Ordinary Meeting, 2004 December 18


The Bury St Edmunds Athenaeum

Mr Mobberley remarked that the Bury St Edmunds Athenaeum was a place which he had been interested in for many years, ever since a school visit to an observatory situated in the roof of its building in his teens. However, though he had long wanted to find out the history of the telescope, he had only recently had the opportunity to do the necessary research. First founded in 1674, the history of the Athenaeum – its name simply referring to an academic institution – was relatively well established, but the speaker had been frustrated that even local historians seemed to know remarkably little about the observatory itself. It was probably nineteenth century, they told him, and the construction might, rumour had it, have been influenced by an Astronomer Royal. But that was all he could uncover. Consulting newspapers of the time in the records office also proved remarkably unproductive: there was simply an insurmountable volume of material to look through without more specific information as to the date of its construction.

However, communication with Ken Goward, chairman of the Society for the History of Astronomy, had given him a lead: Sir George Airy had mentioned in his autobiography that he had given a talk at the Athenaeum in 1858 October, chaired by Revd. Lord Arthur Hervey. From this date, Mr Mobberley had been able to find articles in archived copies of the local newspaper of the time detailing the talk in question, apparently an immensely popular spectacle. Furthermore, with the help of Dr Allan Chapman, a longtime friend of Mr Goward, the speaker had been able to locate a collection of Airy's subsequent correspondence with Hervey, held in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Amongst this collection were found design sketches of a telescope by a certain William Simms, bearing a striking resemblance to the present-day instrument, and which Airy had apparently sent to Hervey with a recommendation that it would be a well-suited instrument, should the Athenaeum wish to install an observatory.

A full account of Mr Mobberley's research can be found in his paper on the subject, on page ???.

Following the applause, the President adjourned the Meeting until January 26 at the Geological Society, Burlington House.


Dominic Ford

© 2004 Dominic Ford / The British Astronomical Association.






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