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Leeds Astronomical Society (founded 1859)

The oldest local astronomical society in the UK.

Henry John Townshend and David Booth, who re-established the Society, 1892.
Henry John Townshend and David Booth, who re-established the Society, 1892.

 

 

Leeds Astronomical Society (founded 1859)

The oldest local astronomical society in the UK.


by David Sellers.

Foundation

William Trant, founder of LAS, as he appeared 37 years later (1896).

The Leeds Astronomical society was first founded in 1859 at the instigation of a 14-year old boy, William Trant. Local enthusiasm for science had received a tremendous fillip as a result of the hosting of 1700-strong annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the newly opened Leeds Town Hall the previous year. Furthermore, interest in astronomy had been boosted by two spectacular events in the same year: the most brilliant comet of the century, Donalti's Comet; and the March 1858 annular solar eclipse.

The Society gathered around itself an impressive array of patrons, including Sir George Airy (the Astronomer Royal), Lord Wrottesley (the President of the Royal Society), Sir John Herschel, and the Dean of Ely. The subscription-paying membership included an astonishing number of society figures: the two Members of Parliament for Leeds - Edward Baines and George Beecroft; Titus Salt; the Bradford manufacturer and future MP; the eminent medical men, William Clayton, John Deakin Heaton, John Pridgin Teale, FRS, and Clifford Allbut (FRS in 1880 and knighted in 1907); two Earls - the Earl de Grey, a cabinet member of the British Government, and the Earl of Carlisle, a former Government Minister. Altogther an unusal compostion for an astronomical society!

Leeds A.S. & The Metre

The Society soon acquired a galavanised iron, circular building to use as an observatory. This was placed in Love Lane, off North Street, and was also used to provide classes in astronomy. Sir John Herschel was asked to suggest a suitable telescope. The firm of Ross of London was selected and manufacture of a 3 ½ inch apochromatic telescope took place under the direct supervision of Herschel. The current Society still has this as one of its 'heirlooms'.

In 1863 Sir John Herschel was asked if he would consider giving a lecture to the Society. Herschel was by then too frail to travel excessively, but remarkably he consented to prepare a lecture to be read in his absence. The paper was in the form of an essay: The Yard, the Pendulum & the Metre. It was read to a packed meeting in the theatre of the Philisophical Hall on 27th October 1863 and was subsequently published as a 24 page pamphlet, 100 copies of which were sent to Herschel himself. It was essentially a plea for Britain to accept the metre as the standard of length.

Herschel's pamphlet on the Metre for LAS.

Letter from Sir George Airy (Astronomer Royal) agreeing to be a patron of the Society (1863). He was later made its Honorary President.

Report and Transactions (1894)

Dormancy

The Leeds Astronomical Society had hoped to carrry out its aim of diffusing knowledge of astronomy and meteorology by forming classes for elementary study, providing a small, suitably equipped observatory, presenting papers at ordinary meetings and by occasional publis lectures. Alas, the goal was not ultimately achieved.

"That the society was not carried out was not due to the lack of zeal and intelligence on the part of the promoters pf such a worthy educational aim; but rather that the time was not ripe for public appreciation of its value and importance. The Society, furnished with a useful telescope... and a library of reference, met for many years until reduced by the death of some of its members and the removal of others, and finally settled down to a small number of earnest students." (Leeds Mercury, 3rd Dec 1892)

Phoenix From The Ashes

In 1892 Leeds Astronomical Society was re-established, on the instigation of Leeds telescope manufacturer, David Booth, and Henry John Townshend: The Society which survives to this day.

A link between the old and the new, William Douglas Barbour, Treasurer (1863) & Secretary (1893-1903)

Local cvil engineer and photographic pioneer, Washington Teasdale, agreed to become president. William Douglas Barbour - the Treasurer of the original society - became the new Secretary. William Trant, by now living in Canada, expressed intense delight at the re-birth of the Society, which he had founded as a 14-year old, and enthusiastically rejoined, as did a number of members of the 'old' organisation.

Reports of each meeting of the Leeds Astronomical Society would occupy many column-inches in the local newspapers. From 1893 the Society published its own account of the year: Report and Transactions. A print-run of 500 was arranged for the first issue and copies were sent to institutions and individuals worldwide: A practice that continued with subsequent numbers. By number 3 (1895), the title had been changed to Journal and Transactions. The publication of annual editions, each containing an assortment of high-quality articles, was sustained until 1921.

Florence Taylor (1865-1932). First female member of LAS.

Women & Leeds A.S.

In the re-established Society women were welcomed as members in their own right. The first woman to join the Society (1895) was Florence Taylor, the daughter of an iron foundry owner. She became an active participant, giving lectures at the meetings and preparing papers for publication. She also took the opportunity to underline the contribution of women to astronomy, with the talks on Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. Her paper arising from the latter ended wiht the optimistic call:

'Emancipation' has been the watchword of this nineteenth century, as witnessed by the Liberation of the Slave; Enfranchisement of Labour; Triumphs of moral over brute force; Enthronement of worth and disenchantment of wealth; Unfettering of the human mind from the thraldom of authority and prescription; to which we now add, as in prinicple vindicated by the lives of Mary Somerville and others of her sex, beautiful in character and nobly distinguished, THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMAN.

In 1912, when the Society elected its first woman president, Lucy Whitmell, the majority of the Committee were women. Lucy became famous during WW1 for her poem Christ In Flanders.

 


Cyanotype image of gibbous waxing Moon, by photographic pioneer Washington Teasdale.

Advert for Leeds Astronomical Society 1861.

LAS member, T.E. Moore, looking through a home-made Herschellian telescope, c.1898.


Further Reading

For more information see David Seller's book The Early History of Leeds Astronomical Society, 1859-1918. This is available at Society meetings for £6, or use the Contact page & we'll pass on any requests to David.

The Society also has a large amount of archive material which has been digitised and is available to members. To obtain a copy bring a 16GB memory stick to one of our meetings.

The original copies of the archive are now stored at the West Yorkshire Archive Service.