Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

Home Events

Peter Dennis Hingley (06 October 1951 - 20 June 2012)

Peter Hingley, 1951-2012.

I felt very honoured when Jane and Clare, Peter's sisters, and his daughter Eleanor invited me to deliver this Eulogy on behalf of the family, for Peter and I have been friends for over 40 years. And I should also say that synchronizing with the beginning of this funeral service, tributes to Peter will be given, on steam whistles, by his friend Andy Darby on a preserved GWR (God's Wonderful Railway) locomotive on the Bodmin Railway in Cornwall, while another great railway friend, Leigh Delany in Tasmania, will be thinking of him.

And as his sister Clare Walker put it, she knew Peter was making plans to escape from London for the duration of the Olympic Games, but dying was "going a bit too far"!

I first met "The Hingleyosaurus", as I often referred to him, in the autumn of 1970, when he came up to read a reluctant degree in science (he wanted to do an arts degree, but his dad wanted him to do science), at Lancaster University, and I was then a second-year history undergraduate, albeit a few years older than Peter. In spite of being an instinctive "arts" man, however, Peter had a lively interest in science and technology, and what brought us together was his joining of the University Astronomical Society, which I was getting off the ground. Peter and I had very different talents in many ways, which enabled us to work well together. I was a natural windbag who became unconscious five minutes into any committee meeting, whereas Peter was a natural organiser and administrator, and I suspect the Lancaster Astronomical Society committee was amongst the first of many on which Peter has served over the last 42 years. His enthusiasm and ability to get things done and to organise always left me staring with incomprehension. And one of the last bodies on which he served was the Council of the Society for the History of Astronomy, which he did with immense energy for many years, and he will be very difficult to replace!

Yet in no way was Peter a dry administrator. What immediately struck you upon meeting Peter - be it for the first or for the thousandth time - was his sheer love of communicating. He was an excellent and often outrageously funny lecturer, and he took his profound erudition in the history of astronomy to countless Astronomical Societies, not only across the length and breadth of Great Britain, but also abroad. And he did the same for a wide variety of Railway and Industrial Archaeology Societies.

And then there was his utterly crazy sense of humour. "Did you hear the one about what the art mistress said to the gardener...?" or something to that effect would greet you as you walked into his office at the RAS. Spectacularly politically incorrect, yes: yet Peter's humour was never cruel or fashionably mocking. His humour was of the school of The Beano comic, the now sadly defunct Punch, the seaside comic postcard, or the late Les Dawson or the still "tickling" Ken Dodd. There was nothing trendy or sneeringly "alternative" in Peter's humour. It was as traditionally English as fish and chips, tea, and brown ale. (Just like my own, in fact.)

By intellectual instinct, Peter was a historian and bibliophile. And an absolute first-rate one at that. He had no interest in currently fashionable historical theory. What some continental sociologist thought about the "Scientific Revolution" warmed his heart about as much as did the growing tentacles of the European Union. For what fascinated Peter was individualism and idiosyncrasy in the process of history. What made him such a pillar of the Society for the History of Astronomy was the Society's concern with the local, the individualistic, and the non-government-directed history of British astronomy. For Peter's aims, and those of the Society, were hand-in-glove. He also saw the past as a thing to lovingly preserve, for the wisdom of our ancestors was an inextricable part of his mental architecture. And this preservation included books, pictures, artefacts, and historical locations. It applied to Victorian railway engines, canal boats, and Droitwich barges as much as it did to telescopes, books, and old photographs. Indeed, one of his great and enduring contributions to astronomical scholarship was his copying, digitalising, and cataloguing of the RAS's vast archive of pictures and photographs, along with the way in which he made the RAS's rich historical treasures accessible to local astronomical and other societies at weekends. And in his own time! From a sheer love of learning, and a love of communicating what he knew!

