good climate, to place it at the disposal … of any competent observer who will take the trouble to travel to it”. He had intended it for Madeira, but it was so much delayed that he decided to keep it in England.(Astronomical Register, 103, July 1871, p. 167). He employed Albert Marth for a while as Observer, but the climate in Gateshead was inimical to its utility, and in truth it was little used. Norman Lockyer called it “the finest telescope … in the Old World” (Letter to theTimes, 16 July 1874). But the problems of building it are said to have broken Thomas Cooke’s health.

Robert Newall would surely have been utterly delighted to see the good use to which his youngest son Hugh put the instrument at Cambridge, compounded his bequest, and created an astrophysical observatory to lasting effect. Wonderful philantrophy by father and son!

Scot’s House Observatory (1796-1858), established near Gateshead, by Hugh L. Pattinson with a 7½-inch Cooke equatorial which he loaned to Charles Piazzi Smyth for Smyth’s expedition to Teneriffe. He lived near Robert Newall, and his daughter married Newall.

Tow Law Observatory (1888-1939), established by Revd. Thomas Espin. While at Exeter College Oxford, he had used De La Rue’s 13-inch reflector at the University Observatory. In 1885 at Wolsingham Observatory he used a 17¼-inch clock driven Calver Newtonian, which he then took to Tow Law. In 1914 he obtained a 24-inch Calver Newtonian, and used it to observe red stars and doubles. Since 1912 he was assisted by William Milburn (1896-1982), the grandson of a family friend. After Espin’s death in 1934, Milburn continued full-time observations until 1939.

Societies and Organisations

Sunderland  Astronomical  Society (SuAS), founded in 1993 to encourage astronomy, for both beginners and the more experienced. Members meet at the society’s public Cygnus observatory at the Washington Wetlands Centre (NE38 8LE, ).

Useful addresses

Durham County Record Office
County Hall
Durham DH1 5UL

Tel 0191 383 3253/3474
Fax 0191 383 4500

Email record.office@durham.gov.uk
URL http://www.durham.gov.uk/recordoffice

The Society would be delighted to hear from anyone with more information about this county’s links with astronomy. Can you add anything to the names of the people and places listed below? Please contact me if you have anything however small.

Would you like to adopt this county?

Email: Survey Officer
Can you add names and places to this county?
Astronomers, Observatories and anything appertaining to the History of Astronomy.

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