Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Basil John Wait Brown (1888-1977)
Basil John Wait Brown was born on 22 January 1888 in Bucklesham, just east of Ipswich. He was the only child of George (1863-1932), a farmer, wheelwright and agent for the Royal Insurance Company and Charlotte (née Wait, possibly 1854-1931). Less than a year after his birth, the family moved to Church Farm, Rickinghall Superior, near Diss, in north Suffolk . Brown was to live there for the rest of his life.
The only formal education that Brown received as a child was at the local village elementary school, which he left at the age of twelve years . Despite his limited formal education, he later taught himself Latin, became fluent in spoken French and gained a working knowledge of German and Spanish . He learned the languages initially from textbooks and, other than for Latin, later by listening to foreign language radio broadcasts on the wireless . In 1907, he was awarded distinction level Harmsworth diplomas in astronomy, geography and geology [5, 6, 7].
Brown was rejected for war service in November 1915 on medical grounds, but volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps anyway. He eventually served as Private Brown, V154399, Suffolk RAMC, Volunteer Force for just over a year from 16 October 1918 to 31 October 1919 . Following the end of hostilities, on 27 June 1923, he married Dorothy May Oldfield (1897-1983) . The marriage remained childless . The Browns ran the family farm together with Basil's parents. The farm was not lucrative, in part due to its small size and, in part due to Brown, by his own admission, spending time on astronomy rather than working the land . To supplement the income from the farm, Brown also became an insurance agent . Poor financial standing would cause difficulties throughout his life and the only transport he ever owned was a humble pedal bicycle .
Brown had been interested in astronomy from around five years of age when he inherited some of his great-grandfather's astronomy reference books and celestial charts [14, 15]. In November 1918, the septuagenarian Bristol meteor observer William Frederick Denning (1848-1931) proposed Brown for membership of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). The application was seconded by another meteor observer, Miss Alice Grace Cook (1887-1958)  a resident of Stowmarket. It has been said that Denning hardly ever left Bristol  so the writer of this piece is left wondering how the two men came to know each other well enough for the membership proposal. One year later, Cook proposed J P M Prentice (1903-1981) for BAA membership and Brown seconded the application . (Prentice went on, in 1923, to become Director of the BAA Meteor Section, a role he held for over thirty years .)
As far as is known, the only telescope that Brown owned was a two inch (50 mm) aperture refractor . With such a modest instrument, he naturally concentrated his observing on phenomena best seen with the naked eye in the dark skies provided by rural England in the early twentieth century, including:
In April and September 1924, Brown had two papers on historical astronomical mapping and cataloguing [27, 28] published in the popular independent science magazine The English Mechanic . In April 1932, he had a paper published in the Journal of the BAA (JBAA), on "Stephen Groombridge, FRS (1755-1832)" . Frederick Addey read the paper on Brown's behalf to a meeting of the Association held on 30 March 1932 .
The Chaldaean Society was formed in London, in November 1916, with the aim of popularising and undertaking observational astronomy. The Society was active nationally from its formation until June 1927, and in Suffolk from 1922 to 1924. Brown appears only twice (for definite) in extant copies of "The Chaldaean", the quarterly Journal of the national Society, held by the British Library : he is noted by W F Denning as observing meteors in November 1919 and February 1920. It is more than likely that Brown was the "Mr Brown" mentioned in the records of the Ipswich Section as attending the first meeting of members of the Stowmarket sub-section. Cook, the "local correspondent" of the Society, who hosted the meeting in her home at six o'clock in the evening of 14 January 1922, knew Brown, as she had previously seconded his BAA membership application (noted above). This is the only reference to Brown in the local record: his limited transport may explain why he did not attend more meetings.
The publication of Brown's book, "Astronomical Atlases Maps and Charts" in 1932 augmented his meagre income from the farm. However, in late 1934 his financial position was so straitened that he could no longer afford the annual BAA subscription of one guinea and his observing career with the Association ceased. In the same year, the farm became unviable so he relinquished it and was forced to rely for income on local villagers giving him odd jobs . His financial position was somewhat eased by becoming a Police Special Constable (badge no. 7345) .
