Mike Frost’s latest story is this issues main work and tells an interesting tale of a Mr William Pearson. His house he had built was at South Kilworth, near Coventry and called The Observatory. The top photograph shows the house in the 1960's with below a close up view of the large wall mounted sundial. Bottom the rear view in the 60's. Like many of his contemporaries, he accomplished many things in his long life as this story makes clear. How did they find the time to do so much?
How many more local folk will Mike discover who have made significant contributions to astronomy in the past?
The Rector of South Kilworth
By Mike Frost
The Royal Astronomical Society in London is housed in Burlington House, off Piccadilly, close to the Royal Academy. On the wall of the Council Room stands a portrait of one of the Society's founders, the Reverend William Pearson. Reverend Pearson is shown with his family (his first wife Frances and daughter, also Frances). Beside the happy family sits one of the astronomical instruments that Pearson designed, an orrery, or clockwork model of the solar system.
William Pearson is not well known nowadays, but in his day he was a leading member of the astronomical community. As well as being an innovative designer of astronomical equipment, and the writer of one of the most important astronomical textbooks of the nineteenth century, he carried out a decades-long program of positional astronomy.
The observatory from which he carried out these observations was less than twenty miles from Coventry, in the village where Pearson was the incumbent minister, and the building that housed his observatory stands to this day and is now a private house. This is the story of the Rector of South Kilworth.
The William Pearson's family
William Pearson was born in Whitbeck, Cumberland, on April 23rd 1767, into a family of yeomen farmers. He went to school at the grammar school in Hawkshead, Cumberland, where one of his schoolmates was William Wordsworth, who was three years younger than Pearson. Wordsworth later wrote "His manners when he came to Hawkshead were uncouth as well could be, but he good abilities, with skill to turn them to account. . . I often used to smile at the tales which reached me of the success of this quondam clown, for such he was in manner and appearance before he was polished a little by attrition with gentlemenës sons trained at Hawkshead, rough and rude as many of our Juveniles were".
In 1790 Pearson began his adult career as an assistant schoolmaster at Hawkshead grammar. He did not initially attend university (he was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Glasgow University), probably because he would not have been able to support himself as a student. By 1793 he was working in Lincoln, working as an under-master at Lincoln Grammar, and shortly after as a curate of St Martin's, Lincoln. Around this time he married Frances Low and their only child, also called Frances, was born in 1797.
In 1796 he designed the first of the astronomical instruments that were to make his reputation in the subject - an orrery, named for the fourth Earl of Orrery, who commissioned the first such instrument from George Graham in 1708. Almost certainly Pearson's orrery was built for the purposes of giving public lectures on astronomy, a frequent and profitable employment for men of science at the time. We know that Pearson gave such lectures in Lincoln.
Over the succeeding years Pearson constructed a series of superbly accurate models of planetary, lunar and satellite motion. He paid particular attention to the mechanisms required to produce accurate motion. Ironically, given the long struggle to discredit epicyclic descriptions of planetary motion, Pearson's orreries employed epicyclic mechanisms. Pearson published a series of articles on how to construct orreries, telluriums and satellitiums. One orrery (or copy) still exists in the Science museum, London, a copy of another instrument is in the museum if the History of Science in Oxford.
In addition to his successes as a public lecturer and instrument maker, Pearson's career as a schoolmaster continued to flourish. In 1800 he became a partner in a boys' preparatory school, Elm House in Parsons' Green, near Fulham. Running a successful school proved to be a profitable enterprise. By 1809 he had founded a larger establishment, Temple Grove School, at Sheen Grove in East Sheen. Temple Grove was fashionable with the aristocracy - Wellington's sons and Disraeli's brother were educated there. Temple Grove School continues to exist, although it has now moved to Uckfield, and claims to be the oldest preparatory school in the country.
Nor should we forget Pearson's career within the church. From 1810 to 1812 he was Rector of Perivale, near Fulham. In 1817 he was appointed to Rector of South Kilworth, Leicestershire, although he continued to live in East Sheen until 1821. Absentee rectors were common at this time!
It was around this time that William Pearson became involved in the most momentous of his many endeavours - the founding of an astronomical society. He first mooted the idea in 1812, and then again in 1816. Both times there was interest, but nothing came of the idea. The idea of an astronomical society was independently proposed by Francis Baily (after whom Baily's Beads are named) in April 1819, and then in December 1819 Pearson tried a third time, writing to astronomers around the country.
At a meeting in the Freemason's Tavern, London, on January 12th 1820, the Astronomical Society of London was founded. The first full meeting was on February 29th 1820, and Pearson was elected Treasurer, a post he was to hold for seven years. The Society received a royal charter from William IV on March 7th 1831 and from then on became the Royal Astronomical Society.
In addition to the R.A.S., Pearson became a Fellow of the Royal Society, was a visitor to the Royal Greenwich Observatory for twenty years and was involved with the foundation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (see Martin Lunn's note in the Appendix below).