And this, I believe, lay at the heart of his professional life. For libraries, manuscripts, and historical pictures and artefacts were not only his life's passion; they were also his job. For Peter was part of the noble historical tradition of the Scholar-Antiquary-Librarian. Not long after graduating from Lancaster University, he came to work in the Burlington House quadrangle where he would stay for the rest of his life. First, as an Assistant Librarian at the Society of Antiquaries; then, head-hunted as an Assistant at the RAS; and then as RAS Librarian and Archivist. And yes, Peter grumbled about being too busy, which he was, but he came to love the RAS Library, its collections, the people who used them, and the ambiance of a world-class learned society. Here, Peter's glorious individualism (I won't say eccentricity) could flourish and be appreciated. It was his theatre. And that, perhaps, is why he often came to work three hours early, to undertake favourite cataloguing projects before the normal working day began, and why he often made the RAS Library available to appreciative users at weekends. But it will feel strange to come up the great staircase and not hear, "Ah, Chapman, did I tell you the one about the...?"

Thinking of Peter, I immediately think of the great 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey, author of the classic Brief Lives biographies. They both had a passion for books, manuscripts, archaeology, old artefacts, traditional values, jokes, ribald tales, colourful friends, gossip-collecting, eating, and drinking. I am sure Peter and Aubrey would have got on like a house on fire. Indeed, I suspect that they have met already, sitting on a cloud, watching the angels go by, with Aubrey saying to Peter, "Good Lord, Sir! Do you mean to say that in your time on earth mankind had learned how to send intelligences to each other by means of tame bolts of lightning?"

And when our mutual friend Dr Roger Hutchins telephoned me to say that Peter had died, the phrase which immediately sprang to mind was one from John Aubrey: "When a learned man dies, much learning dies with him!" What could be more apt?

And again in the tradition of the great scholar librarians and antiquaries, Peter has published numerous articles. Many relate to astronomical history, but there is also much on aspects of his beloved industrial archaeology. With T. C. Daniel, he edited and published the manuscript autobiography of the Victorian astronomer Edwin Dunkin in 2002, and Peter has published numerous learned articles in a wide variety of journals. Indeed, his published ouvrage needs to be drawn together and catalogued, for Peter's writings will be of interest to a range of people working in a diversity of historical scientific and technological disciplines.

But in addition to all the above, there were other facets of Peter that were perhaps less well known. He was, for example, very proud of his ancestor Noah Hingley, the West Midlands Iron Master, whose firm made the great chains for the Titanic. "Our family's best work is on the bottom of the Atlantic", Peter would say. He was also a quite superb architectural and industrial archaeological photographer, preferring to work in black on white roll film with (I think) a classic Rolleiflex camera. And his passion for canal narrow boats, steam trains, and ships opened up a whole vast dimension of Peter's life which we do not have time or space to discuss here.

And no appreciation of Peter can fail to give full expression to his passion for the sea, and all things nautical, and in a few moments we will hear a reading of one of his favourite poems, John Masefield's Sea Fever. He was for many years an active serving Officer in Her Majesty's Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), in which Service he came to hold the Commission of Lieutenant Commander. (I was told that he was able to bring a Minesweeper alongside the dock with a style and an elegance that outdid his ability to park a car.) And relating to the armed Forces and to industrial archaeology, he also served as Honorary Curator of the preserved Chart Gunpowder Mills at Faversham, Kent.

Yet one aspect of Peter's life was perhaps even less known to his friends, and was probably only mentioned to me because he knew my own religious position: namely, his membership of the Prayer Book Society. Peter revealed very little about his actual religious beliefs, but what was clear was his love of the liturgy and language of both the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) and the Authorized Version (1611) translation of the Bible. I also know that he liked to go to churches where the worship was traditional, both when visiting relations in the Midlands and - so I am informed - to this present church of St Giles in the Fields in London. Was it just the beauty of words, music, ceremonial, tradition, celebrating Englishness, and fine architecture that appealed to Peter, or was there something more? I would like to think so.

