Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

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Dedication of the Tomline Refractor

During 1999, our lecture co-ordinator, Pete Richards, managed to corner Dr Allan Chapman at an FAS convention in Sidmouth and persuade him to lecture to our society on the life of Sir G B Airy, 7th Astronomer Royal. That was something of a coup as Allan is certainly the most popular and in-demand figure on the astronomical lecture circuit and his diary is always full. News of Peter's coup aroused the interest of Andrew Auster, Headmaster of Orwell Park School, who generously agreed to fund the lecture and to accommodate a large audience by putting the Orangery at our disposal for the occasion.

I have been privileged to make Allan's acquaintance through research into the history of Orwell Park Observatory and its links, via Wilfrid Airy, design engineer of the facility, to the Airy family. Through Allan, I have also been privileged to make friends with members of the Airy family and, just after New Year 2001, we were together at a two-day seminar at Greenwich to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Airy's Transit Instrument. (The instrument, constructed in Ipswich, defines the zero meridian of the world.) It was there during a coffee break that the subject of the 26 cm refractor at Orwell Park came up in conversation and Allan's surprise was obvious that the instrument did not have a name. Travelling back home with fellow member of OASI, Bill Barton, the idea came to us that there would be an unique opportunity to combine Allan's visit to Orwell Park with a ceremony to name the telescope and to invite the Airy family afterwards, along with Allan, to visit Playford to see where the great man grew up and was eventually laid to rest1. Allan had wanted to visit Playford for some time to further his research for a definitive biography of Airy (the book has the close interest of at least two major publishers and is expected to be on the bookshelves within the next 18 months or so2. Our 2001 AGM was just a few days after the seminar and a proposal to name the 26 cm refractor after its original sponsor as the Tomline Refractor was accepted with great enthusiasm. In private conversation with Allan he had already indicated to me that he would be prepared to officiate at the dedication if invited to do so. And so, the stage was set…

In the late afternoon of Friday 18 May 2001, I collected Allan and members of the Airy family, Nicole Airy-Swengley, James Airy and Elizabeth Amati-Airy from Ipswich Station. (Nicole is Sir G B Airy's great-great-granddaughter, James is godson of Anna Airy, Sir G B Airy's great-granddaughter, and Elizabeth is goddaughter of Anna.) After a short detour3 we were welcomed at Playford churchyard by our Secretary, Roy Gooding, Pete Richards and Garry Coleman from OASI and by local historian of Playford Mr Brian Seward. Brian showed the party around the interior of St Mary's church and pointed out the many plaques dedicated to the Airy family. Allan was obviously in his element at this and embarked upon a long and fascinating discourse to our small assembly upon church history and Sir G B Airy's love of St Mary's in particular. Allan was delighted to be presented, on loan, a bundle of original letters from Airy, which belong to the church archive. As a mark of respect, Allan placed a floral tribute from our society on the Airy family tomb and Nicole Swengley placed another on Wilfrid Airy's grave.

We then visited Airy's former country retreat, adjacent to the church. The current owners, the Lillywhite family, generously allowed several of us to tour the rooms. Elizabeth had brought old photographs from the family archives4 which gave the Lillywhites and their visitors a fascinating then and now comparison.

The final port of call on our visit to Playford was Hill Farm House, where Airy largely grew up. It is the former home of Arthur Biddell, Airy's uncle and mentor. The house, owned and occupied since 1946 by Mr Charles Lofts, is in largely original condition and contains many features that would have been familiar to Airy, including a meat smoking room and baking oven, various outhouses/servants sections and a magnificent cellar. Charles was the most delightful of hosts and took great pride in showing us around the house. He has on display paintings by the renowned artist Anna Airy (Wilfrid's daughter) and these, of course, were of particular interest to the Airy family. It was a beautiful spring evening and the setting was delightful, so our party was in no hurry to leave. Allan launched into one of his "discourses", but we were already late for supper, which the school had kindly laid on, and for the lecture. There was simply too much to see and insufficient time to do justice to the house and Charles. I finally persuaded Allan to leave by offering to put him up at my house in nearby Tuddenham for a weekend so that he could continue to examine Hill Farm House and talk more with Charles!5 It was with reluctance tempered with a promise to return that we headed - very late - for Orwell Park School.

On arriving at Orwell Park School, our party was enthusiastically met by the Andrew Auster and OASI's chairman, David Payne. Following a somewhat bolted supper and the inevitable gallon of tea for Allan, it was time for the long awaited lecture - and what a warm reception Allan received from the audience, which included many members of OASI along with guests from neighbouring astronomical societies, school staff and senior pupils. Allan, as many will appreciate, is the most gifted of speakers - not once having to refer to notes or repeating himself. For almost two hours he held the audience spellbound by his profound knowledge of the subject and his singular wit. Who could forget the lively question and answer session at the conclusion of the lecture or, indeed, Allan's hilarious metaphorical sketch of the controversial Victorian scientist, Sir James South, posing for a photograph with a stuffed dog on his knee! The lecture was followed by a superb cheese and wine reception, again generously provided by the school.