The next year, however, saw Brown's position improve markedly when the Curator of Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard (1877-1966), employed him with a wide remit to pursue practical archaeological research across the county. He soon became known for accurate and meticulous excavation work and the Museum released him in the summer of 1939 to work privately for Mrs Edith Pretty (1883-1942), a landowner of Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. She asked him to investigate the content of earth mounds on her estate; as is widely known, one of these was found to contain the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial .
In World War II, Brown served on the "Home Front" for the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes), the Royal Observer Corps (stationed at Post G4, Micklewood Green) and tended the heating boilers of Culford School, Bury St. Edmunds. It became his usual practice to stay at the school for a fortnight at a time before undertaking the arduous twenty mile bicycle journey home to Rickinghall .
After the War, Brown resumed employment with Ipswich Museum . He maintained an interest in astronomy and joined the Ipswich and District Natural History Society (which occasionally addressed astronomical subjects) and the group that ceded from it to form the Ipswich and District Astronomical Society (IDAS) . IDAS was short-lived, existing from 1950 to 1957.
Brown retired from museum service on 02 September 1961, at the age of 73 years . However, he continued archaeological excavations and it was while working at Broom Hills, Rickinghall in 1965 that he suffered either a stroke or a heart attack  that precipitated the end of his working life. The late 1960s were financially beneficial: firstly, his book of astronomical charts was republished  and secondly, he was awarded a civil list pension of £250 pa in recognition of his services to archaeology . On 12 March 1977, at the age of 89, he died of broncho-pneumonia at his home "Cambria", in Rickinghall . In May 2023, a blue memorial plaque was placed on his home .
In the introduction, Brown thanks those who assisted him:-
The list demonstrates how well-connected Brown was in astronomical circles.
The Guide includes a beautiful observational chart of the Great Comet of 1811 (C/1811 F1) drawn by John Bransby. The chart is reproduced as plate XVII, located between pages 164 and 165. Bransby (1760-1835) lived in Upper Brook Street in Ipswich; he was a schoolmaster, taking a keen interest astronomy, geography and meteorology, publishing books on the subjects, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Brown did not detail the origin of the image. However, A C D Crommelin, writing in JBAA  (published in the same year as the Guide), explained that Brown "came across" Bransby's observing records of the comet, and forwarded them to Crommelin for comment.
Star Atlases and Charts, vol. 119, issue 3071, pp. 4-5, 01 February 1924.
The Star Catalogues, vol. 120, issue 3105, p. 140, 26 September 1924.
Stephen Groombridge FRS (1755-1832), vol. 42, no. 6, p. 212, 1932. See also p. 199 of the same issue where the paper was read by Frederick Addey to the BAA meeting of 30 March 1932.
Phenomenon: A=aurora, C=cometary, G=gegenschein, M=meteor, Z=zodiacal light.
† observations carried out whilst on leave from military service?
Mentioned in JBAA by subject:
|Date (1920)||Time (GMT)||Magnitude|
|11 August||09:55||Jupiter - 4 x Jupiter
Vol. 13, p. 367, October 1919, in "The Observation of Meteors and Computation of Their Real Paths" by W F Denning, Brown appears against the following meteors:
|Date (1918)||Time (GMT)||Magnitude|
|11 June||10:54||3 x Venus|
|08 July||10:34||2 x Jupiter|
|12 August||09:51||1 - Jupiter|
|13 August||09:34||1 - Jupiter|
"Height at appearance", "height at disappearance", "path length", "velocity" and "radiant point" are given for each meteor. Brown may have contributed other data to the original table as there are seven instances where a meteor is noted as being recorded by multiple (unnamed) observers. Maybe these are the observations referred to in the earlier JBAA reference (vol. 28, no. 9, October 1918, p. 275): Mr Basil Brown, of Diss, who has done regular work for the Section for some time past... The "regular observing stations" referred to in the report are:
Summary of Brown's collection of press cuttings, stored in Suffolk Records Office.
Durrant, C J, "Basil Brown, Astronomer, Archaeologist, Enigma – A Biography", p. 5, 2005.
Ibid., p. 6.
"A Village Handyman Wins World Fame", Daily Express, 15 January 1935, p. 11.
"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", entry for Basil Brown.
Durrant, p. 22, op. cit.