Strange though it may seem, I was not entirely surprised when Roger told me of Peter's passing, for I had sensed that something was seriously wrong for a good six months. I remember coming into the RAS Library before the monthly meeting, on 13th January, 2012. Peter came shuffling up to me like a little old man, speaking in a faltering, cracked voice. Knowing what a comedian and mimic Peter could be, I was on the verge of saying [and here I offer a respectful bow and a polite prior apology to the Reverend Alan Carr, the officiating Priest] "Come on Hingley, stop arsing around!", when it struck me that no, he wasn't, there was something wrong. On later occasions he was sometimes better, sometimes worse; and when I last saw him, on 10 May 2012, at a special gallery exhibition opening at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, my wife Rachel was aghast, and she said to me later, "Peter looks 75!"

I personally believe that Peter is now in Heaven, but it did make me smile to contemplate his possible mode of conveyance there. Was it by sea? Well, when the great Victorian mathematical astronomer Mary Somerville as - alas - a 92-year-old was contemplating going to Heaven, she speculated that it might be by sea. She was, after all, an Admiral's daughter, with RN Captain nephews and a lifelong love of things nautical. "The Blue Peter", she wrote in her Reminiscences, "has long been flying at my foremast... I expect the signal for sailing. It is a solemn voyage, but it does not disturb my tranquillity... I think of death with perfect composure and perfect confidence in the Mercy of God." For Eternity to Mary began with a voyage over a calm sea to a friendly shore where she would once again meet long-lost friends and loved ones. So could Peter have sailed to Heaven in a mine-sweeper?

But what if Peter went to Heaven by train: on God's Wonderful Railway, indeed? I can imagine his soul coming into Paddington, and at Platform 6⅞ths finding Daniel Gooch's Iron Duke waiting, in steam, magnificent and shining, with the stovepipe-hatted Isambard Kingdom Brunel, hand ready on the regulator, welcoming Peter onto the footplate. "Welcome aboard, Hingley old fellow! I gather from "Him Upstairs" that you know how to fire one of these beasts – there’s the shovel", says Isambard, knocking the ash from his celestial cigar.

Then they begin the slow climb out of Paddington, as all the early engines did when crawling up out of the Thames basin. But after West Drayton, they really start to pick up speed, then Brunel says, "Start shovelling harder, old fellow, for now we have the grandest incline of all ahead of us." Faster and faster they race into the sunset, then after going through Reading in a flash, the line begins to rise upwards. And upwards. And upwards. The sky turns a pure dark blue, then black. They shoot past the moon, then, an instant later, past the sun. Through the Milky Way they fly, overtaking the speed of light as though it were a snail. Past the Andromeda Galaxy - "Good Lord, it didn't look like that on the Hubble photos", exclaims Peter - and soon they are in regions unglimpsed by any telescope. Then straight ahead, in a glorious, shining light unlike anything seen before by mortal man, is the Heavenly City, with the 7-foot broad-gauge track leading straight through the gate.

"Unfold the Union Jacks and St Georges!", shouts Isambard to Peter, and in a glorious blaze of steam, whistles blowing and flags flying, the celestial Iron Duke thunders through the Pearly Gates, St Peter adroitly jumping out of the way, and giving a friendly wave to his namesake. "Tender brakes hard on", shouts Isambard, who in turn throws Iron Duke into full reverse, in the finest GWR style. And with screeching wheels, blowing steam, and a strong smell of hot lubricating incense, they come to a perfect halt, before the Throne of Almighty Grace.

And God says to Peter, "Welcome!"

Rest in Peace.

[Dr Allan Chapman, Oxford. Delivered at Peter's Funeral, at St Giles-in-the-Fields Parish Church, London, 16 July 2012, and written up from notes with minor amplifications, 19 August 2012.]

A short autobiography: Peter D Hingley, Life and Hard Times

Allan Chapman