Flamsteed Astronomy Society

The incredible Herschel family

— Andy Burns, March 3, 2008

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by Roger Geeson


 On Monday March 3, some fifty Flamsteed members plus a handful of guests gathered at the Maritime Museum in eager anticipation of a lecture by Andy Burns, the President of the Wiltshire Astronomical Society, on the great and fascinating Herschel family.

Like me, I suppose that many would have expected this dissertation to have been ‘Williamocentric’, if I may crib some astronomical vernacular, but Andy’s enlightening talk, delivered with both humour and an impressive depth of detailed knowledge derived from years of personal research, to cover not only William but the ‘global family’ encompassing his sister Caroline, his son John and grandson Alexander and spanning in total an era from 1738 through to1871 when John died.

 Second son of Isaac, the father of six children and a humble bandsman in the Hanoverian Guards, William fled to England in 1757, arriving with just five shillings and a violin. Just a year later, after a brief spell in Darlington, he was appointed as organist to the fashionable Octagon Chapel in the spa town of Bath. Whilst there he handsomely supplemented his religious income by performing musically, composing some twenty six symphonies and teaching music to the offspring of Bath’s admiring gentry.

Thus freed of financial concerns William was able to devote time to his other varied interests, perhaps the most significant of which was astronomy. He rapidly made a name for himself in pure astronomy and both telescope design and manufacture which reputation was measurably enhanced when papers he had written for the Bath Philosophical Society were passed on by his patron, one Dr Watson, to no less an august body than the Royal Society of which he later became a Fellow. William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 and was soon invited to become Astronomer to the court of King George III. He married Mary Baldwin Pitt in 1788, which union produced a son, John in 1792.

 We then learned that although William had brought his sister Caroline Lucretia to join him in 1772, ostensibly to continue her singing career in England, she instead began helping him with his astronomy and, as a recognised assistant in the pay of the king at £50 per annum, she thus became the first professional female astronomer. She was also the first woman to win a Gold Medal from the Royal Society and herself discovered no less than 8 Comets and several Nebulae, in their later years, whilst living with William at Observatory House in Slough. That residence which was inherited by subsequent generations of the family, far from being preserved as a monument and memorial to this incredible astronomical dynasty was allowed to become derelict following the death of the last Baronet in 1951 and, sadly, was finally demolished in the 1960’s.

Most importantly, Caroline wrote up William and his son John’s works as the General Catalogue after herself returning to Hanover upon William’s death in 1822. A truly remarkable woman she was still working at the age of 96 and, when she died at the grand old age of 98, she was buried next to her father Isaac.

 Andy explained how the Herschel’s broke free of the then academic astronomical world’s previous parochial preoccupation with the solar system and developed the study of the cosmos, the greater universe, to be acceptable as part of mainstream science.

William completed his 40 foot telescope in 1789. This leviathan boasted a 48 inch mirror, manufactured by William, and was then the largest of its kind in the world. Members may be aware that the lower section of this ground breaking instrument is on permanent display at the Royal Observatory which also has custody of the 48 inch mirror.

 In 1814, William became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society which his son John had been partially instrumental in founding.

 John Herschel was a true polymath, who perhaps demonstrated how a formal education could seriously have benefited his father and encouraged him to even greater exploits, and he displayed even wider ranging talents than did William. He attended Cambridge University in the illustrious company of, among others, Faraday, Peacock and Babbage in 1813.

Andy Burns [Pic: Dave Waugh]

BHC2359.jpgCaroline Engraving.jpg

William Herschel

Caroline Herschel

John Herschel

William Herschel’s

40-foot reflector