The "Harmsworth Self-Educator" was a correspondence college subsidiary of Viscount Northcliffe's "Daily Mail" and "Daily Mirror" publishing empire. See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Harmsworth,_1st_Viscount_Northcliffe.
Durrant, p. 6, op. cit.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 14.
"Daily Express", op. cit.
Durrant, p. 7, op. cit.
Ibid., p. 25.
"Daily Express", op. cit.
Durrant, p. 8, op. cit.
JBAA, vol. 29, no. 1, 1918, p32.
Beech, M, "The Making of Meteor Astronomy: Part XV. W F Denning - The Doyen of Amateur Astronomers", Journal of the International Meteor Organisation, vol. 26, no. 1, February 1998, p. 20.
JBAA, vol. 30, no. 1, 1919, p. 44.
Memoirs of the BAA, vol. 42, pt. 2, p87.
Bruce-Mitford, R L S, "Obituary - Basil Brown", Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Ipswich, XXXIV (1), p. 71. See http://suffolkinstitute.pdfsrv.co.uk/customers/Suffolk%20Institute/2014/01/10/Volume%20XXXIV%20Part%201%20(1977)_Obituary%20Basil%20Brown%20R%20L%20S%20Bruce-Mitford_71.pdf
JBAA, vol. 36, no. 6, 1926, p. 182.
Ibid., vol. 31, no. 2, November 1920, p. 60.
Ibid., vol. 38, no. 1, October 1927, p. 28.
Ibid., vol. 40, no. 1, November 1929, p. 27.
Ibid., vol. 32, no. 2, November 1921, p. 73.
Ibid., vol. 34, no. 9, September 1924, p. 348 and vol. 36, no.3, December 1925, p. 77.
Brown, B, "Star Atlases and Charts", The English Mechanic, vol. 119, issue 3071, 01 February 1924, pp. 4-5.
Brown, B, "The Star Catalogues", The English Mechanic, vol. 120, issue 3105, 26 September 1924, p. 140.
The English Mechanic was published once a week from March 1865 to October 1926.
JBAA, vol. 42, no. 6, 1932, p. 212.
Ibid., vol. 42, no. 6, April 1932, p. 199.
The British Library holding of The Chaldaean starts at vol. 2, no. 1, midwinter 1918-19.
"Daily Express", op. cit.
Durrant, p. 18, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 16, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 25, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 29, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 48, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 33, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 36, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 8, op. cit. Bruce-Mitford op. cit. gives the date of publication as 1966.
Bruce-Mitford, op. cit.
Durrant, p. 39, op. cit.
Mary Ackworth Orr (1867-1949), BAA Historical Section Director, 1930-44.
Henry Patrick Folkard (1900-unknown), Edgware, Middlesex, meteor observer, BAA Librarian 1932-34.
Andrew David Thackeray (1910-78), nephew of the Eversheds, schoolboy observer at Eton College and Chief Assistant at the Radcliffe Observatory, Pretoria, South Africa.
Alice Grace Cook (1887-1958), BAA Meteor Section Director, 1921-23. Resident of Stowmarket.
Thomas Henry Espinell Compton Espin (1858-1934), Jackson-Gwilt Medalist of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1913.
William Milburn (1896-1982), observer for the Rev. T H E C Espin at Tow Law Observatory, Durham.
John Knight Fotheringham (1874-1936), Reader in Ancient Astronomy and Chronology at Oxford University.
John Philip Manning Prentice (1903-81), BAA Meteor Section Director 1923-54. Lived at Battisford, near Stowmarket.
William Alfred Parr (circa 1865-1936), BAA President 1932-34.
Edmund Farrer FSA (1847-1935), honorary member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, curate at Kelvedon (Essex), Bressingham (Norfolk) and rector of Hinderclay (Suffolk). (Hinderclay is three miles north-west of Rickinghall Superior.)
JBAA, vol. 42, no. 7, 1932, pp. 256-7.
McEwan gives the date of the transit as 07 May. This is due to the use of Greenwich Mean Astronomical Time (GMAT) rather than Greenwich Mean Time. GMAT is 12 hours behind GMT; it has the advantage, for astronomical purposes, of avoiding a change of date in the middle of the night. In GMAT, the transit began at 09:44 on 07 May.
Bill Barton, FRAS