It's perhaps surprising, therefore, that in 1821 William Pearson should make his home in a quiet Leicestershire village. He attended almost all the monthly meetings of the R.A.S., traveling by stagecoach from Rugby. Selling Temple Grove School, at a handsome profit, enabled him to retire to the countryside and pursue his many interests. He also purchased substantial holdings of land around the country, including land around Grasmere and Rydal in the Lake District. There is still a boathouse on Grasmere with a stone bearing the initials W.P. William Wordsworth was not keen on the boathouse - "a tasteless thing in itself. . . utterly out of place and perfectly fitted. . . to mar the beauty and destroy the pastoral simplicity of the vale".
Pearson had been interested in astronomy since at least his Lincoln days - in 1794 he had presented a copy of James Ferguson's influential "Astronomy" to his old school in Hawkshead. His first observatory was in East Sheen in 1812 (he wrote to Wordsworth about it in 1813), but his work here seems to have been more concerned with building optical instruments rather than using them, as very few observations are recorded from here.
Roof plan below and right plan of The Observatory house at South Kilworth showing layout
William Pearson's first task on arrival at South Kilworth was to build a new wing for the Rectory, incorporating two instrument stands. These were used to house a transit telescope, and an altitude and azimuth circle. The altitude and azimuth circle had originally been built by Edward Troughton (at a cost of 500 guineas, 10 years salary for a country curate) for the Imperial Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, but Napoleon's invasion of Russia had meant a cancellation of the order. The transit circle was built for Pearson by Jones in 1815. Both instruments were used to observe due south, through shutters in the walls. Due south was marked by a meridian mark on a wall, 400 yards away. Pearson determined the latitude of his observatory and duly informed the Astronomer Royal that the published latitude for South Kilworth was 4" in error, an error that was corrected in the next Ordnance Survey.
Pearson built a second observatory in the summer house in the Rectory garden. This contained a more flexible instrument, a 6.8", "the most powerful refractor then in England", crafted by Tulley from a piece of flint glass donated by Guinard to the Royal Astronomical Society. The other notable feature of the summer house observatory was its roof, which rotated on rollers. This is now a common feature of observatories but was a novelty in its time. The roof was designed by John Smeaton, an engineer who is more famous for his lighthouse designs, including the lighthouse on the Eddystone rock. Pearson eventually offered the roof to the York Observatory, although Martin Lunn doesnët think that it was used [see Appendix 1].
Two observatories might have been enough for most people, but not for William Pearson, who decided that smoke from the village was degrading his observations. In 1834 he built a new Rectory, on land owned by the Church to the south of the village. To mark the meridian he also built a farmhouse due south of the new Rectory! For that matter, he also built a new aisle for the church, in 1840, although this was not a complete success and was rebuilt in 1868 by his nephewës son, Col. William Pearson.
From South Kilworth, William Pearson carried out an impressive programme of observations over two decades. He specialised in positional astronomy - the precise and painstaking determination of the positions of astronomical objects. The transit telescope was used to make 1700 observations of the Sun's altitude at noon, from which Pearson determined the obliquity of the ecliptic (the angle at which the Earth's axis is inclined to the plane in which the planets orbit). Pearson also published a catalogue of the positions of 520 stars that could potentially be occulted by the Moon. For this catalogue Pearson and an assistant from the village, Ambrose Clarke, observed each of the 520 stars between 5 and 20 times. The 6.8" refractor was used to observe occultations, the satellites of Jupiter, Mars, and Halley's comet during its 1835 apparition. Pearson published many of his observations in the Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Additionally he published an instructional book, Practical Astronomy, quite early in his South Kilworth days and this was probably his most influential publication. The first volume, published in 1824, contained tables of astronomical observations, along with detailed instructions on how to reduce the observations to derive useful data. The second volume, published in 1829, is a description of astronomical instruments, many owned by Pearson, with detailed instructions on how to use them. These two volumes won the Reverend Pearson the RAS's gold medal for 1829. Practical Astronomy was still being recommended as a reference work at the end of the nineteenth century.
By now, you will probably not be surprised to hear that William Pearson contributed fully to his community. He was a Justice of the Peace, sitting in Lutterworth, and a Freemason of the borough of Leicester. He built a new village school and endowed it with seven hundred pounds, giving an additional two hundred pounds for the "education of ten poor girls annually". He also bought a set of communion plate (4 pieces of silver) and a new organ for the church. After his first wife died, he remarried, in 1831, to Eliza Sarah, a woman the same age as his daughter.
Pearson continued to live a full life until 1844 when, at the age of 77, he had an accident. As he explained in a letter to George Airy, "In consequence of a fall from my horse onto hard ground the other day, I have been confined to my room and notwithstanding the aid of 30 leeches, I am unable to move from my bedroom". Finally he began to slow down, putting his affairs into order. William Pearson died, in South Kilworth, on September 6th 1847, and was buried in the churchyard.
William Pearson's grave, he died in South Kilworth, on September 6th 1847
Plaques in South Kilworth Church, the right hand one has the inscription
TO THE MEMORY OF THE
REVD WM PEARSON L.L.D. F.R.S.
