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Will Hay (1988-1949): Comic And Amateur Astronomer

The wildly different interests of people in astronomy is both strange and fascinating, as is where those interests can lead! My penchant is for the history of the science and, over the years, it has drawn me to scour second-hand bookshops and the like in pursuit of astronomical titles long since out of print. One such book was a little tome entitled Through My Telescope [1], published in 1935. Call it the thrill of the chase if you will! A minor work from the 1930s aimed at the beginner doesn't sound like enough to set one's heart racing; but that particular little book is very sought-after and, in the past couple of years, has come up twice on Ebay - I was outbid on both occasions when the hammer price grossly exceeded the three shillings and sixpence marked on the jacket [2]. Why so sought after? Well, for anyone of a certain age, the name of the author will be immediately familiar - Will Hay, FRAS, in his era one of the great stars of stage and silver screen and revered to this day as a comic genius. And that's why the book is so sought after: not only do collectors of musty astronomical tomes crave a copy, so too do a huge number of his modern fans.

William Thompson (Will) Hay was born in 1888. His family was highly mobile and he lived variously at Stockton, Lowestoft, Hemel Hempstead and Manchester. His first employment was a job in engineering at the well-known Westinghouse Company in Manchester and thereafter he moved into the printing trade. However, at age 21 the lure of the stage proved irresistible and he began to give after-dinner speeches and work in the music halls, where he developed his well-loved character of the comic headmaster. His career blossomed and, in 1935, he made his debut on the silver screen. He went on to star in many comedy films, the most well-known being Convict 99 and Oh Mr Porter! in which he played a hapless station master on a railway that I would venture even our beloved local train company One would be hard put to emulate for incompetence…! During WWII, Hay served in the RNVR Special Branch and also as an instructor in navigation and astronomy. Illness forced him out of the service before hostilities ceased and he never fully recovered, dying of a massive stroke in 1949.

For many years, Hay had a passion for astronomy. Much of his astronomical observing - like that of many amateurs - consisted of opportunistic stargazing whenever time and occasion permitted. He joined the BAA in 1932 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society later in the year. He served on the Council of the BAA and was a member of the BAA Comet Section. His main observational work was the visual determination of cometary positions using a cross-bar micrometer of his own making. His engineering experience stood him in good stead and he constructed a chronograph from Meccano and a gramophone motor [3] and a blink microscope [4]. He replicated the three devices for various friends within the BAA.

Towards the end of the 1920s, he acquired a 12½" reflector originally constructed by East Anglian telescope maker George Calver (1834-1927). The instrument dated from 1895, had been found in a derelict state and was restored by Hay and BAA stalwart, W H Steavenson, who lived near by. Hay built an observatory at his home in Norbury to house the reflector. The observatory can best be described as the bottom half of a large oil drum or "silo" similar, perhaps, to Sir Patrick Moore's famous oil drum dome, in which he housed his 15" reflector. Hay also owned a 6" refractor by Cooke, Troughton and Simms, which he housed in a second "silo".

It was with the 6" instrument that Hay made a celebrated discovery. On the evening of 03 August 1933, at 22:35 UT, he was observing Saturn and noticed a large, bright elliptical spot in the equatorial zone, just after it crossed the central meridian of the planetary disc. He immediately telephoned Steavenson, who confirmed the observation, and a BAA Circular was issued directly [5]. He also notified astronomers of the discovery in the pages of MNRAS [6]. Observers at the US Naval Observatory in Washington independently saw the phenomena, but they were about 30 hours behind Hay. The spot was prominent whilst it lasted and a young Patrick Moore was able to observe it through his 3" refractor.

Hay made five further observations of the spot up to 18 August and, as result of these and observations by others, including observations of associated smaller spots that had been variously noticed [7] up to mid-September, astronomers established a mean value for the planet's equatorial rotation period of around 10 hours 14 minutes.

Will_Hay_comic.jpg The comic schoolteacher character.

Will_Hay_Saturn.jpg The white spot on Saturn, drawn by Hay on 03 August 1933, from Through My Telescope.

Will_Hay_Newtonian.jpg Will Hay and his 12" Calver Newtonian.

Hay had kept secret his passion for astronomy for fear of it colliding with his status as a celebrity comedy actor. However, his discovery of the spot on Saturn precipitated a storm of interest in the press which lasted for a month or so. When the media attention subsided and Hay returned to his normal astronomical activities, a small circle of friends within the BAA and RAS persuaded him to write a book on astronomy. The result was Through My Telescope. Written in a plain-speaking style, the delightful tome sets out the basics of the science within its 128 pages, utilising a number of Hay's observational drawings.

In 1948, Hay donated much of his observing equipment to the BAA and, after his death the following year, the 12½" Calver reflector passed through several hands and was still in regular use at least up to the early 1990s. Mystery surrounds what became of the 6" Cooke, Troughton & Simms refractor and I am aware of at least one researcher who is trying to establish its eventual fate. Hay's observing notes are preserved in the RAS library and I hope eventually to trawl through them with the intention of writing a full paper about him. [See [8], published after Ken's decease.]

Hay was by all accounts a clever individual - variously described as multi-lingual, possessed of an appreciation of a wide spectrum of the sciences, a qualified pilot and unexpectedly shy and retiring in private life. His public persona forever remains that of a gifted comic character actor. Within the astronomical community his observational and practical contributions will be long remembered.

Footnotes & References


Will Hay, Through My Telescope; Astronomy For All, published by John Murray, 1935.


I'm pleased to report that I now possess a copy of Will Hay's book! It cost considerably more than its original price of 3s/6d and, remarkably, I managed to obtain two copies at only slightly less than bankrupting prices within a week of each other after years of fruitless searching. The second copy is now in the possession of another member of OASI who, I know, covets it as much as I do mine.


W T Hay, "A Simple Chronograph", JBAA, vol. 43, pp. 80-84, 1932.


"Report of the General meeting of the Association, 1933 April 26", JBAA, vol. 43, pp. 275-279, 1933.


BAA Circular 137, 04 August 1937.


W T Hay, The Spot On Saturn, MNRAS, vol. 94, p. 85, 1933.


Participating major observatories were: Berlin, Rome, Potsdam, the USNO, Yerkes and Stonyhurst. Several individual members of the BAA also submitted observations.


M P Mobberley and K J Goward, "Will Hay (1888-1949) and His Telescopes", JBAA, vol. 119, pp. 67-81, 2009.

Other Sources


R L Waterfield, Obituary Notices, William Thompson Hay, MNRAS, vol. 110, pp. 130-131, 1950.


Obituary, William Thompson Hay, JBAA, vol. 59, pp. 215-216, July 1949.


Obituary, William Thompson Hay, The Observatory, vol. 69, p. 194, 1949.


Patrick Moore, The Amateur Astronomer, 11th edition, CUP, 1990.


"W T Hay" in report of Ordinary Meeting 1993 January 27, JBAA, vol. 103, pp. 148-149, 1993.

Ken Goward, FRAS