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A Trinity of Woodbridge Astronomers

Three amateur astronomers lived in the town of Woodbridge, Suffolk at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. In order of birth, they were:

None of the three was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, but all were members of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). In fact, London and May were original members of the Association, joining at or soon after its inauguration in October 1890. Hart was elected a member on 27 January 1909, proposed by May and seconded by Thomas Frid Maunder (1841–1935) [a]. Previously, London had been a member of the short-lived Liverpool Astronomical Society (LAS), joining on 08 January 1884. The LAS started locally in the North-West of England in 1881, but overreached its organisational capabilities and faded from prominence around the time that the BAA started.

London was born on 30 November 1832. His father, also called William (1803-84), was a bank clerk and William Junior initially followed in his footsteps, eventually achieving a better position as branch manager. By 1901 he described himself as "retired". He lived at Quay House on Station Road, Woodbridge, a Dutch merchant’s house dating from the late seventeenth century. It is currently a bed and breakfast hotel of sufficient architectural interest that it is Grade II listed. He died on 16 June 1916 at the age of 83.

20150722_London_Quay_House_BB.jpg Quay House, 22 July 2015, Bill Barton.

20150722_London_gravestone_BB.jpg London's headstone, 22 July 2015, Bill Barton.

London kept observing note-books and, in 1887, was using a 3¾" aperture doublet refracting telescope manufactured by Wray of London. In 1896, he travelled with other members of the BAA to Vadsö in Norway to observe the solar eclipse of 06 August. His report [1] describes cloud phenomena and lighting effects.

He appears to have had an interest in astronomical photography. A report [2] of the Section for Astronomical Photography of the BAA for the years 1897-98 lists him among members offering to carry out printing, lantern slide making, enlarging and reducing Members' negatives in cases where they have not the requisite leisure or appliances for the purpose. This hints that he owned, or had access to, extensive "dark-room" facilities. In 1902, he was listed in JBAA [3] as a member of the BAA Photographic Section equipped with a 15½" aperture reflecting telescope; he eventually bequeathed the instrument to the "Seckford Hospital and Endowed Schools". I have to date found no photographs by him nor evidence of the existence of an observatory that would be essential to house such an impressive instrument.

Following his retirement, he attended BAA meetings in London. At a meeting of the Association in Sion College on 28 May 1902, he reported [4] that in recent evenings, while searching for Mercury, he had witnessed, after sunset in a clear sky, "right in the west [was] a golden colour tinged with red, extending some distance up". The same phenomenon was visible at sunrise and, in each case, there was no trace of cloud to explain it. Another speaker at the meeting spoke of the Moon appearing "a very marked ruddy colour, when it was well above the horizon." The consensus at the meeting was that the phenomenon was caused by the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique in the French Caribbean, an event which has been called "the worst volcanic eruption of the twentieth century". Following the meeting, London spoke [5] with another meeting-goer who had also witnessed the phenomenon.

May was born in Hadleigh, Suffolk, and lived in Castle Street. Like London, he followed in his father’s footsteps, this time literally(!), taking up the profession of shoemaker. In his final years he is described as "optician working astronomical" before gaining "independent means". He died in 1918 at the age of 73. Note that he was not related to Charles May (1800-60), the telescope-building engineer who was a partner with Ransomes of Ipswich.

Hart’s parents were John Brook Hart (1830-1916) and Anna Marie (née Smith) (1840-1927) who ran the family business of corn merchant and maltster, employing 28 people. John was a local artist and became founder member of the Ipswich Fine Art Club in 1875. Latterly the family lived at Deben Bank in the Thoroughfare, Woodbridge. Hubert became a career soldier in the Suffolk Regiment, being promoted captain in 1895, lieutenant in 1886 and finally major in 1908. He survived until 1944, when he died at the age of 77.



Maunder and his younger brother Edward Walter (1851-1928) were co-founders of the BAA. Thomas was secretary for 38 years. Edward carried out solar studies and the "Maunder Minimum" of the solar cycle is named after him and his co-worker and wife Annie (1868-1947).



Memoirs of the BAA, vol. 6, pt. 1, p. 27, 1898.


Memoirs of the BAA, vol. 8, pt. 3, p. 66, April 1900.


JBAA, vol. 12, no. 6, p. 264, April 1902.


JBAA, vol. 12 no. 8, p. 309, June 1902.


ibid p.336.

Bill Barton, FRAS