RECTOR OF SOUTH KILWORTH
WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE
ON THE 6TH SEPTEMBER 1847
IN THE 81ST YEAR OF HIS AGE
UNIVERSALLY BELOVED AND REGRETTED
After Pearson's death, Pearson's instruments were dispersed. His observatory was converted to a granary and then to a cowshed, and then in 1960 to a private house. A sundial that used to be on the outside wall of the house was removed in 1959 to a Leicester museum (Snibston Discovery Park), where it is now in storage. The current owners of house are in the process of restoring the building and I was invited by them to come and take a look at The Observatory, South Kilworth.
William Pearson's house The Observatory at South Kilworth today
The ground floor of the cottage is a living room. There is a staircase (not part of Pearsonës original design) up to the upper floor, which used to house the telescopes. The design of the house is octagonal, with side rooms on three sides (to which the current owners are adding an extension). The upstairs windows are full to the floor, and it is likely that these were used for the telescopes (the Troughton and Jones telescopes) to peer out of. Although Pearson used a roof on rollers in his summer house, the observatory was used for transit observations and so the roof had north and south facing shutters.
I am not the only astronomer to visit The Observatory. In 1999, unannounced, Dr. Allan Chapman, Peter Hingley, the RAS librarian, and Francoise Launay of the Observatoire de Paris, came to visit. They were in the area and felt that the Revd. Pearson deserved a visit! Like my eminent predecessors, I took the opportunity to visit South Kilworth Church. Pearsonës grave is not in good repair, and it is difficult to make out the inscription. Inside the church is a plaque commemorating their illustrious Rector. See illustration above.
There are several unanswered questions about Reverend Pearson, which I would dearly like to answer. I would very much like to track down Pearsonës telescopes. Martin Lunn (see below) confirms that one of his telescopes was donated to the York Philosophical Society. We had suspicions that another of his telescopes was eventually donated to the museum of science in Cambridge, however correspondence (see below) does not bear this out. I will certainly make the effort to visit the Pearson orreries in the science museums of Oxford and London.
Most intriguing of all is a comment in the South Kilworth parish magazine that a working orrery has been constructed, to Pearson's design, by a Rugby watchmaker. Perhaps one day we will be able to see one the Rector of South Kilworth's famous instruments at one of our society's meetings!
I am very grateful to David and Sue Dilks for showing me round The Observatory and South Kilworth Church, one sunny summer afternoon, and for lending me copious information about Reverend William Pearson. I am also grateful to Martin Lunn who provided information about Pearsonës donations to the Yorkshire Museum, and to James Hyslop who answered my enquiries to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. (See below)
Sources/ Further Reading
"Revd Dr William Pearson (1767-1847): a Founder of the Royal Astronomical Society" - S.J.Garman and S.R.Harratt (Q.J.R astr. Soc. (1994) 35, 271-292)
"Revd William Pearson" from the Report to the Twenty-eighth Annual General Meeting of the R.A.S. (M.N.R.A.S. 8)
"The Life and Times of a former Rector" (in 3 parts), D.A.L.Harrison (Parish Magazine)
Histories of Kilworth School and South Kilworth Church.
The Royal Astronomical Society website is www.ras.org.uk
Email from Martin Lunn, Yorkshire Museum
Good to hear from you.
The Rev William Pearson was very instrumental in the creation of the York Observatory. As you probably know the York Philosophical Society built the Yorkshire Museum in 1829. In 1831 they hosted the very first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the Yorkshire Museum.
At that meeting the BA suggested that if the YPS would construct an observatory, members of the BA including Pearson would donate equipment.
Pearson donated a telescope, clock, plus books and charts. Unfortunately the telescope disappeared in the 1950s. We still have the original clock, which is a Barraud of 1811, which is still in perfect working order. There are some star charts, which we have recently discovered buried deep in our library, they had been lost for at least 50 years. These quite possibly were the ones donated by Pearson.
We have in the observatory a picture of the summer house roof that Pearson was offering to the YPS. However it was never used. A conical roof instead was used. It is unclear whether that was given by Pearson or was built here in York.
I hope the above is of some use to you in your research.
Email from James Hyslop, History of Science Museum, Cambridge
Dear Mr. Frost,
Thank you for your inquiry. I have gone through our catalogue's database trying to hunt down a telescope matching on of the three descriptions you sent, but I'm afraid I'm not having much luck.
None of our transit theodolites by Jones date specifically to 1815. Our telescopes by Tulley have provenances that do not match your instrument. It is possible that it is the azimuth instrument by Edward Troughton (Troughton & Simms) but our records do not state that any of them came from St. Petersburg.
Also searching our database for Revd William Pearson, South Kilworth and Mr. Edwards of Leicester [probable recipient of telescope] isn't providing me with any promising leads. This sort of information is normally recorded on the database, but it is possible that this information has been lost over the years. If you know when it was given to the museum in Cambridge I might have more luck in tracking it down, but as things stand I don't think we are the museum that you are looking for.
The Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Free School Lane