The finale of the day came with the dedication of the Orwell Park Observatory 26 cm Refractor in honour of its sponsor, Colonel George Tomline. The ceremony was attended by Allan, the members of the Airy family, the committee of OASI and representatives of Orwell Park School. David Payne, Chairman of OASI, gave a short introduction then invited Allan to make the dedication. Unveiling the brass plaque fixed to the telescope mount, Allan said that he felt honoured. The plaque is engraved: The Tomline Refractor. David then invited the Airy family to unveil portrait pictures of the Observatory's Architect, John Macvicar Anderson and its Design Engineer, Wilfrid Airy6. The final part of the dedication ceremony came when David invited all those present to sign specially printed pages in the Observatory Visitors Book. Allan signed first and it says much for all the hard work by many members over the almost thirty-five years of OASI's existence that he endorsed the book with the words: A splendidly restored Victorian observatory. The Airy family members expressed their delight at having been invited to "such a wonderful event" and went on to say that they were proud of their family connection to Orwell Park Observatory, which was "most impressive".

The equatorial room was then opened for all to come to see the plaque and sign the visitor's book and, judging by the glowing comments recorded, everybody greatly enjoyed the occasion. For some time our guests circulated around the dome and the club room, even watching a wonderfully timed firework display on the opposite bank of the Orwell which, I think, several people thought we had organised! Allan, typically, spent much of the time "holding court" with his knowledge of Victorian astronomers and observatories. He was most impressed with our Troughton & Simms Transit Instrument, which did look particularly spectacular, having recently been cleaned and polished by Martin Cook. (Allan expressed particular praise for his restoration skills.)

Shortly before midnight, in a euphoric state, we finally left the school premises. Even at this late hour, Allan's main concern when I dropped him at his hotel, was to have room service lay on a large pot of tea…

Before our honoured guests boarded their train at Ipswich Station the following morning, they asked for one last look around Orwell Park. It was clear that they were deeply impressed with the views from the observatory and Allan thought it no wonder that Sir G B Airy had such a life-long passion for the beauty, peace and tranquillity of Suffolk. They all vowed that they would return whenever they could and it would not, perhaps, be overstating it to say that OASI and the school have gained new devotees.

Letters have since been received from all our guests in praise of the event and of our society and I shall close this narrative by quoting passages from the letter received from James Airy:

Your observatory is impressive and fascinating. I do most heartily congratulate you and your colleagues on the remarkable restoration you have brought about through much hard work.

It was a pleasure to meet so many of your friends and colleagues of OASI; please pass on my thanks to them also for their part in all that they have done, and all they did on the 18th to create such an enjoyable occasion. Happy returns are anticipated!

Grateful thanks go to all those who so freely gave of their time to restore the observatory and prepare it for the ceremony, to Orwell Park School for its wonderful hospitality, to our honoured guests and, not least, to Peter for his coup two years ago at Sidmouth!

Photographs below are a by the following: BB=Bill Barton, FRAS; GC=Garry Coleman; KJG=Ken Goward, FRAS.)

Unveiling.jpg Allan unveils the plaque on the Tomline Refractor. (KJG)

J_Airy_unveil.jpg James unveils the picture of John Macvicar Anderson. (GC)

A_Chapman_sign.jpg Allan signs the visitors book. (KJG)

E_A-Airy_sign.jpg Elizabeth signs the visitors book. (KJG)

A_Chapman_transit.jpg Allan inspecting the transit telescope. (GC)

Lecture.jpg Allan lecturing. (GC)

Flowers.jpg Allan places flowers on the Airy family grave. (GC)

Arthur_Biddell.jpg Arthur Biddell on the porch at Hill Farm House. (KJG)

J_Airy_sign.jpg James signs the visitors book. (KJG)

KJG+NAS+AC.png Ken, Nicole and Allan. (BB)

DBP+AC.png David and Allan. (BB)




Further details of Airy and his links with Playford:


Give or take a month or several - many of the snippets of information gleaned by Allan have blossomed into significant items of information. For instance, just after Christmas 2000, the long lost Greenwich Observatory files on the 1846 discovery of Neptune came to light in, of all places, South America. Airy has long been the subject of misplaced criticism over his handling of the prediction by John Couch Adams of the planet's existence and position and Allan has been able to pour over those documents in just the last few weeks.


A tea break! Having served for a quarter of a century in one of the emergency services, I had plenty of practice and thought myself a champion tea drinker until I met Allan. He has the most voracious appetite for the beverage and I soon realised that I was in the presence of - "The Master". He told me that the only persons who can best him at tea consumption are Sir Patrick Moore and Tony Benn!


Elizabeth Amati-Airy inherited Sir G B Airy's private papers, which have proved to be a rich seam of information for Allan.


Towards Allan's research, I have recently sourced an original photograph of Arthur Biddell seated in the porch of Hill Farm House. It was a delight to see that the porch still stands at the entrance and is completely unchanged since the photograph was taken, around 150 years ago.


The portraits were unveiled in a temporary position in the equatorial room and have since been placed in their permanent position on the wall of the spiral stairs.


James Airy sadly passed away on 01 June 2015.

Ken Goward, FRAS